The thing about being in transition between jobs is that there's a long summer when you are part of both institutions. This means JM and I get the news announcements via email from both Illinois and Penn State. Administrators at the former--the one we are leaving--have kicked up their furlough talk from chatter last year to a formal policy (they have not yet implemented that policy, just established it in the event of a budget shortfall, which there will likely be).
I have several colleagues at other schools who were already furloughed last year. The idea of a furlough is that people are issued days without pay. At a regular office job, it would work like this: you don't show up for work, and you also do not get paid for not showing up. But in a university job, it's a little different. First off, most places tell faculty to choose their non-work day for a day they don't teach. The Illinois language, I think, is something like 'assigned by your direct supervisor.' But the language for the new Illinois policy is very clear on how much university-related labor ought to be performed during a furlough day, which is, to quote the ladies from the Bronx Beat, Zero point Zero Zero: "During an assigned furlough day, employees are required not to report to work or perform duties for the University."
And yet. Where does one draw the line between performing duties for the university and getting things done? So much of the work I do these days is for national outlets, or it is research related. Both of these things bear on my standing at my university, to be sure, but the idea of not working at all is a little silly, especially since the most obvious duty for the University--teaching--is likely to happen on a nonfurlough day. I could imagine telling students "your papers will be a week later because of the furloughs." That would probably work. But are people really going to take a day away from their research, research that could possible help them get jobs at places where furloughs aren't--or aren't yet--an issue? That's doubtful. What if someone has a dissertation defense scheduled on a furlough day? What about those who are already on sabbatical? I'll be interested to see how my friends handle the furloughed days if those days come about, which I hope they don't. If it were me I would probably be tempted to simply to say "no" to enough U-related duties to add up to the amount of time my pay was getting deducted. That's not how it's supposed to work, I know, but it would be a better marker of time for dollars.
I guess this is really just another post about the leakiness of time and the untrackability of academic labor. In the end these furloughs are really pay cuts--and temporary, in that they won't carry over from year to year--but somehow it sounds better to throw in days for the pay.
This time of year, we are a busy lot. Our email pronounces things to us. Things like good news. itinerary. reminder. favor. checking in. favor. big favor. ms. review?. urgent. We send emails with these same subject lines to others, like barely mutated viruses. We get colds. We medicate. We wonder why, with medical advances and so many medications, we still feel as if we lost an eraser up each nostril. We quickly skim the surfaces of each other's lives
via facebook and blogs. With others we have drinks and think through more important matters with the kind of attention they deserve. We join
groups online that cohere around fleeting desires. We attend
curriculum meetings; we shuffle papers; we receive news about the dire budget situation; we read first-person columns in the
Chronicle detailing problems with one aspect or another of our jobs, the framing of which make the authors seem virtuous, suspiciously so. Some of ussneer. Others of us snort. Others of us wring our hands as if we wrote the column and are about to be discovered. Maybe we did. Maybe we are.
Some of us check email incessantly andcultivate reputations for our lightening-quick response
time. Others of us ignore email for days and days. This slowly drives us fast
responders insane and perhaps it serves us right for not having a more full life. We stand in front of classrooms, looking out upon distracted faces, formerly chatty and bright young adults whose slouching
seems to have deepened as the semester goes on, turning to slumping after the
end of daylight savings time, when even the reasonably timed afternoon classes
spill us out into darkness.
We try with varying degrees of success to conceal
our weariness. Some of us act more beset than others. Others have little patience for the contest of who is busiest. We are all very tired; this is the point. We read Nietzsche and wonder why more people don't think this
way. We are very tired, but we wake up at 3 am and can't go back to sleep. Our days become shorter. We begin to feel out of touch with our research, which in turn makes us
restless. Those of us who are on leave feel their euphoria giving way to a vague anxiety about not having done enough. To steel ourselves and remind ourselves of a more productive time, or to postpone beginning that conference paper we proposed in some spring haze, we check on the status of manuscripts we
submitted at the end of summer, when everything seemed bright and fresh, and turnaround times could be counted in weeks, not months. We get
cheerful but vague replies from overworked editors and/or their overworked
assistants about how they are still waiting. We wait. We unroll our lunchbags
and chew on cold sandwiches. We attend afternoon talks and fend off
sleep by snickering at our colleagues who nod off in the front row.
