Saturday, January 31, 2009

certainly better than last January

January, and Winter Term, are coming to a quick end. For a variety of reasons, it hasn't been a really terrific January. I'm more than a bit anxious about the depression (or is it depressed about the anxiety? who can tell?), for one thing. I've had to deal with an unspeakably angering faculty rights case, which has cost time, energy, and some little anxiety as well.

But you know what, so far this Obama guy looks to be trying to do some good. Plus, I haven't had to euthanize anybody. I made two exemplary meatloaves and numerous terrific batches of bread. Guerin's beer should be just about ready to eat. Good stuff.

I'm plodding along with re-learning fundamentals of fingerpicking, to adapt my playing to the kind of fingerstyle guitar I have aspired to, and admired from afar, and which is frequently very badly represented in guitar tabulature to be found online. (I found a tab for John Fahey's number "Sligo River Blues" that was apparently transcribed by a tone-deaf music-hating arhythmic maniac just prior to overdosing on barbiturates. Thankfully, helpfully, some French dude videocapped himself playing the thing and youtubed it. I'm about 1/4 of 1% done learning it.)

I'm getting around to the presentation I have to prepare for the Society for Phenomenology and Media's 11th - count 'em! - conference, next month near DC. It'll be nice to go to DC again. The last time we were there was just after the 2004 election, and we spent a lot of time explaining away our disparaging remarks about the Bush administration, speaking clearly and distinctly into various lamps, lightswitches, bedside tables, Gideon's Bibles, and ceiling tiles that, we felt certain, had no doubt been wiretapped For The Safety Of The Homeland And In Support Of Our Troops. We'll at least feel like things have changed.

That's where I am at present: I at least feel like I've helped a faculty colleague, like the new president has good ideas and intentions, like I'm advancing my guitar playing, like it's been a better January. I hold my final judgment in abeyance. Time will tell.

I wonder if this is how it felt to be Nick Drake.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

proud to be union,
plus, pain

Friday I cut class short, to drive us up to Sac ("The Town So Nice, They Named It Sac") for the CFA Joint Council meeting of the Lecturers and the Affirmative Action* councils. There was the usual dinner-n-speaker on Friday, then the all-day meeting of the Lecturers' Council on Saturday.

It wasn't a meeting chock full of epiphanies. For one thing, there's been a bit of turnover among the council personnel, which is good - new blood, even if it's not exactly young blood, is always a good thing. So some of the meeting's agenda was set with that in mind.

Plus, at this point, given the economic straits, given the impasse in the re-opener "negotiations" with the CSU on salaries (of which more in a sec), the proper focus is on technical matters of contract enforcement, and building the union's capacity. "Capacity building" is the new watchword, a broader notion than recruiting membership, because it involves recruiting activists, improving communications, creating political power - a large-scale, multi-layered, munificently-hyphenated effort.

I like it. I've been getting really upset about the coming economic apocalypse, and now I feel like I've got specific things to do. I'm starting with the spring. Actually, I'm starting this week.

So, okay. We came within a week of striking for the first time, but finally won the best contract in the history of CFA, two springs ago. We got raises that would give us salaries slightly more in keeping with other faculty in comparable institutions (and raises for the first time in years). Then the economy, predictably, tanked, and the CSU, predictably, re-opened the salary article in response. Their first offer was to eliminate the raises we bargained. Their last, best offer, tendered last week, was to eliminate the raises we bargained. That's CSU bargaining.

In any case, the CSU is saying that they have money, and could pay the raises, but there are "competing priorities" for spending the money. Which, I think, means "we could pay you the raises you bargained, but we're not gonna."

Now, I'm totally sympathetic to the needs of the staff, and the need to try to keep student fees lower. My problem with the CSU's move at this point is that once again, this public institution is refusing to be transparent, or even forthcoming, about its books. Someone this weekend put the absurdity and insult of it pretty well: not only is this a violation of the public trust, but it's also ignoring the presence, right here in the CSU, of expertise the CSU administration could consult about budget management. (Locally, the admin at Santa Claus is moving toward being more forthcoming, and relying on the expertise of a faculty-majority committee for budget advice.)

Anyway, back home Saturday night after a quick trip to a hoidy-toidy yarn store and the Sac IKEA, then off this afternoon for the Townsend Opera Players's production of The Magic Flute. Then back home, to grade papers. I'm pretty tired. And my wrist and little fingers on my left hand have hurt for three days. I think driving is aggravating my previous bout of carpal pain.

