Set It… And Forget It!

The faculty and the adjunct…

I was at a college a couple of months back that was in the midst of faculty labor negotiations. At a rally for the adjuncts, one of the tenured faculty who was a leader of the full-timers’ union—a union that had just won its contract pretty strongly—was speaking in support of his part-time colleagues. “Why should you be paid so poorly to teach a course that I’m paid so extravagantly for?” he said, with that wink of arrogance to flaunt his privilege under the guise of “solidarity,” reminding everyone pretty loudly that he was a member of a club that would never accept the rest of them, and that he was pretty okay with that.

In all of our talk about contingent college instructors, sometimes we forget that there really are tenured and tenure-line faculty still out there. What role do they play in all this? (Aside from not nearly enough…) Why, for instance, did this particular university have two different faculty unions, one for the important people and an entirely different one for the rabble? And why did the adjunct union have to charge its members 1.3% dues on terrible pay, compared with the permanent faculty union charging its members only 0.7% of their much more “extravagant” pay?

One of my email correspondents said yesterday that she was increasingly aware (and increasingly frustrated) that the tenure-line faculty is still predominantly male, but that the work of teaching introductory courses was overwhelmingly female. We know from some pretty rigorous research that women face extraordinary hiring challenges, that the increasing gender equity in the awarding of PhDs is not matched by gender equity in awarding new assistant professorships.

The permanent professoriate get the upper division courses with the students who’ve already proven their capabilities, as well as all of the graduate students who’ve declared their allegiance to the discipline. The permanent professoriate also get time in their lives to conduct scholarship, and to travel to conferences to present that scholarship. The adjuncts and postdocs get the early career students, who are much more broadly arrayed in capability and dedication. They get to teach, and to teach only, with no support for their larger disciplinary or intellectual lives.

The leaders and the helpers. The professionals and the paraprofessionals. The men and the women.

But it’s even worse than that, really. In a law office, the lawyers work directly with the paralegals. Sometimes they say thank you. In a university department, it’s likely that the permanent faculty won’t know the adjunct faculty, certainly won’t ask their opinion about the curriculum (even though the adjuncts know exactly what students can and can’t do during the first couple of years of that curriculum), won’t invite them to participate in faculty development or faculty governance. They just take it for granted that the house will be cleaned and the children fed before father gets home.

The adjunct faculty are highly trained and highly capable. We can let them run independently, doing a set, constrained task without consultation. They’re like the nannies of the important family, entrusted with the children’s safety and well-being and intellectual enrichment. But according to payscale.com, nannies earn a national average wage of just under $15 an hour. Your college’s teacher of Calculus 1 or first-year writing or second-semester Spanish probably does not. Nannies are just too damned expensive, and really, who cares if all the kids survive? A quarter of them are going to drop out in the first year, that’s just normal. We need… we need a Roomba! Five hundred bucks, charge it up and let it run. No oversight needed, it won’t take time away from our big important thoughts, and when it breaks down, we can find another one instantly.

If you think that metaphor’s too harsh, do something today to prove it wrong. Work on behalf of all of your colleagues, not just the ones who are members of the club.

Cast Your Vote!

So today’s fun news of the day is that Tantor Media, a twenty-year purveyor of audiobooks, will be publishing an audio version of The Adjunct Underclass in the somewhat near future. It’ll be available as CDs and as downloads through places like Audible.com.

One of the questions I often ask in writing seminars, when someone’s stuck about the tone of their book, is: “Who should read the audiobook?” That voice has everything to do with the tone that the story takes on. So I’ll put that question to you. Having read The Adjunct Underclass, who do you think is the right voice to read it? Is it an Alec Baldwin book, or a Michael Che book? Is it a Morgan Freeman book, or a Benedict Cumberbatch book? Is it a George Clooney book, or a Jim Parsons book? Or should we play against gender, and have it be a Meryl Streep book or an Aisha Tyler book, a Helen Mirren book or a Jennifer Lawrence book?

Should we borrow the artificial authority and wisdom of Patrick Stewart’s English accent, or the working-class Michigander roots of Michael Moore’s Flint-flatness? Should we take on the straight-shooting, no-nonsense Plains voice of Brad Pitt, or the careful Stanford/Oxford/Yale enunciation of Cory Booker?

