Free College for All

Boy, that makes me nervous.

In principle, I agree with the underlying motivations. College is economically beneficial, but simultaneously too expensive to effectively serve the people who need it most without consigning them to endless debt. We have taxpayer-funded pre-K through twelfth grade, so why not extend that principle? The wealthy will send their kids to elite private colleges, just as they’ve already sent them to elite private schools from kindergarten onward; for the rest of us, public education should be public.

I get it. Really, I do. But here are a few of my fears.

First, when we say “college,” we have no idea what we mean. “College” is like “restaurant,” it’s a category that covers an enormous array of specific experiences. So do we mean Taco Bell for all, or Denny’s for all? Do we mean a Michelin three-star experience for all? Resources that had once been reserved for the elite tend to be democratized in deeply diminished forms. It’s already the case that the colleges that serve the least advantaged and least well-prepared students are staffed by the least well-supported and least permanent faculty; I worry that we’re going to make that even worse if we have to offer it more cheaply and more broadly.

Second, I do believe that all students can learn. But I absolutely do not believe that all students can learn everything. Nor should they be asked to. Just as with musical instruments, we are all best suited for a particular repertoire, things that we enjoy and that come to us more or less natively, things that we can push to greater skill and sophistication. Making me a basketball player, or a mechanic or a plumber, or a chemist, or a dancer, would be a waste of everyone’s time—mine, and all those who sought to push that rock up that hill. So why should we assume that all high school graduates should, or should even want to, go to “college” as we’ve defined it? What is it about 120 credits arrayed across the traditional academic disciplines that’s universally beneficial or universally attainable? (The credential is universally beneficial, I get that, but not especially the experience.)

Third, making a service both necessary and public adds enormous pressures toward compliance and compliance reporting. When something becomes a public service that taxpayers pay for, it’s (justifiably) subjected to layers and layers of rules, assessments, accreditations, dashboards and metrics and sign-offs and reporting deadlines. I’ve been working with a faculty member in education who’s developed an interesting model for teaching middle-school writing. But the education journal he wants to write his article for won’t take it if he doesn’t immediately demonstrate the ways in which his curricular element meets state and federal learning outcomes. So rather than writing about the ways in which this pedagogy creates powerful writing experiences, creates student confidence and productivity, he’s having to spend a lot of his article writing in detail about how it meets standard D.1 through D.4 of the C3 guidelines. We lose track of joy and learning, and reduce it all to compliance and “meets standard.” I don’t want anybody to “meet standard.”* I want them to thrive, in whatever crazy way thriving takes for them.

So I recognize that college is madly expensive, out of reach of a huge community of potential students who have to borrow so much that they endanger the very economic futures that college hopes to protect. But I fear that “free college for all” will exacerbate exactly the economic and social divisions that it hopes to remedy.

*We used to say in architecture school that “meets code” is one step above “goes to jail.”

A Great Good Place

Thirty years ago this year, the sociologist Ray Oldenburg published The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts and How They Get You Through the Day (now in its third edition and with a much less compelling subtitle than the original). The book is a celebration of hangouts—of the places that you go only in part because of what’s for sale, far more importantly because you know you’re going to run into some friends and have a conversation, and those friends will introduce you to other friends who will have new and different kinds of conversations. They are social machines, generating and reinforcing connections.

A couple of days ago, I did a book talk at a truly great good place: Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee and Books in Philadelphia. I got there at two o’clock for my three-thirty reading, and got an iced tea and brownie and sat at the counter. There were thirty-five or so people there, but it was far more active, far more conversational, far more inclusive than any Starbucks you’ll ever see. The place was a continual churn of talk and laughter, people flowing through the narrow aisles between the couches and coffee tables and barstools, people hugging and high-fiving and shaking hands, people asking one another what they were reading and what they recommended. These people were neighbors, in the best possible sense, not merely adjacent to but involved with one another.

