What’s that supposed to mean?

Harry Drabik

   It’s not an unusual for someone to react to one of my muddled positions with a direct word hit. “What the hell was that supposed to mean?” When I’m asked a question like that it tells me in blunt fashion that I’ve failed to clearly make whatever point I thought, hoped, or assumed had been made.
I’ll take the last article about educational credentials as an example because it’s so typical of the mess I often make. I won’t make it into an excuse, but I think it’s true that my lack of a crisp and clear argument rests on simple uncertainty. I was not sure about my position because it seemed then and continues today that I was tracking a vague something that felt wrong in a system where educational credentials intended for a potential employer would deliberately leave out important elements of an applicant’s academic history. It felt wrong, even crazy, that the otherwise stolid U of M would have an official policy that a student’s grade transcript couldn’t be in an individual file because it was considered discriminatory.

   When I ran into that a few decades past I was surprised and to an extent disbelieving. I tried to make peace with the credential standards told me. On one side I could accept and approve of the U’s policy of fairness. But it still felt goofy that a major university would throw out student grades as a reasonable measure. Why give grades and compute GPA if doing so is not relevant? I won’t go over and around the questions I asked myself about this and frankly couldn’t reconcile. The impact, then, was abandoning an intent to rejoin education. If I was so out of synch the case might be that I no longer had place or role in education.

   I felt awkward and off center with what I thought as a distinctly unwanted realization about a topic mundane as educational achievement. Worse, I felt uneasy realizing someone in the U administration system was paid to review such things not to confirm accuracy but to rule on their ideological purity. How cynical did I want to get? I’d heard through friends working in education in the Midwest and East that they were noting shifts they thought suspect. I took a jaundiced view to complaints that students were no longer subject to failure because they were paying for a product. “I’d like a quart of Humanities, please, with a small side of Modern Poetry” These things hurt and bothered me because the Humanities and Modern Poetry were things I loved. I’d once aspired to be a poet and thought this required earning recognition and based on merit rather than reach them by default.

   Did my experience (already decades old) with academic credentials have anything to do with the rumbles heard about new and relatively soft “Studies” programs blooming like wild flowers on the previously trimmed Mall lawn? If the U had someone checking credentials for propriety then maybe the statistic that administration had grown by one hundred or more percent was a sign of something going on. Almost any system of administration will expand and thereby grow in size and importance if not reined in. Annual tuition when I was at the U was under $500. It’s a bit more these days. Why? Does an increase in administration plus new program areas explain an increase in student costs? Keep in mind it doesn’t take a lot of new college level programing to build a sizeable new cost. A teaching professor is not apt to have even ten hours a week (usually less) in the classroom. Adding programs and administration can point to how and why the overall college cost has exploded well above any expected rise in tuition.

   If a loud put his foot in his own mouth person like me will hesitate decades before voicing a suspicion I think that speaks to what many feel in being unsure of situations and especially how unflattering questioning will be received. Who in hell could have prepared me to confront a case where I’d have to look at an academic policy disallowing grades as evidence? I’ve eagerly blundered into many a mire, so what was there about challenging academic practices that so daunted me? Did my liberal beliefs keep me from criticizing education? Was my reluctance personal based on fond memories of my U days? For three years I lived literally in Dinky Town (where I racked up a rare negative score for ability to get laid) a rock toss from House of Hanson. Did nostalgia stop my questioning? I don’t have an answer. Maybe you’ll have insight into this that I lack. But that doesn’t mean walking away from the need to rile and question.

   How can I clear up a message when its elements are complex and numerous? What explains things like the functional difference between a colonist and a migrant? The UN asserts migration as a human right while denouncing as colonialist those migrants with allegiances the UN doesn’t like. Does a universal human rights require political suitability? Or in another example, the mental task of reconciling popular feminist criticisms against the also popular gender ethics asserting gender as dozens of possibilities is almost a full time occupation. At least I don’t see the positions as mutually supportive or in much agreement. I’m reminded of time past when zealous believers debated the number of angels able to dance on the head of a pin. Is the contemporary version seen in trying to determine the number of genders that can dance in the head of an angel? Avoiding such debate saves time and frees one from burdens impossible for anyone to settle. Finding a clear way isn’t easy. I left the North Shore Tourist-World in the hope the Iron Range labor and work environment would give a grounding I felt absent in a recreation economy. No answers yet, but a changed perspective is a definite plus.