Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Changing Threats

The story of Patricia Adler, the sociology professor allegedly pushed out of UC-Boulder for a lecture on prostitution (in the context of a course on deviant behavior), felt like a throwback to an earlier time.  Assuming the popular accounts are correct, it looks like a textbook case of a dean clamping down on a non-conformist professor, just to avoid potential conflict.

It’s almost comforting.  It’s a case of the sort I expected to encounter when I went into this profession.  It’s old-school.  Side with the professor, rally around academic freedom, and call it good.  We know the drill.

Threats don’t usually come in such unambiguous and well-worn shapes anymore.  The major threats now are different than they were, and we’re only starting to catch up.

I’m old enough to remember when “emergency preparedness” on campus referred to fire drills.  Now, my children do “lockdown” drills at school, because school shootings have become common enough that “best practices” exist.  I hope that never stops striking us as wrong.

Anyone remember the threat of Soviet hegemony?  The communist bloc?  

At one time, the great threat to popular culture was the few gatekeepers at the major corporations that controlled distribution of music, television, movies, and books.  Now, the great threat to popular culture is that there’s such an oversupply of product relative to demand that almost nobody can get paid anymore.

(Speaking of, I’d like to put a bug in the ear of the “genius grant” people to take a good look at Kristin Hersh.  Read “Rat Girl,” listen to “Purgatory/Paradise” and “Sunny Border Blue,” and check out her self-generated distribution model.  If that’s not genius…)

For that matter, remember the “great wave of retirements” that was going to lead to a catastrophic shortage of college faculty?  That threat has been thoroughly inverted, too.

At one time, the great threat that college students represented was rebellion.  Things got so heated that an urban myth developed to the effect that brutalist architecture was somehow designed to thwart public demonstrations.  The rebellion is gone, and the flat roofs that are the legacy of the brutalist era mostly thwart efforts at keeping carpets dry.

Now, college students themselves are threatened by economics.  They don’t have the leisure for rebellion.  They routinely work thirty or more hours a week for pay while attending class full-time, and often while also shouldering family responsibilities.  As with musicians, students now aren’t so much censored as they are drowned out.  At this point, colleges are less concerned about students walking out than they are about students walking away.  

When the rules change so quickly and fundamentally, the occasional throwback comes as a sort of relief.  It’s a sign that not everything has been upended, that some old truisms still hold.  

I’d like to think that cases like Adler’s would be no-brainers by now.  They aren’t, apparently, and that’s a useful reminder of work still to be done.  

But the new threats are so different from the old ones that we’ll need an entirely new playbook to deal with them.  When venues were scarce and rewards high, the issue at hand was putting parameters on how the gatekeepers operated.  (That’s still true at the very most selective colleges, which is why they’re still fighting battles around affirmative action.)  When venues have become plentiful and rewards scarce, though, the threats change.  I can’t help but wonder if part of the reason that the Adler case attracted as much attention as it did is that it’s one of the rare cases in which most of us feel like we understand which side to take.