Good Things Don’t Scale

Now I would like… five hundred more sets.

Back in the late 70s, before Xerox was a generic term meaning “photocopier,” the Xerox company made an advertisement about their new and remarkable product. Brother Dominic (at right, above) had painstakingly hand-illustrated a manuscript, and eagerly brought it to the monastery’s abbot (at left). “Very nice work, Brother Dominic… very nice. Now I would like… 500 more sets.” So Brother Dominic sneaks out and goes to the Xerox shop, and returns soon after with the stacked sets. The abbot says, “It’s a miracle…”

Well, no. It’s just a mechanical reproduction, with none of the attentiveness or love of the original.

I got an e-mail this week from someone who’d recently read The Adjunct Underclass, and was telling me about her teaching expectations at a third-tier state university. Four courses per semester, averaging 35 students per course, plus all of her departmental and university service work. That’s just mechanical reproduction, with none of the attentiveness or love that we would hope a real education could carry.

I’m in the final days of teaching my independent fiction course, with twelve students. For each of the first five weeks, I wrote two assignments, and thought through what each participant had sent in each case. For the past three weeks, they’ve moved from research to writing story drafts, and I’ve marked up anywhere from six to a dozen drafts for each of the twelve participants.

Twelve students for eight weeks. And I’m tired. It’s real work to be that attentive to that amount and that diversity of work. Just the logistics of organizing papers and naming files and making sure that I’m looking at the most current draft is an addition to the effort.

So when I think about 140 students for 15 weeks, or 21.875 times the workload I just finished, it scares me. It scares me because the only way one human can do that much work is to rely, like Brother Dominic, on mechanical reproduction. To repeat the lesson plans, to make the homework into quizzes, to give every student one bite at the apple rather than sit with the repetition and revision that enables understanding and seals growth into place.

For the students, too. Each of my dozen writers has been at work on the same story at least twice a week for three weeks. They’ve swapped out characters, dropped whole hard-won scenes that were necessary for manufacture but not for use, have circled closer and closer to their prey. We’re at the point now where we’re considering punctuation and typography, microscopic but meaningful contributors to the voice of story. And they’re exhausted, too. But in a week or two, when they recover, they’ll know what they’ve gained.

Education… real education… is slow, and expensive, and (to use the awful language of marketing) “high-touch.” It used to be a luxury good, purchased only by the wealthy. And so what we offer now is a vastly diminished version, a mechanical reproduction that carries the content without the care. This is not the fault of any participant; everyone involved is smart and hardworking. But like any product, what was once sold at Bonwit Teller bears only passing similarities to what is now sold at Dollar General. The fate of all mass products is that they are mass products, subject to regulation and reproduction and worker quotas. They become commodities, responsive to price pressure rather than quality pressure, interchangeable across providers.

There are no miracles available to us, only love and attentiveness and focus. When those are removed, we are left with quantity, and marketing, and loss.