Category Archives: Politics

Faithless Delegate, Brokered Heart

Being a battleground state is exhausting.
My red counties, my blue counties,
my precincts, my wards–they spar and spit
at each other, they tally slights, they want revenge.

The answer to Rodney King’s question is simply we can’t
get along. We don’t even all
get to vote, and still the turnout is huger
than it has been since the early 70s. But

when it comes right down to the chad of it,
my brain and all my good habits
don’t stand a fucking chance against
the power of illogic. This panic attack

is a faithless delegate on the convention floor,
voting for whomever he pleases,
my heart littered with campaign trash. I won’t
demand a recount. I just want everything quiet again.


Translated into Chinese!!!!!!

I was wrong about which blog post it was, but I’m STILL freaking excited that my colleague at UW-Richland, Faye Peng, translated some of my writing into Chinese!

It’s the post previous to this, “Here’s What It’s Like” (which is, as of this moment, up to 228 views).

She didn’t translate the whole thing so I’ll just say that I know budget cuts aren’t really like the things I described. Oh–also–not sure how the movie references play in translation–there are references to The Titanic (which I’ve never actually seen), Seven (which I have seen), and Sophie’s Choice (which I’ve seen a LOT).

Here’s how I was wrong. I first thought that my found poem using all direct quotes from the amazing TV show The Wire), “Contemplating the Declining Percentage of Investment in Higher Education and in Particular Legislators and Governors who Nevertheless Cheer Hard for their Sports Teams, While Also Mulling the Curious Maneuvers of University Leadership that May or May Not Yield Good Results for Those of Us in the Trenches, So to Speak,”  had been translated into Chinese.








Pedagogy Stew: October 2013

Picture an eighth-grade boy in the late 1970s. Sort of a cross between Richie Cunningham and Shaun Cassidy. Watch him as he jams a little nubbin of a pencil so far into an electric pencil sharpener that it runs continuously, leaving the not-too-bright teacher to puzzle over the mystery of it all.

Don’t worry about that boy. He’ll grow up to be an aeronautics engineer.

The teacher? He’ll get fired. He had so little control in the classroom, we looked like one of those inspiring hero-teacher movies BEFORE the hero shows up.

That’s the closest I ever came to being homeschooled, when this teacher was in the process of being fired. My Dad was on the school board, and when the teacher accused me of crying to my parents about how mean he was (I complained, but I don’t remember crying), they pulled me out of school. But it wasn’t really homeschooling. I just sat in a lawn chair in the corner of my Grandma Roane’s lawn (which was kitty-cornered to the school) and waved at everyone when they were at recess. Soon enough a hunky-hero teacher showed up and I went back to school.

I was lucky enough to spend an evening with many of my eighth grade friends in early August this past summer, and it was terrific seeing all these folks again. What we went through in grade school bonds us in deep ways.

We caught up on all kinds of things. We agreed the hunky-hero teacher still looks pretty great, thirty-plus years on.

We chose to get together this summer.

But the time we spent together back then wasn’t out of choice. Not ours, and not our parents’.

We went to school where we went to school because there wasn’t an alternative.

Since most of us were from staunch Baptist or Methodist or Pentecostal families, the Catholic school in the next town would never have seemed like an alternative, though it occurs to me now that it was.

I don’t think any of us had ever heard of homeschooling.

Homeschooling is but one of many, many alternatives now. School choice in Wisconsin means my husband and I can send our son to any local elementary school, including our choice, the Studio School, which is a public school/charter school/school within a school. Next year, there may be a STEM school (focusing on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) in Arena we could send him to. School vouchers in Wisconsin mean we could send him to a private school and get some state money for it (wait—really? That can’t be right. Maybe I dreamed that).

Our two main criteria for deciding how to school our son are these: is he happy? Is he learning?

I’m glad to have alternatives. I’m glad we get to have criteria beyond “if the teacher is horrible, we’ll try to get him fired.”

But it’s not just nostalgia when I miss the simplicity of how I went to school.

(This column originally appeared in Voice of the River Valley.)

The problem isn’t teachers.

for Heather, and so, so many more

The gritty nasty easy complaints take root
even when we try to weed them out.
The problem isn’t teachers. It isn’t you,

not if you’re teaching, it’s sure not.
We know what it’s all about
when gritty nasty easy complaints take root

in public discourse. Money is the root,
the square root, when we hear how
the problem is teachers. It isn’t you,

no, not you, rich man, you tell the truth
about those lazy public employees. Shout
those gritty nasty easy complaints! The root

is poverty, and unearned self-esteem, and too,
too much testing and less learning, but
the problem isn’t teachers. It isn’t you

my friend, my hero, my diligent compatriot.
Teaching well is about telling the truth.
Gritty nasty easy complaints may take root,
but the problem isn’t teachers. It isn’t you.

