Faculty, community members, students and families arrived by snow machine, plane, or dog sled, or walked across frozen seas from surrounding villages. This is graduation in the Arctic at Chukchi campus, the northernmost branch in the University of Alaska System. Today, at commencement, it is a sunny and crisp 33 degrees. Younger residents don T-shirts and shorts.
Chukchi is situated in a place unimagined by most in higher education. The college, in Kotzebue, a settlement of 3,000 people, clings stubbornly to a gravel outcrop on the edge of the Chukchi Sea, where flat snow-covered tundra meets icy waters. Kotzebue is accessible by boat or air during three summer months; and by air, snow machine and sled in the winter.
Residents, students, and faculty live peacefully without ordinary facilities such as a dry cleaner, saloons, discos, or a car dealership. There are more snow machines and dogs than cars in Kotzebue. The town includes an airstrip for bush pilots. People headed to the landfill must pause for incoming and outgoing planes the way most students in America pause at a stop sign, looking for approaching vehicles. An itinerant hairdresser visits once each month and folks desiring a haircut schedule appointments. Only in late June and July are seagoing barges able to deliver gasoline. The price per gallon, nearly $6, remains until gas is delivered again this summer. Gas prices are expected to jump several dollars this July.
Life’s daily rituals and conveniences are all more extreme in the Arctic.
Kotzebue was founded in the late 1800s by the German Lt. Otto Von Kotzebue, sailing under the Russian flag. For 600 years the Inupiat Native occupied the area, trading ivory, baleen, various skins, wool, beads, bone tools and baskets with interior Natives and ocean visitors. As Russian traders and New England whalers introduced alcohol, firearms and disease during the 18th and 19th centuries, culture and commerce took a different turn.
Well-meaning missionaries, who endeavored to convince the “heathen” they were devil worshippers, also arrived. One legacy of exploration in the Arctic is, sadly, reflected in low rates of educational achievement for young men, and high rates of suicide, substance abuse and domestic violence, all problems that have been acknowledged by the elders and Alaska native leaders.
Graduation and commencement are celebratory as they are throughout the United States. There is great pride in finishing degrees. Chukchi campus also serves villages in the surrounding areas, through distance education programs. Students earn associate degrees, bachelor's and master's degrees.
The University of Alaska system is one of the few institutions that reaches inhabitants in rural and remote regions of the Arctic. UA scholars also engage in high-quality research on climate change, sustainable energy sources, high-latitude agriculture and in many other fields. On this day there are 20 hours of sunlight. Soon the sun will stay above the horizon for nearly a month; a far cry from winter, where, for a month or so, the suns rays rarely break the horizon, darkness prevails and temperatures sometimes drop to 100 degrees below zero. Residents are primarily Inupiat, joined by people of Asian, Siberian Yupik and Caucasian descent. Many are presently hunting waterfowl, seals and whales. For commencement, we are welcomed with muktuk, a specially cut section of whale blubber and skin -- a prized delicacy here.
On the graduation platform, as caribou meander outside, each graduate tells a story, each becoming a commencement speaker. Some depict amazing journeys through time and distance. Words are also spoken by students born into a U.S. territory, prior to Alaska statehood in 1959. There are palpable signs of relief and joy about obtaining degrees, even as the changing physical environment forebodes a warning more immediate than the tight job market.
Polar bears are moving south and inland in search of food, one apparent result of the shrinking sea ice. Tell the whale and walrus hunter that global warming is untrue or overstated and risk a reaction of confused or mournful anger. In the Arctic, the debate on climate change loses its polemical steam. Seas are opening, temperatures are rising, glaciers are retreating, villages and languages are disappearing. Whether present conditions result from anthropogenic influences, or Earth’s natural cycles, is of little consequence.
The graduation story at Chukchi is similar to what has occurred in America over the last 250 years. Alaska is the newest end point of an engaging American story. After all, Philadelphia, Boston and New York, like Kotzebue, were wilderness towns, claimed for their economic potential by European monarchs and the Dutch West India Company, the first multinational corporation. Resources were taken out of Colonial America; public policy was dictated by powerful external corporate entities.
