Tag Archives: college

Wisconsin and the future of college

Wisconsin, more so than suburban Kane and DuPage counties in Illinois, always seemed like “the country” to me when I lived in Chicago. Part of this outlook was due to childhood stereotypes of Wisconsin as a state filled with cheese and cows. The other part was how the state seemed, from afar, a lot like where I had come from (Kentucky), with the Badgers playing the role of the Wildcats.

My only trips to Wisconsin during my 7 years in Chicago, though, were to Milwaukee, as part of a group that would gamble at the Potawatomi casino. We watched the 2013 Final Four from one of the restaurant-bars at the reservation while lots of money was being lost in the background. Still, even just being in Chicago will bring you in contact with plenty of UW alums; the UW system as whole is well-represented throughout the city.

Anyway, there was a dust-up today about Wisconsin governor Scott Walker supporting a motion to change the Wisconsin Idea, the mission statement that has long situated the state’s university system as driven by the ideal of public service. Walker wanted to change the text

“to extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campuses and toserve and stimulate society by developing … Inherent in this broad mission are methods of instruction, research, extended training and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition. Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.”


“to meet the state’s workforce needs.”


The reactions to this proposal from the left have been understandably derisive. Universities were not originally created to serve corporations or, for that matter, to create jobs of any sort. Having a job is a relatively new lifestyle that has only crystallized in the developed world in the last 100 years or so. Before that, it was subsistence farming or being wealthy or the highway. Universities existed before capitalism, and they’ll exist after capitalism, too.

At the same time, I think this controversy, which also follows on the heels of Walker’s threats to cut $300 million from the UW system budget, brings up some good questions about what exactly college is for anymore. I wrote about this confusion last month in my entry, “The Last Man to Go to College,” expressing my own (I admit it) bitterness at how college had turned out for me.

No matter how much “truth” I found, I kept running up against the hard wall of an indifferent HR world. I ultimately got lucky thanks to a longtime friend. I don’t want to think about what would have happened if I had had to keep going on the dismal post college path in which I was continually told that I didn’t have “skills” etc.

College seems more and more like it is sandwiched between two unsavory possibilities. Either it 1) continues to subscribe to this notion of truth and public service, despite the growing power of corporations and wealthy individuals that don’t give a shit about any of that and now have the accumulated capital necessary to do whatever they want; or, it 2) succumbs to this idea of vocational training, in which case, what is the point of the massively expensive, on-site “experience” of college, replete with dorms, sports, parties, etc., when so much can be learned on one’s own?

I’m not a Scott Walker fan. But this issue with the Wisconsin Idea is as good an occasion as any to start figuring out why we still make people go to college.

The Last Man to go to College

Almost four years ago, I went to my sister’s college graduation from the Rhode Island School of Design. Though I was very happy for her, especially after the difficulties she had experienced early on, I often remember this time – June 2011 – as a low point. I had just finished my first ever job as an adjunct professor at Truman College in Chicago, teaching two courses in general humanities. When my courses ended, there weren’t any other openings for me and so it was right back to the long slog of looking for work again.

It was the end of spring and the start of summer – by the time I got back to Chicago, it was hot enough that my dad said that it was the most massive massive heat wave he’d ever experienced. A car caught on fire right in front of my dusty apartment overlooking Pulaski Road and the CTA Blue Line. In Rhode Island, at the graduation, it wasn’t quite as hot, but still warm enough so that a hoodie or jacket of any sort was inadvisable.

Accordingly, I couldn’t hide the weight I had put on. I was probably at my heaviest during this time, having gained 30-40 lbs in the two years since my own graduation. I was unhealthy all around; my blood pressure was always high and my hair, once long, was being lost (although it has seemingly recovered some in recent years now that stress has gone away and I have used saw palmetto supplements)

Walking around downtown Providence, aimless and for the moment unemployed (I wouldn’t find my next job until October of that year, and then I got my breakthrough that December) I kept thinking back to the very different world it had been for me only 3 years prior, when I had graduated from Brown. 2008 had been the culmination of a long journey back, but this 2011 episode was pulling me back into the swamp.

I had overcome a terrible 2005 in which deep depression resulted in me taking only 6 classes during the calendar year and going through a whole regimen of medications that I don’t think did much for my condition. 2006 and 2007 had been much better, but 2008 – when I graduated with honors after finishing a thesis, won several translation prizes, and planned my pivotal move to Chicago – was special. It felt like I had a lot in front of me, and I did. My time in Chicago was life-changing, even if I struggled from 2009 to 2011 to find my footing.

But the RISD graduation, wherein I looked at so many people being happy while I had seemingly nothing going on, made me doubt if any of my college journey, with all of its turmoil and ecstasy, had even been worth it. What did I have to show for college?