If I'd made one bale every semester I taught....

If I’d made one bale every semester I taught….

WTF Wisconsin

Well, o.k., I’ll admit it. I haven’t gotten too riled up about the Solidarity Singers getting arrested.  Sorry.

I mean–I did mention it at my 30th high school reunion over the weekend, that they were arresting old people in my state, but I’m pretty sure I shrugged my shoulders at some point each time I mentioned it.

Partly it’s me tending my own emotional acre–I’ve sort of made a rule for myself, in an ongoing attempt to be more sane, that if I don’t have time to DO SOMETHING about a particular issue, I can give myself a free pass not reading about it/getting worked up about it.

(NOTE: I see this disengagement as a temporary state. When I feel healthier, when I feel as though my own emotional acre is well-tended, I will peek farther again. When I have maintained my house for a few months of NOT feeling as though I were half a matchbook collection away from being an episode of Hoarders, I will re-engage.  Hell–maybe I’m there now, because….)

Wow am I pissed about Matt Rothschild getting arrested today.

It’s not that I was ever against the Solidarity Singers. I sang with them a couple times. I was proud to sing with them standing next to Margaret Rozga, now famous for speaking truth to power at  an MLK, Jr. event.

I think maybe I was just tired of protest. Spring 2011, Wisconsin’s Arab-esque spring, was wonderful and horrible. I took my son to march–he made a sign that had pictures of cats on it that said, “Hey Hey Meow Meow Walker Talk to Unions Now.”

I overcame my one bit of introversion–I don’t like to knock on people’s doors to ask them about politics (or Jesus, for that matter)–and gathered some signatures for the Recall.

But when the Recall failed, I just felt politically wiped out.  Tom Barrett? Really? Seems like a nice guy, but really? That’s all we could muster on behalf of half a million signatures?

So like a lot of other people, I’ve just hunkered down & tried to do my job and love my family and maybe just maybe work on de-cluttering my house in case I decide there’s a state I can move to where all this won’t happen. (Where is that? Vermont?)

And at first, when the not-cool, not Tubbs-cops, started arresting singers, I will admit that I was thinking “just apply for a permit already.” But here’s the thing. I really think if there were a group of people showing up every day at noon to sing songs in praise of Scott Walker, the Wisconsin Department of Administration would never have made the policy about requiring permits in the first place.

And after a few weeks of this, I’ve decided I agree–this is political speech set to music. If we have freedom of speech, if we want to honor the proud Wisconsin tradition of honoring dissent, then permits shouldn’t be required for protests in the Capitol Rotunda.

I’ll admit one other thing–I’ve been wondering if all my liberal friends who are outraged about this would be equally supportive if a pro-life protesters were to go to the Capitol (if we ever have a pro-choice governor again), and sing “Jesus Loves the Little Children” and hold up signs of dead babies. (That may not be equivalent, but it would all fall under the category of political speech, and now that I’m getting worked up, I’ll just go ahead and throw my wondering out there.)

But today–arresting a journalist for observing and calling it “obstruction?” I’m so angry and scared I can’t muster disengagement.

And yet, I don’t know what to do. Go to the Capitol and observe? Protest? Sing? Get arrested? I really don’t have time. I would totally have a panic attack. And what would that help?

I don’t know what to do, but I know what I need. Or at least what I wish for.

1. Examples of liberals supporting conservative speech at the Capitol, especially that which made them feel icky.

2. Famous people to come and sing and get arrested. Lots of folks are tweeting in support. That’s pretty much nothing. Even I’m doing that.

3. Famous journalists to come and observe and get arrested. I mean–I know who Matthew Rothschild is, but more people know who Jon Stewart is.  Isn’t that sabbatical of his about over?

4. I really need someone amazing to run against Walker in 2014. I don’t know if he could do it, but I’m most excited about Mahlon Mitchell.

5. Mostly I need someone to tell me what I might do to make any of this better. (I’ll ask Dale Schultz next time I see him in Richland Center.) Other than just being pissed and scared and feeling icky, I mean. Because I’m already doing that.