Soon (though not soon enough) it will be time for thanksgiving break. Some of us will travel a long way for a big meal, while others of us will lay around all week, catching up, peeking at our research, falling into slumbers, rousing ourselves only to make soup and bread and eat turkey and pie, all in an effort to regroup somehow.
After two awesome brunch events today, I just got around to reading the Sunday Times, and the front page section left me a feeling a little sad. Such a response to the Sunday Times is not really surprising. What is surprising is that a national paper left me feeling sad about my own university. The U of Illinois appears in two A-section articles, one about Max Levchin, the creator of Paypal, who graduated from here in 1997, and who was recently made a very, very rich young man when ebay bought his company. The other one focuses on the University's decision to reverse the Illiniwek ban for the Homecoming parade.
To be honest, I was sad about the Levchin story even before I got to the part where they mentioned his degree, and I was sad about the other story long before it hit the Times (okay, about 48-hours before; this was a last-minute decision). While the news that Levchin was a state-school grad heartened me a little, his own hollowed-out notion of success left me feeling a little dead inside.
Those of you who saw the article know that it's really about Levchin's aimless ambition. How a follow-up venture will feel like a failure to him unless it yields more than Paypal's 1.54 billion. How he claims to take "'a perverse pleasure in seeing if [he] could make someone cry.'" How he would "'probably think about slitting [his] wrists'" if he couldn't start businesses. How he growls when a rival company's name is mentioned. And yet none of this ambition is really all that directed; the article quotes him as saying "I knew I wanted to be a C.E.O, I just didn't know the C.E.O. of what."
That kind of roving and empty urge to conquer feels structurally very similar to the photo of students bearing "Chief Forever" signs in the parade article a few pages later. The people quoted in the article seem to bobble their heads and contradict themselves--what do you expect when the University is not itself solid on the issue? One senior says "'To me it is a very honorable and loyal symbol . . . I love the chief and I wish it was still here, but I also understand how it can be offensive. Now I want to know, is he around or not around? What's the decision?"
Even worse than the University's turnabout is the student newspaper's decision not to publish an editorial on the chancellor's decision about the rule reversal. Daily Illini staff would also not comment to the Times. What?! Sadly, I don't think such lack of engagement is limited to student newspapers, but is pretty widespread on this campus and perhaps others.
Backing away from real, hard issues signifies a refusal to get people to really think about what is right and what is wrong and fails to develop tools that might help to determine one's values and formulate ethical stances. Such refusal might be one contributor to the lostness of someone like Levchin.
The movie "Stranger than Fiction," in addition to Will Ferrell, the main character who is, well, a main character, also features Dustin Hoffman playing an English professor, a literary critic who has taught an entire course on the phrase "little did he know." Hoffman's character is busy--teaching five courses in addition to advising doctoral students (!) and serving as the faculty lifeguard (JM's favorite feature of the character's c.v.)--all the while writing about what the script rather ineptly calls "literature theory." Hoffman's character ends up being the most hubristic of the bunch--even, in the end, more hubristic than the omniscient narrator/author (Emma Thompson)--because unlike her (the author), he (the critic/theorist) believes a masterpiece is worth dying for.
At the end of a typical week, this character with his five-five/doctoral advising/lifeguarding load would have given me a good chuckle. And it did that, but this has not been a typical week, and so there is, it turns out, a rather dark side to the portrayal of Hoffman. In the aftermath of the tragedy at Virginia Tech, one can't help but notice one of the minor characters--in fact a whole set of minor characters--in the media blitz has turned out to be English professors. For the most part, the writing teachers who had Sueng-Hui Cho in class have been presented in a sympathetic light, as people who encouraged him to seek counseling and even contacted the authorities.
