Friday, March 26, 2010

Reflection 2: Response to "A Very Special Marketplace"

I wrote a commentary in response to the above-mentioned article by Thomas Benton, which appeared in the March 19 Chronicle of Higher Education. But as luck or whatever would have it, I wasn't able to post my comment on the Chronicle website itself (and I did try), so I'm posting it here.

It is true, as blowback notes, that “those who have power and position” in academe, i.e. those who should be making needed reforms happen--even more particularly, those who continue to allow the obvious exploitation of adjuncts, lecturers, and at my own institution, even junior faculty members--probably won’t change unless forced to from somewhere on the outside. But I do wonder who that “outside” could be. It would seem that the most obvious power force that could take on the villains would be students and their parents. But the sad truth is that students and their parents don’t know what’s really going on behind the scenes, and those in power who--to use blowback’s words again--“continue to distort the truth for their own self-serving interests” like it that way. And even if--as is the case at my institution--students know there’s something going on, and ask questions of those in power about what’s going on, and don’t get any real answers, they still don’t know they have the power to change things, and those in power like it that way.

In all of the debate about needed reforms in the academy, little has been said about the fact that no university could, or would even have reason to exist, without students. And yet what students really want from their university experience is rarely given much serious thought. Every university will say in its mission statement that students and education come first, but more often than not, it’s an outright lie.

When a professor who consistently has poor teaching evaluations can get tenure on the basis of publications, but a faculty member who is inspirational and motivating, and consistently has excellent teaching evaluations can’t get tenure because they had such a heavy teaching load that they had to make a choice between giving students a positive learning experience and publishing a book that will spend most of its time gathering dust on some library shelf, that mission statement becomes a lie.

When what got a faculty member tenure 15-40 years ago would not get them tenure now, and yet they have tenure, that mission statement becomes a lie.

When the number of adjuncts--who have no benefits and no real reason to be especially loyal to any of the institutions where they work (and can they really be blamed when they spend most of their days traveling from county to county, just to piece together a living, much of which will go right back into the cost of commuting here and there and there and here?)--is twice the number of tenured/tenure-track faculty, that mission statement becomes a lie.

When lecturers, adjuncts, and grad students who are doing 50 or more percent of the teaching that gets done at a university and making 50 or more percent less than tenured faculty, that mission statement becomes a lie.

When junior faculty members aren’t getting tenure because they have heavier teaching loads than tenured faculty at the same institution, have no support from or advocates among tenured faculty (“it’s not my problem, I have tenure”), or take on extra service that tenured faculty don’t want to do anymore (service which is quickly forgotten or considered irrelevant when tenure application time comes around), or aren’t given sufficient, or even realistic, release time for scholarship, that mission statement becomes a lie.

As for the Humanities, do they really even exist anymore? How often they seem to be reviled and scorned as useless, impractical, unnecessary; and many schools of the Humanities are being downsized because they are “deficit departments.” And sadly, as my own experiences have begun to demonstrate, even those in the Humanities, and especially those who have position and power, have forgotten who they are. If the original purpose of the Humanities was, at least in part, to be the conscience of the university, of the world, that purpose has largely been lost. If the original purpose of the Humanities was, at least in part, to teach people how to be ethical and humane to all people, that purpose has been lost. It seems that neither capitalistic America nor the university wants a conscience any longer.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Reflection I: Consolation

So there was a program on awhile back (in June, when I still had cable TV) about parallel universes and string theory. I didn't watch it but I knew what it would be about because I've seen some other programs like that and because I've read Borges. And "taught" Borges. I've especially loved reading and teaching "Garden of Forking Paths." And when I'm feeling down, it's sometimes uplifting to remember the following quote from this short story.

"In contrast to Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not believe in a uniform, absolute time. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times. This network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilities of time. We do not exist in the majority of these times; in some you exist, and not I; in others I, and not you; in others, both of us. In the present one, which a favorable fate has granted me, you have arrived at my house; in another, while crossing the garden, you found me dead; in still another, I utter these same words, but I am a mistake, a ghost."

This opens avenues of consolation for me when I can't be traveling through wormhole after wormhole in order to be sure that my life doesn't always turn out the same way it has "here" in every parallel universe. I entertain the possibility that whatever I lack "here," I have "there." So, for example, at the same time I'm in this universe, I'm also in a universe where I make over 100,000 a year doing what I love, in a career that never feels like work; it just feels natural. I'm in a universe where I'm respected and valued because I'm me, and where the great work that I do is noticed and valued and rewarded.

At the same time as I'm in this universe, I live in another where someone at Publishers Clearing House realizes that if they really can and do give one winner 100,000 bucks a week for the rest of their life, they could also give many, MANY more people 100,000 bucks a year for the rest of their lives and almost single-handedly change the economy for the better. And they actually DO it!

