Nervous Conditions

Nick Kristof’s call to cloistered, monastic faculty to come out and speak to wider publics has already been lambasted, dissected and critiqued by a wide range of academics.

My knee jerked pretty hard as well when I read it, for many of the same reasons that other writers have already articulated:

1) that many faculty are and have been speaking in public in a variety of ways for a long time;
2) that the “cloistered monks” trope is at best a tired one with roots in long-standing habits of American anti-intellectualism and at worst a specific nod to many present interests that would like to strip-mine higher education;
3) that academics who speak to larger publics, who synthesize and generalize knowledge, depend deeply on the work of specialists (who may or may not be equally involved in speaking to various publics);
4) that focusing this appeal on faculty and their temperaments is aiming the persuasive power of a columnist at the wrong target: the real issues are located in structures of promotion and tenure for tenure-track faculty and in the casualization of academic labor for the vast majority of teachers and researchers. Speaking to wider publics as an adjunct is both wholly unrewarded (as is any professional commitment or effort by an adjunct) and extraordinarily risky.

The third point is especially crucial: scholars who engage publics as experts are navigating across rich, deep, complex oceans of knowledge. Take away what Kristof disparages and the public scholar is just one more bullshitter in an endless desert of bullshit.

However, I was also struck a bit at the ferocity and intensity of the reaction by academics to Kristof, and worried about it for two reasons. The first is simply about rhetorical politics and the danger of appearing to protest too much. It’s fairly predictable that Kristof would smugly affirm that this reaction shows that he touched a sensitive spot and therefore must be right.

It doesn’t mean he’s right, but it does mean that he touched a sensitive spot. So the question worth thinking about more deeply is, “What makes this such a sore subject for faculty?” Kristof’s goad is something that academics themselves worry about quite a lot. Even before wistful speculation about the loss of “public intellectuals” became common fodder for conversation among academics in the 1990s, there were long-running discussions about whether professors owed something to wider publics, and if so, what it exactly it was that they owed: scholarship? teaching? engagement? The rise of digital media intensified and shifted this long-running conversation, and sharpened its stakes. The strategic challenge of public engagement for print-era scholars, especially on the left, was how to gain access to the carefully guarded fortresses of print capitalism or how to construct powerful alternative media outlets in a world where media technologies of production and circulation were scarce or expensive. Digital media allowed scholars to think instead about less visible processes that shaped access and attention, and about whether “the public sphere” was an obsolete, never-was or poisoned concept in the first place. Should a scholar seeking engagement speak instead with already-engaged audiences with an interest in the scholar’s particular expertise? Was engagement only meaningful in relationship to subcultures? Was an engaged scholar instead someone who listened to publics rather than spoke to them? What if engagement meant less a kind of synthesis or summary of long-form scholarship in an otherwise familiar print format and voice and more some kind of radically different way of speaking?

These are questions that many academics have been exploring and inhabiting for the last two decades, so in some sense, we shouldn’t necessarily begrudge a columnist asking something of the same questions. That is, if he bothered to ask them as questions and bothered to ask them in a way that didn’t use lazy tropes about the incomprehensibility of professorial writing.

The useful conversation that might be possible if our knees stopped jerking and a columnist like Kristof stopped playing to the peanut gallery centers on a point I’ve already raised: what permits an academic to perform a public role in a distinctive way? Kristof sees academics as “smart” people who can contribute their intelligence and insight to public discussions. But the problem is that the American public sphere has become a difficult place for some people to speak and be heard. Beyond the obvious issues with making a contribution to public conversations via digital media that are rife with bullying and often toxic levels of sexism and racism, there is an equally pressing problem with the capture of expertise by lobbyists and closed political institutions. Kristof ought to be familiar with that issue, considering the company he keeps at the Times op-ed page, but the very way he makes his call suggests how unconcerned he is about it. Who exactly wants “smart” academic input? And what kind? Does Kristof want to hear from anthropologists or historians about the issues he wants to confront? Judging from past behavior, no. Do policy-makers really want to hear from any expert whose thinking might disrupt or confound coming to solutions that are already inevitably going to be come to? What kinds of public and political action are actually open to the unexpected input of already-existing academic expertise, and might actually be transformed were it made available? The answer, I fear, is “not much, not many, not really”. Maybe the issue is with the “we” that thinks they need professors, not with the professors. Kristof might ask–using himself as a test–what exactly is dependent upon this input that he thinks is lacking. If what he means by accessibility is “I want professors who agree with what I already think, and I want them to say so clearly”, that’s very different than saying, “There’s something I don’t understand, something I can’t do, something beyond my knowledge”. The former is just hunting for a few more bits of costume jewelry to burnish the finery of the powerful. The latter would be a welcome invitation, but given that it starts with humility, don’t hold your breath.

This might bring us around to a real issue that’s worth taking seriously, past all the dramatics of the academic response to Kristof. If we react strongly, it isn’t just because he’s insulting. It is also because, without really intending to, he is genuinely raising a difficult problem. We already know that in an open-source, open-access, digital media, crowdsourcing world, op-ed columnists in print media are dispensible. The issue that troubles all academics, however they write, wherever they teach, is whether the same is true of expertise in general. We haven’t yet been able to imagine what the new circumstances governing the circulation of expertise might ultimately be. We aren’t going to get a good conversation going about that from Kristof’s prompt, but the time is coming soon where we had better do so or risk sounding just as out of touch with the reality around us.

Posted in Academia, Blogging | 3 Comments

Who’s the Boss?

In the current wave of online ill-will between contingent and tenure-track faculty (which of course most faculty in either group will never see, know about or care about), one of the common sentiments that produces some modest degree of agreement is, “Blame the administrators”.

The common refrain, echoing the arguments of Benjamin Ginsberg’s Fall of the Faculty, goes something like this:

1) Faculty used to be firmly in control of most of the business of academic institutions.
2) Administrators took that control away from them.
3) Then administrators made more administrators and fewer faculty, and made most of the faculty contingent employees. Why? Because they’re bad, because they could, because they hate truth and justice, because they’re neoliberal capitalists.
4) And so here we are. We should retake governance, fire most of the administrators, and rehire most faculty as tenure-track faculty.

This at least is Ginsberg’s take. Every once in a while in Fall, he pauses to consider what the faculty role in the history of administrative growth might be, every once in a while he considers the role of federal and state regulations, every once in a while he thinks about larger trends in employment and the economy. But for the most part, he views faculty as having little or no role in the growth of administration and the rise of contingent labor, he almost never asks whether students played a part, treats academia as a self-contained institution that explains itself, and largely sees administrators, particularly the “deanlets” that he views with special contempt, as the deliberate and programmatic agents of the marginalization of the faculty.

Now keep in mind, as always when I join in these discussions, that I am in a very favored and increasingly isolated institutional situation. Swarthmore faculty may grouse about governance and managerialism, but I generally assume that this is like students grousing about cafeteria food, a kind of obligatory disgruntlement. In any serious comparison with most of global academia, we’re still very much at the center of the governance of the institution, especially in its academic operations. I can teach largely what I like and so can most of my colleagues: the restrictions that have power over us are almost entirely imposed by departmental and divisional colleagues, not the institution. My department can set the terms of its own curricular program within very broad parameters. In a faculty that is mostly tenure-track, hiring of contingent faculty has been mostly a short-term strategy for managing sudden growth in student interest in a particular major or about replacing faculty on leave in heavy enrollment departments. This is not to say that we are not dealing with some of the same pressures and issues that are affecting all of academia, but this is precisely my starting place: some of the drivers of managerialism, administrative growth, and faculty marginalization are totally outside of any given institution, and impossible to contest through a simple shifting of the deck chairs on the Titanic.