Every generation wants to feel like it’s special and that it lives in The Most Important Epoch Ever or something. For Baby Boomers and everyone younger today, cliché language about technology, the Internet, and the ubiquitous “global marketplace” are all signs of people trying to position their times in the limelight of history. The RISD keynote that year was full of this jargon and I made fun of to someone else at the time – what about the people who saw the invention of electricity or fire? But what did I know – I was being left out of this brave new world.

While I sat in the chair in the Rhode Island Convention Center, I began to think if college, far from turning into some increasingly egalitarian, embedded institution, would instead turn out, ultimately, to have been a generational quirk – an oddity that ended up becoming a monster that consumed the time and fortunes of young adults. College didn’t use to be for everyone; virtually anyone with money who wasn’t Jewish could go to an Ivy League school before World War 2 ended. Competitive admissions, extracurriculars, big-ticket sports – none of that was on the table till at least mid century, when the Greatest Generation and the Lost Generation began going to college for literally pennies on the dollar of today’s tuition.

College was good while it lasted, from the postwar boom until about the 1980s or possibly a bit later. It was affordable, plus getting a degree was a way to differentiate yourself from everyone else. If nothing else, an employer would take you more seriously, as someone who could dedicate herself to a task and think critically, based on your degree.

But now a bachelor’s degree is table stakes. Tuition is insane, being equal to an American middle class family’s yearly income – for each of four years required to get that B.A. For professional school, the total, too, is almost inevitably 6-figures USD. College, one an institution reserved for classicists, historians, and the “free” rich who had the privilege to access campus at all, and then for veterans and middle-income families, is now as much a millstone as it as a torch of knowledge.

I’m talking to some degree about the cost of student loans in the U.S., but I’m also talking about the broader transformation of college into means of social control and punishment, wherein exorbitant cost also works alongside unbelievable political correctness on subjects like Islam  – I say this in criticism of the left, and as a lifelong liberal at that! -, a homogenization of studies into mostly vocational fields, the destruction of the humanities, the hypocrisy of paying lip service to work-from-anywhere technology while insisting on a (pricey) in-person “experience,” and the dreaded, humorless question that seems to really demonstrate how college long ago has crossed a rubicon – “So what are you going to do with that?”

College has become both something that everyone “knows” she needs but no one really knows is for. Fields like computer science, which dominate the academic programs at institutions like Stanford, can be realistically broken into without academic training. Meanwhile, having all the academic training in the world in a field like English wouldn’t guarantee someone even an entry-level position rewriting InformationWeek stories for some godforsaken blog.

This isn’t to deny that college is an important stepping stone for many people. Some fields have hard and fast credentials, and then there is the constant prospect of networking through the people that one meets during the undergraduate years. But at what cost? Like secondary schools, tertiary ones have become business-like entities in which the agenda is to raise money and raise “competitiveness” against some ill-defined adversary – there’s your “global economy” again. Students are along for the ride.

That 2011 summer, I cursed myself at every step for not having majored in something more “practical,” because, after all, what WAS I going to do with my Classics degree? But now, years later, I curse myself for having cursed myself so.

I realize that didn’t care about other subjects, and had come to college to study languages and literature as a way of fulfilling the incredible experience I had learning from books during my middle school and high school years (the books I read, from “Moby-Dick” to “The Brothers Karamazov” had been more formative than any class, I would argue in retrospect). My fear now is that, with all the pressures I’ve felt as an adult, I would be less independent-minded were I do it all over again, and instead cave and major in pre-med or some such.

Here I am, almost four years later, probably making much less than I would have had I made a few different academic decisions, but my situation is ideal. I’m married, I can work from home, I can take long walks in the middle of the day, I get to write.  And I realize that though college may have chewed me up and spit me out, spiting me for following my interests, that everyone is in the college game together, that all subjects are related, and that even if the knives are out for the humanities now and not for physics and calculus, some day they will be. Scott Samuelson once commented in The Atlantic:

“The problem facing the humanities, in my view, isn’t just about the humanities. It’s about the liberal arts generally, including math, science, and economics. These form half of the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) subjects, but if the goal of an education is simply economic advancement and technological power, those disciplines, just like the humanities, will be—and to some degree already are—subordinated to future employment and technological progress. Why shouldn’t educational institutions predominately offer classes like Business Calculus and Algebra for Nurses? Why should anyone but hobbyists and the occasional specialist take courses in astronomy, human evolution, or economic history? .. we should strive to be a society of free people, not simply one of well-compensated managers and employees. Henry David Thoreau is as relevant as ever when he writes, “We seem to have forgotten that the expression ‘a liberal education’ originally meant among the Romans one worthy of free men; while the learning of trades and professions by which to get your livelihood merely, was considered worthy of slaves only.”

“Slaves” – keep that in mind.

