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Team Maintainers

November 08, 2016
Team Maintainers ©Gerardo C. Lemer/

Jackie Grutsch McKinney contemplates the fetishizing of innovation within American universities.

Last spring, an essay by Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel was published in Aeon with the bold title “Hail the Maintainers.” The authors make the case for ending the fetishizing of innovation and entrepreneurship in order to honor the work of maintainers, the workers who sustain organizations. In particular, Russell and Vinsel deride the idea that new technology is necessarily progress and note, “Infrastructure failures—train crashes, bridge failures, urban flooding, and so on—are manifestations of and allegories for America’s dysfunctional political system, its frayed social safety net, and its enduring fascination with flashy, shiny, trivial things.”

What Russell and Vinsel don’t mention is the spread of innovation speak and fetishizing in American universities. State support for public universities has dropped rapidly in recent years, down on average 26 percent for public research universities according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. As a result, campuses are cutting the costs of maintaining higher education by hiring more contingent (disposable) faculty, cutting programs, slashing budgets, and freezing salaries.

Despite this, universities know they need to attract students with unique distinctions or branding (however trite). To this end, many universities offer faculty incentives in the form of internal grants focused on “innovation.” (A Google search yields 196,000,000 results for “university innovation grants.”) Likewise, universities will also incentivize seeking external funding not just for research but for new programs, technology, positions, and infrastructure—those things that universities have historically funded out of general operating costs. Doing so, universities shift resources from maintenance to innovation and spread the competitive innovation culture where only the newest, shiniest ideas are funded, and only then for the duration of the grant until the next newest, shiniest idea comes around the bend. Those who need funding need new ideas and then new ideas again in two or three years and again and so on.

On top of this, universities buy innovative, yet often ridiculously expensive, technologies that promise to make the university run more efficiently. Russell and Vinsel evoke Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s 1983 book More Work for Mother to counteract the narrative that expensive new technologies always save time. Cowan, they write, “examined home technologies—such as washing machines and vacuum cleaners—and how they fit into women’s ceaseless labour of domestic upkeep. One of her more famous findings was that new housekeeping technologies, which promised to save labour, literally created more work for mother as cleanliness standards rose, leaving women perpetually unable to keep up.” To wit, I don’t know anyone’s workday that has been shortened by course management software.

So where does that leave faculty and administrators who need infrastructure and maintenance to do their jobs but are being asked to compete for innovation funds or are given innovative technologies to save them labor? About in the same condition as the nation’s bridges: ragged. I think the new writing center directors who my co-authors and I studied for a year for The Working Lives of New Writing Center Directors would agree with this characterization.

To be clear, Russell and Vinsel’s manifesto for maintainers is not a conservative position; they clearly distinguish between surface innovation and true progressivism. Innovation is greasing the steering wheel on a car; maintenance is putting enough gas in the car so that it gets us where we need to go. Universities are well-built machines. Keep them fueled and see what they can do.

Jackie Grutsch McKinney is the director of the Writing Center and professor of rhetoric and composition at Ball State University.

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