Uncle Bobbie’s gave me hope. These kinds of places, and the relationships they foster, really ARE possible. They’re rare, but they aren’t gone. We don’t have to communicate with one another just through Twitter and Instagram; we can be with each other, learn from each other, revise our thinking, make ourselves better.

With a Whimper

Vermont is served by a series of local commentary networks collectively called Front Porch Forum. It’s where you turn to get the date of the next Fire Association meeting, or to recruit strong young people to help you load a truck for $15 an hour, or let neighbors know about road conditions or missing guinea hens. It can get a little heated around election time, or with particular pieces of legislation moving through the State senate, but mostly it’s a neighborly, congenial place.

Sometimes, there’s some unspoken tragedy. A meal train gets set up, and we know without it being said that someone’s wife has passed. A sudden move, precipitated by a financial downturn. The messages are gentle, but the backstory can be hard.

And then there’s this, from about an hour ago:

Final College Free “Sale”

There are more student, staff and faculty items that have been removed from buildings—mini-fridges, appliances, books, clothing, household goods, and some furniture. Please come to Green Mountain College’s Bogue Hall at the intersection of College Street and Rae Terrace in Poultney between 10 AM and 2 PM on Saturday, June 1 to grab remaining items for free.

This is what it looks like when a 185-year-old college goes dark. The final commencement was a couple of weeks back, the younger students have made their transfer arrangements to partnering schools, the faculty and staff have done as well as they can for new jobs. And now the trustees just need to minimize their costs of solid waste disposal, giving away staplers and half-broken chairs, mouse pads and coffeemakers. The last clothes that a student left behind in her dorm room. The last flower vase that an administrative worker left in her cubicle.

The meat and organs of the carcass are already spoken for, by banks and bondholders who’ll convert those nutrients to a new energy, ready to invest elsewhere. This weekend will be the meager feast of the scavengers—the crows plucking the eyeballs, the coyotes stripping the last muscle fibers off the stringy tendons.

At the Fall, when God casts man from the garden, he concludes his remarks with this final judgment: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. And the stapler shall remain a stapler, the mouse pad a mouse pad, until the landfill reclaims it all.

The Market, The Meal, and The Menu

I’m about to do two faculty writing workshops, aimed at slightly different functions. One, a half day, is about helping faculty members describe their research plans in an abbreviated form that will help others be interested in receiving a funding proposal for the work. The other, four days long, is more about helping faculty members select from their years of accumulated knowledge and wisdom to create a specific, bounded project. And because I generate metaphors, I woke up this morning thinking about those two processes as they relate to an entirely different profession.

A professional chef goes through both of those same endeavors. She starts her day in the market, in the wild profusion of produce and pasta, of aiolis and herbs, of breads and brisket. She’s capable of making a fine dinner out of any of that, but some combination suggests itself to her, some reduction of the fifty thousand items in the supermarket to the eight that will make its way into a single dish. Putting the whole market into a blender isn’t a meal; it’s a mess. The creation of a meal requires the assembly of a few finely related ideas, and the temporary setting aside of thousands and thousands of others. The fact that this particular dish doesn’t include avocado doesn’t mean that she doesn’t value avocado, merely that her deep knowledge of avocado won’t help this particular raspberry tart that has come to her mind.

So she uses her half-dozen chosen ingredients to make her fabulous, brilliant tart. But then she has to sell it. She’s not going to cut one into tiny little bites and send it out to every table to see who wants a whole one. No, she has to come up with a description of that tart that will fit in the menu, that will do the work of enticing the patrons to take a chance on it. The work of the menu (the work of any advertising) is future-oriented, predictive—it claims “You’re gonna love this!” It’s not merely descriptive, it’s creating an experiential image that a customer is willing to have some borrowed faith in.

Any form of writing, whether academic or popular, whether fact or fiction, goes through these same steps. We reduce the possibilities of the market, of our full and rich mental lives, to a coherent meal that we’d be proud to offer. And then we create a description of that meal for the menu—a pitch letter, an abstract, a proposal—that attempts to capture the essence and importance of the work well enough to entice a reader to choose it ahead of all the other alternatives.

