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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Roundup of 2021 Higher Ed Books

Short reviews of books I wish I had time to write about in more detail.

December 15, 2021

I get a lot of books every year. Some are sent to me with permission, some without. I buy more than I’m willing to admit or tell my wife about.

I write about books every week at one of my other gigs, and occasionally here, and yet at the end of the year there are always books I’ve read that I’ve been meaning to write about but just haven’t gotten to.

A lot of this is because to craft a whole post around a single book is a lot of work. It requires an attention to the reading (and rereading) that I often can’t spare to do a credible job.

But still, these books are worthy of the attention of others, so in the spirit, some capsule comments of some of the books I’ve read this year that I think are particularly relevant to those working in higher education.

(All links go to my Bookshop.org bookstore, where affiliate income on all purchases goes to support Open Books of Chicago, a nonprofit dedicated to putting books in the hands of children.)

Broke: The Racial Consequences of Underfunding Public Universities by Laura T. Hamilton and Kelly Nielsen (University of Chicago Press)

Those who’ve read me will get why I gravitated to the thesis of this book. Essentially, as public money has been drained from public universities, the resulting institutional adjustments made in order to realize sufficient operating revenue have come at the expense of marginalized students. The institutions attended by Black and Hispanic students are hit harder by austerity, leaving them in schools without adequate infrastructure and support. Hamilton and Nielsen use two schools from the University of California system to prove their hypothesis, but it’s clear this dynamic is nationwide.

Beyond the Diversity Numbers: Achieving Racial Equity on Campus by W. Carson Boyd (Harvard Education Press)

Does it seem counterintuitive that prioritizing quantifiable measures of campus diversity may actually be one of the factors limiting increasing diversity? In this fascinating exploration, Boyd (faculty director of research initiatives for the National Center for Institutional Diversity at the University of Michigan) shows how focusing on surface-level metrics distracts from the far more substantive work institutions must do if they wish to improve on issues of racial equity.

The State Must Provide: Why America’s Colleges Have Always Been Unequal and How to Set Them Right by Adam Harris (Ecco)

This book is the origin story to the two books above it. Harris’s highly readable history shows how our public higher education institutions were birthed in the image of a white supremacist, slaveholder nation, and how that stain has never been removed.

Discredited: The UNC Scandal and College Athletics’ Amateur Ideal by Andy Thomason (University of Michigan Press)

The fiction of the student-athlete NCAA model has been crumbling with all due haste—and not a moment too soon—and Thomason’s book on the phantom credit-laundering scandal provides an object example of the rot that’s been working away all along.

Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working From Home by Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen (Knopf)

Not necessarily about higher education workers, but also not not about higher education workers, Warzel and Petersen’s book looks at the nature of labor and where and under what conditions we do it. Highly recommended for anyone who has the power to decide when and where other people are going to be working, as well as those of us who have to figure out how to labor somewhere other than an office.

Free Speech and Koch Money: Manufacturing a Campus Culture War by Ralph Wilson and Isaac Kamola (Pluto Press)

One of my frustrations is the knee-jerk assessment that because faculty and administrative ranks are dominated by people who vote for Democrats that higher education institutions are therefore “liberal.” It’s reductive and unhelpful and ignores the influence of politically partisan governing boards and hostile legislatures on how institutions operate. It also ignores the structural elements of our system which result in the neoliberal university. Even those liberal administrators turn into an antilabor union-busting managerial class when higher ed workers attempt formal organization. This book looks at another aspect of our higher education universe—the way the Koch empire has seeded the ground for the panic over campus “free speech” in ways deliberately designed to undermine the legitimacy of institutions. Deeply researched and well-argued, Wilson and Kamola’s book makes a convincing case for privileging the principles of academic freedom over free speech.

Bonus books content:

Don’t miss my full-fledged discussion of Audrey Watters’s masterful Teaching Machines: The History of Personalized Learning and my brief dual review of two books on the origins and complications of the student debt crisis, The Debt Trap: How Student Loans Became a National Catastrophe by Josh Mitchell and Indentured Students: How Government-Guaranteed Loans Left Generations Drowning in College Debt.

And if you want to follow my weekly journey through reading stuff and talking about stuff I read, and recommending books for others to read, consider subscribing to my Substack newsletter, The Biblioracle Recommends.


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