None of these specific instances will be the case, of course. The publisher will hire affordable talent, a solid but non-recognized voice that you might hear behind a commercial or on a newscast. But your vote might influence how I listen to the clips they send me for review…

Thrashing

Sometimes runnin’ it harder just digs you in deeper…

The past few days of the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed have been really instructive. I’ve been thinking about writing in response to L. Maren Wood’s article about how doctorates don’t prepare their holders for non-academic lives. Or in response to Matt Reed’s two days of reportback from the “Future of Higher Ed” conference. Or in response to John Warner’s request to think about how to move forward in the face of higher ed changes. Or Kevin Carey’s thinking about how higher ed has become politicized. Or Ray Schroeder’s enthusiasm for adopting the idea of skills rather than degrees.

But rather than respond to any one of those, I think they’re better taken in their entirety. And the entirety suggests that we have no shared, collective idea of what college is, nor of what we want college to be. Not even a little bit. What we’re seeing in all these articles is the thrashing of people who know that they’re stuck, but whose only strategy is to spin their tires further and further down into the morass. (And a conference on the “Future of Higher Ed”—a conference that costs $750 for registration plus another unspoken thousand dollars in travel and lodging for each of its 350 participants—has just consumed over $600,000 in wasted tire churn from its participant colleges. You can get it here for free, without leaving home.)

So let me say a few things. Some of them will be hard to hear. But I think they’re true.

  1. As David Labaree has stated so well (but in a kinder way), we already have the higher ed that we want. One that allows some kids to be rulers (substitute Yale for Eton to get the American version), some to be bohemians, some to be worker bees, and some to be tenuous at best but at least quiet about it. The problem is that we aren’t honest about that, and so individual families aren’t clear on what they’re buying when they choose one school or another.
  2. Expecting colleges to do workforce development is stupid. Nobody is adequately prepared to predict the good jobs of ten years from now, and no individual has enough awareness of the breadth of possible work to be able to choose a career path that they don’t already pretty much know. Workforce development is nothing but confirmation bias with a business-speak label. Real workforce development would be run by employers, as true entry-level jobs for immediate demands that they face in daily operations.
  3. Being a good college teacher does not require a doctorate. Nor a master’s degree. Nor any sort of external credential. Being a good college teacher is a miraculous blend of knowledge and wisdom and kindness, which come together in any number of flavors. What a doctorate does is to develop a commitment to rigorous confusion, a life of being comfortably unsettled in one’s thinking. That’s a great trait for teaching in some kinds of colleges, and completely beside the point for others.

The last thing I want to say deserves its own paragraph. We need to quit asking old white people what the future of higher education ought to be. (I include myself.) The future beneficiaries of higher education will be more predominantly women and people of color, will be of any number of national origins and family histories. They will be eighteen and thirty and forty-six years old, they will be far more genderfluid, and they will inhabit a world in which climate change renders any certainty merely wishful. We need to ask a lot of people to weigh in on the future of higher education who have not yet had their word, rather than continuing to have the same churning conversations among the same people in the same hotel ballrooms.

The Unseen Artists of Joy

You waste enough time on the internet, and you find miracles.

First, spend eight minutes watching this. It’s a segment of the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors awards show, in which the three surviving members of Led Zeppelin are celebrated by a rendition of their most famous song, Stairway to Heaven. If you’re my age, the whole premise of this video is magical. The best band of the early 1970s having their most important song played to them by members of the best band of the late 1970s, Heart (whose members left Seattle for Vancouver during the Vietnam War), while Jason Bonham, the son of the late Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, plays drums in this orchestra, in celebration of a British band’s influence on American culture, in front of an audience featuring Michelle and Barack Obama… there’s already just a ton going on here.

Anyway, just watch. I’ll be here when you get back.

… … … …

I’ve seen this, like, ten times, and I get choked up a little every time. And I think the person most responsible for my experience will never be mentioned, certainly isn’t known to me. But the video editor has made us a miracle.

We get used to this and thus don’t notice it, but everything we see in a produced video is mediated by professional editing. (That’s why web-cam videos on YouTube look like crap; it’s a stationary camera and a straight-on face, completely primitive visual thinking in a much more sophisticated environment.) I was once writing about televised baseball, and counted sixty different camera shots in a four-minute half-inning. And each of those is doing something.

So let’s acknowledge the work of the editor here. First off, this eight-minute video contains 147 distinct shots, and the pace of those cuts mirrors both the rhythm and the urgency of the performance. Different shots are used when different players are featured, when measures change… but they come faster as the song becomes more tense in that shift from ballad to rock song.