In response to the piece, some rather ill-informed commenters claim, variously, that the English profs were "out of their league"; the department "punching way out of its weight class" by taking the matter into their hands (ftr, these folks fail to realize that the very point of the task force was to help get Cho professional help by those qualified, but that gets clarified by other commenters). One commenter who calls herself Kelly and is--or claims to be--"a scholar and clinician who has published extensively in the areas of
social deviance, criminal justice, and the personality of psychopathy," lashes out at the English profs with comments like these:
"It does not surprise me, nor does it surprise any of my colleagues
(some of whom have been on interviewed [sic] in the national media), that an
English Dept. had the hubris to imagine it could somehow keep an eye on
"Kelly" goes on to ascribe partial blame to the English department for its "hubristic" behavior, for what she reads as the professors' collective belief that a task force replaces mental health care (again: no VTech English prof that I've seen interviewed ever purported to believe in such a replacement). Now, it's tempting to shove aside Kelly's response as one among a thousand desperate and blaming responses--and for the most part that's what I choose to do.
But I am pretty interested in the particular conception of English professors that Kelly holds and that she obviously hasn't just conjured out of the air. It is a conception that the makers of "Stranger than Fiction" toy with--that Hoffman's levity depends on--and it is one I have encountered in countless campus or mixed-discipline meetings: the overly-confident, overly-favored, underqualified English department, the place where 'expertise' is at worst not expertise at all and at best irrelevant. Sometimes it's what people say, as when a classicist once said "how is it that the ENGLish department gets all the students? what do THEY offer that we don't?" Or the paleontologist who asked me "what do you research in English, METAPHORS?" But most times it's how they say it--"The ENGLish department"--as if the enormity of the egos can only be balanced by the wispy triviality of its subject matter, the stressed ENG by the lightweight "ish," held together by the stretchy, gummy L.
And while the cultural conceptions of English professors is pretty far from the most important issue to come to the fore last week (see this post for my thoughts on that), Kelly's and others' finger-pointing arguments rest on some troubling misconceptions about what we English professors do and who we think we are.
I stopped in to the bike store yesterday to buy a new seat, and upon my asking about whether all seats fit all seat posts, the bike store guy replied, well if it doesn't work out for you, bring it back. Then his eyes shot up from the register: but if you scuff it, it's yours.
No problem, I said. Okay, he said. Then he handed me my change and with wild eyes and no prompting from me began to outline his plan to shield the U of I from a Va Tech-like tragedy. It involved a five-siren alarm system, with each sound indicating something different. Terrorists, firearms, gangs, he listed. I zipped up my backpack and told him about our department's emergency calling tree--something I've found irrationally comforting of late--but he waved me off: they do it for tornadoes and fires. Why not for other danger.
He has a point, I guess. Campuses are so spread out, like cities. Email is probably not the answer--too silent, too ignorable; email comes from old people, E's students at RIT tell her. What happens when a killer is loose in a city? Emergency broadcasts, those painfully-pitched, unchanged-from-the seventies beeps that would cut into so many radio songs. For campuses, figuring out a way to pipe an emergency bulletin through ipods and cell phones might be a good start. Someone should get on that. (Yes I know it might not be possible. This is my point.)
The thing is, my gun control rant notwithstanding, I have a hard time imagining how something like this could have been--or could be--prevented. The U of I chancellor's message about the event, urging cautious awareness, pretty much captures how difficult it is to anticipate and respond to snap-occurrences. In this case so many snaps happened--in Cho's faculties, in the chain padlock, in the glock magazine. They snapped.
But what is the bike shop guy to do besides think and plan? Campus officials and teachers and mental health workers and politicians should all think and plan as those freakishly-staged images Cho made of himself and his bullets loop on tv and the internet, the stuff of a crapass, unimaginative horror flick. And we'll work through, maybe try to change things that--here's a useful southernism--might could make a difference, no one can know.
When I went in to my class this morning, where the students had already self-organized into their presentation planning groups, we made screwy wtf faces at the newly-missing glass on the window to our door. Some laughed a little as a late arrival peered in to the blank space that used to be glass. There are still shards hanging from the top, but that's it--it's not clear what happened, but an administrator walked by muttering about vandalism.
One student raised his hand to ask if the groups might be able to meet outside, and I looked at them all packed into the classroom, then at the bright outside and said "absolutely." But instead of packing up and heading for the door they all just kind of looked at me. I could tell they were thinking about what happened yesterday, and so I just said that it seemed like we were all feeling a little clingy after what happened at Virginia Tech--me included--and that's understandable. One outspoken student said she was scared to come to class, and I just nodded and said I knew. The students started looking around the classroom, at the walls and the windows, the room silent with imagining, and so I told them it's probably best to head outside. I've never so welcomed the zips and shuffles, students packing their things.