But the history here is in some broad measure the history of many institutions. How did the growth of administration happen? It started happening sixty or so years ago because faculty stopped being able to and willing to do many of the major administrative jobs in colleges and universities as the numbers of students grew dramatically and the nature of academic life changed. When academia stopped looking to faculty to handle admissions and residential life and budgets, it started looking to professionals who had done somewhat similar work in other institutions. And those people professionalized the same way that faculty had professionalized a few decades earlier, the same way that faculty were undergoing intensification of professionalization as their ranks grew and grew in the 1950s and 1960s. The administrators didn’t professionalize because that was part of the Master Plan to Destroy the Faculty, but because that’s what was happening across the whole of the economy and society.

Professionalization is in and of itself a driver of growth. It is on the faculty side as well as the administrative side: some departments grow not because they are trying to manage increased demand but because the consensus in academic institutions supports growth into a new specialized field. Specialization in academic disciplines creates economic pressures on institutions: when only a specialist can teach some aspect of a departmental or division curriculum, they have to be replaced if they are absent, augmented with more labor resources (likely contingent teaching if we’re talking after 1980) if many students want to work in that general area of study.

Beyond that, what has driven the growth of administration in academia? Federal and state regulatory mandates, for one. Many faculty are uncomfortable focusing on that issue because it makes us sound like businessmen complaining about over-regulation, but maybe there’s a lesson in there somewhere. On the other hand, at least some of those regulations are generally supported by faculty, in spirit or sometimes even in specific substance. So we can hardly complain about having to respond by adding administrators to deal with those kinds of compliance issues, which clearly require some degree of specialized knowledge. Legal obligations that follow on the Americans with Disabilities Act or regulations on the welfare of organisms in laboratories or Title IX are serious and complex.

Where else was there growth in staff between 1970 and 2014? Information technology. Human resources. Financial management. At many places, the former especially has been an area of substantial growth. Reconcile arguing that information technology staff should be small with wanting campus networks that run smoothly, are secure from intrusion, pose no legal liabilities, and provide faculty with all the instructional support they need.

Ginsberg’s complaints are largely confined to residential life staff and then to growth at the top of the administrative pyramid, just under a president or chancellor. Residential life administrations usually include on their org chart things like specialists in mental health, diversity coordinators, learning disabilities specialists, some of which may have regulatory compliance woven into their work. Even if they don’t, most of those jobs have had at least the passive, sometimes active, support of many faculty at many institutions.

So even if you back Ginsberg in his acerbic dimissal of “deanlets”, who irk him in part because they intrude into what he thinks should be the sole prerogative of faculty (instruction and curricular design) and in his thinking that there are too many bosses and supervisors at the top of administrative hierarchies, you’re only making a dent in the overall growth of administrative compensation budgets.

If you want to do more than that, you either have to name a large range of administrative functions you believe can be eliminated at no cost to the core mission of academic institutions, or you have to compress those functions into fewer positions and be indifferent to any complaints about overwork, or you have to argue for hiring lower-cost deprofessionalized or outsourced labor to do the work. I think most faculty would avoid making the latter two arguments on the record, at any rate. And on the first, when I start asking most faculty I know (at Swarthmore or elsewhere) which exact administrative positions they think aren’t needed, I usually get a few desultory, mumbled suggestions but nothing like a categorical area of staff work that they believe could be eliminated. At large universities with Division I athletic programs that draw heavily on the general operational budget, you might (justifiably) hear faculty raise questions about whether that has anything to do with the core mission of the university, and maybe there’s a few other areas you could similarly underscore, but this is hard work. Faculty who just toss this sort of argument against “administrative bloat” off casually aren’t much different than right-wing voters who believe that somehow there’s a lot of waste in government social spending and a lot of voter fraud: it functions as a deep authorizing mythology that precedes any engagement with the world as it is. If there is any bloat–or at least growth that could be pared back over time–faculty were usually deeply involved in its creation, or they at least endorse the idea of the institutional missions that administrators are supposed to be executing. Faculty want experts in mental health and learning disabilities, they want diversity experts, they want legal staff, they want librarians, they want instructional technologists, they want expert financial and budgetary staff, they want human resources personnel who understand contemporary benefit structures, they want environmental services staff, they want staff who organize peer learning, they want administrative assistants, they want event planners, they want people who handle communications. If you remove any of those functionalities, or ask faculty to handle it themselves, you hear plenty of griping.


All of this brings back the question: who is the boss then, especially in universities where the terms of labor are so increasingly miserable for teaching faculty?

And the answer is, depending on what kind of bossing and decision making about terms of labor we’re talking about: the structures of the institutional culture overall, faculty, top-level administrators, trustees, state politicians or society at large. Meaning, first, it is a misguided political idea to look for a single bad guy to take out of the picture, to remove from bossing, in order to create a better work environment and better terms of labor. And different institutions work differently. More poorly resourced or less scrutinized institutions often operate on more arbitrary and capriciously centralized terms with more power in the hands of top administrators. Strongly religious colleges usually have some kind of formalized cultural overlay that ‘bosses’ the lives and work of faculty and staff. State legislators in some political cultures around the U.S. are more pervasively involved in inspecting and controlling the working lives of university employees.

Some “bossing” embedded in the terms of faculty labor, especially for contingent employees, traces straight back to tenure-track faculty or even to other contingent staff. TT faculty, even when they’re a small remnant of what they once were at a given institution, still usually control the content and structure of much of the curriculum, and therefore determine what kinds of contingent work is needed, how often it’s needed, and how stable the expectations are for further employment. They’re often the people who determine whether a particular contingent faculty member will be rehired, how they are evaluated, whether they have access to resources, and so on.

But what has driven academic institutions towards more and more aggressive use of less and less well-treated contingent faculty? Who is the “boss” of that move? Who made and still makes that decision? Here, yes, it’s totally fair to point to top-level administrators. Tenure-track faculty at many institutions own some piece of that move, often because they failed to respond actively to discourses around cost and budgeting except with a total dismissal of cost as a consideration or with strategic moves intended to preserve their own labor practices while permitting the larger institution to move in a different direction. But top-level administrators drove a lot of this approach to managing costs and financial resources. Larger forces beyond the university have also “bossed” this system into being, ranging from the extent to which the cultural idea of being a scholar remains attractive to many undergraduates to the overall structural impoverishment of labor markets world-wide (e.g., when all the choices are increasingly bad, it’s easier to defend the particular badness of the way you are employing people).

The real challenge is to match a specificity of complaint with the agency of some group or constituency who could plausibly be expected to do something different. Just pointing at “administration” and administrative growth as if that alone is both an accurate description of the causes of poor work conditions for contingent faculty and a plausible direction to seek redress or transformation does nothing at all to help. When it is faculty, especially tenure-track faculty, doing the pointing, the gesture both distracts from their own responsibilities, from what they can do right now, and it doesn’t help move us towards some concrete decisions about what kind of administrative growth is at issue, about how to talk about costs without having to preach austerity, about how to stage a more generative confrontation with influential “bosses” outside of the academy, or anything else of use.

Posted in Academia, Politics, Swarthmore | 20 Comments

Now I’m In For It

So I’ve overhauled my survey course on the history of the Atlantic slave trade in West Africa this semester as an experiment in “flipping the classroom”. I’m not quite flipping the way that some do, with lectures as homework and problem sets in the classroom, but that’s a bit of the spirit of what I’m doing.

The way the course is going to work is that the syllabus will be something of a work in progress, especially after the first five weeks or so.

I’ve identified two major questions that will drive the course: why did the Atlantic slave trade happen to West and Central African societies, and what were the consequences of incorporation into the Atlantic system for West and Central African societies? We will spend time in class sessions breaking down those questions into more manageable subquestions that have purchase in the existing historiography. During class, and sometimes outside of class, as an assignment, we will be locating relevant scholarship or other materials to help us work with these questions, and we will then read some of that work together in class, taking collaborative notes on a shared document.