The history of the U.S., like Alaska, has been a triumph of local control and self rule over benevolent outsiders. People came to Alaska to be free, to escape prejudice and conformity, to transcend the icy stares of those who admonish us to fit in and lament our lack of qualifications to do so. Others were brought as slaves. Indigenous peoples suffered tragically as history repeats itself.
Alaska today remains a place where dreams are made through hard work and second chances. Kotzebue itself is a town that encourages people to start anew, to conquer adversity, and to strike out in ways not normally accepted.
Which brings me to my topic this commencement; the triumph of the human spirit in extreme places. Extremes nourish the creative spirit. Indeed, extremes on the frontier underpin the most essential traits in the American character: restless inquisitiveness, exuberant confidence, a masterful grasp of the practical, pragmatism, an acute sense of destiny.
Through adaptation and resilience, we overcome personal and physical challenges. We change the future by changing ourselves in the present. An extreme place is the common denominator. Inevitably extreme places sustain different life styles, new businesses and ideas. Alaska is a creative place. I am certain this trait is linked to a highly competitive environment where life’s essentials, shelter, food and community are hard won and cannot be taken for granted.
Commencement at Chukchi represents the possibility of a new beginning. Life can be lonely and harsh, but it is precisely the juxtaposition of challenge, opportunity and freedom that draws us here. In extreme situations can we learn to live in harmony or test our potential as human beings.
Daniel J. Julius is vice president for academic affairs for the University of Alaska System of Higher Education.
Raymond leaned back in his desk chair and let out a deep sigh. He was beginning to accept the fact that he wouldn't find a job this go-round. He reached into the bottom left drawer of his darkly patinated, sturdy old wooden desk and pulled out a bottle of Wild Turkey. He poured two fingers of his familiar solace into an unwashed coffee mug, and surveyed his future.
It was already April. He could easily defend his dissertation and officially receive his Ph.D. this spring if he wanted to. But since it didn't look like he was getting any job as a real professor, it might be a better strategy to wait and graduate next fall or spring. Some schools might look askance at his job applications next year if he had unaccounted-for post-Ph.D. time on his vitae. And, lord knows, schools were all too eager to find any perceived imperfection. It helped them weed out some of the hundreds of applications they received from the hordes of jobless Ph.D.'s. So, he decided, he shouldn't officially get the degree yet, unless something developed quickly on the employment front.
But what would he do next year? He'd been a graduate student for seven years, and, barring some last minute need for an emergency replacement, his department wasn't going to give him another teaching assignment. He just might get part-time teaching work at one of the several universities in the area, but there were no guarantees. He might well end up working at a grocery store, or a bar, or, if things went really badly, at a convenience store or fast food place. He shuddered, thinking of the injustice of one of the bright young minds in his field selling beer and cigarettes to the scum of the earth, or asking some imbecile if he wanted fries with his order.
Raymond stared out the window of his office for a few minutes, morosely sipping his whiskey and imagining the very worst possible scenarios.
When he turned back to his computer, he was surprised to find a job listing glowing on the screen with what seemed to be an unusual luminosity. It was all the more peculiar since he was sure he'd turned off the computer before pouring his drink. Yet there it was.
Job Listing #666. University of Hell at Seventh Circle. Visiting Assistant Professor, two years (with possibility of converting to tenure-track position at culmination of two-year appointment). Beginning September 2009. Teaching load of forty-three courses per semester, with no more than thirty-nine preparations (i.e. instructor will teach more than one section of some courses). No official committee duties, but will be expected to contribute occasionally to departmental administrative work. Competitive salary, given local economy. Candidate must exhibit evidence of strong potential for both research and teaching, and significant flexibility in his/her expectations. For further information, repeat the name “Mizrakreth, Chair of Hiring Committee” three times.
Raymond stroked his chin thoughtfully. After a minute he began chanting “Mizrakreth...” After all, it couldn't hurt just to get a bit more information.
Patrick looked up at Raymond. “What do you mean, 'University of Hell?'”
“You know, Hell. They apparently have some colleges down there.”
Patrick took his feet off the chair that students used when they visited during office hours, then kicked the chair a few inches and nodded at it, as an invitation to sit. “So your question is whether I think you should apply for a job in Hell?”
