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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.


Surrender Is Not Adaptation

Institutions are running out of people to sacrifice.

January 3, 2022

What in the moment looks like adaptation is sometimes more like a surrender.

Surrender, as I’m thinking about it, is the permanent sacrifice of something meaningful in exchange for the perpetuation of some aspect of the status quo. One thing is sacrificed so other things do not need to change.

Adaptation is altering the status quo in a way that requires changes across an institution. The goal of a successful adaptation is to preserve the meaningful underlying values and maximize the collective well-being of the individuals who intersect with the institution.

Both surrender and adaptation require trade-offs—something has to change. The chief difference is in who or what is affected. You can usually identify a surrender without the benefit of hindsight if there’s one group that is disproportionately harmed while the status quo is maintained for others.

Consider the adjunctification of college faculty positions. What may have been framed as adaptation to declines in funding was in reality a surrender that resulted in an underclass of laborers, many of whom are in unsustainable positions that do harm to them, their students and the underlying educational purpose of the institution.

And really, the creation and expansion of this underclass has eroded the value of all faculty labor by revealing that tenure is not actually required as a prerequisite to do the work of the academy. Tenure is already dead, and it was the desire to protect tenure for only some that killed it.

My hope for the new year is that, two years in, institutions are more focused on adapting to the realities of a COVID world rather than deciding on which group can be sacrificed as part of what will prove to be a hugely damaging surrender.

The decisions to delay the start of the semester or to go remote for the opening weeks of class while we see how the current Omicron variant shakes out strike me as sound short-term adaptations, even as we recognize that important aspects of university life are diminished when we cannot work in proximity to each other.

While I won’t name names here, it seems pretty clear that some institutions are willing to surrender the well-being of individuals most vulnerable to negative COVID outcomes in order to achieve something that resembles “normal” pre-COVID operations.

If you have a disability, if you or someone in your household is immune-compromised and therefore more vulnerable, some institutions seem willing to either leave you behind or have you assume significant individual risk in order to maintain those operations. Whether this is for the sake of public perception or rooted in concerns about enrollment and revenue, I can’t say, but whatever the rationale, just as with adjunctification, this sort of choice augurs long-term trouble.

I’m certain some hard-nosed types will tell me that sacrifice is necessary, that difficult times call for difficult choices, but I can’t help but notice who seems to get the short end of the stick with all these difficult choices. If sacrifices are necessary, they should come from those most able to bear them without severe consequences.

At some point, you run out of individuals to sacrifice. We may have already gone past that point as more and more higher education laborers realize that the institution they have been willing to go several extra miles for is not worth that trouble. Because it is an affront to the purported values of the institution.

Five years ago I wrote a post about how it was important to get beyond the “making do” mentality that seems to power institutions that have been subject to persistent austerity. I argued that what was being sold as adaptation was actually just a slow abandonment of the institutional mission.

I said:

In a lot of places, we haven’t been making do for quite some time.

The price to students and their resulting debt suggests this.

That we can’t staff courses unless people either work for less than $15 an hour suggests this.

That we have class sizes and student loads well beyond what anyone would describe as reasonable suggests this.

That we add graduate programs as revenue streams above all else suggests this.

That students’ time to degree is extended because we can’t even offer classes often enough suggests this.

That we waive what used to be required courses because we can’t guarantee when that course will again be staffed suggests this.

The pre-COVID status quo was already unsustainable.

COVID has only intensified these problems, while adding some additional ones.

Early on, I had some hope that the crisis of the pandemic would make the need to adapt our institutions toward a more sustainable trajectory obvious, and therefore doable, but I will admit, I’ve lost almost all of that hope.

Happy New Year to us. Let’s hope it’s better than the last couple.


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