I’ll have another shared document called “Lecture Requests” open during class where students can semi-anonymously request that I spend some time talking about a subject that is either confusing in the scholarly literature or that seems both important and too diffuse for us to fully grasp from the readings alone. Sometimes I’ll try to lecture as soon as I see a request, other times I’ll wait and do it in the next class, especially when I feel the need to prep a bit on that particular subject.

We’ll also keep a spreadsheet “reading log” that I will eventually export into Viewshare so we can create visualizations from our reading (say, a map of places in West and Central Africa that we read about during the semester). We’ll have a few other docs open during most class sessions (one for harvesting good specific search terms for further use in locating appropriate materials, for example).

I’m doing this because I’d like to see if there’s a better way to both produce more consistent command over a body of knowledge than my usual pedagogy does and at the same time do something more powerful or lasting in terms of showing students how to learn, how to build knowledge out of reading and note-taking. I’m fairly convinced by Randy Bass, Cathy Davidson, Douglas Thomas and others that if we want to make the case that maintaining the high quality of intensive face-to-face teaching requires and thus justifies hiring expensive, highly trained professionals, we need to find ways to make sure that the time we spend in classrooms is the best use of that time that we can think of within the information-rich, profoundly-networked world that we actually inhabit.

A lot of the class will be visible in public (and I’m linking it to Hastac’s #FutureEd initiative), so I invite curious onlookers and helpful kibitizers to take a look now and again and see what they think about how it’s going.

Posted in Academia, Africa, Defining "Liberal Arts", Swarthmore | 5 Comments

Heroic Measures (The Modest Proposal Remix Edition)

Bill Keller has spent the last two years in a dull and very public exasperated talking-to with the rest of the world for not being enough like Bill Keller. Since the New York Times helpfully selected him among all the writers whose opinions ought to be published periodically within the pages of the New York Times, out of gratitude for his nostalgic reprise of William Randolph Hearst’s brilliant use of the press to start wars, he has written periodically about his mild and grudging regrets for misleading the entire country, how he knew Nelson Mandela personally and it turns out Mandela could sometimes be a jerk, how he sort of liked Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new book and some other stuff that his buddies on the opinion page have had opinions about. He hasn’t tweeted copiously through it all, but he’s been reading some tweets, occasionally. Even by contemporary standards of old-media irrelevance, he’s irrelevant. A rapt audience of a few Times editors, a few other pundits and a couple of old people follows his marshmellow-soft narrative of truisms, hackneyed repetitions, noncommittal middle-of-the-roadisms, and smug posturings, occasionally annoying a larger audience enough to warrant a few angry tweets and blog posts.

In the last entry or so, his tone has changed slightly; his condescension has become a little less forgiveable. As 2014 began, the insufferable and privileged character of old-media punditry that had colonized the major American daily newspapers became much less tolerable. He was deemed too much of an asshole to just ignore. He is now lighting up the Internet with fury, serving as linkbait for the New York Times, which has embraced him as a source of new media advertising revenue.

Bill Keller is still alive, still writing, though you wouldn’t guess it by reading him. The column has become less about prolonging his career and more about defending his wife’s column.

“The words of my column become words that express why I’m paternalistically disappointed by most folks for not being enough like me, not dying the way I think they ought to die, and doing other things that really they should know better about,” he might as well write after reading a collective blast of tweeted exasperation. “The ebb and flow of not-Keller America, of not-Keller world. And so, too, inevitably, of all the things that Keller has done before.”

Posted in Cleaning Out the Augean Stables | 2 Comments

Unplanned Obsolescence

Solidarity and sympathy in online culture and social media are fleeting things: you are only as good as your last response rather than a lifetime of responses, and only as welcome as you are permitted to be within a particular conversation. Discussions that start by drawing the “circle of we” with a circumscribed perimeter resist expansion or redrawing, often appropriately so.

So rather than beg for an ally’s badge, my best reaction to some of the latest complaints against tenured faculty and academic institutions might be to propose some alternative “circles of we” that recast the nature of the conversation.

Asking sharp questions about the imagined endgame of a critique is not about holding that critique up against utopia and finding it wanting if it does not have a road between here and that endpoint. It’s about asking for the strategic vision of that critique in the here and now. If one starts from the proposition that higher education in the U.S. (or more globally) was a basically positive, healthy institution in some previous heyday (most likely the expanded, more democratic, more accessible academy of the 1970s), then a critique of the labor practices, economics, and culture of the present is or should be sharply intent on the difference between then and now. This is how I have largely read Marc Bousquet’s arguments in the last few years: that there is no need to accept moves like programmatically limiting the supply of doctoral candidates, adopting novel institutional reforms, abolishing tenure altogether and so on in order to fix the inequalities in academic labor markets. Instead, all that’s needed is an internal reallocation of institutional budgets to hiring more tenure-track faculty and fewer administrators, a re-emphasis on the core missions of higher education (teaching and the production of knowledge) and a restoration of public funding. You can take a different line than Bousquet and still have roughly the same strategic vision, that some concretely past academy is the one that we want.

If on the other hand, the conclusion is that academia was always elitist, always exclusionary, always unfair both to its workers and apprentices and to its publics, that there was never any golden age to restore, then the strategic vision even now has to be clear: is there an imaginable higher education that could be comprehensively better? Or does the problem lie in the very idea of a professionalized faculty and in the institutionalization of education? There are good, honorable arguments of long-standing that point in either of those directions: one is not left having to craft a critique from scratch. But they have very different implications right here, right now, however far or improbable the endgame might be.

Not the least among those implications is who can be expected to join a coalition of the willing and who cannot. There’s no reason to make tenured faculty your first, preferred targets if you’re chasing restoration unless you genuinely believe that existing tenure-track faculty were the primary agents who produced casualization of academic labor, the diversion of internal budgets to administrative purposes, and the reduction of direct and indirect public budgetary support for higher education. Even in that case, you’re not against tenured faculty as a concept, since that’s the labor dispensation that a restorationist wants to return, just against the particular inhabitants of that role in this particular historical moment (or even, potentially, you are set against some past particular group who did the dirty deed rather than the present incumbents). In this vision, the conventional culture of academic life is largely something worth valuing, preserving, and continuing, and it would be foolish to do it damage in pursuing reform.

If there is some concrete assembly of labor practices, institutional budgets, internal culture, habitus, and so on that is imagined as preferable not just to the present but to any past dispensation, the coalition of the willing is very different depending on which kinds of transformations are being envisioned. There are people inside and outside of academia who envision a technologically-mediated transformation of how we teach and publish, of how we name and employ scholars and experts, of how higher education becomes a new kind of public good, who are also very committed to the reform of academic labor, the diversification of faculty and students, and the refinement or tweaking of the culture of academic professionalism. That’s a reformist politics that sets some faculty against others, that mixes contingent and tenure-track faculty on both sides of the debate. If on the other hand the academy-to-be is the one that American neoliberals, conservatives and libertarians sometimes imagine, where practical learning overthrows the liberal arts and efficient managerial approaches reduce costs, then contingent and tenure-track faculty alike are almost universally going to line up against that possibility.

If in the end there is nothing about institutional education and professionalized academia which appeals, nothing to reform or restructure short of practices which would have to be so comprehensively different to any present or imaginable dispensation, then throw all the rotten tomatoes that come to hand at every target in sight: all faculty, all administrators, all students. They’re all, in this view, doing a very profoundly wrong thing and doing it at great expense. I don’t outline this position to mock it. It has a long lineage of great intellectual profundity and political force behind it. Someone drawn to this position doesn’t need to invent a comprehensive alternative, because this sort of critique by its nature is only sure about what education or learning or training or knowledge production aren’t and shouldn’t be. But don’t expect anyone who is even modestly invested in the institutions we inherit to join in the tomato-flinging. And don’t bother with any particular rage against a particular group, because the argument is so much bigger than that.


