Wednesday, September 30, 2009

my philosophy of life

Sometimes, people ask me, "Hey, Doc Nagel! What's your philosophy of life?"

(See, because I'm a philosophy instructor.)

And when I answer, I say:

One of my favorite ways to spend time is, if I'm getting into an elevator, and I'm the only person in the elevator car, when the doors close, I wedge myself between two walls of the elevator car, and I shimmy up the sides until I'm braced up against the side walls up on the ceiling of the elevator, and I hang on up there, and wait. Then, when the elevator is called to a floor, and the doors open, and someone looks inside and sees me hanging up on the ceiling of the elevator car, they have that moment of hesitation, that moment of doubt. They're not sure what's going on. For all they know, I might be a criminal mastermind in the middle of a jewel heist, or I might be a crazed knife murderer who has a fetish for elevator riders, or I might be a psychiatric patient who has stopped taking his meds. They don't know I'm just a nut who likes hanging out on the ceilings of elevators.

It makes an impact.

Suddenly, their worlds have been altered, irrevocably. The world, for them, is now a place where they can't be sure they won't wait for an elevator, only to have the doors open to show them there's a guy on the ceiling, staring down at them.

They have to wonder about the world now, at least for a while. If a simple elevator ride can turn out to be such an incongruous experience, well, what next?

After a while, people stop asking.

Monday, September 28, 2009

furlough - day 2

My letter of the (furlough) day is to Chancellor Reed of the CSU. Faculty, especially in the CFA, have a lot of questions about Reed's leadership of the CSU and his commitment to fighting for funding for the CSU. So I decided I'd ask.

One important thing about this letter, from my perspective, is that it demonstrates my ability to communicate in writing - an important job skill I'll be counting on once I need to look for another form of employment.


Mr. Charles B. Reed
Chancellor, California State University
401 Golden Shore
Long Beach, CA 90802

September 28, 2009

Dear Chancellor Reed,

I am a full-time lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at California State University, Stanislaus – just one of the 23 underfunded campuses in the CSU system. I have taught here for eleven years, and contributed my time and energy to the university through uncompensated scholarship and service, just like many of my fellow lecturer colleagues routinely do.

Today is my second furlough day this academic year. I am taking the time today to write to you urging that you take a more active role advocating for the good of the CSU. Let me remind you of your words when announcing the higher education funding “compact” you agreed to with Governor Schwarzenegger:

“Gov. Schwarzenegger is to be congratulated for his exceptionally strong commitment to higher education, particularly given that the state still is experiencing fiscal difficulties. He clearly knows CSU’s and UC’s impact on the state’s economy, and recognizes that to keep the state strong, higher education must continue to produce graduates for the workforce and to provide research capabilities and community service that benefit the state and its residents,” said CSU Chancellor Reed.

This quotation, from the CSU press release of May 11, 2004, indicates your belief that the Governor understands the importance of the CSU to our students and to the state’s economy and fiscal well-being. However, it now appears that the CSU is not a significant spending priority for the governor at all. The governor, and the legislature, must be made to account for these decisions.

Instead, the CSU has offered employee furloughs and increased student fees. These are not solutions for the CSU’s long-term funding.

You, more than anyone else, are in a position to speak on behalf of the CSU. You, more than anyone else, should understand the significant role the CSU plays in the economic and social well-being of all Californians.

You are tasked with being a steward for the interests of the entire California State University system. This means, I believe, that you have a responsibility to advocate the common interest of the students, faculty, staff, and administrators of the CSU. That common interest is stated well in the Mission of the California State University:

  • To advance and extend knowledge, learning, and culture, especially throughout California.
  • To provide opportunities for individuals to develop intellectually, personally, and professionally.
  • To prepare significant numbers of educated, responsible people to contribute to California's schools, economy, culture, and future.
  • To encourage and provide access to an excellent education to all who are prepared for and wish to participate in collegiate study.

