On 20 May 2018, Thomas Cogswell’s “True Confessions of a Reluctant Administrator” appeared in the online Chronicle of Higher Education. In the piece, Cogswell glosses over his early-career experience shirking institutional service in favor of teaching–until he was confronted by an incoming dean who effectively forced him into committee work and assigned him administrative duties afterward. He afterwards comments about faculty governance and its joys before concluding with the note that his own experience has led him to make committee selections.
Cogswell’s piece reads as an attempt at humor, invoking long-known and well-worn tropes of 12-step programs (explicitly: the piece opens with an injunction to “Imagine this is a 12-step program and that I am standing before you, tearfully confessing my transgressions”). And there is some sense to framing a joke in such a way; life in academe, generally, has properties that are not unlike addiction. It starts out innocently enough, with people lured in through often-false promises of esoteric pleasures, and it quickly becomes compulsive, with people scrambling to put together larger sums of money than they can afford to continue to indulge it. Exit is difficult, occasioning no few psychological changes, as any amount of quit lit can attest. Too, as has been mentioned in connection with certain scholarly gatherings, there is a strong correlation of scholarly gatherings and heavy drinking–which has occasioned events designed to give those in recovery, who probably ought to be in recovery, and who simply want to spare their livers so much trauma places to gather.
That said, the joke falls flat for me. As I’ve noted on more than one occasion, I work for a substance abuse treatment facility, one that makes use of 12-step methodologies and which treats clients who are engaged in 12-step programs. They are not among the most privileged people; of those who have entered the facility’s outpatient treatment this calendar year, only nine percent have not been economically disadvantaged, and all are struggling to achieve and maintain sobriety, whether from marijuana (which remains illegal where I am), alcohol, methamphetamine, or some other substance. They are in pain, in trouble with the law, and, in many cases, struggling to keep their families intact. The joke Cogswell seems to be trying to make seems to be made at the expense of my facility’s clients and people like them–and that seems to me to be punching more than a bit down. And I would expect better from someone who would present himself as a fellow-sufferer.