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I’m finally making my way through the 2009 novel The City and The City. The best word I can come up with to describe it is perhaps surreal or fabulist fiction. I’m going to quote at a bit of length from the Wikipedia entry on the novel because it does a good job describing the central conceit of the story (don’t worry; no spoilers as this is clear from the first pages):

The City & the City takes place in the cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma. These two cities actually occupy much of the same geographical space, but via the volition of their citizens (and the threat of the secret power known as Breach), they are perceived as two different cities. A denizen of one city must dutifully 'unsee' (that is, consciously erase from their mind or fade into the background) the denizens, buildings, and events taking place in the other city – even if they are an inch away…Residents of the cities are taught from childhood to recognise things belonging to the other city without actually seeing them. Ignoring the separation, even by accident, is called "breaching" – a terrible crime by the citizens of the two cities, even worse than murder.

There are plenty of comments to make more generally about all the ways we “unsee” things in our everyday lives (poverty, homelessness, corruption, etc), but I kept coming back to the idea of all that we willfully “unsee” in higher education. The divisions between the students, faculty, adjuncts, administrators, and athletics all operating on their planes of existence, intersecting in sanctioned ways in sanctioned areas, but outside of those points of sanctioned contact, how much seeing do we actually do?

Two very recent examples have struck me as being cases of willfully “unseeing.” The first is the recent five-part series in Sports Illustrated on the Oklahoma State Football program; players receiving money, drugs, sex, and “help” passing their classes. Former players and coaches coming forward saying that borderline literate players were holding B averages. Most disappointing to me were the players who were given scholarships and then unceremoniously cut for one reason or another (often because of injury that they couldn’t pay to have treated). We unsee these events in our institutions, understanding that the tail wags the dog in the case of big-time college athletics.

Most disheartening to me were the comments on the article blaming the players, or worse, shrugging their shoulders about how “this is just how it works.” The ends (winning) justify the means. Everyone was just doing their job. I’m as guilty of it as anyone; I was talking to one of the baseball players who is taking my class, and he told me that they cut a significant number of scholarship players at the end of last year to bring in new/better scholarship players for this season. I didn’t stop and wonder what happened to all those players who were cut, whose educations were quite suddenly cut short. Were they able to transfer? Were they cut because of injury and didn’t have insurance to pay for proper treatment? Will they land on their feet? No, I just nodded and smiled, wishing them luck in the upcoming season.

The second instance is this tragic story of a long-time adjunct who was diagnosed with cancer, couldn’t afford treatment and her living expenses, was fired, ended up living in a homeless shelter before dropping dead of a heart attack. Go and read the whole story. Go now. Come back and tell me that this isn’t a case of the university “unseeing” her, that the entire system is set up to “unsee” adjuncts and the injustice and hypocrisy of it all. But once again, we all just need to accept that this is how the system works, and we are all just doing out jobs: chairs making decisions to run programs based on budgets handed down from deans and provosts.

The New York Times recently ran a piece called “The Banality of Systemic Evil” and again I couldn’t help but think of the systemic evils of higher education, how everyone just shrugs and says they are just doing their jobs, that there is nothing to be done, that it is not their fault, nor their responsibility. I usually enjoy Dean Dad, but I recoiled at one of his latest posts that matter-of-factly stated that using an adjunct in a psych class funds nursing programs. We have learned or been trained to “unsee” adjunct exploitation or the ills of big-time college athletics that leave many students suffering. We can conveniently blame “the system” and disassociate ourselves from the role we have all played, unseeing our part.

It has to stop. 

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