Monday, April 29, 2013

Structural Problems, Individual Solutions

Yesterday, Lee Skallerup Bessette posted a thoughtful piece on resources for “alt-ac” careers and what I’ll call incumbent adjuncts.  Her point was that many of the resources currently being developed for graduate students who are looking into non-faculty roles would also be appropriate for many incumbent adjuncts who also need to make a living.  (For the record, I agree wholeheartedly.)  In the very first comment to the piece, a less thoughtful reader opined that adjuncts should just stop whining; if they were any good, after all, they wouldn’t be adjuncts.

I’ll give the commenter points for eschewing euphemism, but that’s about it.  The comment reflected a dangerous ignorance of the realities of the academic job market, for starters.  From this side of the desk, I can attest strongly that we get plenty of impressive candidates for most positions, and that the final hiring decision frequently boils down to which flavor of excellent would best complement what you already have.  Some outstanding people get turned away.  I’m acutely aware that my own career started with an amazing stroke of luck; really, the only thing separating me from freeway fliers was having caught that first big break.   I’ll take credit for having worked hard with the cards I was dealt, but getting that one great card was luck. There, but for the grace of God...

But the issue with the comment went beyond arrogance, ignorance, or bad manners.  It exemplified the “individual solutions to structural problems” habit that has captured far too much of the discussion around higher ed.  And it occurs at every level.

Many of the folks who would rightly recoil at the “if you were any good” comment will themselves make comments like “if only we got rid of administrators” or “administrators are clueless,” and miss the contradiction.  The latter is the same move as the former; in both cases, individuals are falsely held to be the source of, and solution to, everything.  (I’m reminded of Homer Simpson’s line, “sweet, sweet alcohol.  The source of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.”)  Characteristically, The Onion captured the flavor of this move with a headline declaring that the recession is lingering because candidates keep blowing job interviews.

That’s not it.  The recession lingers for structural reasons, jobs are lacking for structural reasons, and administrators’ options are constrained for structural reasons.  If we miss those reasons, we’ll never come to grips with the actual issues.

Getting to the root of structural issues is harder work than just blaming someone for whining, or for just being there.  It requires letting go of the intoxicating thrill of moral outrage, and instead accepting the possibility that it isn’t really -- or at least, entirely -- a story of heroes and villains.  And that doing away with something bad may require letting go of something good.  Sometimes they’re connected.

Once we accept the idea of structural explanations, then the whole concept of “deserving victims” falls apart.  The academic job market didn’t fall off a cliff in 2009 because graduate students suddenly got worse.  So blaming those erstwhile students for faring badly in the market doesn’t make sense.  To the extent that it’s possible to find other pathways for some talented people to contribute to their chosen field and support themselves, by all means, let’s do that.  Probably, some people will decide to find other ways to make a living; there’s no shame in that.  But let’s stop playing heroes and villains, deserving and undeserving.  Ultimately, it’s not about that.  And it’s arrogant and unseemly to pretend that it is.