College, it's a mess

College, it's a mess

I've got a new essay up at 3:AM Magazine, called "Total Satisfaction: The New Irony of Customer Service." The piece came out of the classes I am teaching right now, and a sour experience with AT&T customer service helped focus my angle. It's also part of something longer I'm working on, something about liberal arts education in the 21st-century. (Though that makes it sound rather grand; it's not.)

This semester I'm teaching two upper-level courses: a critical theory course called "Interpretive Approaches," and a seminar on the works of David Foster Wallace. At a few points in the semester my classes have overlapped in entirely unplanned ways, and the collision of themes and ideas has been dynamic, to say the least.

Earlier this week in my Wallace seminar a student asked in all sincerity what the point had been of slogging through a particular novella-length story ("The Suffering Channel")?a story that can seem to be little more than (and maybe too much, at that) densely layered dark satire throughout its many many pages of thick description and spiraling corporatese. My student put me on the spot, if kindly and apologetically, admitting that her question was off topic and unfair, but I tried to embrace the spirit of her frustration. What were we doing there, anyway, when there were arguably so many more important things in life to be spending our time on, as Wallace seems to be getting at in this story?

In a fumbling way, I recalled and paraphrased Tim Morton's line about how pausing can be a radical act (from The Ecological Thought, I think?), and I went on about how taking time to engage art, and lingering on paradoxes and contradictions?these things might actually be forms of resistance in a culture that essentially wants us to hurry up and consume, more more more. But even as I said this I could feel how self-justifying it was, us sitting outside in a circle on a balmy New Orleans afternoon, me pontificating about the inestimable value of college to my sweet and smart but likely (understandably) terrified students on the brink of their lives in the so-called real world.

Lately I've found myself at once acutely aware of the privilege and relative aloofness of the college experience, while also feeling the absolute urgency of this space, this time. I'm well aware that higher education is in something of a crisis mode as it attempts to adapt and adjust to the times, times that are themselves fleeting and perpetually obsolescing faster than most will admit. I realize that college is way too expensive, and that the dwindling tenure system and the corollary precarious labor conditions of adjunct instructors are coming to a head. I recognize the perceived gap between traditional education and the contemporary trends (flip that classroom!).

Still...there is something about when it works, when the discussions get intense, when I see students making sudden connections between their courses, across disciplines. When they get truly excited about  projects, and their creativity and imaginations merge with new ideas and discoveries in texts, in the world. There is something that I'm adamant about preserving, even bolstering, as liberal arts education gets increasingly routinized as well as scrutinized for its inefficiencies. But it's not something that can really be measured or seen through data. It just can't. It's a mess, but one that I'm still glad to participate in, if not clean up, exactly.


Here are some things I touch on in the essay at 3:AM:

paying bills

Subaru cars


Read the essay to see how these things might be related.

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