This in the end would be my own modest proposal: that most of the arguments about the unfairness of academic labor practices and academic culture are too small. In a sense, they prove that even the strongest critics accept and are a bit blinded by a belief in the specialness of academia, because they even think its unfairness or inequity is special to it.

There is a bigger landscape to consider, one that might either further catalyze a politics of reform (or revolt) or that might bleed out the energy of such a politics within the vastness of history.

Talk of “crisis”, either within some subset of academia or about the whole of it, is often properly met with skepticism. More often than not, when you’re told that there is a crisis, it’s best to quickly check your wallet, because that kind of talk is a favorite distraction by neoliberal pickpockets. But think on a big scale and crisis talk makes a different sort of (mostly upsetting) sense.

The casualization of academic labor started before the rise of information technology and online media, during the 1970s. That is often overlooked even (or especially) by the newest generation of the casualized. But in different forms this is something that was happening to almost all of the professions that rose out of bourgeois life and culture in the West during the 19th Century. And often efforts to extend or erode the boundaries that had been drawn so brightly by the alliance of professional associations and the state during the first half of the 20th Century were not spearheaded by neoliberal corporatizers or conservative anti-intellectuals but by progressives of one kind or another who were either seeking to extend the benefits of public goods beyond what poorer states could afford (say, with “barefoot doctors”) or were trying to break the dominating power of socially exclusive professionals over their subjects and clients (say, with the move to allow competing forms of professionalism like midwifery or homeopathy their own legitimacy). That second move gained particular force among progressives in the wake of Foucauldian-inspired critiques of professionals and their institutions, a perspective that made it hard to simply repeat older liberal arguments about the professions as a form of beneficient service to an enlightened society.

But what is happening now is not just an intensification of this earlier attempt to extend professional services or to make the boundaries and power of professional institutions more porous. What is happening now in the realignment of professional economies and technological infrastructures is possibly something more akin to an industrial revolution. Almost none of the interested parties drawn to that scene of transformation really fully understand or master it, whether they are snake-oil salesmen speaking of “disruption”, visionaries considering new modes and methods of educational practice, or justly rageful victims watching social contracts being broken right before their eyes. How can we understand it fully? That’s the nature of this kind of transformation, whether you find yourself on the barricades or in the guillotine.

But it is happening to more than academia. It is happening to law. It is happening to psychiatry. It is happening to accounting. It is happening to medicine. It is happening to anything and everything that organized itself as a profession, that licensed people with special training as the only legal or proper source of valued services. Some of the work of the professions is being automated. Some of it is being crowdsourced. Some of it is being simply deemed too expensive or unnecessary. And some of it is being taken out of the hands of the professionals and hitched to the wagon of a new class of owners who turn professionals into workers, who demolish the idea that the defining value of professional service is the knowledgeable autonomy of trained experts within their own institutions and in their own practices of service.

So in this sense to say that tenured faculty are to academic labor as white people are to racism is both to think too small and to misfire the structural analogy. Too small because the same thing could and should be said of all professionals whose terms of employment today are still set within the economies and norms that existed in the mid-20th Century, who still can largely believe in and defend the habitus of their profession as it once existed. Which means, equally, that contingent faculty banging on the closed door have many potential allies across a wide range of professions–but to make common cause with them still requires some of the choices I outlined earlier. Namely, were the professions as they once existed a good thing in those former terms? Or do we want to tear down their remaining shreds and fragments in order to make something radically new?

In that choice, professionals of the ancien regime are to newer workers not masters or owners. They are the woeful artisans staring out the window of their cottages at the dark satanic mills rising all around them. And this might explain much of the rageful antagonism between the ancien professionals and the new workers. It always seems as if artisans and workers should be on the same side against the new owners but it rarely turns out that way, and often only for the briefest of conjunctures. Because in the end their interests are different. The artisans know that their work can’t scale to the needs both created by and creating the industrial producers. They can’t make enough room in their cottages for all the workers even if they wanted to. And the workers need a job, right now: they rightly cannot give two fucks about how it used to be great in the old days when folk sheared the sheep in the spring and wove all the summer long. They want fair wages, good work conditions, a chance for advancement. Their best hope lies in the progressive remaking of the factories, the forging of new social contracts, not in the incremental carving out of a few more apprenticeships in the old guilds.

The artisans and the workers don’t have to be against each other either, necessarily. Oh, the artisans can try to smash the new machines if they like, but they shouldn’t expect much sympathy from the people whose meal tomorrow depends on the continued working of the assembly lines. The workers can feel sorry for the old folk up the valley if they like, but they should hardly be expected to endorse the traditional claims of their guilds within the marketplace.

You can have a marketplace that has room for small producers of high-priced artisanal goat cheese and big industrial producers of Velveeta where the workers in each setting are non-rivalrous, indeed, hardly think of one another at all. Maybe that’s where higher education is going, where the few elite institutions that still have tenure are the producers of high-value craftwork in teaching and scholarship, a quaint variation on slow food available to those who can afford the price. And education or training or certification in some other massified form has its workers with their struggles for dignity and fairness to come, struggles that will have almost nothing to do with the old-timey crafters.

To set yourself against that future rather than just drifting down the river of time resigned to its flow, means making clear choices right here and right now, maybe choices that have never been made before within similar conjunctures. Maybe we do want more cottages, a landscape alive with professionals who have forcefully recaptured their monopolies and privileges in new assemblages and institutions. Maybe we just want public goods to be public goods again, which might take a rededication of professional work to the ethos of service. Maybe we want to tear it all the fuck down and build a platform for some future day of the rope against the new owners. All I’m certain of is that many of the arguments out there right now within and about academia are too parochial in some fashion and thus often as much contributing to the drift down the river as they are struggling against its flow.

Posted in Academia, Oh Not Again He's Going to Tell Us It's a Complex System, Politics | 10 Comments

Yesterday, All Our MOOC Troubles Seemed So Far Away

Everybody remember the expectation that a smart, professorial President would hire an equally smart, skilled staff who would prove that a well-run government can be quickly responsive to the needs of the society, efficient in the execution of its duties, and not just services to the highest bidder?

Yeah, me neither. The current Administration seems determined to help us forget. Today the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology issued a report on massively online open courses (MOOCs) that not only reads as if it was written a year ago, but manages even in the frame of a year ago to take the most cravenly deferential and crudely instrumental posture available in that moment. It’s a love letter to the venture capitalists scrambling to gut open higher education, written at a time when the most thoughtful entrepreneurs and executives involved in organizing MOOCs have all but conceded that whatever their value might be, they’re not going to solve the problem of labor-intensivity in education nor are they going to serve as a primary vehicle for achieving equity of access to higher education for potential pupils.

There was a good deal of I-told-you-so-ing after Sebastian Thrun announced that Udacity would move towards offering MOOCs for something other than basic higher education, in part because Thrun had concluded that they simply couldn’t substitute for existing models of teaching. I don’t think anyone should have mocked Thrun for saying so, even though many of us did say that this is what was going to happen. Not the least because it has happened before, at each major milestone in the development of mass communication in modern societies: the new medium was eagerly held up as a chance to affordably massify education and extend its transformative potential, only to fall short. Largely because no matter what mass medium we’re talking about, this kind of education is essentially an assisted form of autodidacticism. It has worked and still works largely only for those who already know what they want to know, and who already know how to learn.