The editing is doing at least three identifiable things. One is that it’s showing us who’s featured at any given moment—the singer Ann Wilson, guitarist Nancy Wilson, the drummer Jason Bonham, the chorus, the session musicians (including the anonymous guitar player who completely crushes Jimmy Page’s solo). So there’s the technical work of highlighting performers. But as I mentioned, it’s also doing emotional work, with the long calm passages mirrored by long calm shots (long being a relative term here, maybe six or seven seconds), the drive of rock ‘n’ roll mirrored by quick cuts.

But the third thing that the editing is doing is narrative. It’s showing us Barack and Michelle bobbing in their chairs, Michelle doing the rock-star face in full concentration at the two-minute mark. (And look at the mirroring between the pursed lips of Ann Wilson on stage leading into the pursed lips of Michelle in the box!) It’s showing us the appreciation of other musicians in the audience: Yo-Yo Ma with his eyes closed (two seconds, 5:15-5:17), Bonnie Raitt ecstatic with her hands over her head (for a second and a half at 6:10-6:11).

And it’s moving, over and over, between the members of Led Zeppelin in the honorees box and the performers on the stage. Robert Plant, the lead singer, red-eyed and teary the entire time… Jimmy Page watching the guitarist play that solo that he himself had played thousands of times, mouthing along with it at 5:04. You can practically hear him at 5:20: Yeah, THAT’s the way you fuckin’ play that! The whole band falling all over themselves when the scrim rises at 5:50 to reveal the entire 60-voice choir, their own epic song made even more epic, as though that were even possible. And the huge voice of Ann Wilson, confident and full and held steady, sliding at 6:35 into the image of a tearful Robert Plant, his own voice having launched hers. What must he be thinking right then? He looks like a proud father watching his rebellious, disreputable child finally walk across the stage at commencement.

And then Jason Bonham at 7:10—the song nearly over, coming to the recognition once again that this was his father’s work, his father’s band. And once the song IS over, at 7:34, saluting his father’s dear friends, his own bandmates that he’d toured with after his father died and Led Zeppelin carried on fitfully, with Jason filling John’s chair. The band’s long, famously acrimonious break-up now fully behind them.

So much art is brought to us by people we’ll never see, by enormous talents who work without recognition. We see the credits scroll by at waterfall speed at the movie’s end without acknowledging that that movie was made better—was made possible—by each of those names.

So to this unacknowledged video editor, probably working on contract for CBS to produce this show: thank you. I see you back there.

Ethnographic Characters

Warning: well-read but entirely amateur philosophy ahead. Stay alert and proceed with caution.

I said yesterday that I feel a sense of responsibility to my characters, fictional though they may be. Let me work my way toward understanding why I think that.

1. In Z.D. Gurevitch’s discussion of discourse ethics, he claims that discourse entails three obligations: the responsibility to speak, to listen, and to respond. That’s a pretty decent description of how I write. I speak, through imagining a character and a circumstance. But then I listen. I take the character seriously enough to be attentive to how she or he engages that situation and the other people likely to be involved in it. I try to take all of those other people seriously, too, listen to what they want. And then I respond, which doesn’t mean merely speaking again but rather speaking in a way that is responsive, that is modified by what I’ve heard while listening.

Novelist and medical ethicist Alexander McCall Smith has said that he writes fiction from a place of “mild dissociation,” meaning that he has taken leave of his sense of identity; he’s no longer invested in his own thoughts. We think of dissociation as a form of mental illness, but of course, it’s also what happens when we’re fully absorbed in what’s around us, facing entirely outward. It’s a negative term for what Czikszentmihalyi more positively calls “flow,” and what Gurevitch might call dialogue: the setting aside of ego in favor of authentic engagement. We become dissociated from ourselves, attuned entirely to the other.

2. We’re all familiar with real-life conversations that don’t rise to the level of discourse. The arrogant person who lets you talk once in a while, but doesn’t actually change anything about what he was already going to say. The salesman or evangelist whose only interest in “listening” is in moving us closer to his position. The supervisor who just tells an employee how to reach a predetermined outcome, and the employee who only tells his boss what he wants to hear.

Authors can be equally closed-minded, never actually responding to what’s happening in front of them, just tracking the path they’d already determined. Zadie Smith talks about two general camps of writers. The first she describes as Macro Planners, creating the plot and the scenes long before any details arise. “I know Macro Planners who obsessively exchange possible endings for each other, who take characters out and put them back in, reverse the order of chapters, and perform frequent—for me, unthinkable—radical surgery on their novels: moving the setting of a book from London to Berlin, for example, or changing the title.” This is a deductive form of writing, starting from principles and moving to the specific case. Writing as an exercise of will.