In yet another parallel universe where I DO exist, the HAVEs are generous because they don't want any HAVE-NOTs in the universe. So every day, no, every nanosecond, one of the very wealthy pays off the debt of someone who's struggling to survive until no one has to struggle anymore.

At the same time as I'm "here", I live in a universe where the university remains first and foremost a teaching institution, not a corporation, but a place to expand the mind and above all, learn how to be kinder humans. I live in a universe where students know they have the power to remind government officials and administrators that they're slipping back into corporate mode, and they'd better cut it out. And they DO it!

I also live in a universe where no one wants to discover (invent?) new diseases because they've found cures for all the terminal ones, where nothing's bad for your health, no one gets ill and there's no longer any need for medical/pharmaceutical professions or medical insurance (but EVERYONE still gets to have work that doesn't feel like work).

Friday, February 26, 2010

Memoir I: Aunt Nettie's Legacy

I have two heirlooms from an aunt I knew but didn't know while I was growing up. One came to me before she died, the other years after. The first was one of the occasional gifts my brother, sister, and I would receive, usually out of the blue, from Aunt Nettie. An afghan that was large enough to completely cover me twice over when I lay down on chilly days for a couch nap. I was already grown and living on my own when I got the afghan; and I displayed it proudly, neatly folded on the loveseat I got from a divorce settlement--a loveseat that had only one arm because it was actually part of a larger modular unit that wrapped around the living room of the house I didn't get (but also didn't want) from a divorce settlement. The unit was a neutral color and at least ten years old by the time I had it in my own place. It rested perpetually against, rather than pulled away from, the wall so that the stropped and frayed back of the seat wouldn't show. Aunt Nettie's gift made the loveseat seem pretty and new again. Like my life.

The day my Mom gave us the afghans--Aunt Nettie had made three of them, one for each of us, and each of equal size and purity--I wondered first how long it had taken her to make them. Then I wondered how she could have known that the colors of the rows of perfect stitches on mine were all my favorites. Probably, she didn't know; probably, it was only coincidence.

The first time I doubled the coverlet (blanket?), draped it over me and tucked it around my face, I tried to place the smell of it. It was the yarn itself perhaps, but I'd never really noticed before that yarn even had a scent. It was somehow familiar and distant. The smell of a baby's head. Or of a favorite shirt I wore over and over again when I was 16. Of innocence, something like that. I expected the smell to wear off--not that I wanted it to--as soon as I'd washed the afghan for the first time. But it didn't (still hasn't, so many years later) no matter how many cigarettes have been smoked in my living room. No matter how many times the room's hidden odors have been exposed by heat and humidity because I waited until I could scarcely breathe before turning on the air in summer.

Aunt Nettie was tall, dark, and very quiet. One thing I especially remember about her is how little she spoke when she would visit and have meals with us. When she brought fork or spoon to her mouth, she stared, her eyes wide and intense, at nothing, not even the food. This was unsettling to me, especially when I was a child, because most of the people I'd known kept their eyes on their plates if they didn't feel like talking.

Much of what I knew about my aunt came from my mother, who was ten years younger than Nettie. I knew she'd married my uncle, they'd adopted my cousin when he was a baby, they'd divorced after some twenty years of marriage. During my teen years, I remember feeling very sorry for Aunt Nettie and hoping my life would never be like hers. In my 20s, 30s, and 40s, even if I hadn't seen or thought about her for a long time, even after her death, she would suddenly leap into my thoughts after one of my own break-ups. But I also know that her life didn't end when her marriage did. Though she didn't marry again, she did date, well into her 50s, maybe even into her 60s. This gave me hope; I breathed easier, for her. And yet, I still have a firm memory of the day my Mom got a phone call from Nettie, saying that the man she'd been seeing for quite a while (they might have even been engaged), had died of a heart attack.

When Aunt Nettie died, and my cousin told Mom that she could go through closets and drawers and take whatever she wanted from what was left in Nettie's house, Mom found stacks of afghans and quilts in various degrees of completedness, knitting, needlework, fabric, thread, yarn, and an Elna 500 electronic sewing machine, neatly nestled in its flawless, hide-away cabinet. Not a needle or a bobbin, a zipper foot or any other attachment seemed to be missing. The thread spun evenly and tightly around each bobbin was a different color, and some of the bobbins were full, half full, or almost empty. Inside the stool with the removeable top where she stored her legacy of textiles, metal, and color was the top of an old shoebox which she used as an organizer for thread and sundry items. There was a small crocheted Santa head there with plastic eyes, the kind with little black moving pupils that spin around when you wiggle the head. On the underside of Santa was a safety pin. I imagine Aunt Nettie wore that Santa herself, and I wondered when I saw it if she had put it there, forgotten about it, and then couldn't find it when the next holiday season came around again.