There are some people who deeply believe that new technological infrastructures can in and of themselves solve problems of cost, equity and efficacy, in higher education or anything else. But at least some of the people who were preaching the MOOC gospel a year ago, where the President’s Council just went in their time machine, did so hoping to draw a Golden Ticket in the “I Made an IPO and Broke Something Important” sweepstakes. Most of those folks seem to be moving on now. In the Silicon Valley game, you don’t have to make money, but you do need to show that you can displace and disrupt an existing service with some speed. That’s not going to happen in this case.

One of the reasons that so many faculty who are otherwise very friendly to digitally-mediated innovation and change were so annoyed with MOOCs is that the intense push by companies and investors to draw attention to MOOCs drew energy and resources away from existing projects that have been using information technology to enhance and enrich traditional modes of teaching, often called “blended learning”. Now that the craze for the MOOC is starting to fade, maybe the blended learning conversation can gain the public attention it deserves once again.

But also, maybe we can hold on to what we’ve learned about the genuinely interesting possibilities of MOOCs. So they’re not going to magically solve the economic problems of education or public goods, or for the more anti-intellectual backers, they’re not going to create a world where algorithms will replace truculent faculty. If we get lucky, they might put some of the sleazier for-profit online educators out of business. However, existing MOOCs are still a potentially terrific implementation of three possible objectives, all of which might even have market value.

1) MOOCs are a model form of new digital publication. If you read this blog, you’ve seen me say this before (and seen me say before, somewhat crossly, that I’ve been saying it for years.) But this is no longer just potential: it’s reality. Does anyone remember how many people bought “For Dummies” books? Or in recent years, how many institutions are paying for a account? The MOOC is a BOOC: it’s an enhanced, interactive instructional guide where other readers and the authors are there to help you learn. An instructional book has never been confused for a face-to-face course in a university, but it’s also a concept that’s been in existence longer than the university itself.

2) MOOCs are learning communities. Again, this is a potential that’s been around since the WELL, but existing MOOCs are a good demonstration of mature technologies and practices that help dedicated groups learn and explore together at various levels of commitment and interest. They can’t teach calculus to a single student who is underprepared to learn calculus, but they can help a very big group of people who have diverse knowledge and a common interest in the future of higher education learn and discuss that topic together.

3) The mass response to MOOCs are evidentiary proof of the transformative potential of traditional higher education. They’ve been misused as vehicles for transforming higher education, but what they really document is that people who’ve had higher education want to have more learning experiences like that for the rest of their lives. It’s why I always feel so sad when I talk to a Swarthmore alum who just wants to talk about books and ideas and research again and who starts to think that this alone is a reason to go on to graduate school. It’s not a good reason to do that because that’s not what graduate school typically services. But look at who takes MOOCs: it’s a close overlap with people who take community college courses for enrichment, with people who join book clubs and go to lectures, with people who just want to know more and talk with people who also have that aspiration. What have MOOCs shown so far? That there are a lot of people like that. They’re busy people, so they often drop out. But I bet those people are to support for educational institutions as a public good, ready to believe in the potentialities of education for a democratic society. MOOCs might not entirely scratch the itch for lifelong learning that many people who’ve had a taste of education develop, but they’re one way to respond to that desire, and more potently, an affirmation that the desire exists.

If the White House wants to pay attention to something important, they might start there rather than embracing the hope that market forces will automagically deploy the MOOC to finally relieve the technocrats of the burden of maintaining and extending public goods.

Posted in Academia, Digital Humanities, Information Technology and Information Literacy, Politics | 5 Comments

Be Nelson Mandela

It is 1981 and I am writing my first long research paper ever in my high school government class on why the U.S. government and U.S. institutions need to commit more aggressively to fighting apartheid. I am citing a report that says if apartheid isn’t ended soon through a negotiated process, it will collapse in a revolutionary bloodbath in which tens of thousands will die. The Reagan Administration has already expressed its lack of interest in pressuring South Africa, though it had no problem applying sanctions to Poland. I spend a good portion of my research reading about Nelson Mandela and the ANC.

It is 1985 and I’m speaking at a student rally against apartheid, as one of two student representatives to the Board of Trustees who have been pushing for divestment. Somewhere the Special AKA’s song “Free Nelson Mandela” is playing.

It is 1988 and I’m a graduate student starting to focus my interest on southern African history, attending a conference in Canada that has numerous participants from South Africa whose presence was financed in part by the Canadian government as a sign of its commitment to the anti-apartheid movement. Many of the speakers and attendees had been members of the United Democratic Front, which had been the key driver of internal struggle against apartheid during the 1980s. Some of them have recently been in jail. The mood at the conference is pessimistic, even despairing. Activists have been murdered, beaten and tortured with increasing frequency and boldness and the state seemed to have successfully suppressed the momentum of mass protest. One speaker says, “This phase of the struggle is over. Our children may see the end of apartheid, but we will not.” Mandela has been involved in secret negotiations with the apartheid leadership for years but no one at the conference knows that or at least could say that they knew it.

It’s 1990 and I’m working on my dissertation in London. Mandela is going to walk free of prison that day and I’m watching it on the TV and damn if I’m not crying freely. Not long after I arrived in London in October 1989, the Berlin Wall had begun to crumble. Suddenly everything impossible is happening.

It’s 1991 and I’m visiting South Africa for the first time, taking a break from my research in Zimbabwe. My dissertation topic had been imagined in 1988 with South Africa in mind at first, but I decided due to the academic boycott that I should work in Zimbabwe instead. My friend’s house is full of the excitement of exiles returning and friends being released from jail. I have a great conversation with a sweet, gentle physicist who tells me about how his complicated plan to set off a small symbolic explosion in a famous building (avoiding casualties) landed him in jail when he told the wrong person about it. I’m told gleefully that one of my circle of friends in my graduate program actually helped to write an iconic line in Mandela’s 1990 speech about the violence in Natal.

It’s 1998 and I’m in South Africa again. I’m in the first trembles of a long slide into middle-age regret and re-examination, and confessing to one of my South African friends about how embarrassed I feel by some of my more romantic and naive perceptions of the struggle against apartheid and African nationalism in general. (I’ve just been in Zimbabwe again, which was a very different place in 1998 than in 1991.) I confide that I’m not sure I have any heroes any longer, and feel stupid that I ever should have had them. My friend, who had been involved directly in the internal struggle of the 1980s and has spent time with some of the political leadership of the new South Africa, says, “It’s foolish to have heroes. Though it’s perfectly fine to have people you like and don’t like, people you trust and don’t trust.” You could like Walter Sisulu or Cyril Ramaphosa, you could hate Ronnie Kasrils, says my friend. Mandela is too remote and protected for my friend to think of as someone you like or don’t like, though there was a warmth, charm and humility there too real to be faked.


Like many of us, perhaps more than some if less than others, I’ve grown up with Nelson Mandela somewhere in the frame of my life. Which is why it seems important to me to get him right now as everyone scrambles now to claim that they always were on his side and he was always on theirs. That claim is not just a preoccupation of outsiders. That scramble has been underway in South Africa for years, arguably ever since his presidency ended. And for the most part, people, including some of his heirs, get him wrong, and usually because they can’t afford to get him right.

They get him wrong because he offered in his life to be gotten not-quite-right. To be just enough the man and leader his possible and committed allies needed him to be, to throw a rope to those who needed him to be revolutionary, to be a saint, to be a moderate, to be a nonracialist, to be a nationalist, to be angry or sad, to be statesmanlike. To throw that rope and let any who would climb on board.

That speaks to something I suppose we could call pragmatism. But that implies a kind of insincerity, a manipulator’s willingness to tell people what they want to hear. Mandela had his eyes all the time on his goals, and what he said and did were not just a means to that end but the end itself.