The inductive form of writing, starting from the specific and figuring out what it all means, is the mode that Smith calls the Micro Manager. “I start at the first sentence of a novel and I finish at the last. It would never occur to me to choose between three different endings because I haven’t the slightest idea what the ending is until I get to it, a fact that will surprise no one who has read my novels.”

3. If we work in the inductive Micro Manager way, in dialogue with our characters, then we enter into what Carol Gilligan has called an ethics of care, in which our primary responsibility is not toward rules or a desired end state but to the needs of the people involved. The core ethical question is not “what is right,” but “how to respond.” It is an ethics grounded in dialogue, in mutuality. We speak. We listen. We respond.

Inasmuch as we choose to be Micro Managers—and I don’t think that I ever made that choice, it’s just how I do my work—we also adopt a particular ethic to guide our work.  Having given my allegiance to an ethnographic method of writing in which I try to understand the unspoken rules behind what I see, I’m then asked to take responsibility for everything I learn, and for those from whom I’ve learned it.

Readers, of course, always take characters as real, if the book is any good. Neal Gaiman has called the book “a little empathy machine. It puts you inside somebody else’s head. You see out at the world through somebody else’s eyes.” I think that alternative life we experience is the life of those characters, not of their author. If readers can so easily and readily welcome the reality of those we read, so can the writer.

The Price of Everything

For a lot of reasons that I won’t go into today, it’s been a rough intellectual week. So I did something that I occasionally do when I’ve run short on self-confidence: I re-read one of my novel manuscripts.

It’s like getting an e-mail or a phone call from out of the blue, from friends you haven’t heard from for a long time. And I realize how much I miss them. In this case, it’s three people that I spent hours every day with for a year. I sat with them and listened to them and did little else from September 4, 2014 through September 1, 2015. I know Clay and Cam and Thanh better than I know the other people in my grad school cohort, better than I know my colleagues on the Selectboard, because they have revealed every secret in their lives to me. The fact that they’re “fictional characters” is irrelevant; they are more real to me than any of the people I encounter at potlucks or professional workshops.

I could get caught up in questions of whether the work is any good, but at least for me, that’s an uninteresting (and unanswerable) question. The more important judgment is that these are good people, actively working to become better people. And that places a burden on me; I have helped them to become real, and thus I bear a responsibility for their well being.

Like Dr. Frankenstein, perhaps.

I wrote for a number of years about qualitative research ethics, about the responsibilities we take on with regards to those who’ve allowed us to see and represent their lives. It is not enough to merely not treat them badly, which is what most research ethics is focused on. We have a positive obligation as well: to do things that participants will find valuable, to help them benefit from our presence just as we take intellectual and career benefit from the work they do to help us understand them.

Is it entirely lunatic to imagine that we have similar obligations toward our fictional characters? In principle, of course it is. But Clay and Thanh and Camille are not principles. They have jobs and friends and families. Cam is getting ready for grad school. They live in Indianapolis. I’ve been in their apartment, I’ve seen the Jennifer Bain painting over the mantle, I’ve seen the array of takeout containers down the kitchen counter that night that they were all too tired—and too happy—to cook.

Here’s the deal. When I finished The Adjunct Underclass, it was a thing, an object. I was proud of it, my editor was proud of it, various communities of reviewers approved it, I worked with Renaldo for months to get the copy editing right, tuning sentences and disagreeing over the differences between OK and okay and why those differences mattered. But it was external to me. It became real when I started to hear back from its readers, who told me their stories. Who told me that they felt less alone and less confused.

We spend all this time on the object, but not because of the object. The things we make are only media that convey emotional or intellectual value. We’re like plumbers, in a way; we care deeply about the craft of joining the pipes, but the value comes to the family who, months and years later, can make dinner and clean dishes. Who can shower after a long day, water the garden.

I think that fiction holds the same possibilities, and responsibilities. I want my readers (as imaginary as my characters—far more imaginary, in fact, since I haven’t lived with them for a year) to feel less alone and less confused. And I want Cam and Thanh and Clay to live among others, the way that they deserve to. I want the depth of their experiences to be seen and acknowledged.

Oscar Wilde once described a cynic as someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Writing is a business, and its labor is paid at whatever variable rate is in effect at that moment. But writing is not merely a business. It is a series of obligations that we voluntarily undertake, an expression of value that cannot be quantified. And I believe that some of those obligations are due to the characters who reveal themselves to us, who share their dreams and fears and shames and joys for our consideration.