Chancellor Reed, I submit to you that respect for this mission demands a commitment to work to fully fund the CSU. Do not allow the CSU budget to be slashed still further. Join the California Faculty Association in support of AB 656, to provide a guaranteed and predictable revenue stream for higher education in California. Demonstrate your support for the CSU, and your own stewardship of the CSU.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

ethical responsibility and faculty work

Before my Professional Ethics class on Monday, I found a presentation by an ethicist named Michael Davis about engineers’ ethical responsibilities in large organizations. One claim Davis made had to do with the relevance of professional ethics in large organizations. To paraphrase: large organizations exist to do large tasks. They do them by dividing them into smaller tasks and assigning them to a series of people. The more thoroughly ‘bureaucratized’ one’s work is, the less one can know about how it fits into the whole task, how it affects other people, or how one’s work affects other members of the organization.

This is entirely true of large corporations, and is a fundamental reason they exist. They limit the ethical and legal liability of individuals by spreading it throughout the organization. Some nameable engineer at Ford is less individually responsibly for deaths and injuries caused by Explorer roll-over accidents and exploding tires, because that responsibility is spread out.

Davis takes this to its logical conclusion: at a certain level of bureaucratization of tasks, professional ethics becomes impossible to retain, because the modicum of responsibility accorded each individual becomes too small to permit professional ethical standards to remain relevant.

For example, if a for-profit university were to divide up the tasks involved in teaching a class to the point where one person designed the course, someone else was responsible for ‘managing’ the course, another person ‘delivered’ the course, yet someone else graded assignments, etc., at a certain point it would be impossible for any of these people to hang on to the ethical obligations of faculty – in effect, none of them would even be faculty.

The next day, at the first Academic Senate meeting for the year, there was a presentation on the role of the academic senate and of “shared governance” in the university – faculty’s democratic right and ethical responsibility to develop academic policies. This was presented by way of an orientation for new senators, but this year the particular spin on it emphasized the faculty’s responsibility more than I recall in years past (or perhaps it was on my mind already).

The idea is that faculty, as experts in their fields and as experts in the direction of university education, have the primary responsibility for all academic and academic personnel matters affecting the university. This is essentially a claim to a professional “monopoly on service” and “self-regulation” which are basic elements to any profession’s legitimacy.

What happens, I thought, when the bureaucratic order of the university divides faculty work up into segments small enough that no one can occupy a position to take that responsibility? What becomes of the legitimacy of the claim to professional status? What becomes of the idea of ethics as applied to what employees of universities do?

So began my present inquiry into the current state of professional ethics of college faculty. I think it is vitally important to consider that the majority of college faculty in the US are part-time, and that upwards of 75% lack the security and professional autonomy afforded by tenure. In my mind, as a basic approach to the matter, these facts must make a difference in how we understand the condition of ethical responsibility of faculty. Someone in a position which precludes ethical responsibility may still have it, but exercising it or insisting upon it in those conditions makes very little practical sense, I should think.

Back to teh Interwebs, to find material on professional ethics and academia. I found that the American Association of Colleges and Universities has published this year a report on “The Future of the Professoriate.” According to a brief article in Inside Higher Ed by one of the authors of the report, the report claims that the difficult employment and work situation of academics, and the erosion of tenure, are due to a lack of understanding of and commitment to the social contract faculty have with the public. I haven’t read the report itself yet, but one of its two authors has written that the only way to restore tenure, and tenure-track faculty, is for faculty to embrace that they have a commitment to the public good, and to clarify that commitment to the public at large. The failure of faculty to do so has led to the economic conditions (withdrawal of support for public institutions being the main factor) that have undermined tenure.

Initially, this strikes me as the tail wagging the dog. I will look forward to seeing what evidence there is that faculty do not understand their work as a public service, or bound by a social contract. In any case, I have to confess that this interpretation strikes me as dubious to begin with. Few faculty I’ve ever come across, and fewer still of the majority-underclass part-time contingently serving faculty who are my closest colleagues, have seemed unaware or uncommitted to their ethical commitments to the public. In fact, in my experience, it has been those outside of academia, and some executive administrators, who have expressed this doubt and misunderstanding – not the faculty themselves.

And for the most part, also not the students we serve. Now there’s a quandary for you: If, by and large, students believe their faculty are strongly committed to serve them (their clients), and have clear and active ethical commitments to their professions, then wherefrom does the perception arise that faculty have failed in this? Could it be an artifact of the bizarre media image of college faculty as intellectual oppressors and un-fire-able political wackos? Could it be a prejudgment of persons with their own agendas, for instance against public funding of higher education? Or who demand that universities operate on the same autocratic, hierarchical principles as some of the worst-run corporations, since for some reason these are models of “success”?