So he was a strategist. This, too, is a commonplace thing to say about Mandela. More than a few of the well-prepared obituaries that have been circulating since yesterday afternoon have repeated Ahmed Kathrada’s oft-told tale of a three-day chess game that Mandela played against a new detainee on Robben Island, until his opponent surrendered. But this too isn’t quite right, if it’s meant to confer superhuman acuity on Mandela. As he himself was quick to say for much of his life, he made a great many mistakes as both leader and man. The ANC’s approach to the political struggle in South Africa, whether under the active leadership of Mandela and his circle or not, has been full of bone-headed moves. Mandela’s commitment to the armed struggle was a strategic necessity and a political masterstroke, but the actual activities of MK were mostly a sideshow to the real revolution fought in the townships after 1976. It’s not as if Mandela sat down and said, “Ok, so now I go into jail for 27 years and come out a statesman”. His life as both revolutionary and president was, as any political life is, a series of improvisations and accidents.

His improvisations were far more gifted than most, in part because of his disciplined approach to political selfhood. That’s the thing that made Mandela’s strategy and his adaptations stand out. All of his selves and words and decisions were an enactment of the enduring nation he meant to live in some day. I think that is the difference between him and many of his nationalist contemporaries who ascended to power in newly independent African states between 1960 and 1990. (This, too, needs remembering today: Mandela came to nationalism in the same historical moment as Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Patrice Lumumba, Kenneth Kaunda, and so on.) The difference is that Mandela was always looking through the struggle to its ultimate ends, whereas most of the nationalists could see little further than the retreat of the colonial powers from the continent and the defeat of any local political rivals. Perhaps that was because Mandela and his closest allies, even during the Youth League’s insurgency against the old ANC leadership, could see that the endgame of apartheid could never be as simple as making a colonizer go back home. Perhaps it is just that he was a better person, a bigger man, a greater leader than most of them.

Or indeed, most of all the leaders of his time in this respect: to keep a long view of the world he ultimately thought his people, all people, should live in. He is the head of his class on a global scale, standing tall not just above his African contemporaries but above most other nationalists and certainly above the neoliberal West, whose leaders seem almost embarrassed to have ever thought about politics as the art of shaping a better future for all.

I suppose as a historian that my knee should jerk at any invocation of the great-man theory and cite the masses and parties and structures that brought Mandela to power. And as a lightly depressive middle-aged man attached to my comforts, I should embrace my friend’s warnings against having heroes. At least Mandela can no longer disappoint anyone who lionizes him, not that he ever did. That is perhaps most of all what we all admire about him: that with every opportunity in the world, structural and personal, to stumble on feet of clay after 1990, he never did. (Winnie Madikizela-Mandela begs to differ, I know.)

But that knee won’t jerk and perhaps I can still have a hero or two. The problem with the wave of admiring appraisals of Mandela as hero and great man is not that he was not a hero or great man. The problem with those celebrations (even before Mandela’s death) is that few of them oblige the people offering them to rethink anything at all about their own times, their own lives, their own mistakes. At best, they occasion the grudging admission, “I thought he was a terrorist or a revolutionary, but it turns out he was a great man.” But put one foot in front of the other and soon you’ll be walking out the door: the next step might be to recognize that he was a terrorist and a revolutionary and a great man.

A characteristic weakness of empires is that they have a hard time telling friends from enemies. Nations have to work to turn citizens within their borders into dehumanized outsiders. Empires, on the other hand, hardly know how to distinguish between grifters who are just taking the empire for whatever it’s willing to give and friends whose autonomous, authentic pursuit of their own political ends happens to coincide with the long-term interests and values of the empire. So the United States and England and France, for example, dumped treasure and spilled blood for Mobutu and Banda and Bokassa and Houphouet-Boigny in all the years of Mandela’s ANC leadership and then imprisonment. And all the while in its secret counsels and whispered conversations, the West was mostly content with its conclusion: Mandela was or would be a dangerous man, and the ANC a dangerous party. From the 1960s on, the U.S. and U.K. wanted apartheid gone (at least until Reagan, when anything that was not communism was good, and perhaps even better if it was sufficiently authoritarian to hold the line) but there were few in those governments seeing the great man in Mandela.

So of course it sticks in the craw to hear those who would have condemned Mandela (and those who did condemn him through word and deed) now speak of his greatness. But again, the point is not to say, “You were wrong this once, because this man”. It is to say, “You are often wrong, and not just because your judgement of individual greatness is wrong.” You are wrong when you can’t be bothered to hear from people who would have been, who were, your friends when they come to testify about how your drones killed their families, wrong when you spy on anyone going into a mosque in New York City, wrong when you let some mid-rank bureaucrat or think-tank enfant play the role of policy-wonk Iago who whispers to you which friends to murder or neglect. You are wrong when you pretend that from Washington or London you can sort and sift through who ought to be allowed to win desperate struggles for freedom and justice and who should not, and wrong when you arm and forgive and advise the same kind of grifters who take your money and laugh all the way to the torture chambers.

You were wrong then and now because you won’t let yourself see a Mandela. But also because you think that the privilege of making a Mandela belongs to the empire. This in the end is his final legacy: that he, and his closest colleagues, and the people in the streets of Soweto, and maybe even a bit (though not nearly so much as they themselves would like to think) the global allies of the anti-apartheid struggle, all of that made Mandela. Mandela made himself, much as he in his humility would always insist that he was made by the people and was their servant.

When you say, “He was a great statesman”, credit what that means. It means that he looked ahead, kept his eyes on the prize, and tried to do what needed doing, whether that meant taking up arms, or playing chess, or making a friendly connection with a potentially friendly jailer. If you’re going to say it, then credit first that there might be great leaders (and great movements) where you right now see only terrorism or revolution or disorder. That so many people were wrong about Mandela should at least allow for that much.

Don’t forget that it wasn’t just the Cold War leadership of the West that was wrong. Other African nationalists were wrong: many forget that for a time, the PAC had a serious chance of being taken as the legitimate representative of the aspirations of South Africans. Of course, some of them were perfectly right about Mandela and that’s why they hated him both early and late, because he had a far-sightedness and a realistic vision of a world that could be that they lacked. For someone like Robert Mugabe, the most unforgiveable thing about Mandela is that having power, he gave it up. And those on the left who just want to remember Mandela the revolutionary have to remember that Mandela the neoliberal was largely the same man, with the same political vision.

What no one really wants to see is Mandela the builder, because nowhere in that sight can we find our own reflection.

That’s why he seems like such a lonely giant, mourned by all, imitated by none. Because who now can boast of a long-term view of the future? Who is looking past the inadequacies of the moment to a better dispensation? Who really works to see and imagine a place, a nation, a world in which we might all want to live and then plots the distance between here and there? Some of us know what we despise, we know the shape of the boot on our neck or the weight on our shoulders. Some of us know what we fear: the shadow of a plane falling on a skyscraper, the cough of a bomb exploding, the loss of an ease in the world. We know how to feel a hundred daily outrages at a stupid or bad thing said, how to gesture at the empty spaces where a vision once resided, how to sneer at our splitters and wankers, how to invest endless energies in demanding symbolic triumphs that lead nowhere and build nothing. Our political leaders (and South Africa’s, too) have no vision beyond the next re-election and their retinues of pundits and experts and appointees are happy to compliment and flatter the vast expanses of their nakedness in return for a share of the spoils.

Mourn the statesman and the revolutionary and the terrorist and the neoliberal and the ethicist and the pragmatist and the saint and don’t you dare try to discard or remove any part of that whole. Celebrate him? Sure, but then make sure you’re willing to consider emulating him.