Update:  a friend reminds me that when Doyle was governor, pro-life protestors were on the square frequently, and we’re assuming they didn’t have to get a permit.

On the Enduring Appeal of Bureaucracy

A roller coaster isn’t scary because
The car’s attached to the rail (you hope it is),
However high you loop, you’re certain you will
End up right where you started. A reliable thrill.
A blanket. Mowed trails. Molded cafeteria tray.
We do it this way because we’ve always done it this way.
And if you want to make a radical change,
We’ll say no. Quickly. Firmly. Again and again.
“So rather than shift to what it needed to do,
The Army would continue doing what it knew
How to do, which is how bureaucracies act
When they lack strong leadership.” Thomas E. Ricks.
Of course it worked so well in Vietnam.
So we do what we do and thus stay safe and warm.


Cafeteria trays at the Googleplex

Cafeteria trays at the Googleplex

The cafeteria tray I had in mind was the kind that has spaces for your food–elementary school tray, of course. But aren’t these Googleplex trays pretty? Gosh. Might make you think it was possible to have a mix of the creative and the tried-and-true.

Also:  The Generals is just an amazing book. I applaud Tom Ricks once again.


(Picture from Creative Commons on flickr, taken by John “Pathfinder” Lester)

Each Other’s Anodyne

I’m working today on the manuscript of a chapbook of poems about teaching and working as a professor. The working title is Each Other’s Anodyne, in which case this is the title poem.

I posted it as a note on Facebook two years ago. During Wisconsin’s Arab(esque) Spring.

The ice on our streets and sidewalks, the way the snow is crunchy, the way slush turned to gray iron–it would be so treacherous if we were protesting in Madison today. So I’m glad we’re not.

In general, the political turmoil is overall lower, and I am relieved–I felt wiped out emotionally and spiritually by that spring, and the failed recall didn’t help revive me. Other things have helped. The passage of time has helped.

Finding this poem again for the manuscript brings it all back, though, and I have to ask:

How much has changed, really?

This poem still resonates with me. (And I still need to revise the second sonnet to focus more on Firefly.)

(It’s a crown of sonnets, if you’re into form at all.)


The weary teacher lays his pen aside
And rubs his eyes, says to his wife, “All right,
I’ll come to bed.” They both know he will try
To grade some more in the morning. All through the night
Another teacher wakes up anxious, mad
At everyone. She yells at her husband and son,
But it’s not their fault. It’s not the teachers’ fault.
In a dark time, our hard work shines too bright.
We’re public target practice. We’re spittoons.
For a time, a shining time, we were solid
In the middle class, rewarded for working hard
To help synapses snap and shimmer in the light.
Tempus fugit, damn it, sad but true:
The best shows all get cancelled way too soon.

The best shows all get cancelled way too soon.
Post-modernly they hooked us and we swooned
At heroes rounding all the genres up
To drove them o’er the plains. Inspire us!
The hooker with the heart of brass blew up
The patriarchy, blam! The runt did chin-ups
Until he made the winning catch, two times.
The rocket rounded earth, accompanied by chimes
At midnight, and we, we got attached too fast
To what the larger corporate sponsor failed
To see a profit in. It couldn’t last,
But we had no idea the cruise ship had sailed.
We made a snack and snuggled, and watched the show.
The nights were longer then, with deeper snow.

The nights were longer then, and deeper snow
Made driving slower. Now darker days have come
Despite the later sunsets. We didn’t know
How sweet it was—our biggest worry was some
Stupid internet scam our students fell for—
An octopus living in trees. Like always, slow
In winter—we did our jobs, shoveled some more,
And then the Packers won the Super Bowl!
For Valentine’s, our governor went nuclear.
So far he’s systematic—everything
We care about, he wants to cut. Budget despair
Has set in hard. It will not ever be spring.
Thick fog, black scabs of snow, raw time, hard earth.
But up in the gray, three sand hill cranes, flying north.

Up in the gray, three sand hill cranes, flying north.
Inexorably, the seasons change. They do.
But broken-hearted, raw, beleaguered blue—
We cannot trust the calendar. It’s death
We see when we look around—dead trees, dead grass
Below the layered shale of sooty ice.
Just like “always winter and never Christmas,”
We long for a miraculous thaw or a looking glass.
Not knowing is the worst; at least we think
It is—we’ll think that until we learn the worst.
However far we’ve learned our hopes can sink,
they’ve sunk so far, and farther, and farthest.
We thought we had a thaw, but it froze again.
The ditches are full of ice. But it is thin.