I’ll be working on this a bit and posting some stuff in the coming weeks.

Monday, September 21, 2009


We went to see Crosby, Stills, and Nash on Saturday night at Ironstone Vineyards up in Murphys. The winery has lovely grounds and an amphiteater, which was sold out - about 7000 people. For some reason, I was anxious about going to the concert all last week. I'm not sure what that was about, but the anxiety dissipated as soon as the show started.

The concert was terrific. The sound quality was good, and it wasn't too loud where we were on the lawn. We were a really good audience, too, very into the show. They were just awesome performers. Given the kind of music they are known for, you wouldn't expect a high-energy sort of show. Obviously there wasn't a whole lot of jumping around dancing craziness, but the singing and playing performances had a ton of energy, just all in the music itself. David Crosby, for instance, just doesn't move around much at all, but he's still totally present in the songs themselves, particularly when he's playing.

Crosby had a bad sore throat, he explained, so he had a hell of a time, but got through the evening, and in a certain range you would never have guessed he was ailing at all. Graham Nash sounded just like Graham Nash, but Stephen Stills now sounds like Tom Waits and Bob Dylan's love child.

I don't know why, but I was not prepared to be knocked silly by their guitar playing. Stills is just excellent, and in several styles of guitar - fingerstyle, rock, blues, and folk strumming stuff. I would aspire to be that good, but I frankly don't think I ever will be. David Crosby is no slouch, either. They played two of my favorite Crosby songs - Guennevere and Deja Vu - which are both played in non-standard tunings (which I love).

CSN were the main inspiration for me to learn to play the guitar, and to play the way I do. It was excellent!

But now I am tired. We drove home after the show, and didn't get to bed until 3 am Sunday. Then I made 8 or 9 different tapas dishes on Sunday, cooking between turns of our role-play game. Then, of course, I got up for class this morning.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

my letter to Senator Denham

I wrote my letter to Jeff Denham. Denham scores 100% favorable by the California Chamber of Commerce, and a 31% rating from the Consumer Federation of California.

Dear Senator Denham,

I am writing to urge you to support improved funding of the California State University. During this time of grave economic difficulty, funding the CSU is vital to the state’s recovery from recession.

As a senator concerned with protecting the economic interests of his constituents, you must already recognize the significant role the California State University plays in the state’s economic growth. Three recent reports on the economic and fiscal impact of the CSU all agree that California receives a tremendous return on funds invested in the system. The entire northern San Joaquin valley benefits from the economic contributions of CSU Stanislaus graduates.

A well-funded CSU will extend educational opportunities to your constituents – opportunities they might otherwise not have. As you know, at CSU Stanislaus, a large proportion of our students are first-generation college students. The significance of their access to affordable, high-quality CSU education is nearly impossible to overstate. It improves their lives and the lives of their children.

The California State University contributes to the common good of all Californians. California’s historical commitment to public funding of education at all levels – in particular of higher education – was a major factor in realizing the California dream of prosperity. It has represented a unique civic partnership, renowned worldwide for its foresight, democratic spirit, and power to provide opportunity for all.

It is time to renew the promise of California. I urge you to help find the resources and revenue necessary to fully fund the California State University.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

furlough - day 1

Tomorrow is my first furlough day for the academic year. It's a non-instructional day, but seeing as how I have sworn that I will not do any university work on my furlough days, I won't be checking my email, won't attend any meetings, won't see to any student issues or questions.

What will I do?

I'm going to write a letter to my state senator, explaining why the need for furloughs is the result of the scandalous revocation of the state's commitment to funding public higher education, despite the documented 441% return on investment the state gets from the CSU. I'll probably also post that letter here.

I'm going to spend some time re-reading the Collective Bargaining Agreement between CSU and the California Faculty Association. I'm going to look into the ongoing investigations CFA is doing on how the furlough and budget cuts have been implemented, to see how I can contribute.