*"Affirmative Action" is not a legally recognized model for achieving diversity in public institutions in California, per a ballot initiative passed by voters many years ago. However, the CSU and CFA jointly put together a policy which continues to acknowledge affirmative action as an important value in hiring faculty and staff, and in enrolling students. I don't think CSU does a great job (and the numbers demonstrate that), but the population of CFA is sure getting more and more diverse and interesting.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

the news story everybody is talking about today

The CSU is drafting information security and system use policy for all the 23 campuses, and today the academic senate of CSU Stanislaus (a.k.a. the ork-o-demic senate at Cow State Santa Claus) discussed the draft policy. I would characterize the senate's mood as unimpressed.

I was vaguely insulted by the draft policy, as I scanned through it, because it seemed to contemplate, if not actually assume, that the main info security issue the CSU has is that users (i.e., faculty and staff) treat information access like a personal playground for nefarious and illegal deeds. I hadn't put it together before the meeting, when one of my colleagues pointed out that the basic flaw in the draft policy is its failure to address universities as though teaching, research, and scholarship happened there. In the corporate environment, he noted, the assumption is that the corporation owns all information users may have some access to. In a university environment, that's not really the case, especially when faculty enjoy (as we still do, to a limited extent) academic freedom.

More to the point, it's another example of the way university administrations look at the life and work of universities: as problems, mainly generated by faculty (when not generated by students), that can generate chaos and create civil liability. As another colleague put it, sotto voce, during the senate meeting, the CSU is looking for one pedophile in San Bernardino, and we're all going to pay for it. (This is not to suggest that there is a pedophile working for or attending CSU San Bernardino. My colleague was making what is usually called a joke.)

Local experience suggests something quite different. The main problems with information security we've had have involved accidental release and insecurity of personal data. About five years ago, while changing servers, employee data were for several hours left on an unsecured server. About three years ago, our food-service concessionaire used unsecured internet access for credit and debit card transactions.

What the new CSU info security policy seems to aim for is to identify and exploit every avenue for limiting the university's potential liability.

Our mission? Eh.

Monday, January 19, 2009

educational fascism,
and what Stanley Fish is gonna do about it

When I first contemplated grad school, one of my undergrad profs advised me about what to expect. Among the things he told me (almost all of which turned out to be true) was that my chances of getting a tenure-track job teaching philosophy at the other end of grad school were remote - not because of some failing of mine, but because, in his view, there simply weren't going to be very many tenure-track jobs out there. When I first came to California to teach, it was as a one-year full-time "lecturer." I've retained this position, through hard work, a bit of luck, and some struggle. Now I'm an activist in the union and an advocate for the rights of faculty, like me, in "temporary" positions - the majority of the faculty.

Over the years, I've gone through some important changes of mind. Regarding "temporary" employment in academia, I've come to the conclusion that tenure is disappearing completely. This is the last generation to see tenure. (It may be the last generation among affluent nations to see electricity, central heat, mass-scale economies, and abundant food, but that's a tale for another day.) Already, the vast majority of college faculty in the US work with little or no job security, and little or no hope of attaining it. The trend is also increasing its pace.

Some observers believe there is an open question of why this is happening. Some assert that no one is causing this trend - that "market forces" or an irrevocable cultural shift are to blame. To me, this is patent hogwash. Tenure is going away because powerful people want it to go away. They want it to go away because tenured faculty cost more, have more authority, cannot be told what to do - in theory, at least (many tenured faculty I know are astonishingly timorous and quiescent, especially in contrast to the unprotected contingent faculty activists I know, and admittedly vastly prefer). The casualization of faculty labor is especially acute in humanities, where tenure is becoming the badge of elite status and where the bulk of teaching is done by tenuous-track faculty. Why in the humanities? I think the answers are obvious: What else can an MA or PhD in humanities do for a living? Where else can cost savings be so easily achieved by universities? And the big one: what other disciplines deliberately focus on developing critical reasoning abilities that may lead students to wonder about their educations, careers, and roles in society?

Recently, someone clued Stanley Fish in on this, and he even read a book about it, by a former student named Frank Donoghue. Fish seems to endorse Donoghue's conclusion, which is that humanities departments will soon be peopled entirely with education's equivalent of migrant workers. This, Fish explains, is because of social changes that have ruled out education being for any non-instrumental purpose - that is, education is understood as only for the sake of developing job skills. Fish contrasts this with education in humanities being for no purpose - just for the sake of explaining and understanding, which issues in no change in the world at all.