Posted in Africa, Politics | 34 Comments

In Loco Parentis?

I used to believe much more in procedural reform as a way to deal with questions of fairness, equity and justice. That every institution and community should have its established rules and processes, and if you signed on, you accepted those as obligations. It’s a very Ned Stark way of looking at things and has the same appeal that honor has to Ned Stark: in the best case scenario, mutual rule-following produces a kind of rough, semi-stable sort of utilitarian outcomes. A few men may get their heads lopped off for deserting from the Wall, and women might get stuck making the best of the bad deals handed to them by men, but at least life isn’t a Hobbsean nightmare. People who live outside the system might suffer, but that’s their problem. The harvest is stored and the world survives another long winter. In the worst case scenario, you go to your execution confident that you’re a better man than your murderers and that they’ll eventually regret what they’ve done. (After a lot of death and suffering.)

As the analogy ought to make clear, I’m less enamored of this approach now. Because at the least a proceduralist frequently discovers what Ned Stark did: respect for the rules is worth very little against those who not only disrespect those rules but know how to use the proceduralist’s self-restraint against him. But also because most rules, laws, deliberative processes and codes end up drifting from the lived reality of an institution or a community. Following the rules as rules disconnects them from their purpose, deprives them of an organic, renewable ideal. Simple truths and messy ambiguities alike get pushed aside, and the hard work of making a consistently better, more secure, more satisfying life for everyone within an institution or community gets deferred.

Rule-making also is often the equivalent of inviting a vampire to enter a home. Trying to make changes in everyday consciousness, practice or expression take hold through prescriptive rules is a mismatch of objective and method at the outset, but that mismatch is frequently aggravated because rule-making brings a whole host of experts, consultants and wonks into the room who are happiest dealing with human beings from the antiseptic distances that abstractions, generalizations and universalizations permit.

I think this is a bit of what was making me anxious last spring in talking to disparate groups of Swarthmore students about the changes they wanted to see at the college or even in the world at large. I am actually beginning to wonder if there isn’t a little teeny bit of truth to the idea that some of the current generation of college students really do not like certain formulations of autonomy or open-ended situations that are designed to maximize contingent outcomes. Even when they’re showing tremendous leadership and initiative, I see a lot (not all or maybe even most) of recent students asking (demanding!) that institutions and authorities do things for them, create rules and strictures, intervene, control (but controlling only what those students want controlled).

Some of my anxiety is probably just personal, just the difference between the world I grew up and the world that a 20-year old today has grown up in. But some of this has to do with the lessons I’ve learned about the limits to proceduralism, that if you ask lawyers to help you fix the world, what you get is some expensive instructions about how to comply with existing laws. I think this has become particularly evident in the changes that Swarthmore and many other colleges are trying to make around sexual assault and harassment policies.

Many changes as we’ve experienced them in the last year are good. When I recently talked with my departmental colleagues about the fact that they now have zero discretion about reporting what a student tells them about an experience of assault or harassment, I felt like that was a positive change in our professional practice. There’s still discretion in the system, but that’s between the Title IX coordinator (to whom we now report on these matters) and the students involved.

But there are aspects of what we’re doing that feel a bit too driven by rule-making and bureaucracy. There was some confusion earlier this semester, for example, about whether a student (or employee) who happens to mention in conversation that they were abused when they were young, before being at Swarthmore, should still be the subject of a report and if so whether that should trigger all sorts of further reporting and investigation. As far as slippery slopes go, that’s a short one: no college should be involving itself into the entirety of the lives of its students or employees, for any reason.

The students clearly were bothered earlier this semester when the college took stronger steps to enforce restrictions on underage drinking. But that’s another demonstration of the downside of procedural reform: institutions that are forced to take note of process, rules and law can’t afford to forget what they’ve noticed if they’ve noticed those things officially.

The deeper problem is that the roots of assault and harassment are both personal and cultural, and institutional policies and strictures and actions aren’t very effective at grappling with practices or subjectivities that operate at that level. I think broadly speaking this is a problem with the American left in general over the last three or four decades, that it has remained fixated on issues and questions that really are cultural and social while also showing very little ability to cope with those questions in those terms. Because that takes a fundamentally illiberal, even authoritarian kind of official power that goes well beyond laws and rules in the power it wields against culture and habitus. Or it takes a methodical kind of dialogic and persuasive approach spearheaded by people who are skilled in reading the patterns of everyday life, who have a good ear for how ordinary people talk and think, particularly the people who need to change their ways of being and doing.

I can’t decide if some of our students know that they aren’t yet very good at the second kind of approach and therefore avoid it, if they knowingly reject the need for the second kind of approach, or if they don’t see the limits of what can be accomplished with rules, procedures and enforcement within a basically liberal order. I’m not sure of the same of American progressives in general. But I do know that there can be bad outcomes when you’re not clear about what you’re doing or why. Lawmakers and rule-enforcers don’t usually know where to stop of their own accord, and the only way to keep them from going too far is to be absolutely clear all along about core principles and values. In particular, if you try to use rules as a tool for instrumental refashionings of culture and subjectivity, you are going to find it very difficult to set boundaries. For example, if this or that text or statement or idea is problematic outside of the classroom and should be banned or censured or punished, then it’s going to be very hard not to think the same about other texts or statements or ideas inside of it, even (or especially) those that are being taught because they’re troubling. If social censure or critique between peers isn’t sufficient to remake the cultural underpinnings of community, and official sanction or punishment necessary, where does that stop? If you start setting boundaries of inclusion and exclusion with very tangible instrumental purposes in mind (rather than a belief that a generally inclusive practice will produce basically good if indeterminate outcomes), where will you stop?

Posted in Academia, Politics, Swarthmore | 14 Comments

Look! Over There! What On Earth Can That Be?

When I was working on my dissertation, I read through the lengthy transcript of a Southern Rhodesian Commission of Inquiry that had been charged with investigating the poor living conditions in some of the rural reserves that Africans had been sent to after being removed from their land. It was a given that the commission would not be considering whether the seizure of the best and most fertile agricultural land in the colony for the use of white settlers was the only real problem worth discussing. So instead most of the debate among the commissioners concerned who or what they were going to frame as the suspect. Some of them argued that the problem was the poor quality of African agricultural practices. Some of them blamed unscrupulous merchants (Jews, Greeks, Lebanese or South Asian, for the most part) who were supposedly exploiting rural Africans. Some of them blamed the weather or other kinds of happenstance. A few blamed various minor government policies, though never the removals or the poor agricultural quality of the reserve lands.

I am the first to argue that higher education and academia could do with all sorts of transformations. That’s been my stock in trade as an academic almost from the beginning, even before I started a blog. I am still arguing for many of those transformations, because I think they’re in our interest and in the interest of the societies that we serve. But we’re at a moment where much of the negative attention being directed at academic institutions seems rather like that Rhodesian commission. It’s an elaborate distraction from the real ills of the global economy, a search for a patsy.

Sarah Kendzior’s November 3 piece for Al-Jazeera is a good redirection of attention. The issue is not majors. It is not whether or not universities are teaching employable skills. It is that the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of a few very large companies and a few very rich individuals is fueling a tighter and tighter feedback loop. Companies (and universities and law firms and every other institution that employs) are making bigger and bigger profits through casualizing more and more of their skilled labor force. They cut more and more people out of benefits, they find ways to employ workers in a strictly “just in time” fashion, they move their operations any time there is a hint of regulation or taxation in a given locality. Which leads to institutions and individuals sitting on large piles of money that they can’t spend. There’s almost nothing left to invest in, which is why something like Pinterest is suddenly valued at $3.8 billion. “When the plutocrats saw the size of their hoards, they wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.” The only thing left to invest in is people and society and the public interest, which is the one thing that the Peter Thiels of the world can’t abide investing in. But the Fordist bargain of the digital age rested on credit card debt and the last great ride of the white-collar middle classes in the 1990s. Now the professionals are out of money and most of their employing institutions and firms have been broken open like so many piggy banks. If their children chase culture on the cheap through peer-to-peer sharing, that’s as much a canary in the coal mine as it is an indication of their morality, a sign of the slow impoverishment of their social class, of a long slide into downward mobility. Some day, perhaps some day soon, even the near-necessary digital gadgetry that serves as the struts and foundation of professional life and work will be less and less affordable.

