I don’t know where the word comes from or even precisely what it means. Here’s how I define it: a slipping away, the increasing presentation of an absence, the failure to return that is calculable.1
A system assumes an amount of attrition. A part of a system’s design is to actively minimize attrition or to cope with whatever quantitative effects could be likely to result. We do our best, but things get away from us.
I think sometimes about attrition of thoughts—my own, for instance. Sometimes I have ideas about whatever project nags at me from the middle of my mind, but, when I fail to arrive at the desk to chase after those ideas, they have a tendency to slip away. That space in the middle of my mind where the project paces and leers gets busier somehow in the increasing presentation of the work’s absence.
People in grad school never really taught me about the procedures and workflows of thought that make for the messy accident of meeting deadlines. We have our curricula of study, our degree plans, and we’re pretty good about helping each other through those. But there’s the inchoate stuff of grad-school thought-production that just kind of… happens, and each on our own terms—terms which are, even for us, mostly inarticulate.
Maybe I just speak for myself. Still, I think of all the terms I come back to in order to describe what this process of coming up with ideas, pursuing them, and producing words about them is, I fall back most of all on the term “fumbling.” But fumbling your way through a degree program that relies on continual production of thought is perhaps just another term for the struggle to balance oneself upright and in a foreward motion against the gravity of attrition. The room in the middle of the mind where uncompleted projects reside gets heavier as it gets busier.
The pull of attrition—the looming threat of it—is another way of naming the specific stressors of grad school life. What if the ideas never arrive? What if, after one too many times of failing to return to the writing desk, the momentum of work left uncompleted rolls over into failure? What if I become the one, how do you say, attrited?
Attrition is a calculated risk for an institution. We calculate it ourselves as well, and it informs our choices and our daily affects, as well as our own efforts, in our role as laborers, to help the institution reduce attrition among the students we teach. Everybody wants the students to keep coming back, but grad students—if they don’t love the work, they just might not be cut out for it.
Something tells me that we feel the threats of attrition differently here on the floor of the teaching factory, the thinking factory, than is felt in the department undergraduate studies committee or the financial office.
After writing this, I looked up the term in an etymology dictionary:
early 15c., “a breaking;” 1540s, “abrasion, scraping, the rubbing of one thing against another,” from Latin attritionem (nominative attritio), literally “a rubbing against,” noun of action from past-participle stem of atterere “to wear, rub away,” figuratively “to destroy, waste,” from assimilated form of ad “to” […] + terere “to rub” (from PIE root *tere- (1) “to rub, turn”).
The earliest sense in English is from Scholastic theology (late 14c.), “sorrow for sin merely out of fear of punishment or a sense of shame,” an imperfect condition, less than contrition or repentance. The sense of “wearing down of military strength” is from World War I (1914). Figurative use by 1930.
A couple of things here: first, in the context of institutions, we can think of attrition as a term of friction, of what happens when individuals don’t quite fit the shape and so “rub against” it. The institution treats them as “waste.” Second, that Scholastic definition brings the term to its root in the thoughts of the first Western grad students. Attrition in that mode of thought is an insufficient form of experiencing the friction of institutional expectations. It’s not enough to feel shame; one must be contrite, which implies repentance, a willingness to transform oneself in accordance with those expectations. I love this etymology. It gets after the Puritan religiosity of being a grad student in the United States—the way the institution implies that we may only succeed if we commit ourselves to the work as like a spiritual vocation to which we are called. To be a part of the attrition rate is to be among the damned. It doesn’t put one in the healthiest frame of mind. ↩