Organization Man

August marked the first anniversary of my university job search. I could not have known that it would remain a search, though I do not think that a person can earn an advanced degree in higher ed without being inoculated with a healthy skepticism about the field, or about institutions themselves. On the other hand, I have decent enough methodological instincts to know when it’s time to rework one’s research question. In my case, I recognized it was time to stop asking about HEIs (and post-secondary job opportunities) in particular and take a new look at the nonprofit sector in general. As of that moment, a meaningful opportunity presented itself, and I am grateful.

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Which isn’t to say I won’t be reading frontline dispatches like Rebecca Bodenheimer’s in today’s Inside Higher Ed anymore, especially as I once again gather beans to champion my UGA-sanctioned study of international students in Finland, this time for a poster at this year’s ASHE conference—my first. Bodenheimer laments the sense of alienation, and real or perceived ostracism, awaiting unaffiliated or “independent” scholars at conferences. She reminds us that the three most withering words in conference-speak are “Where are you?” (code for “Am I wasting my time talking to you?”) and fancifully suggests that the unaffiliated organize themselves into special-interest groups, as if the specter haunting academe is tribalism and not basic resource competition.

But Bodenheimer’s argument that there may be safety in numbers in our Hobbesian world does strike a chord, as I’ve developed a somewhat amateurish curiosity in professionalization as a phenomenon. I say amateurish because I’m enjoying my professionalization studies and haven’t been particular about which professions I’m reading about as long as an arc of development can be discerned from murky pre-organization—how statistics arose from a morbid fascination with Bills of Mortality, how a calling to empirically demonstrate God’s works led Puritans to champion the first organized forays into the science of physics, how the discipline of creative writing sprang from a recognition that English Letters would become irrelevant without an applied component—only to make MFA programs (in the words of D.G. Myers) “licensing bureaus” for writers. Although Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge and Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions are tied for the gold standard in this area, Paul Starr’s Social Transformation of American Medicine remains the most narratively compelling account of how interest groups can, given enough time and organization, achieve the critical mass of social power necessary to be taken seriously. My copy of Gerald Graff’s Professing Literature only recently arrived, so it may be a while before I can get some idea of how the English Departments that so enthralled me as an undergraduate are really the culmination of a hodgepodge of social forces, organizational chance, and expert marketing.

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