Today on our dog walk, JM mentioned to me that there's another column in The Chronicle of Higher Ed about partner hires, an issue near but not-so-dear to my heart. Note that I said MY heart, and not OUR heart. That's important for part of this discussion later.
Perhaps it goes without saying, but partner and spousal hiring is fraught at best for everyone involved. It's never going to be perfect, and I don't think it should be. But I really doubt if it's going to disappear as an issue in the profession. I want to say at the outset that no department should ever be expected to hire a couple just because they are a couple. The decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis and should probably follow departmental custom. The absence of such a custom is sometimes frustrating for people in the department and for partners.
But the account of partners on which much of such decision making depends can be hugely problematic and can bear very little relation to, well, a whole lot of relationships. Let's take some statements from the column written by the person who calls himself "Joseph Kay." (As for the pseudonym, please tell me a department chair isn't trying to make a Kafka-esque joke. That's just terrible.)
Statement One (this one goes on a bit):
The primary problem with a single department hiring both members of an
academic couple is that the department can't know in advance how the
two will function as a pair. Will they always vote together and voice
the same views during meetings? For the purposes of governance, would
we be hiring two individuals or two individuals acting as one?
Moreover, even if the partners are hired by two different programs (our
department has many programs) so their vote in any one program would be
limited, those two programs' meetings could no longer be considered
confidential once a couple was on board. The opinions expressed in
either program's meetings would potentially become common knowledge in
the second program. ... The problems created by hiring couples seem real and substantial:
couples voting together on tenure cases and other departmental issues,
sharing information between programs, and diluting or otherwise
altering one another's positions. ... Can a department head give widely disparate evaluations to both
partners without causing an extra and entirely unneeded morale problem?
One disgruntled member of a couple can persuade the other not to
cooperate with the department, or can dampen the other member's
This has to be the most paranoid, conservative account of a couple I've come across, and what is more, this reads more like an account of bad colleagues than of colleagues who are married or partnered to each other. Just because people are in a relationship does not mean they think exactly the same way about everything. In fact, get this: JM and I don't even have exactly the same stance on partner hiring. Couples don't necessarily form voting blocs, nor do they necessarily divulge confidential information. I know quite well some academic couples in my department, one hired under the auspices of our campus's dual career academic couples program, and one that became a couple after being hired separately who--gasp!--observe the bounds of confidentiality within their respective couplehoods (for lack of a better word). There are lots of reasons not to divulge everything from a meeting, reasons such as protecting other colleagues (including a spouse or partner); and also needing to talk about something besides work occasionally. Can't speak for JM, but I'd rather talk about cutting my fingernails than hear about some meeting of his. I'm in enough of my own.
What's more, formation of voting blocs and breaches of confidentiality ought to be considered important issues for everyone. Which is to say I have colleagues who will divulge all manner of confidential information to people they're not even sharing a house with. Huh! And Kay seems to be dramatically overestimating the power of two votes anyway--to really be effective, a voting bloc ought to probably consist of more than two votes. And believe me, I have many colleagues who regularly assemble real voting blocs.
Love is grand but if you
are a graduate student, don't marry or become attached to someone in
your field. It's a mistake that is going to make your job search much
more difficult than it already will be. It can cost you a job you
really want, and thus put a strain on the marriage/relationship as well
as on the job search.
I mean, come on. This person obviously knows very little about how relationships frequently form. My fingers and toes wouldn't be enough to count the number of people who have met and fallen for each other in the context of work (not just academia, but especially academia). Or, as in my case, met outside of the academic context (in this case hoops), and then had to, as he puts it, "deal with the consequences." As one of our (thankfully) kindhearted deans put it to me when discussing our situation, "People meet each other. Happens all the time."
JK's statement rivals the patronizing statements that JM and I encountered in various places this year, though it's a little more forthright. If I wanted a department head's advice on relationships, I would have asked. Thanks though!
And there is always the issue of what happens if the couple splits up.
