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.


  1. Politics and distrust. i wish I had some answers and solutions. I fear I would only share platitudes.

    1. Distrust is a desirable natural state. It's when we start collaborating and trusting and owing and preferring that we begin to err.

  2. Replies
    1. Naw! You're wise. Nothing bad about a collaborative spirit.