Fish doesn't say much about the implicit fascism of the "instrumental" model of education, but instead considers the end of tenure in the humanities. In concluding, he seems to express a vague air of wistfulness about it:

People sometimes believe that they were born too late or too early. After reading Donoghue’s book, I feel that I have timed it just right, for it seems that I have had a career that would not have been available to me had I entered the world 50 years later. Just lucky, I guess.

Goody for you, Stan.

The article pisses me off, not, as one might imagine, because of Fish's blasé attitude toward the fairly lousy working lives of the majority faculty on whose labor Fish's own elite status utterly depends - though indeed that pisses me off. What really irked me was the ignorance of his argument. He poses a clearly false dichotomy: humanities education must be either for the sake of saleable skills, or for purposeless understanding. That he can make this argument, with an apparently straight face, what? 70? years after The Dialectic of Enlightenment is impossible for me to grasp. Hello? Stanley? Remember the debates with Habermas?


Anyway, humanities education can be, often is, fascistic. But it needn't be "instrumental" in that sense alone. There is a critical use of reason, as well - one that, contrary to Fish's elitism, does issue in social change. At least, we're trying...

So, think I'll add Stanley Fish to the list: not allowed in the house. You blew it, Stan.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

winter term quietly moves along

Nothing to see here, for some odd reason.

I'm knee-deep in Winter Term, the four-week inter-session Cow State Santa Claus crams between Fall and Spring semesters, in order to wreak utter havoc on the Collective Bargaining Agreement's provisions on salary and benefits. But that's another story for another day.

I've taught in Winter Term every year but two. It's fairly tiring: a full semester's credit bearing course, taught three days a week, three hours each day.

By way of some unknown concatenation of unseen forces, this Winter Term is doing its own thing, and otherwise my academic life and the university seem very still. In my usual paranoia about such matters, I've naturally assumed this is the calm before the storm (indeed, the 2009-2010 budget proposal from the gub cuts the CSU budget another $66 million).

It's a peculiar rhythm.

Oh yes, and it's stopped raining. We've gotten about 10% of normal rainfall for the month.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

life being what it is

I'm listening to a Kaki King song called "Life Being What It Is." It's really good. She's a fantastic guitar player, and I wish I could play as well as she does.

But I borrow the title for reasons having nothing to do with my appreciation for Kaki King, or the super-duper-cool percussion-n-harmonic solo on this number, which is excellent.

No, indeed. The title just speaks to the situation.

There's a guy named Keith Hoeller who teaches philosophy for a living, much like I do, up in Washington. He also spends a lot of time reading everything, apparently, published about the plight of contingent faculty in the US. For weeks, he's been sending links to the "adjunct" faculty listserv that connect to stories about universities around the country planning to cut faculty, salaries, or both, and it's just kind of overwhelming.

University of Urbana and Skidmore College were tonight's pair. Urbana is planning to ask faculty to voluntarily give back 6 percent of their salaries, and cutting non-faculty staff salaries (10 percent for salaries over $75,000). Urbana and Skidmore are both planning to cut or consider cutting temporary faculty, beginning this spring semester.

Every day, there are more reports. Part-time or full-time, non-tenurable college and university faculty everywhere in the US are losing their jobs, day by day. The press coverage of this is spotty, local, and in no way connects the various dots. Not only is there almost no concern about the impact of the layoffs on either the faculty or the students affected, there's no big picture being painted of what this means, or says, about either the economy or our public values.

It's sad to me, because I've spent my entire career as a contingent academic, and the better part of a decade as an advocate for contingent faculty. All those faculty are simply disappearing. They'll be taking unemployment, looking for other ways to make a living - and sometimes having advanced degrees is a hindrance to employment, I know from my own experience.

But above that, it's eerie. I am wondering how many of my close friends and colleagues will just be gone next year, or next month, or in two weeks when the CFA Lecturers' Council meets in Sacramento.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

another one

It's 2009, they tell me, and I've already started by Winter Term class. Winter Term tends to go by extremely quickly, and then Spring commences its interminable slog in mid-February (it actually is Spring here then, unlike in most places in the US, where "Spring" semesters begin in the middle of Winter).

I plan to put fewer things on my plate for the remainder of the Academic Year. Fall was a drag.

On the other hand, it's barely over a week before we get the governor's initial budget farce proposal farce. That'll set more sturm und drang in motion, no doubt, because of the drastic and delusional cuts he'll call for, in order to scare the legislature.