The presence of an embittered former husband and wife, or former
partners, does not make for collegial relations and a happy department.
What effect might two or three such former couples, then, have on a
I offer this statement because I actually think this is one of JK's better points, only not for the reasons he provides. It's often a helpful gauge for a faculty to ask themselves whether the spouse or partner who is being considered would be a welcome addition apart from the relationship he or she is in. As one administrator put it about another couple, "What if they break up and [the person we originally hired] leaves?" Well, that's a darned good question, and it is, I contend, a useful thought experiment when considering two people as a package deal.
What I am not saying is that departments should always accommodate spousal and partner hiring requests. There are some very good reasons not to do so in particular cases. It's just that JK doesn't hit on very many of them. As illustration, I offer you
Should there be policies for unmarried partners similar to those for
married couples? Does a department owe a candidate's boyfriend or
girlfriend a tenure-track job? A visiting or adjunct position can be
provided if it will make the move easier and the department badly wants
But the probability of a break-up is much higher in the case of an
unmarried couple than in the case of married couples, and so the
department is taking a risk should it offer a tenure-track job to a
member of an unmarried couple.
This statement carries the distinction of being both ridiculous and painfully heterosexist. There are couples who aren't allowed to get married in this country, and others who either choose not to or wouldn't if they could for very good feminist reasons. Furthermore, JK obviously doesn't know how easy it is to get a divorce, and how difficult and painful it is to break up a relationship after several years regardless of whether that couple had a ceremony to celebrate the relationship or (when possible) made it legally binding. And how if a relationship didn't mean that much to someone, that person would most likely not risk their professional reputation and good standing in the department in order to have a spouse or partner considered. What is more, the language of "owing" again sets up all spousal/partner accommodation requests as requests stemming from entitlement. If someone demands a spousal or partner hire without good arguments or leverage in place--and even with good arguments or leverage if the request takes the form of a demand--then that person is probably not a very good colleague to have.
Statement Five: Affirmative-action guidelines should be changed to require a candidate
needing a spousal or partner hire to say so in the application letter
or during the initial interview. It is very poor practice, as some
candidates have done, to take off a wedding ring or to otherwise
mislead the hiring department into thinking that a candidate is single
until the moment an offer is made.
This suggestion is tantamount to asking people to invite discrimination. And it is also ludicrous. A hiring committee can't be expected to anticipate a couple's decision any more than it can anticipate whether someone will take a position at University X over University Y. JM and I went on the market this year knowing that we might end up commuting--even seeing commuting between universities where we each hold tenured or tenure-track positions as perhaps a better alternative to our current jobs. Following JK's advice across the board would mean looking at someone and saying "so, how do you feel about discriminating against someone for their marital status?" And what's more, why take someone
through our logic--logic that it took a few years for us to develop ourselves, and that depends on lots of other choices we've made in our lives, together and separately--before an offer is even extended? Doing so risks seeming rather arrogant, if you ask me.
On the market this year, JM and I each shared information about our situation with some people at some schools and not with others. Some know me well enough to know that I'm married, so I didn't see the point in concealing it. Others I felt would best know what to do with the information because they know the department's customs, and they didn't let me down. At one of JM's schools, though--a place where we would have LOVED to have a second home--somehow knew about me, and on his campus visit one person there asked him a pointed question about me that was at worst painfully awkward and at best just flat-out illegal.
And for the record, JM and I don't even own wedding rings. That
decision may drive my Aunt Carol batty, but it really should be none of
my colleagues' or prospective colleagues' business.
In all, though, Joseph Kay's take on partner hiring is short-sighted, heteronormative, and pretty darned anti-feminist. It seems tacitly based on an outdated model of partner hiring, which is to say spousal hiring, wherein the high-powered man seeks a position for his wife. In fact, I'd say the newer formations--same sex couples, women and men with spouses--is really what's throwing JK for a loop.
This is not to pretend, however, that spousal and partner hiring is easy, nor--I'll repeat it--should it be. But please, if you are JK or have allowed the sort of assumptions about 'academic couples' that form the bulk of his column, please spare us all the advice on love. And for the love of liberty, don't try to rewrite affirmative action laws in the interests of bureaucratic tidiness.