The ditches are full of ice, but it’s too thin
For skating. It makes a satisfying crunch
When you stomp it. Let’s watch the two of them—
These women hiking, sharing a picnic lunch.
One’s tiny—she can almost walk across
The ice before it breaks. Almost. Not quite.
Crashing, they are each other’s anodyne.
One lover catches another and she laughs,
“You silly thing.” And just like that, the tears
come flying out, “I’m sorry I dragged you here.
I can’t even make you my wife. This stupid state
Is stupid. I hate it. Hate, hate, hate.”
“Please don’t hate on my account. Not ever.
We’ve made a home. Your students need you here.”

We’ve made a home where students need us. Here
In the trenches, in the cold and the muck of open admission,
We’re spinning plates for students, showing where
Centrifugal becomes centripetal
With just the right transitional phrase. They take
The plates away from us, they break the glass
Bell jars and ceilings, they celebrate the figures
That animate their dreams the night they made
The quadratic formula prove itself on threat
Of death, organismic, de dicto, real.
Whatever ivory tower there ever was,
It’s gone for good, and most of us are thrilled.
We may stay—we may move on—but we are sure—
If not Wisconsin, somewhere, someone will learn.

If not Wisconsin, somewhere, someone will learn
That when you titillate the lesser devils
Of our nature, when you go all Soviet
And wish my cow would die (you ate your own),
You’re just a toddler berserker tearing down
the walls, affronted when the ceiling lands.
America seemed like such a good idea.
I guess it’s possible it might again.
Uncertain of so much save that we stand,
The union of other and each, screaming
At the snow, we can keep each other warm.
We can be each other’s anodyne,
Inventing for each other a kind of summer
When weary teachers lay their pens aside.




This is what I remember from the protest. Unlike anti-war protests I’d been to in the past, so many of the protestors two years ago were older than me, middle class, looking for all the world like the mild-mannered sort of folk who’d never consider leaving home to protest. When I look at them now all I can think is “heroes.”

The good work goes on. Teachers are still teaching, and even though “Each Other’s Anodyne” is the title poem from my chapbook, it is not the end of the story. This is: “No One Can Stop Us.”

And even though we lost the recall, and the vast majority of the protesting is done, there are still voices out there that inspire me. Recently, Margaret Rozga accepted a Martin Luther King Jr. Award on behalf of her late husband, James Groppi. Her speech was terrific, and the video is inspiring to watch. Her poetry is terrific, and I’m so pleased for her at the attention it’s getting. But you know what else inspires me about Peggy? The years and years and years and years she taught.
[Photo from flickr, Creative Commons. Taken by Richard Hurd on February 19, 2011.]

Ode on a Ding Dong (a fat sonnet)

O.k. so sure there’s the fine grit of baby aspirin
Or something like it now in Oreos and Pop Tarts
And Coke has, instead of sugar, Satan’s urine,
The whole country is obese and I’m too fat,
I get that, but Jesus, let me have one day of mourning
On hearing Hostess is going out of business.
The fact they’re anti-worker makes it worse–
I can’t even make a run on Ding Dongs
Without feeling I’ve betrayed Wisconsin’s spring
Of protesting, so I ate my last one without knowing
It would be the last time I would bite
Into a chocolate layer that resisted just
A tiny bit before giving way to cake,
And then…that creamy middle. I won’t say
I’m sorry for loving Ding Dongs. I am sad.
I’m not ashamed to love something so very bad.


It has made me furrow my brow, people saying things like “you know they’re bad for you” or actually listing the ingredients, in response to someone mourning the loss of Twinkies (which I personally won’t miss) or Ding Dongs (which I really will miss).

As if there’s someone out there who loved Hostess because they were under the impression that display at the end of the aisle was full of healthy treats.

One of the many, many things I loved about Kyra Sedgwick’s Brenda Leigh on The Closer was her addiction, and the way James Duff made obvious that she had unbridled love for things that were bad for her. I mean, gracious! Her going away present from her guys was a new black bag full of Ding Dongs! Or something like them, since I personally haven’t been able to find them wrapped in foil for a long time–perhaps there is a product I will come to love as much as Ding Dongs, but I suspect they were purchased and wrapped in foil by props people so that Brenda Leigh could unwrap them sensually. Foil can be sensual (at least in Sedgwick’s hands). Plastic wrap not so much.