No! Repent, Professor, Said the Disruptive Innovator. You just aren’t preparing students for the real 21st Century economy! You should teach Nanotech Neurofabrication! Jetpack Discobobulator Prototyping! Inverse Investment Matrices! Something! If only the people were there, we’d employ them for…well, for what? Can anybody name me an industry or company that would double or triple its workforce in a week but doesn’t because there are skills it knows it wants but cannot have? That has that much work ready to be done, that much value to produce? It’s not what people know. As Kendzior says, it’s people themselves. And rather than talk about what might happen if we–or perhaps more precisely, they–valued people, society and publics, about how that valuing might begin a renaissance of other kinds of value, including the economic possibilities that flow from a society where a lot of people have some cash in their wallets, they would rather talk about majors and professors and universities.

Posted in Academia, Politics | 5 Comments

Smarter Than You: The Ideology of the Incentive (Parking Lot Edition)

I’ve already made my feelings about most uses of “incentives” by technocratic planners fairly plain, and besides, I’m just really at best a handmaiden on this point for my colleagues Ken Sharpe and Barry Schwartz, who make the argument more elegantly. (And a bunch of other thinkers besides.)

Still, there’s always another reason to harp on this point. Say, for example, parking policy at a certain small liberal-arts college west of Philadelphia. Parking is pretty much the classic case of a “first world problem” so it feels a bit embarrassing to take it too seriously. Almost any issue, however, can illustrate the characteristic style of a certain kind of institutional or managerial thought as it approaches any problem, small or large.

So what are the “problems” with parking at this little college?

1. Not everybody observes the minimal rules that are supposed to govern parking. For example, there are choice spaces reserved for visitors to Admissions that on an average day are filled with the cars of students and even a few employees. I’ve frequently watched students I know park in those spaces and give me a shit-eating grin if they see me seeing them. They’re not parking there because the lot is out of spaces, they’re parking there so they don’t have to walk an extra 75 feet or so.

2. Every once in a while we run out of spaces completely, but not very often.

So far this does NOT really seem like a problem. #1 is only the very small problem that there are a few assholes around, which seems both not a big deal and unsolvable anyway.


3. We’re about to do a bunch of construction and there will be way fewer spaces for a long time even if we build a new parking facility in the process (which some people don’t think we should do for various reasons).

4. We would like to reduce our carbon footprint, and one way to do that is to get fewer people to drive to work.


Ok, 3 and 4 are genuine issues, but they’re really different kinds of issues.

On #3, why not just tell people, “Hey, fewer spaces! Sorry!” Well, because people will still drive and they will park in the surrounding neighborhoods, which have a limited street capacity plus this will badly annoy local residents.

Ok, why not just ration parking permits according to some scheme? Say, if you live further than 2 miles, aren’t near public transport, have small children, are pregnant or are disabled, you get one, and not if you don’t? Ok. But it won’t work if you don’t enforce permit parking, which we don’t really do much right now. Stepped-up enforcement isn’t just a matter of writing a few more tickets.

On #4, why not just persuade people, “Hey, save the planet, try walking or biking?” Well, this is already a pretty liberal place with plenty of exposure to that line of argument, so if people are still driving either they don’t take that argument very seriously or they feel there is something else more important about having access to a car. Or there’s something that makes walking or biking very hard. (There is, if you’re coming from west of the campus: all of the roads have no shoulders for bike riders and no sidewalks for walkers, plus there’s a major interstate in the way and a creek valley.)


So now what? You have three choices at this point: a) just do your construction and let whatever happens happens, same for the environment and sustainability; b) Ration parking permits, pay for enforcement, do your best to convince people to be do-gooders and maybe try to invest in more bikable/walkable connections to campus; c) use the magic power of the INCENTIVE!!!

Guess which option some consultants came up with? Yes, that’s right, get people to properly value parking in a suburban lot by charging them for parking because we all know that if you properly price things some sort of automagic utility rational choice dingus thingy kicks in and people behave the way they ought to behave. Just to make sure it’s all working right, since this is a college, we need to charge for parking and then create a Parking Advisory Committee, because faculty and staff don’t really rationally choose their maximum utility unless they get to have a participatory committee which can earnestly deliberate about the color of the paint on the parking spaces and whether the people giving out tickets should be called “Sustainability Contributors” or “Mobility Facilitators”. Participatory inclusive incentives!

You can see just how the thinking runs, just what the conversations must have been like. (No actual parking consultants were harmed in the making of this film. Offer void where prohibited.)

Rationing is too hard to do as a command exercise, too many people will protest, it’ll be too hard to be fair to people with genuine needs, let alone those who simply want to drive. Let’s get people to ration for themselves: if we put a price tag on it, only those who really have need will pay for it.

Not enough people really care about sustainability the way that they should! We’ve been trying for so long to get them to care but they just won’t! There must be something wrong with them. We’ll never persuade them with words and ideas. We can fix that by putting a price on it!

If you’ve been around long enough, you also know where this goes next.

Too many people are still trying to park! We’re crowding into the surrounding neighborhood AND we’re still destroying the planet! We’ll have to raise the price until we’ve ‘properly’ set it so that people will rationally decide to do what we know they should do.

Now they’re getting really mad about the price! We need the Parking Advisory Committee to do a study. Maybe hire a consultant again.


In general, despite the seeming impact of policies like congestion pricing in London, life does not really work out as it does in a Malcolm Gladwell book. Because even in general, most people know what the incentive is trying to get them to do, and they even know that the whole apparatus is like one of the humane chutes that Temple Grandin designed for cattle butcheries. Unlike cattle, they’re not soothed by technocratic chutes: they get more and more agitated as the kill floor approaches, particularly when they get a glimpse of someone in a white coat with a checklist observing the incentive machine in action. People have more agency than cows, and if there’s anything that mobilizes them to perverse or unpredictable ends, it’s the sense that they’re being made to do something by someone who thinks that people are too stupid to even notice they’re being made to do something.

This goes over even less well when many of the people in question have Ph.Ds., both because they dislike even more the sense that they’re being maneuvered and because many of them understand full well the intellectual background behind trying to create social outcomes through proper pricing.

Technocrats and managers turn to incentives when they lack the political will to dictate an outcome or when they believe that people aren’t doing what they ought to be doing for their own good. Or as in this case, both. The former is somewhat understandable, particularly in institutions that otherwise have relatively flat or soft hierarchies. The latter is almost never a good idea. You can raise a tax, charge a fee, create a penalty when you’ve straightforwardly won an argument about what is good and not good, when you’re doing a lot of other things to persuade people. Say, in raising fees on tobacco: that wasn’t done in isolation from a broad campaign to persuade smokers and non-smokers about the consequences of smoking. You can’t do it as a substitute for winning the argument, or as a cheap way to win an argument that would otherwise incur some more expensive obligations. If, for example, you want people to drive less for environmental reasons, you have to seriously look at the reasons why they aren’t doing so already, and not just use an incentive as a way to automagically devalue and dismiss those forms of reasoning.

Posted in Academia, Oh Not Again He's Going to Tell Us It's a Complex System, Politics, Swarthmore | 15 Comments