In Response to Brian Rosenberg

On 29 May 2018, Brian Rosenberg’s “Are You in a ‘BS Job’? Thank You for Your Work. No, Really” appeared in the online Chronicle of Higher Education. The article opens with a summary of common complaints about administration and the remark that the Chronicle hosts no few such–including David Graeber’s “Are You in a BS Job? In Academe, You’re Hardly Alone” (about which my comments appear here and here)–before rehearsing Rosenberg’s own experience on both sides of such complaints. The author then asserts a position contrary to the tendency to badmouth administration and staff, grounding the assertion in staff:student ratios and anecdotal commentary from Rosenberg’s own situation and background. After, the article turns to a reflection on administrative burdens, usefully citing Adm. William H. McRaven and the Vietnam War era before offering a Swiftian passage and concluding on a variation of the oft-rehearsed teacher’s protestation that those who actually come and try to do the work will have a markedly different view afterward.

The note must be made that Rosenberg is president at Macalester College. As such, he is in the kind of position against which Graeber rails, so it is understandable that he would rail against Graeber and those like him, in turn. And that position might well make readers somewhat suspicious of claims Rosenberg makes; he has a vested interest in the opinions of others about the validity of his job, so arguing against those who would question that validity is to be expected–and it is easy to overreach in such an argument.

That it is easy, however, does not mean that it happens. Rosenberg admits to his own culpability in propagating the myths he decries in the article. He also admits to the limitations of his data sets, acknowledging likely causes for the observations made from them (although they are themselves problematic, the more in that he is in a position to vitiate against them at his own institution), as well as the anecdotal nature of much of his discussion. While the Swiftian passage in the penultimate paragraph might come off as somewhat excessive, it is both brief and rooted in a long polemical tradition, and it is done in service to what is an essentially sound central point: if there are more administrators, it is because 1) more administration is demanded by even the compassionate, student-centered university towards which institutions ostensibly strive (let alone the technological and regulatory realities of higher education) and 2) more people are classified as administration than their job duties would normally prescribe. It is a point worth making.

And I have to add my own comments to Rosenberg’s here. I have seen no few poor administrators and staff, to be sure, just as I have seen no few poor instructors–and any other set of professionals that could be named. But I have also seen college deans teaching introductory classes at eminently undesirable times (5 to 9 or 10pm on Fridays. for example), and I’ve had others who’ve back me wholly when the inevitable complaints from students have arisen. At the same time, I have complained about “the management” as “the enemy,” and I have railed against administrators who have not taught the classes they oversee in years, if ever. The truth, I think, lies somewhere between Graeber (in this regard, although not in others, as I’ve noted) and Rosenberg–and finding it, finding any truth, is something worth doing.

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