Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Hooray for Snow!

            It’s a snow day for me, as my university and most other universities in my region are closed today.
            There’s something kind of charming about the way the people of the Ozarks react to snow. We had four inches of fluffy snow fall the night before last, so we are on our second day of weather-related closure—for a wee bit of snow that people even an hour north of here wouldn’t bat an eye at.
            As a people, Ozarkians are programmed for the outdoors, but less for snow forts and imprints of angels on the lawn than for tubing on a lazy river, beer bottle in hand. And they have a point.
            I won’t complain, though, because I have always loved a snow day—and what’s more, I have always loved snow.
            The rest of the country has had a lot more of it than we have—this four-inch snowfall is the first of the season, and it’s already mid-February—but from the perspective of someone who no longer sees much snow, here’s are some reasons to love the white stuff before it’s gone.

  • The whole world is a big, clean sheet of paper, just waiting to be written on. It’s that moment just before the rough draft, when ideas fight for the top position. There are not yet any false starts, logical flaws, mixed metaphors, typographical errors—everything is potential.
  • It covers our mistakes. My lawn is peppered with dried leaves. Some windblown litter has landed by the fence. There are toys here and there, and we never trimmed back the remnants of any of our summer blooms. There is plenty of work to be done outside, but you’d never know it today.
  • It’s a chance to rest. Nearly the entire community—schools, universities, daycares, churches—has decided to sit this day out and try again tomorrow. There will be work to catch up on, of course, for all of us, but for today, a respite is sanctioned. Time in front of the fireplace is acceptable. TV on the couch is A-OK. And throwing snow at each other in the yard? Well, that’s the best use of all for our time.
  • It’s not gray. Sun is hitting the snow and reflecting into the windows, and the house is bright and cheerful. I, for one, have been working indoors, moving from one office to another without a chance to step out into the sun, and I needed a little brightness and cheer.
  • There’s a funny sideshow that happens in academia, when all of the professors panic about what the snow day will do to their lesson plans. They wring their hands; they fret that they won't be able to get everything in over the course of the semester. But I like to remind them that they're not getting “everything” in anyway, no matter the subject. They can’t teach all of American history, all of Modern poetry, all of physics, all of psychology—not in sixteen weeks! And one class session isn't going to subtract significantly from all of that not-everything they're teaching. Not even two class sessions will make much of a dent. I enjoy witnessing the flutter. It reminds me of how dedicated and serious my colleagues are, and it invites me to up my game, too.
  • The birds, which, here, can typically afford to turn up their noses at inexpensive mixes of seed, really seem to appreciate the feeder on a snowy day, and I enjoy the show they put on for me there.

In short, there are many reasons to love a snow day—just one of the many times that a break from routine, a set of limitations, can remind us of the bounty of our daily lives.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Here Be Scorpions