The meal is always the goal. But my work as a writing coach has mostly been to help people recognize when they’re still in the market and need to leave good opportunities behind, and then to help them write a paragraph for the menu that will get their meal chosen.

Who’s In the Enterprise?

Not a Star Trek post…

Every college now has a broad array of enterprise software, a set of computing tools that helps to organize the business as a whole rather than the individual productivity of its members. The two that are most visible are the learning management system or course management system (LMS/CMS), like Blackboard or Moodle, that allow for the work of individual courses to be posted, shared, and recorded—and the information management system like PowerCampus that retains student and faculty data. But there’s related management software all around campus:

  • in admissions, to plan recruitment and track expressions of interest and applications (it’s the same software that car dealers use to check in on people who visited the lot a couple of Saturdays ago)
  • in financial aid, to track individual borrowing, lending limits, and institutional default rates
  • in advancement and donor development, to track the invitations and communications and contacts that convert friends into donors
  • in accounting, to organize the endless array of accounts payable and receivable, of contracts and partnerships
  • in facilities management, to record construction and maintenance and scheduled interventions
  • in security, to enable the card swipes that open doors and gates, record entries and exits, archive endless hours of surveillance video

It’s often difficult to get these things to talk with one another—they were often bought at different times, often from different vendors. And converting from one system to another is so daunting that they tend to become perpetual; the accuracy of data transfer from one platform to another is fraught with danger.

This stuff is crazy expensive. I’ve not seen a strong economic analysis that honestly compares the relationship between the actual costs of option a (enterprise software, and the IT personnel and resources required to run them) and option b (added staffing of administrative assistants equipped with PCs and Microsoft Office), but progress cannot be questioned. For today, let’s just grant that it has business benefits, even though colleges operated for a long, long time before enterprise software existed.

In the face of our humble acquiescence, the question I have for the day is: with all of this information at our disposal, why don’t we do a better job of making it available? Information, unlike water, tends to flow upward rather than down, and “the Enterprise” who benefit from this organized data is reduced to a scarce handful of its members. I was working with a faculty group a couple of weeks ago, and their union had actually hired a forensic accountant to understand actual expenditures. In the absence of data, we’re left to guess at how much (and why) we spend on some things and not on other things. We shouldn’t need to subpoena the line-item budget; it should be two clicks away from the home page.

I recognize issues of privacy, but that’s easily managed by installing password protection on certain domains of data. In the absence of meaningful need for protection, the default should be open data doors to members of the community. A budget is a statement of values, but we need more transparency to have real operational conversations about those values on any individual campus. How much do we actually spend, overall, on adjuncts? Where are they deployed, by department and by course level? How many have been with us for how long? What do their workloads look like? What could we do without, in order to bring on more full members of the community?

It’s easy to point to executive salaries or climbing walls or food courts as easy culprits, but that’s all just guesswork in the absence of data. And the whole point of enterprise software is the seamless integration of tons and tons of data. We’ve invested in the tools; why not let any number of people be involved in secondary data analysis, using the data sets to ask questions they find meaningful? I’ve often thought that questions about one’s own campus might form the basis for powerful undergraduate research projects, for instance. We ought to be able to learn more about our own environments, the case study we know best.

Conversations with Evangelists

As a writer, I’ve gotten used to working on my own. I spend hours and months and years in isolation to bring something to life. It’s a great lifestyle for an introvert like me.

One of the unexpected pleasures of having a book be relatively successful is that it’s gotten me out of the house, in a very specific way. I’ve done interviews and podcasts and book talks, which are wonderfully constrained, enclosed encounters that last a knowable amount of time. They’re fun and engaging and totally fit my need for human interaction. I’ve always enjoyed one-on-one conversations and small groups, feel overwhelmed in big cocktail parties and potlucks. And when doing a presentation, even a presentation to a room of 600, it’s still an enclosed performance followed by a series of one-on-one questions and comments. Works great.