So yes, Ding Dongs never were good for me. But I loved them and I will miss them, and you know what? You can criticize their badness all you want, but it isn’t as if now that they’re gone, the whole country will certainly get healthier.

That we’re all stress-eating, self-medicating with fat and sugar, that the country may well set off some new sort of plate tectonics by just weighing too damn much?

Don’t blame Ding Dongs.

Getting the Pay Raise You Deserve, Part II

Raise your hourly wage by working fewer hours.

It’s kind of a punch line. Kind a punch in the gut, since it’s the only kind of raise we’re likely to get in the UW System any time soon.

I once told a high-octane-hard-working, salary-sensitive professor that my salary was probably higher than hers if we considered hourly wage. She wasn’t amused.

Amusing myself is one of my highest priorities in life, but I’m completely serious here.

It’s very, very hard to scale back, but some of us have to, if we haven’t already. We have to be able to specify, to quantify if possible (because numbers convey meaning sometimes better than anything else) where budget cuts have already impacted quality and where they’re impacting quality now.

I’d love to see someone set up a Wiki (I had the idea, so someone else can have the fun of implementing it—-it takes a lot of time for me to come up with all my good ideas. Plus I still sort of don’t get wikis) with these categories:

Maintaining Quality Where It Counts
—what are all the wonderful & amazing things we’re doing for students even when our morale is low? How does our professional development make us better teachers? How is our service making things better? We have a ton of examples, all the time. We need to share them.

Impacting Quality Out of Necessity—where have we had to cut back?

And if we haven’t cut back, well—-we have to cut back.

Why? It might well have a positive impact on our quality of life, for one thing. Begin the slow process (for some of us) of healing from burnout. But also—if we can’t show how budget cuts are impacting quality, then we don’t have any evidence that they are. If we don’t have any evidence that they’re lowering quality, maybe they’re not. I absolutely believe they are, but if lowering quality were a crime, could we get a jury of 12 to convict budget cuts? Not based on what our detectives have brought us so far. If I’m the DA, I’m saying, “Get me more evidence!”

I’d love to see people report, as honestly and accurately as they can bear to, how many hours they’re working. (More on this in another blog—it’s a weird thing, trying to track your own hours.)

I’d love to see numbers and testimonials on how many faculty & teaching staff are taking on extra sections or part-time jobs or doing summer work outside academia. I’d love to see numbers and testimonials on how many faculty and teaching staff are spending more time preparing their own meals and growing their own food—not simply because it’s healthier and aesthetically more satisfying, but because of economic necessity. I’d love to see numbers and testimonials on how many faculty and teaching staff are seeking psychological counseling either as individuals because of stress and low morale, or as part of a couple, since we know money woes are a huge source of relationship strife. And if we are taking those hours spent on all those things out of our sleep time, or our family time, or our community time, or our girls’ night out time, or our rearranging the nutcracker collection time, anything other than work time—I think we need even more counseling.

Did the recent increases in class size impact what we did in the classroom? If not right away, has it now, several semesters in? And if it didn’t, why not? It takes extra hours to teach extra students well if we don’t cut back. Where did we subtract those hours?

What if, just as one example, we didn’t routinely look at every rough draft from every student? What if we had a certain number of slots available for one-on-one feedback, and it was up to students to sign up for those slots? It might actually teach them to get themselves organized and seek feedback early in the process (which is closer to what they’ll find in the world of work, right? If they want help, they’re not going to be able to wait around for a supervisor to ask them if they want help).

What if we offered, say, 10 opportunities for students to assess their reading comprehension through in-class essays or out-of-class exercises, but counted the grades for only 9? Only 8? 7? 6? That cuts down on the grading time, since we know a lot of students will do only what they have to. Is it actually our job to teach them dedication? Or do they have to come up with intrinsic motivation at some point? Are my UW-Richland students from Wisconsin noticing that my UW-Richland students from China, Vietnam, and Korea typically take advantage of EVERY SINGLE OPPORTUNITY to learn and improve?

Maybe both those what-ifs are bad ideas, so what if we routinely shared examples of how to cut back without seriously impacting student learning overall?

How many fewer students have we steered toward becoming education majors recently? How many students have we said the following to lately, “You know, you should think about becoming a professor.” (I used to say it to three or four students a year. I don’t say it any more.)