            In the news today, there is a story about a woman being bitten by a scorpion … while on an airplane.
            It strikes me that life is occasionally like that. We’re fully focused on going from Point A to Point B, in the woman’s case from LA to Alaska, when something unexpectedly stops us in our path. Our plane never even gets off the ground; it turns around and takes us back to the gate.
            Once, on my way to being a lifelong journalist, I was thrown off course by a creative writing degree, which rerouted me from a decade-long job in a newsroom to a career in higher education. It’s been a life of constant adjustment, because despite the attitudes that journalists and professors should share, a dedication to truth-seeking, the pressures inherent in today’s higher education can defeat professors in their efforts.
            Journalists and professors are both on a quest for truth. For journalists, the focus is daily truths. As a small-town reporter, I brought my readers the truth about accidents and county government and school boards and people with problems or with amazing stories to tell. As a faculty member, truth has been shakier, but my students and I have searched for it together, in poems and essays and stories—their consumption and their creation.
            Where journalism is concerned, we come to expect special interests to try to interfere with the news. I remember many times at the newspaper office when a politician or a business owner or a prominent citizen would storm in and insist that we not publish something. I was proud of the fact that their arguments never made a difference. We let the news lead the way, and we didn’t omit any familiar name from the police blotter, the court reports, the breaking news, or the other stories we tracked down.
Our commitment to fairness even nailed me once when I was caught speeding in a corrupt little town in my coverage area. It was a notorious speed trap, one of those places where the speed limit drops a little prematurely and the police chief hides in an alley to catch drivers unaware. I gritted my teeth as I typed my own name into the traffic court reports, but I included it, and I cursed that officer as I did so. In other words, I stayed the journalist’s course.
A strange thing happens when you enter academia, though. When we are students, universities seem like places to challenge our preconceived notions and dig out essential truths. We study philosophy and literature to learn what we can about humanity; we study political science to understand what drives governments; we study languages to learn new ways of conceiving ideas. Science encourages us to posit ideas and test them. Art tells us that we can, and must, continue to try to express ourselves in new and challenging ways.
But when we join the professoriate, what we get is not that dynamic student experience, writ even larger. Instead, administrators minimize faculty contributions and marginalize our voices, and they try to convince us that faculty are a problem of the university. We cost a lot. We make life difficult for our students. We don’t work hard enough. Our best course of action is to keep our heads down and not step out of line.
The effort that goes into keeping faculty mum is pretty substantial. At my old institution, non-tenure track faculty (the instructors and lecturers without the rank of professor) made up a large portion of faculty ranks, but it wasn’t until the end of my time there, almost a hundred years into the life of the institution, that these faculty members were granted a seat on the faculty senate. (I was privileged to represent my colleagues in one of the first NTTF faculty senate seats, and I made the most of the opportunity, speaking up for our rights and lending our voice at every opportunity.)
At my current institution, we don’t even have a faculty senate. We have full faculty meetings, where we get together and listen to lengthy reports by administrators before voting on agenda items that are presented to us by the administration. No one is elected; no one feels special responsibility for one’s position or vote. We do the basic work of reading support materials and voting our conscience, but there is always a sense that someone else is in charge.
But faculty should be in charge of the curricular life of institutions. They are the proper people to set the academic course for a university, and they are a pivot point between the students—the lifeblood of any institution—and the administrators, whose proper job is to buy chalk and make sure the floors get swept. Faculty should have a key role in choosing administrators, in administering a budget, in salary decisions, and in determination of educational policies.
These days, the academic freedom of faculty is threatened by job insecurity and the erosion of tenure. It is threatened by a constant sense that the fiscal sky is falling. It is threatened by an overreliance on ill-conceived evaluation instruments and administrative dictates about classroom policy.
A faculty member tends to feel that she would be safer to pipe down and toe the line than to do what academics have done since Socrates and before: speak out, challenge authority, question received knowledge, and create, whether in the laboratory or the studio.
These days I’m feeling a lot like that woman on the plane. Something poisonous was hiding in a place where she had every reason not to expect it. Who knows how the scorpion got on the plane? Maybe it traveled in on someone’s suitcase. Maybe some malicious person planted it there. But it ended up biting someone, forcing her to alter her course.
The good news about the woman on the plane is that she was fine. After being checked out quickly by medical personnel, she was back in flight, headed to her destination. The scorpion—arguably also an innocent victim of this turn of events—was squashed by flight attendants. The threat was eliminated—that threat, anyway. There is always the potential for another.

Sometimes I think it’s a good idea, when delayed and rerouted, to think about one’s destination, and to embrace a temporary holdup as a chance to change our course. It shouldn’t be necessary for something to bite us in the ass to remind us of where we need to be.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Job of Faculty: Teaching, Service, Research, and ... Vacuuming?

            There seems to be a movement afoot to put uppity university faculty in their place.
            This happens in ways both large and small. In Wisconsin, for instance, Governor Scott Walker, a college dropout himself, is actively trying to dismantle the state’s university system. He has gutted funding and attempted to skewer the system’s mission statement so that it no longer includes “the search for truth” as one of its core values.