But there’s been one particular kind of one-on-one that’s been harder to take: when someone sees my work as a validation of their long-held beliefs, and wants me to join their crusade. Sometimes those are just silly. One of the very first comments I got about the work was from a father who’d sent his two sons to Texas A&M, and who said (in paraphrase), “You really hit the nail on the head! I didn’t spend all this money to have my kids taught by foreign-speaking foreigners, and the H1B visa program is a disgrace, and…” What he read is not what I wrote—often enough the case, I suppose.

Others are harder. Education reformers and social reformers alike have wanted me to join their community, to lend my weight (and my money) to their cause. And some of them really won’t get off the porch. Because I’m a nice guy and I was raised to please other people, it’s hard for me to just say “No. Go away. This conversation is over.” I can do that with salespeople, because they’re totally used to it, and they’ve got two thousand more names on the contact list after I hang up the phone. But the reformers really are motivated by what they see as noble goals, and I can empathize with their intentions even while I think that their messianic strategies aren’t likely to achieve what they want. They see me as a potential ally in their journey to utopia, and that’s a tough stance to negotiate with.

One of the difficulties with those conversations is that they’re asymmetric. I respect their beliefs, and their project. I have no interest in convincing them that I think they’re wrong. They’ve found work that they’re committed to, a circumstance deeply to be admired. But because of their convictions, they have no similar reticence about trying to convert me. “If you’d only just read [fill in the blank… L Ron Hubbard, The Book of Mormon, Franklin Graham, Jacques Derrida, Noam Chomsky…], you’d see the truth!” Well, I could read a lot of things. I could read the Koran, the Bagavad Gita, the collected works of George Fox. I could read The Art of the Deal, Your Best Life Now, How to Win Friends and Influence People. Every evangelist has the book that provides the answer. And I have no interest in trying to undermine their faith.

I admire evangelical fervor. I have it myself, in the classroom. But I know enough to know that not everyone will be interested in following my particular path, and that each of the people I talk with can discover any number of ideas and connections that will add meaning to their life and their work. Being an enthusiast is not the same as being a missionary. You have to know when to let it go.

The Thing, Itself

This is the final of a five-part series on fiction and fiction writing. If you haven’t been tracking it, I’d suggest starting at the beginning.

I’ve talked quite a bit about all of the paratext I’ve carried into my reading of Ling Ma’s Severance, beginning with the book being originally introduced to me as important in the way that my own work could never be, followed by a limited knowledge of the author’s biography, followed by the book’s location within the genre of millennial ennui, followed by the book itself as an object of highly advertised consumption. It’s a book that weighs a ton, even as it fits easily in my briefcase.

But, as the phenomenologists say, let’s bracket all that. Let’s try to take the book on its own terms, as a being in itself, an être-en-soi.

The first thing to notice is that the book is clever. I don’t mean that in a fussy, faint-praise way, I mean clever like ingenious, like an intricate wooden joint that fits together in unexpected forms. The idea of nostalgia is taken up in multiple ways, for instance. Nostalgia is the basis of the very first thing we see Candace take up as a planned event, her 1980s formal dinner with her friends—ironic nostalgia, of course, since Candace and her friends would have experienced very little of the 1980s as conscious human beings. She wouldn’t have been an early adopter of Depeche Mode at age two or three. The irony is a protection from the death sentence of earnest nostalgia, a literal death in this story, nostalgia and repetition of the past being a marker of disease.

Imitation and inauthenticity is a theme. Candace disdains the Gemstone Bible that she helps to produce, noting that the Bible is the most remarkable example of a single stable object gussied up to sell in a thousand varieties. She becomes a critical connoisseur of the varied imitation leathers of book covers. But she also takes delight in her first business trip to China and her discovery of the layers of imitation, stacked like a filo pastry:

What surprised me in Hong Kong, however, was how many iterations of the same thing were available. Take a Louis Vuitton bag, for example. You could buy the actual bag, a prototype of the actual bag from the factory that produced it, or an imitation. And if an imitation, what kind of imitation? An expensive, detailed, hand-worked imitation, a cheap imitation made of polyurethane, or something in between? Nowhere else was there such an elaborate gradient between the real and the fake. Nowhere else did the boundaries of real and fake seem so porous.

