OK. Fine. I’d said the blog was dead, but now I guess we’re back.
The point of this blog, in the end, was to offer an alternative space, one deliberately more constructive and more affirming than others. (No links on purpose). And that alternative space is still necessary, I think, because while anger and disenchantment and resentment drive traffic to and generate market share for new media, they don’t usually make space for problem-solving. It is easy to get a nasty piece of vitriol published. It is hard, hard, hard to offer something hopeful and get it past the gatekeepers.
I know that listicles are old-school, but here are five things I want to see in this academic year.
1. More careful pieces in the about the academic job market. Everyone who has a PhD knows how to formulate a research agenda, collect data, and build an argument. That’s what makes these cheap, one-off, ad hominem pieces so frustrating: they are paper thin. Can we please identify the specific institutions which are rapidly shedding tenure-stream positions, adding administrators at a rapid pace, and increasing the numbers of contingent faculty? When critiquing the modern university, can we name names, name departments, name units, and name universities? Can we figure out who is treating contingent faculty well, maybe think about how they are doing it, and spotlight those who aren’t? Please don’t just quote some abstract “75%” figure without at least investigating these questions, and breaking down that percentage along public, private, and for-profit lines. I don’t doubt the “75%” figure, but I also don’t doubt that its political function depends on its iconic, unalloyed status. That helps the AAUP, and maybe the movement, but it doesn’t actually help us understand the specifics of the problem.
2. An end to the trope of “administrative bloat.” Let’s recognize that the growth in administrators isn’t always – or even often – some kind of grotesque, medieval patronage. There is a lot of cheeky talk about this thing we call “bloat,” but not so much careful consideration of what, exactly, it means to have an Assistant Dean of X, Y, or Z. A lot of that administrative growth might come as an institution beefs up its advising, or student services generally, or its Title IX office. Some universities have had to grow their internal assessment offices in response to increasing state and federal oversight. These are responsible actions. Here, too, we need institutionally specific information, and a willingness to believe that the expansion of some administrative parts of the modern university are well-intentioned and actually important. The point, after all, is to do what we do better, so changes like this are in some respects normal. And in other respects, not. How can we know the difference if we think only through the trope?
3. Some counter-jeremiads. Complaints about the sterile, soul-sucking life of universities make a nice preamble to some high-fiving piece of “Quit Lit,” but for every existential lament about how the job was “just getting me down,” and how “life will be better now,” and “I’m so glad I got out when I did” we need some people to stick around. And we need to know what those people are doing that works, that actually humanizes any given department or college or university or whatever. And what they’ve tried that has failed. “Quitters quit,” says the Atlantic. Maybe so, though I feel greater sympathy for the adjunct who says goodbye after shuttling between three schools to make $15K than I do for the Assistant or Associate Professor who just walked away from the potential of lifetime employment because of a little bourgeois ennui. These voices are well represented already, though. We need helpful testimony from the inside. And some of that testimony can actually be positive and upbeat, believe it or not.
4. An end to anecdote and self-narration. Here is a suggestion: if you want to write something about trigger warnings, include student voices in the piece. Ask students what they think of them. Likewise, if you want to write about tenured faculty, or contingent colleagues, or administrators, or custodial staff, take the time to actually phone, email, or kaffeklatsch with them. Don’t rely on the readers of your own blog or on friends who share your opinions unless you are just looking to build a chorus. You are not the only text that matters, nor is yours the only opinion that counts. I know that the internet valorizes first person catharsis. That helps the heart. Let’s use our brains to do some investigative journalism, too.
5. No more Paris Commune. I get it. People think that the modern university is an “industrial complex,” that it needs to burned to the ground, that it cannot be reformed. Let’s debate that. Because I think this “all or nothing” approach is endemic in the modern age. It mimics, I submit, the saber-rattling brinksmanship and grand machismo that had decimated the ability of the political class to make simple or complex deals to keep the country going. When we use it to talk about higher ed, we short-circuit everything we’re supposed to care about. All around us, we have people desperate to learn, to push themselves, to take advantage of the institution’s basic function. We have faculty, students, and – yes – administrators who are working together, trying to lay a new and different foundation for the future. People bled for the right to be a part of this conversation, and people have lost years of their lives to build that foundation. I’m not ready to give up on it. None of us should be.