“Yes, right,” Raymond said, seating himself.
“Hell, the site of eternal torment for the souls of the damned.”
“Given that particular description of the place, an obvious answer seems to suggest itself.”
“No, come on. Seriously.”
“Do you have some reason to think that I'm not being serious when I recommend that you not freely choose to enter Hell?” Patrick asked.
“I know, I know, I dismissed it too at first. But put aside your preconceptions for a minute.”
“They're pretty deeply ingrained.”
Raymond ignored the comment, and explained, “Sure, it's Hell. And that's a minus. But at least it's an academic job. I mean, yes, there's the damnation and torment aspect, but at least I won't have wasted the last seven years of my life. I'll be using my education, you know?”
Patrick scratched at a spot in the middle of his forehead, and slightly scrunched his face. “How can I express this? You seem not to be recognizing something ... this is ... it's, it's HELL! People don't want to go to Hell! Very significant numbers of people restructure their entire lives so as to avoid going to this very place that you're eagerly traipsing off to! Are you crazy?”
Raymond's neck and cheeks flushed slightly. “Sure, you can afford to be a snob, with your job already in the bag. We can't all get cushy, hot shot jobs like yours,” he said, rising from the chair. “Excuse me for not living up to your lofty standards.”
Patrick held his hands out, palms up, and said, “What are you talking about? I got a one-year job at Eastern South Dakota State College. I have to teach four courses a semester. It'll be hell!”
Raymond bit his lower lip.
Patrick cleared his throat, “Uh, not literally Hell, of course. Sorry.”
In the silence that followed, Raymond reseated himself. Staring at the floor, he said, “I guess four courses a term is a lot, compared to some places.”
“And, ah, what's the teaching load in Hell?” Patrick asked.
“It's pretty heavy.”
“More than four?”
“More than five? Ray, how many courses do you have to teach?”
“Thirty-something, forty-something, I forget.”
“Thirty or forty per YEAR?”
“What are you talking about? Raymond, there are some professors who go through an entire, long, fruitful, distinguished career and then retire barely having taught forty classes! It's not humanly possible to teach that many per semester!”
“But it's not that many preps. Mizrakreth said that sometimes you only have to prepare twenty or so courses, then for some of your courses you just teach the same material from the same notes.”
“And Mizrakreth is...?”
“Chair of the hiring committee. A mid-level sub-demon. He seemed pretty upfront about the whole thing. Admitted it was a heavy teaching load, but he pointed out some advantages, too.”
“Well, of course, it is a job in humanities, and you know they're not easy to come by. Besides that, the teaching could be a plus in a way. I'll teach a bunch of different courses, and that can only look good on my vitae. And it sounds like, in recent years, there's more of a trend for people to get good jobs after working a year or two as visiting professors, instead of right out of grad school.”
“So it's a temporary job?”
“Oh, sure. A two-year. I wouldn't want to live there forever. But you have to pay your dues nowadays. And I assume I could leave after just one year if I really don't like it.”
“Does the contract say that?”
“I haven't actually seen the official contract yet. There's a lot of red tape down there, apparently. Mizrakreth said it would probably be okay, we'd have to play it by ear.”
“I'd get it in writing,” Patrick advised. “They might be sticklers.”
Raymond nodded. “Anyway, from what Mizrakreth said, it's not as bad down there as the media makes people think. They've really been working on improving the place.”
“Wouldn't that defeat the whole 'eternal torment' business?”
“Look, a lot of places have worked on being more livable. Cleveland, Pittsburgh,” Raymond said. “Newark, I think.”
“None of which are located in the netherworld per se. Nor designed for the express purpose of providing unremitting agony for the residents. I hardly think Hell is that interested in urban planning, or sprucing things up.” Noticing Raymond's dour look, Patrick softened his tone. “At least don't sign anything until you've visited the campus.”
“That's kind of a problem, actually. They don't have the money to bring people in for on-campus interviews for temporary jobs. If it was a tenure-track job, that'd be a different story. The economy down there hasn't been so good lately.”
“So what's the pay, anyway?”