Candace herself has moments of this kind of gradient. She spends her first summer in New York wearing her mother’s old Contempo Casuals dresses, sleeping with whatever man is most convincing that afternoon, loving no one. She takes serious photographs based on her own observational capabilities, but then derides them as “Eggleston knock-offs, Stephen Shore derivatives.” She is closely aware of the levels of authenticity in the city’s varied Asian communities, which blocks are most unselfconsciously Chinese because they’re free from the tourist gaze, but when visiting China, she’s deeply aware of her own limited language, with her inability to name a Chinese food aside from General Tso’s chicken and Peking duck. She loves New York in part because everyone’s already experienced it before they ever arrive, through Woody Allen and Sex and the City and Seinfeld. Her own authenticity is just as layered as an array of Louis Vuitton bags.

The office politics of commerce and the office politics of cults (and even the office politics of boyfriends) are found to be not dissimilar. The talentless but overbearing men convinced of their own sophistication, the urgency around whatever trivial mission is on the docket, the shifting allegiances among co-workers as they vie for favor, the perpetual uncertainty over where one stands.

As I say, it’s a smart book, cleverly interwoven, everything in simultaneous motion with no solid center. But so far, it’s really an essay more than a novel, one of a long heritage of participatory social critiques born of Joan Didion: David Foster Wallace, Joni Tevis, Andrew Kay. Severance fits right in, a book about ideas. In order to become a novel—and there it is, right on the cover, “A NOVEL”—it needed a motor, a way to get from A to B. So, like a pickup truck underneath the parade float, we have the zombie story.

Taken on its own, the zombie story is pretty good. The road trip to The Facility, the really unusual way that the zombie infection manifests itself (I’m trying really hard here to not do any spoilers, something I didn’t need to worry about with the first part of the book, because essays don’t have spoilers, there’s no plot twist to worry about revealing), the details of the survivors’ mode of scavenging. The last sixty pages, taken on its own, was moving and suspenseful, a page-turner mostly distinct from the slower, chewier thematic work preceding it. The alternate title for this novel might have been Candace Wakes Up… And It Only Takes a Zombie Apocalypse to Do It.

Okay, now let’s bolt the paratext back on, slowly. Severance is (was) a publishing phenomenon, inexplicable as hits always are. It’s a good book, to be sure, but the bookstore is jammed with good books, most of which go nowhere. If we knew how to make a hit, we’d get it right every time. Part of what made it a hit… part of what got it acquired in the first place… was authorial pedigree, the right MFA and the right magazine jobs and the right preceding publication record. This same book arriving in the slush would have had a hell of a time not being swept into the storm drain with the rest.

The book is a hit in part because it landed at the right moment, landed at a time when “well, we’re all fucked” is a recognizable literary and experiential theme, landed with two generations of Americans coming to terms with the lies we left behind for them, landed when we see the active dismantling of almost every social good ever created. And it’s a hit in part because the star-making machinery behind the popular song (to quote Joni Mitchell) went full-throttle, getting the book reviewed by the tastemakers and the influencers.

And now it’s out there on its own, acquiring stars and likes and thumbs-ups, themselves a form of currency tradable for dollars in an uncertain exchange rate. It’s hard to leave a book review on Goodreads, for instance, without assigning stars… the whole POINT of Goodreads is stars, is the quantification that makes a 3.85 book mildly disappointing and a 4.25 book a rousing success. The star-making machinery has moved on to the new and shiny, and peak-Severance is behind us.

Who knows what might be next?

The San Francisco Chronicle’s “Little Man” rating system, devised in 1942 by cartoonist Warren Goodrich