I am lucky, in a selfish way, to have gone to college when I did. The year I began (2004) was the year Facebook was founded, and the year I graduated (2008) was the year that iPhone 3G launched and the year that Lehman Brothers went under. When I arrived to a crisp Rhode Island day on the first of September, 2004, most of the world had never heard of “social media,” wasn’t under pressure from smartphones, apps, and robots that could take their livelihoods, and didn’t know what a subprime mortgage was.

I feel like if I had started even a year later, knowing my own peculiar temperament and how I obsess over everything that could go wrong, that I would have been dispirited by the crushing recession that made anything but nebulous “technical skills” apparently useless to hiring managers, that bailed out banks at the expense of taxpayers, that sucked up the household wealth that would have, in another time, gone toward a liberal education, and that, really, turned so many in America into captives (like Thoreau’s “slaves”), unable to live the lives that they had thought about and instead yoked to corporations doling out stagnant wages. I know I felt that way in 2011, unhealthy, part-time job-hopping, and hot – what a reversal from my humanistic optimism of 2004!

In the end, though, I’m happy I survived and that, in a way, I had all that unemployment (and support from family) to sort out what I had gone right and wrong and decompress. I remember going to an alumni networking lunch in 2009 and telling a Chicago attorney there that I was looking for a job after having finished school, and she said – “I bet it’s a relief not to work for a while.” It startled me; I wanted nothing more than a job at that time, but it seemed like she wanted nothing more than to be free of hers. How could anyone feel that way (thought a different version of me that had never held a full-time job before)? Maybe I already won a small victory by just having time and perspective to think back about what college had done to me and what was next.

Some day, I think, the entire college experience, as it now conceived in the U.S., will seem odd. Facebook, after all, was originally designed to move the whole college experience online, and that seems like an unstoppable process by now, albeit one done in tandem with increasing corporatization and control – these subjects are “safe” (read: good for businesses) and these subjects are not (who really needs to learn about Marx or Lenin, eh?).

Sometimes I feel like I – like the other people in my batch – was the last man to go to college. The last man there before college evolved into some Frankenstein of business, technology, and ever-rising tuition, when moments like that 2011 graduation – where I looked on, as both a “free” man with nothing to do and everything to study and a captive who couldn’t even survive on his own – at others graduating and entering an entirely different world, where the notion of “free” individuals was dying – seemed impossible.

What it’s like to be an “adjunct”

In his seminal essay, “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell talked about how the overuse of Latin words in English had become like “soft now” falling up on facts, “blurring the outline and covering all details.” The result of such snowiness was that “political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.” It was true in 1946, and it’s true in 2014. We have awful, long-winded “you’re all fired” letters, so stuffed with bromides that they open with “hello there” to blunt what their authors must realize is widespread pain infliction. We also have the word “adjunct.”

This word is almost always succeeded by “professor” in English. In a terrible twist of irony, it comes from the Latin adjunctus, which means “closely connected.” But there is no brotherhood between the “adjunct” and the institution she serves. An “adjunct” (I will continue to put this word in quotes because I don’t want it to be normalized) is a reverse mercenary; she joins in because she’s forced to, and there’s nothing to gain. She teaches for a pittance – I worked for $1,700 a semester – at whatever institution (I also prefer this word to “college” or “university” since it has fewer august trappings) has done enough cost-cutting to justify her hire. The job is likely one of many similar gigs.

I “adjuncted” for much of 2010. As an “adjunct,” I spent the equivalent of a part-time work week each week during that summer of 2010 preparing syllabi, lectures, and assignments, and none of that time or effort was paid. I prepared everything from my studio apartment because I was not given an office until the school year began in August (and even, only once a week for a short pre-class window, for office hours). I was not asked to participate in any departmental meetings and was not awarded any insurance.

Accordingly, I was upset at the picture of the “whining adjunct” painted by one Catherine Stukel in a recent letter to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Though she didn’t extend her critique to “adjuncts” as a group, her decision to go after an extreme case makes me worry that she would not hesitate to put down the thousands of “adjuncts” who are in bad situations due to injustices beyond their control. The “whining” individual in question was Margaret Mary Vojtko, an “adjunct” French instructor who passed away at 83 after years of virtually pro bono service to Duquesne University. She had been working well into her 80s

Stukel’s argument, such as it is, seems to be:

  • Society is full of “entitled young adults” that are unjustified in their complaints about full-time work prospects.
  • Vojtko, as an 80-something professor struggling to hold down work, was a poor model for this same “entitled” children, and may have perpetuated such ungratefulness.
  • Vojtko’s lack of tenure or even full-time work was likely due to inter-office politics or, worse, a lack of passion (“Maybe she was unhappy?”), not ruthless corporatization of the post-secondary education system in the U.S. over the past 30 years (a figure that Stukel coincidentally drops in her paean to her own history of lifelong gainful employment).
  • Life is about compromises – in this case, settling for the middle ground of “adjuncting,” after not attaining a dream job but having the wherewithal to avoid literal unemployment.