Here’s the crux of it all—there are people who will always misunderstand, resent, and misrepresent us, and they will use any attempt on our part to cut back as evidence that we’re overpaid and underworked. But guess what? If we do nothing, we’re status quo-ing, and they’ll keep saying we’re overpaid and underworked. If we somehow manage to work even more, they’ll say they knew we weren’t working hard enough. If we work less, they’ll say we’re even more overpaid and underworked, but that’s not very different, at all, from being simply overpaid and underworked, so I say we should go for it.

Any time we feel the need to point out to someone the stagnancy of our salaries, we are bombarded with accusations of whining and reminders how lucky we are to have a job in the first place. Well, yes (see Part I —I get it. I really get it.), BUT—at some point it begins to feel like gaslighting:

“You think you have legitimate dissatisfaction with working conditions?” the bad boyfriend scoffs. “You must be imagining things.”

There’s so much fun going on with Wisconsin politics that it’s hard to keep track, but here’s an example from this week. One state senator, in justifying the repeal of our equal pay law, made two points—one possibly logical point that some pay inequity comes from women focusing on family matters (my own experience tells me there’s some truth to that—I know I worked fewer hours and got lower merit ratings when my son was first born and was very young), but undermines any credibility with this howler:

“You could argue that money is more important for men. I think a guy in their first job, maybe because they expect to be a breadwinner someday, may be a little more money-conscious.”

Um, hello? Breadwinner in my family? Um, me? (And also, guy/their is a pronoun antecedent error, only excused if someone is trying for gender-neutral language, which I don’t suspect is the case here.)

The one not-quite-so-bleak spot in the Chronicle’s data for salary is that pay equity is pretty good male/female in the UW Colleges.

This state senator (whose name I don’t want to grace the pages of my blog) is one of many in Wisconsin’s Anti-Public-Worker Brigade (with typical accusations like “They’re the haves!” “Overworked!” “Underpaid!” “Bunch of slobs!”), and I don’t think we’re ever, ever going to change his mind. But there are other state senators, and other community members, who aren’t so firmly anti- and those are the people we should be communicating with.

If we’re able to quantify what we do, we need to communicate that. My own state representative sends me email updates periodically; I’m going to begin to respond with an email update of my own—wouldn’t it be lovely if there were a whole wiki I could send him the link to?

Next to worrying about what state legislators and angry taxpayers think of my work ethics, I worry what some of my colleagues will think. (And I’m not even a probationary faculty member trying to get tenure.) I’m working on abandoning the notion that I can actually control what people think about me, but until then, I do worry about certain colleagues’ impressions of me—-some of the ones who work 50-60 hours a week during the 9-month academic contract, and a breezy 30-40 hours a week during most of the summer. Some of these folks are not doing it solely out of devotion and drive—-some of them feel obliged to work that much. And some of them are either explicitly critical of colleagues who work less, or spend a lot of time sighing, moaning, and dropping little hint-bombs at colleagues who work less. Not all my super-hard-working-colleagues are like this, but enough.

Thus another cruxy bit—-a lot of time in academia, we are our own worst enemies.

I remember once a long time ago someone brought up the issue that in the UW Colleges, the fall semester was 15 weeks plus finals, but the spring semester was often longer. The proposal came up—-should we make both semesters equal? Should we make them both 15? Should we make them longer—both 16? Someone pointed out that every other UW campus had 15-week semesters (plus finals). You know what? There were people who argued for the longer semesters. The UW Colleges has ALWAYS had lower average salaries than the other campuses, and there were people wanting to make it official that we had longer contracts for less money. I couldn’t believe it. Ultimately the 15-week semester prevailed, but that mindset is responsible for all kinds of busy-making, crazy-making policies. We like to have a lot of people on a lot of committees. I get that—-I miss the days when we talked about faculty governance instead of shared governance and made sure there was a faculty majority an every committee.

But those were also the heydays of what I like to call the occupative-compulsive model, of ADD MORE HOURS TO YOUR WORK WEEK to accomplish this or that valid thing on top of every other valid thing you’re already doing. “Let’s work 16!” seems radically different to me than “Let’s play two!” but I think as long as salaries were high enough that a two-professor family could be firmly in the upper middle class, or a professor’s one salary could keep HER family solidly in the middle class, the occupative-compulsive model was perpetuate-able, if not sustainable. (Even so, the people who were best at that model were not the people I wanted to eat lunch with, not that they ever stopped working long enough to hang out with us slackers.)

Those days are gone. Gone, daddy gone.