“Well, Mizrakreth wasn't sure. It's not really his decision. The administration'll decide, based on my experience, etcetera. But he assured me it'll be competitive.”
“Read the fine print, okay?”
A pudgy, youngish man with curly blond hair walked into the room and set his backpack on a desk by the door. “What's up?” he asked.
“Raymond's thinking of applying for a job in Hell,” Patrick answered.
The pudgy man paused, looking at their faces to see if they were joking. After a few seconds, he asked, “Tenure track?”
“Naw,” Raymond answered. “Two-year.”
“Those can be rough. You just get settled in, you have to move again.”
“It could be converted to tenure-track after two years, though, if everything works out.”
Patrick raised his hand and said, “Which of course would mean spending more time in Hell.”
“Still,” the pudgy man said, “Tenure-track is tenure-track.”
“Karen, we need to talk,” Raymond said.
He was sitting on her couch, holding the last slice of the pizza they'd ordered. She sat in her favorite chair, nearby. They had just finished watching a syndicated rerun of The Simpsons. Karen turned to look at him, and, as always, he was struck by the intensity of her gaze. It seemed like all illusions would wither under the force of her intelligent, gray eyes. He wondered, not for the first time, if he was crazy to leave her. Though he truly cared about her, he comforted himself with the thought that there'd be other women. What was important right now was not to hurt her any more than was unavoidable.
Setting down his pizza, he asked, “Remember that two-year job I told you I applied for, a week or so ago?”
“Sure. The Hell job.”
“Right.” He hesitated. “They offered it to me, and I think I'm going to take it.”
She nodded slowly.
Raymond continued, thoughtfully, “So, we've talked before about what we'd do if I got a job somewhere. I guess what we decided was that it depended partly on how far away it was and how workable a long-distance relationship would be.”
“And Hell is really far away,” Karen said. “I guess it is, anyway. Is it another dimension, or what?”
“Yeah, a different plane. So, I guess it seems to me that we shouldn't try to keep up a monogamous relationship. In the end, it doesn't seem like a good idea to me. But how do you feel about it?”
“You're right,” she said after thinking a moment. “And it's not like we haven't seen this coming. To be honest, I can't say I'd be that enthusiastic about visiting you down there. I think the best thing is probably to say we don't have any commitments.”
“None at all, you mean?” Raymond asked, then quickly added, “Right, you're right. No commitments. Although it's not as if I have plans to meet a lot of women in Hell or anything. How much dating could there be?” He absently picked up the slice of pizza and took a bite, then added, “I suppose that in Hell in general, there might be some orgies and things, but nothing appealing.”
“Didn't you say it was in the seventh circle of Hell?” Karen asked.
“Right. University of Hell at Seventh Circle.”
Karen slightly shook her head, and said, “Probably no orgies there. Lust, carnal sins, that stuff's supposedly on the earlier levels. Second or third circle, I think.”
“Really? It's all divided up like that?”
“Well, I don't know this. It's just vague memories of stuff I've read. The seventh circle is supposedly for violent criminals, murderers and the like.”
“Also, it's hot. Flaming cinders falling from the sky, river of boiling blood, burning deserts. Again, 'supposedly.' This is all just hearsay.”
Raymond had been chewing his bite of pizza for a long time. Now he swallowed.
Karen put her hand on his reassuringly. “Like I said, this is not reliable information. Maybe it's not like that at all.”
Raymond nodded stoically.
“Do you like succubus?” Karen asked.
“Succubus?” Raymond asked. He tilted his head, and said, “Well, sure, you know I like...”
“No, that's not what 'succubus' means,” Karen said. “They're some kind of female demon. Actually, maybe the plural is 'succubi.' They might be available.”
“I don't know about that,” Raymond said. “But I'm not even thinking about women down there. I'll be so busy teaching, I won't have any free time.”
“The regular women, I mean the damned ones, they'd probably have some complexion problems. You know, blisters, charring. From the heat. If they have bodies at all. Maybe they're not corporeal.”
Raymond sat silently for a while, then picked up a napkin and wiped his mouth.
Karen reached over and squeezed his free hand and said, “Sorry. Let's not talk about it any more.” She moved to sit next to him, and put her arm around his shoulders. “I hope things work out for you, Raymond. I really do.”