Composition and Performance

I once wrote a long meditation on the idea of errors. Tennis commentators record unforced errors as part of explaining the status of a close match. A baseball shortstop who misplays one ball out of a hundred might win a Gold Glove, but missing five balls out of a hundred might cost his job. I compared that against a friend who’s a professional clarinetist, playing thousands of notes per hour with maybe one bum note all evening.

I think about this a lot as a writer, engaged in an art form that’s more errors than clean fielding. And I console myself with knowing that’s just part of the nature of composition. We strike through, we delete, we shift order and find alternative words, toss entire scenes. And that’s not just at day’s end; every sentence is subject to continual revision, almost unnoticed, the delete key just another tool on the keyboard. Performance requires that errors be made offstage, in the rehearsal hall; the daily experience of composition is nothing but errors.

People who don’t write often think that good writers are naturally gifted. Well, we kind of are, just because we’ve read so much and practiced so much that the reflexes are baked in. I’ve been listening to people talk since I was tiny. I made a living for a lot of years by listening to people talk. So I got to be pretty good at capturing the specifics of word choice that mark individual speakers. But writers also revise. Endlessly. Constantly. Readers don’t see that.

So I thought maybe today I’d show you just how bad things can be when they’re left alone in draft form. I need to write a three-paragraph description of the novel I just finished. Here’s the first pass:

Kurt Genier had been a star, from grade school through his successful PhD. When his academic career failed to gain hold, he followed his wife Megan to her own faculty job in rural Vermont—a trailing spouse far away from friends, from scholarly life, from the diversity of an urban university—and struggled for the first time to invent an identity aside from the teacher’s pet he’d always been.

But when their closest friends were deported, Kurt and Megan both were called upon to invent new selves, in the service of a child they’d never met. They discovered strengths and allegiances they had never imagined, fought against the weight of bureaucracy and habit, defended an unfamiliar family life from those for whom different meant dangerous.

Trailing Spouse explores the question of whom a child belongs to, and how the interests of individuals, families and cultures collide. It asks us to consider who we are, when who we thought we were has collapsed. And it asks how far we would go to protect the future of another.

So, first, some truth in advertising. Like software, this has already gone through some beta testing. I tried to just write it front to back and leave it alone, but the reflexes of revision are so ingrained that I changed quite a few things on the fly without even noticing . So this is something like version 1.8: still in its first generation, but with an awful lot of patches installed.

And like first-generation software, this writing is pretty bad. I’m glad it exists, because I’ve got something to think about, but every bit of that is terrible, right from the first sentence. “Kurt Genier had been a star, from grade school through his successful PhD.” Yes, I want to introduce the protagonist early, but that sentence ends on the wrong note. PhD is not the point of that sentence; the point of that sentence is that he was a star. And it’s bland, non-specific. So here’s a 2.0 version: From grade-school spelling through his top-tier PhD, Kurt Genier had always been an academic star. (That’s actually version 2.2; I had something in there about twenty years of stardom, but I couldn’t make it rhythmically fit anywhere, and people have a rough sense of how long it would take to go from grade school through doctoral program anyway, so I took it back out. But it still felt like it needed bit more emphasis on the consistency of his success, so I put in always instead.)

Lots of those sentences end wrong. …struggled for the first time to invent an identity aside from the teacher’s pet he’d always been. Teacher’s pet is the best image in there, dude! Close with that! The contrast between different and dangerous may be the only good sentence conclusion out of the seven. And the sentences go on forever. Seven sentences for 176 words, an average of 25 words. Please…

It’s also awful because it sounds like an essay. Look at the verbs! followed… struggled… called upon to invent… discovered… explores… asks… I mean, I know Kurt’s a bookish guy, but geez, can he find some more vigorous verbs? It’s like a literary criticism convention in there! All I’m missing is interrogate, disrupt, and grapple with, and I’d fill the whole MLA bingo card. That whole thing has three good verbs: failed, fought and defended. The rest are cringing apologies. It’s a pitch for people who think that Monterey Jack is just a little too tangy.

Anyway, the book is better than that, because I’ve been working on the book for a year, and I’ve been working on this pitch for three broken-up hours. The book is, like, on version 12. It’s stable, most of the glitches are gone, and it’s got way better functionality without having lost the core of its intentions. By the time I’m ready to share this pitch more broadly, it’ll be on version 4 or 5, and won’t look much like this at all.

So please accept my embarrassment as a gift. As with The PhDictionary, I offer my errors as a platform for you to launch from.