Let’s go through these points.

The myth of entitled youth
I covered this point elsewhere, but to recap: Calling the current young generation “entitled” is blaming the victim, and it is the most clichéd move of all time (everyone going back to the Homeric epics has derided children for having laxer standards than their parents). Self-sufficiency for students and instructors alike is an enchanting myth that leave out how institutions have become corporatized factories that A) discipline their students through non-dischargeable debt, private sector business models, and segmenting of populations into groups that are assigned varying levels of respect; B) use adjuncts to do it. The cage is so large that the students and teachers in it can’t even see the bars anymore.

“That’s part of the business model,” wrote Noam Chomsky. “It’s the same as hiring temps in industry or what they call “associates” at Walmart, employees that aren’t owed benefits. It’s a part of a corporate business model designed to reduce labor costs and to increase labor servility. When universities become corporatized, as has been happening quite systematically over the last generation as part of the general neoliberal assault on the population, their business model means that what matters is the bottom line. The effective owners are the trustees (or the legislature, in the case of state universities), and they want to keep costs down and make sure that labor is docile and obedient. The way to do that is, essentially, temps. Just as the hiring of temps has gone way up in the neoliberal period, you’re getting the same phenomenon in the universities.”

Professors aren’t and shouldn’t be role models
Stukel has a hard time imagining that a lifelong “adjunct” like Votjko could be a suitable example for the “young.”This argument is strange; college students, though perhaps “young” depending on one’s own age, are adults. Many of mine were older than I as when I began “adjuncting” at age 24. They are past the stage of needing role models.

There’s immense irony in Stukel’s lazy arguments about “entitled” kids and how “adjuncts” enable their worst tendencies:

No, everyone does not get a trophy. “Adjuncts” certainly don’t, unless I missed my pick-up of the No One Cared Memorial Vase. Plus, to the extent that “adjuncts” dole out inflated grades – maybe those pass for trophies, I don’t know – they do so because low grades could cost them their jobs.

What does a “self-sufficient” (Stukel’s word) professor look like? He makes more money than an “adjunct,” but full-time professors have positions that their students cannot realistically aspire to (since we’re looking at Stukel’s career-centrism) and which most people could never stomach their ways through. The political tit-for-tats alone are so far beyond the quaint office scenarios that Stukel imagines as standard fare (to be fair, she is “a career- and technical-education professor,” rather than a traditional academic) that it’s naive for anyone to expect such machinations to produce anything resembling justice or for the involved professors to come out looking like anything other than competitors in Hobbes’ state of nature.

“Adjuncts” are past the political stage
The politicking situations – the back and forth inter-office banter, the spectacle of a committee meeting – that Stukel takes for granted are at odds with the lonely, nomadic experience of many adjuncts, who, whether by choice or necessity do not linger at their institutions beyond class time. Why should they?

To the institution, the “adjunct” is a non-union, fireable-for-any-reason employee, one who could be replaced by someone from the legions of desperate, overqualified humanities major out there. Plus, it’s common for adjuncts to perform enormous commutes just to get enough classes to scrape by. Imagine spending $200 a month on gas and 8 hours a week in a car going back and forth between institutions.

My situation wasn’t that extreme, but I did endure a bus-train transfer each time over, often spending 30 minutes per day standing on the Red Line platforms waiting for trains going north and south. I woke up before 6 most days to wear the tie, dress shirt, and slacks I bought specifically for the job and give myself enough time in the case of CTA bus or train delays. My commute, while relatively mild, was often longer than my time in the classroom.

Yet, Stukel is concerned with “meetings” and “events.” There’s no time for such niceties for many adjuncts, and even when there is, the context is more likely “we’re letting you go/a student complained/we added a course” than “tell me what you did last weekend.”

Moreover, “adjuncts” in the classroom, the makeshift office, or the department building are not participating in a political contest in which the stakes include long-term employment. Most “adjuncts” go in knowing that the position is in no way on a track toward a six-figure salary, paid time for research, and general job security. Which brings me to…

“Adjuncting” is a destination, not a journey
“Adjuncting” is often thankless work that may benefit a few students, but rarely their instructors. Pay is non-existent, the workload is high, and “adjuncts” have to live with the constant knowledge that they are replaceable despite their hard-earned degrees and often sophisticated teaching techniques. An “adjunct” with a master’s degree has worse career prospects than a Teach for America alum like Michelle Rhee, who once taped her students’ mouths shut. How does that make any sense?

Votjko’s age also speaks for itself. If a senior citizen can’t overcome the vile postsecondary system after decades of excellence and experience, who can? “Adjunct” is such a terrible word for the entire experience that instructors have to put up with. May I suggest another Latin derivative: intern. Ideally intern professors will take the fight to the institutions like unpaid interns already have.