Raymond ran into the mouth of the cave to escape the swirling firestorm. Burning flakes of ash had completely ruined his sportcoat. He'd been shielding his pile of syllabuses by hunching over them as he ran, but now they spontaneously burst into flame from the ambient heat. He dropped the syllabuses and blew on his fingers, muttering “Damn!” He quickly looked around, not sure if he might incur some special penalty for saying that word here.
His students were already there waiting for him in the cave/classroom. It didn't look like a promising bunch. There were indeed a great many unpleasant blisters, and various other wounds and scars. Some students were chained to their iron seats, and Raymond could hear and smell their flesh sizzling. They produced small streams of either smoke or steam, which would no doubt distract the other students. Most everyone was moaning, which also did not contribute to the learning environment. There were three students whose eyes had been gouged out, leaving gaping, bloody sockets. Raymond couldn't see how this was related to the heat, and guessed they must be transfer students. To accommodate them, Raymond made a mental note to be sure to repeat all his main points in a clear voice, even if he wrote them on the board. In the corner was a humanoid-looking tree. Its bark smoldered, and it groaned.
Raymond walked to the front of the room. He tried to introduce himself, but was drowned out by ghastly wails from beyond the rough-hewn rock wall. He put his mouth near the wall and shouted, “Excuse me!” repeatedly, and then, “Hey, we're having a class here!” He accidentally brushed his lip against the wall, and jerked his head back in pain. A blister was already forming on his lip from the hot stone, and his shouting hadn't affected the racket next door. In the second row, a woman's hair caught fire.
“Tough crowd,” he said under his breath, and shook his head. Then, “Two years, two years.” He tried very hard to remember if converting the job to tenure track was his option, or the administration's.
Richard Dean wrote this story well before applying for his current job at the American University of Beirut, and also before applying for his previous job at Rutgers University. By no means is he comparing either place to Hell.
It’s that magical time of the month: the faculty meeting.
I’ve only been attending these time-honored rituals for about five years, but I’ve noticed something a little unsettling about the behavior of my colleagues: Though some are as quirky and unpredictable as the Chicago weather, many cling like spandex to the same role, month after month, year after year, agenda after agenda. They seem a little typecast -- much like an actor who is always The Ingénue or The Mustache-twirling Villain.
In the interests of taxonomy and comedy, I’ve identified and named some of these character types. See if you recognize any of the following roles, which you may have played with gusto, admired from afar, or suffered through in perturbed silence. All pronouns reflect the gender of the specimens at my college, but I trust males and females of all these types can be found in the academic wilds.
Also known as The Yammerer, The Eternal Flame, and He Who Has Fallen In Love With His Own Voice And Is Happily Married Until Death Do Us All Mercifully Part. The Yakker has made many a faculty member pray for death, even a painful one, if it would only distract from the all-too-familiar tones of this bottomless bucket of bloviation. Singlevoicedly, he adds a half hour to every meeting, for no issue of any kind can pass without The Yakker attacking it at length, in depth, and ad nauseum.
It’s not that The Yakker has nothing useful to say. Sometimes he makes a solid point, but because his comments come in such massive and predictable bulk, any quality is lost in the quantity, like a dead squirrel under six feet of snow. Faculty members who have been at my college for decades have given several full years of their lives listening to The Yakker. Yet I feel the greatest sympathy for Mrs. Yakker -- also on the faculty—who has sacrificed so much more for the cause, whatever that cause may be.
Just as Indiana Jones cautioned foes, “Never bring a knife to a gunfight,” these multitaskers believe one should never enter a faculty meeting without a tall stack of student papers. Always sitting in the back, preferably behind a post or big-boned colleague, The Grader is rude but efficient.
Since The Grader contributes nothing to the meeting, there’s not much to say about her. She does raise an interesting question though: I always wonder if papers graded during a faculty meeting are evaluated differently than papers graded in coffee shops, offices, or bathtubs. Does the constant drone of The Yakker cause The Grader to bitterly dish out Cs and Ds? Or do the students seem like paragons of sane clarity next to the blatherings and blitherings of faculty? Further research is needed.