I think we need to take a serious look at our committee structures and just slash and burn our way through them. One example—I love serving on our English Department’s Executive Committee, but doing the reading, traveling, and meeting that committee requires in January alone adds up to about 80 hours. That would be 10 days of 8-hour days. That would be two work weeks. (I’m walking through the math slowly in case the Washington Post guy is reading.) Right now we have 11 people on that committee (down from 13). I think we ought to lower it to 7. Or maybe 9. That would give two people 80 extra hours.

If we got serious about streamlining, we could simplify a lot of our lives. A lot. Really a lot.

We could help ourselves–we could invent an organization RIGHT NOW and call it the United Front for a Different Atmosphere. If I need to say no to something, but I’m having trouble saying no, another member of the organization could send an email on my behalf: “You’re receiving this email because ___________ needs to devote time to other activities rather than ______________. Sincerely, ____________, founding member of UFF DA.”

Again–I’m amusing myself in a way but also completely serious. I’d be more than happy to send an email on behalf of colleague who needs to say no, or who already said yes but hadn’t realized what a boondoggle she was saying yes to. Again–I think it could help a lot. Really a lot.

Instead of being occupative-compulsive, I think we need to cultivate more of a M*A*S*H* mentality. When it comes to saving lives (teaching students), we’ll do triage and perform amazingly delicate surgery under horrific conditions. Over and over. Other than that, we’ll do just enough.

To that end, I’m beginning to sketch out a kind of work-rubric, with performance levels of “Excellent,” “Acceptable,” and “Unacceptable.” The categories would be things like Teaching, Service, and Professional Development. The sub-categories for teaching might be “Assessing/Responding/Returning Student Work,” “Course Design/Course Revision,” “Managing Class Time.”

For each sub-category and category, I want to clearly delineate what’s terrific and what’s good enough. I don’t want to be at the bottom-middle (barely acceptable) for everything, but I want to know where it is, and I want to give myself permission to be there for however many things needed.

Needed for what? Needed for me to feel as though my salary comes closer to matching the work I do. Just based on my own pride, I’d like to average out to “very good,” but my burnout tendencies flare up when I’m not realistic about the relationship between my ambitions and the number of hours I’m willing/able to work. So “very good” might be a stretch, but it feels like a manageable goal.

I want to delineate these things for myself in terms of what I expect from tenure-track faculty as well, and I want them to know I’m doing it. If I’m anchoring the bottom-middle, I can warn them when they’re about to sink lower, right?

Finally, I wonder if we need to stop bemoaning the race to the bottom, in which state governments cut and cut and cut support for higher education. It might get better eventually, but I’m pretty pessimistic. (Probably because the church I grew up in tended to preach a pre-millenial version of the Second Coming of Christ, in which the world would just keep carrying itself toward hell in a hand-woven basket until Jesus decided to step in, not wearing soft rope-sandals this second time. I don’t believe that any more, but it’s pretty firmly burned in my synapses and thus hard to be perky about the future, but I can sing “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine” with a big smile on my face.)

Barring a turnaround in state support, we can look to models that are already in place. For example, the Richland County Campus Foundation is an amazing organization. UW-Richland is always trading places with one or two other UW Colleges campuses as the smallest campus, but our foundation is one of the largest. The benefits include ample scholarship opportunities for students and money to reimburse professional development activities. Thus, as a faculty member, I was reimbursed in full for a presentation I did last fall at the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and learning—the total cost of which (travel, registration, etc.) was around $800. Same thing for my trip to Chicago this spring for the Associated Writing Programs conference.

What does that have to do with privatizing? These funds come from community members and alumni, not the state of Wisconsin pipeline. These funds come from people who believe in education, who believe in what we do, who trust that every dollar they spend on my professional development pays off in the classroom and the community.

I think we could learn from that model. I think we could do even more of it. If someone like Warren Buffet says he’s willing to pay more in taxes, I have some ideas for how he could spend his money (until such time as he’s asked to pay more in taxes).

And finally, sadly, some of us need to at least consider leaving academia. We need to work on our resumes and schedule some informational interviews. Some of us need to apply for jobs, and some of us need to accept the job offers we get. Some of the best and brightest of us need to not let the door hit us on the ass on our way out. That would be the ultimate in the privatization of public education—educators leaving for the private sector.

If we see dramatic brain drain, we’ll have even more examples of how budget cuts are impacting quality.

As for those of us who stay, everyone will be better of if we’re happy, healthy, good at what we do and getting better at it all the time. I don’t know about you, but down here in “Far Below the Median-Land,” I can’t be much of anything but burned out if I’m working more than about 40 hours a week during the school year. I can produce very good work at that rate. Anyone who wants my very best work needs to pay me more.