It's a furlough. It's a day I've been required not to work. It's not a vacation.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


The institution I affectionately call Cow State Santa Claus seems headed toward some kind of catastrophic meltdown. Relations between faculty and administration are not merely untenably volatile, they are as close to violence as could be without actual physical attacks.

I tire of recounting and documenting the strife. I'm also now, for the first time in a very long time, actually worried about retaliation for being candid. (I'm on the tenuous track - a non-tenurable lecturer.)

At the campus president's "state of the university" address today, he informed the audience that the problems at the university are the fault of faculty leadership. This parallels the recent comment of CSU Chancellor Charles Reed that the problems at Santa Claus are because the faculty here are "toxic."

The "problems" are as follows:

1) For several years, the university has been running a $4 million deficit. Suddenly, last academic year, the administration decided to solve the deficit all at once, while facing deep cuts from the California state budget crisis. Faculty objected. The administration did it anyway. Result: 187 tenuous-track faculty had their work cut or eliminated (out of 250) for this year. 114 classes were cut this fall.

2) Several junior faculty, still working through the anxious years prior to getting tenure, have received letters from administrators telling them that they are not meeting scholarship expectations, despite those faculty getting strong support from their departments and colleges. The faculty have objected, saying that this is a teaching institution, that the mission of the university and the workload of faculty must mean that research demands cannot be made to look like a Research-1 university.

3) Faculty involved in budget committees have asked, repeatedly, for several years, for budget and financial reporting information that clearly accounts for how the university spends money. Several of the faculty involved in those committees have been accounting professors. The faculty have been told, variously, that the information was already given to them, or that it does not exist, or that they do not need it, or that the information they have is sufficient already.

The president is right that faculty leadership hasn't changed all that much in the last few years - certainly not as dramatically as administration has changed. We've had 4 provosts, 4 vice-presidents of business and finance, 3 vice presidents of university advancement (the foundation leader), and countless deans, over the past 5 years. Perhaps if faculty leadership changed as rapidly as administration, faculty would have a perspective more like administration's.

[As I was writing this post, I quipped to my loveliest that I was writing a post that could get me fired. She suggested that was somehow unwise. I replied that, given the way the CSU is budgeting, I'm as likely as not to be fired, anyway. Time, undoubtedly, will tell.]

Kiss kiss.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

scientific method?

I really, really don't get it. Certain web sites seem especially prone to presenting what seem to me to be incredibly stupid ads. I can't tell which of the premises of these I find most craptastic. It might be the "Obama says...." ads with totally unrelated animated gifs on them, of a dog in a car window, or a woman talking, or this one, with a woman jogging. The ads always say that President Obama has said something about mothers going to college, or people refinancing their houses, or about reducing debt. (Nothing he's actually said, of course.)

So, what is it that makes advertisers think that having the irrelevant gif files and irrelevant reference to Obama saying something he never said would have a positive effect on their website traffic or their businesss? Have they studied this marketing ploy and drawn the conclusion that the real big money in whatever loan scam they're running is going to come from people who are, for reasons perhaps best plumbed by psychiatric medicine, motivated positively by the two women dancing crazily in an office gif? Or are they looking for people who are incapable of stopping themselves from clicking on animated gifs whenever their eyes are caught by them? Is that a good market?

I've already vented about the ads that look like links to news stories that appear on news sites. Most of them are auto fill-in scripts that put together fake headlines about the mom in [insert name of central city of metro statistical area estimated to be in region of user based on (a) IP address of browser, (b) ISP account info stored in cookie, (c) zip code stored in cookie, or (d) zip code of registered owner of IP address of site] who [(a) lost (b) earns (c) whitened her teeth] [insert (a) 47 lbs, (b) 6 lbs of fat, (c) 43 lbs, (d) $63/hr] [insert (a) following this one simple rule, (b) on the internet, (c) with this one simple secret, (d) acai berry juice, (e) herbal V 1agra!!!!!!].

Generally, they are as relevant to your own life as all the following:

Now, see, they lost me here. They needed an animated gif of somebody buying coffee and a donut, whereupon I would, of course, immediately click on the ad.

On the other hand, as idiotic as these are as advertisements, as poorly as I think they reflect on the level of creativity and initiative (and, one imagines, also profitability) of internet advertising, they operate as a rather fine index of the average American's lifestyle.