A lot of problems in life are the result of “slippage.”
It’s very rare that fortunes change suddenly. Instead, issues accrue over time, like getting older and gaining weight. You don’t suddenly wake up one day twenty-five pounds heavier.
Slippage related problems – like weight gain – are much easier to fall into than get out of. The extra pounds I put on in the ten days surrounding Christmas and New Years takes at least the entire month of January to get back off.
And if you don’t act relatively quickly, you begin to forget what everything was once like, and you lose sight of, for lack of a better phrase, “the real you.”
Public higher ed has suffered from slippage in a lot of different areas.
Tuition, for example.
Thirty-five years ago, a month of full-time minimum wage work in Illinois would pay for a full year of tuition at the state flagship, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
Today, it takes forty-eight weeks of full-time minimum wage work to pay tuition to the same institution.
I was brought short by an example of slippage while preparing for the semester. I pulled out my well-worn 2nd edition of Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway. I purchased my copy new at the Illini Union Bookstore in Fall of 1990, and by god, it still has the price tag on the cover: $18.75.
At the time, I’m sure I thought the price was felonious. At just under 400 pages, in format it’s only slightly larger than a trade paperback, which retailed for $9.95 at the time.
It’s an excellent textbook, probably the most used textbook in creative writing classes over the last thirty-plus years. I have assigned the book in my classes in the past. It is now in its 9th edition, writers Elizabeth Stuckey-French and Ned Stuckey-French having joined on as co-authors.
Its list price is $113.80. Amazon will sell it to you new for $89.40. Used copies online are as “low” as $75.
What I paid in 1990 indexed to inflation would result in a price of $34.62.
Writing Fiction is an excellent textbook, but it is not indispensable. Over the years I’ve developed a number of workarounds - primarily drawn from freely available sources online - so students don’t have to spend so much on a single textbook.
I can teach an introductory fiction writing course without it, and so I do.
We have slipped so far that the shape and function of higher ed is far too distorted to “get back” to what it once was.
We also shouldn’t romanticize the past as some kind of golden age. Our goal shouldn’t be to return to any particular place or time. I’m never going to be 160 pounds with actual visible stomach muscles again. Textbooks aren’t going to suddenly revert to reasonable prices.
But maybe it helps, every so often, to be confronted with a stark example of slippage to force us to question our present state and think about where we want to go next.
What state should we be striving for? What is our goal?
I may never be as fit as my twenty-year-old self, but I can be as fit as my almost forty-seven-year-old body lets me while doing a reasonable, but not obsessive level of exercise, and still eating things like cake.
We don’t need perfection, but when prices force some students to choose between required texts and food, we’ve slipped too far.