When I die, only my brother and sister (and my parents if I go before they do) will go through my closets and drawers. They will find fewer quilts, most of them unfinished. I only finish small, pet-size quilts because I like to feel I have accomplished something in my life. They won't find any afghans (except for Aunt Nettie's) or knitting because I never mastered those arts. And Aunt Nettie's afghan will still smell the same. And now, I have other things that smell like Nettie's afghan. All of my thrift-store clothes believe it or not. And they have in common with Nettie's art piece that their smell also doesn't go away no matter how many times you wash them.

When I go, my brother and sister will find reams and reams of used paper, books and articles and stories I've written, which remain unfinished (or unpublished). My sister will find box after box--labeled for her eyes only, to do with as she sees fit--of spiral notebooks. My life in nutshell. Truthfully, I don't think she or anyone else will ever read them, but I can't bring myself to destroy them. They are my evidence, at least while I'm here, that I have been here. They will also find Nettie's Elna 500, proudly displayed in my living room, a bit more battered or gently used perhaps, and all the bobbins will be wound with different colors. And then, Nettie's legacy will be mine.

So teaching really isn't important anymore?

In my search for answers, I ran across an editorial written by a Student Union president at the University of Alberta ( that really resonated.

"The student experience suggests that our institutions have suffered desperately when it comes to the core mission of teaching undergrads. . . .It's not only that the number of students [and tuition] has increased . . . but a good portion of this troubling trend is attributable to the fact that there are actually less faculty now here than before the cuts. . . .as faculty are expected to devote more energy to building this 'world class' research university, they are almost certainly spending less time interacting and engaging with undergraduate students. . . .This is not to say that research is not an important part of a university, but these days research is becoming the university's main function, and teaching is an afterthought. . . .as a professor is forced to do more research, he or she cannot devote as much time to teaching students, because there is just no money to be made by the university from teaching. . . .All told, the deep and still-unremedied cuts to public funding have left the system, including its leading institutes, unable to fulfill its teaching mandate. . . .And despite the best intentions of institutional administrators and many motivated professors struggling to do more with less, we still have a system where students are not getting the support they need to really flourish.
The simple fact is that students were asked to pay more and are getting less in return.
This is the Klein legacy. Government certainly won't admit it's a raw deal, and neither will the university.

The question is: will you?"

Couldn't have said it better myself. The concerns expressed for students trapped in a system which has grown and continues to grow harsher and rougher with every funding cut certainly mirror those of students at many universities, including the one I've called "home" for several years. But what is even more distressing, to me anyway--because I really despise hypocrisy--is the perpetual insistence among those whose decisions have been most detrimental to the academic teaching mission that teaching does matter.

I came into this profession as a starry-eyed idealist, because I wanted to teach. It might even be said that I came into it by accident. My first teaching experience happened as soon as I had those 18 hours beyond the MA. My most inspirational professor and mentor from grad school suggested I might try adjuncting at a local junior college until I found full-time work doing something else; but he was very careful to caution that I shouldn't even think of making a career out of "professing." I didn't listen, of course. Because from the moment I walked into my first classroom, it felt more like home than any career I'd tried before, and there were a number of them. I came late into this profession and despite my age at the time (34) and my life experiences, I'm sure I was more idealistic (or naive, if you wish) than many younger PhD's coming into the field now. In fact, sadly, a number of grad students whom I've met in recent years already consider teaching "an afterthought." How well the system perpetuates itself.

Clouds have obscured the stars of my initial idealism, of course, but it's taken over 20 years for me to entertain the idea that the weather really may not change.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Is this the exception or the rule?

Blogging is new to me, and this is my first post in my first blog. It starts with a few questions I've wrestled with the last three or so years, ever since the tenure time clock I was on began to run out:

Is it usual or unusual for a university which labels itself a "research institution" to expect junior faculty to teach four different preps, including graduate classes each semester, to do service comparable to that of already-tenured faculty, and to publish at the same level as universities where faculty have 2/3 teaching loads or less?

Is this expectation realistic?

Does a one-course reduction from the normal four different preps, given during a junior faculty member's first semester of employment, really constitute support of that junior faculty member's scholarship efforts?

Is it usual/standard practice at research institutions for book contracts and publications in-press NOT to count toward tenure?

Is a peer review committee really a peer review committee if it consists of all men when the person seeking tenure is a woman or vice versa?

Is teaching really not important?

Is service really not important?

If these questions sound stupid to anyone, perhaps I may be forgiven for asking them when they're about to have a serious impact on the rest of my life, and when those whom I've asked in my own small circle of peers and friends in academia have given me mixed responses.