UPDATE: I forgot a step in that penultimate paragraph–some of us need to leave the UW System, some of us need to leave Wisconsin, some of us need to leave the country (Oh, Canada…) and THEN some of us need to at least consider leaving academia.

Getting the Pay Raise You Deserve, Part I

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks to be a professor. March 23 there was the guy from the Washington Post, who proceeds from the basic assumption that professors are overpaid and underworked. A lot of people responded (call for the Day of Higher Ed, Aeron Haynie’s good response), and their responses are valid and important, but if you pair his editorial with news from the Chronicle of Higher Education yesterday, reporting on faculty salaries, the bleak picture suddenly gets sunny for the UW Colleges:

The Washington Post guy isn’t talking about us. He can’t be.

He mentions salaries that are almost $30,000 more than ours, for faculty at a two-year school where scholarship and research aren’t listed as part of their responsibilities. (Their teaching load seems higher, but one class might just about equal the time we’re asked to spend on professional development, at least as we work toward tenure or try to stay competitive in the merit pay pool—oh, wait. There hasn’t been money attached to merit ratings for something like eight years.)

He imagines faculty are capable of spending 20 hours in the classroom (approximately six classes) as opposed to the UW Colleges typical 12 (typically 4 classes) and then getting all the class prep and grading done in another 20 hours a week. I know he’s not talking about us at this point-—that only works if faculty are delivering lectures they’ve delivered before, for classes they’ve taught multiple times before, assessing assignments that are not writing-intensive (maybe he’s imagining multiple-choice tests graded by scan-tron or given online), spending no time on course evaluation or innovation. That’s not us.

He seems to think we take a month off between semesters (I do usually manage to take a week off then), don’t work on spring break (most of us do), and he imagines us lying on the beach on “summer vacation from mid-May until September.” I don’t work full-time during the summer, but I work a lot.

He says that “faculty salaries now mirror those of most upper-middle-class Americans working 40 hours for 50 weeks,” but ours don’t, not in the UW Colleges. And most executives I know get more than 2 weeks of vacation.


Along with the Washington Post guy’s bad math comes the Chronicle of Higher Ed’s survey of faculty salaries.

Relative to faculty at other two-year institutions, we’re simply not overpaid. For example, I’m a full professor, and I’ve been teaching at UW-Richland for 20 years. My salary is about $5,000 below the $62,000 average for full professors, and that average is in the bottom 25th percentile for salaries at 2-year institutions. “Far below the median,” the Chronicle says. I’m relatively comfortable sharing my salary because it’s available online if you’re on a UW System computer, and available through the mail otherwise. (I think it ought to be online for everyone—I think it used to be. Besides, I’m a public employee. Taxpayers and tuition payers do pay my salary, and many of them, if you look at numbers people throw around when they talk about faculty salaries, think I make a lot more than I do.)

Relative is the key word—-if someone’s out of work, having a job at all seems immeasurably bountiful. If someone has work but not benefits, having a job with decent benefits (even if we’re paying more for them now), sounds terrific. If someone works for a company (or state) who raided pensions already, our nervousness about future raiding might seem almost quaint since, at the moment, the Wisconsin retirement system is sound. Even inside academia, being a tenured faculty member, or even tenure-track, is a position of relative privilege, given how many highly qualified professionals are scrambling to line up as many sections a semester as they can. Those of us with tenure do have something precious—-a measure of security in an insecure economy (although tenure is being starved by neglect, with fewer and fewer new tenure track positions all the time, and tenure is ultimately as vulnerable to changes in legislation as collective bargaining rights–and I don’t think people would show up in the tens of thousands to protest on our behalf if tenure went away). It is all too easy to come across as whining, and something like “I had to spend an hour on the phone getting my insurance coverage worked out today” can come across as ingratitude, a classic First World Problem.

In that context, it is a luxury to consider what changes we could make to improve our lot. But you know what? A lot of us in academia do have that luxury, especially those of us with tenure.

Pay raises are possible, even in these budget-cutting times. You can engineer your own, without talking to administrators or legislators or resorting to crime. “Well, it’s happened,” you’re saying to yourself. “Marnie’s gone all the way around the bend.” No, not this time. You can raise your earnings very simply—

Raise your hourly wage by working fewer hours.

(Coming tomorrow in Part II, I’ll tell you how.)