            In my own workplace, a small liberal arts college, I have to empty my own trash. Let’s admit at the outset that this is far less nefarious than what’s happening in Wisconsin. It’s sort of a silly thing—I noticed that my lunch wrappings were amassing aver a number of weeks, and upon inquiring, I found that I was supposed to take care of the office trash myself.
            So do we have university faculty empty their own trash to save time for the important work of the custodial staff? I’m not so sure about this (although, to be sure, the custodial staff is stretched quite thinly). There is currently an all-hands-on-deck mindset at my institution, with faculty, administration, and staff alike aligning to stretch resources, and truly working together on many important aspects of university life. Taking care of our own waste is an egalitarian notion, and I can appreciate that (provided the administrators are all emptying their own trash, too—I haven’t asked if this is the case). Mine is, for the most part, an egalitarian institution, and I love it for that.
            But I have some suspicions about the motives for turning faculty into their own custodians, especially when there is a national drive to depict faculty as layabouts who teach their three or four sections and then put their feet up and pluck at their elbow patches.
            Faculty don’t just teach in the classroom, obviously. They work one-on-one with students and mentor them beyond the end of the semester; they prepare for classes and grade papers and projects; they perform the research that they later “profess” to their students; they write and try to publish, and they stay current on the research of their peers. And they also participate in the life of the institution, which includes committee work, governance, recruiting, and much more.
            These days they also empty their trash, because who do they think they are, expecting someone else to do it.
            As it happens, it is also our responsibility to vacuum our office carpets. This dictate came several months back, and it may well be that everyone has forgotten this odd moment in the life of the institution. Maybe we all expected normal operations to resume at some future point, but no one ever got around to restoring custodial functions to those people who take pride in maintaining our classroom and common areas so beautifully, despite limited personnel.
            But there has been a national drive to force faculty to be held accountable for their time. Governors and legislators are pushing for increased workload. The effort to paint the professoriate as laggards looks from the outside like a coordinated Republican rallying cry, with one GOP governor after another pointing to faculty as a problem that hurts state finances. And this viewpoint even extends to private institutions like my own, where courseload increases are being contemplated.
            Depicting faculty as bums puts them on the defensive. So does depicting higher education as a realm of constant crisis. Well-meaning professionals try to do more for the good of the order, and they start to believe that their jobs are in constant jeopardy. (Remember, the American Association of University Professors maintains that tenure is not a reward for super-special people; rather, job security is a necessary condition of academic freedom, and therefore tenure should happen as a natural course of action after a successful probationary period.) The crisis model, and the constant invocation of the all-hands-on-deck mindset, seems designed to make faculty feel unsafe in their jobs.
            I even had a brief qualm about writing this blogpost. Will I be reprimanded—will I lose my job? I was careful not to name my institution; I’d hate for a prospective student to do a web search on, oh, let’s call it Zoory University, and find a rant about emptying trash instead of a glowing report about how life at ZU is all cupcakes and butterflies. (Remember—all hands on deck.)
            But this is not a rant about trash. It’s a very reasonable speculation that the nationally orchestrated higher education crisis mode could be behind some of the small, daily decisions that impact the quality of faculty worklife.
            And come to think of it, I already know that my three-year contract is not being renewed. (The increasing use of non-tenure track faculty provides flexibility to an institution, while also keeping faculty on their best behavior.) Nothing expressed here is so problematic that administrators are going to pound on my door and smack my cheek with a leather glove. Those folks aren’t going to read Better View of the Moon anyhow.

            But I have a feeling that it may be important for faculty to embrace at least a little bit of uppitiness. Administrators should put us in our place—which is in the classroom, and the lab, and the research library, and the studio—and leave us there to do what we do best: search for truth, inspire students, and breathe life into our unvacuumed institutions.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Happy Lupercalia!

            Ignore the naysayers. Valentine’s Day is, quite simply, the greatest day of the year.
            Throughout elementary school, I lived to decorate shoeboxes with cutout hearts. I loved nothing more than those miniature valentines, some addressed to “Karen Cargo.” Valentines weren’t all trademarked superheroes and cartoon characters in those days; instead they would feature something like, say, kittens, with slogans like “Please PAWS to say you like me” or “Be my valentine MEOW.”
            For a grownup, Valentine’s Day is even better. There WILL BE A NICE DINNER. There WILL BE SEX. There WILL BE CHOCOLATE. These are the lush and delectable givens of the day.
            In recent years, it has been popular to deride the holiday. It seems that lonely people feel lonelier on Valentine’s Day. I’m sympathetic. Loneliness can really stink. On occasion, though, I have enjoyed being lonely, and I have particularly enjoyed experiencing that cartoonish holiday loneliness. I once bought myself a package of sliced turkey lunchmeat on Thanksgiving, and sobbed my solitary way through two turkey-on-white-bread-with-store-brand-mayo sandwiches. It was utterly luxurious.
            It hurts not to be able to forge connections, and that’s a year-round pain—but the trick with Valentine’s Day is to recognize that dinner, chocolate, and sex are all things that can be just as enjoyable alone as they can with others, provided we employ a little creativity.
            And if the name itself, “Valentine’s Day,” is too weighted to get over, call it what the Romans called it: Lupercalia, the wolf festival. The ides of February will happen whether or not we decide to note the occasion. May as well run naked through the streets, just as the Romans did 2,000 years ago, and strike everyone we see with a goatskin thong. I promise you—if you show up naked, wielding a thong, no one’s first thought will be, “Hmm, that guy looks lonely.”
            The truth is, no one is thinking that anyway. You could reserve a table for one at the nicest restaurant in town and read Sonnets from the Portuguese to yourself in a mirror, a rose stem clamped in your teeth, and no one will think you’re odd for not having a boyfriend or girlfriend (although they mind find you odd generally). The truth of the matter is that most people aren’t thinking of you at all—which is a good reason, come to think of it, to cry into a sandwich.
            My suggestion to the lonely is this: just dwell there. Watch An Affair to Remember. Eat chocolate after chocolate. Masturbate. Write a sonnet and dedicate it to yourself. Hell, cry, if it feels right.

            But Lupercalia is everyone’s holiday. Even a lone wolf ought to make the most of a chance to howl.