Not far from The Grader, someone is getting a few winks in, and I don’t mean the sexually harassing kind. It’s hard to say whether this character is more courageous or cowardly. I’d never have the stones to openly close my eyes (and occasionally snore) in front of my peers, but The Snoozer does. Then again, maybe it’s more lily-livered to turn away from the budgets and bureaucracy of meetings in favor of the beaches and bunnies of dreams. But let’s move on from The Snoozer, lest we interrupt the flow of drool.
I once saw a literal, professional regurgitator on the Letterman show. This guy could swallow pennies, then immediately (ew) bring them back up -- and his most dangerous trick involved a light bulb. At faculty meetings, The Regurgitator performs a function that is not as impressive or gross: the perpetual reintroducing of ancient issues and settled arguments. If there’s a dead end we’ve already gone down seven or more times, The Regurgitator will intrepidly lead us there again. If there’s a deceased horse who has lacked flogging for even one meeting, The Regurgitator will raise the whip. Nothing is ever settled for The Regurgitator; nothing is ever pointless to discuss.
Warning: The Regurgitator may cause The Eye-rollers (a well-stocked segment of the faculty troupe who are like a passive-aggressive Greek chorus) to exert themselves to the point of optical damage.
At my college, we have a few different species of Wonk, but though they display different plumages and jargon, they are all pretty much the same. Each month, they bring forth handouts and overhead presentations about rules, policy, governance, technology, assessment, and many other technical matters. The Wonk -- usually a staff member, not faculty -- is greeted with a mixture of confused boredom, technophobic fear, wistful nostalgia, and defeated resignation to a lack of understanding. Ultimately, The Wonk is a sad (though occasionally informative) role.
The Voice of Reason
Lest you think I find every one of my colleagues a source of comedy or aggravation, there is at least one person I enjoy: She is The Voice of Reason. What The Yakker takes twenty minutes to say, The Voice of Reason covers in five. The Voice of Reason can explain The Wonk’s tired wonkery better than The Wonk, while politely and swiftly bringing an end to The Regurgitator’s gross performance. Even The Grader or The Snoozer might look up from their student papers and blissful slumbers to take note of The Voice of Reason’s ideas.
If The Voice of Reason were also The Dean, our college would have few troubles, and the hills would be alive with logic and common sense.
But then there would be no need for The Unknown Humorist: a role about which -- thank Zeus -- no details are available at this time.
Al Campbell is the pseudonym for an unknown humorist who teaches writing at a public university in the Northeast.
At U of All People, high-tech teaching is up for discussion, partly because a recent report from our regional accreditor report labeled us as “hopelessly mired in the past.” The evaluators suggested that we adopt smart classrooms, including PowerPoint and clickers in our lecture halls, interactive digital whiteboards and video hook-ups in the labs, and WiFi and virtual reality in our student recreation facilities. They strongly recommended that we provide laptops for all our incoming freshmen (after which, the computers could be passed on to needy faculty members).
But not so fast. We remember the days of the overhead projector and educational filmstrips, and we cherish the past because, frankly, it’s cheaper. This is just one reason that our motto for as long as we can recall has been “We remember.”
Accordingly, we’ve consulted with our public relations committee, and we think we might be able to drive an end-run around this current craze for technology by performing an about-face and kicking sand in the face of the technophiles. We call our movement “Back to the Basics,” and here are just a few salvos:
Those anatomically curved desk-wings with full electronic hook-ups are just an excuse to plug in rather than pay attention. There’s no substitute for rolling up your sleeves and taking notes the old-fashioned way. That’s why we at U of All People are bringing back desks with inkwells and real ink in them. We’ve also found a place that will supply quills at $10 per gross and foolscap and blotters at amazing values. When one of our literature professors intones, “Much critical ink has been spilt on this question,” our students will know exactly what he’s talking about.
Tired of faculty and students using copiers to effortlessly reproduce everything they see, as the evil progeny of the Xerox Corporation grows ever faster? Bring back the ditto machines!
Remember those unlovely hand-crank apparatuses that went ka-chunk, ka-chunk and spat out a page for every turn of the rotating drum? Remember that vaguely nauseating smell of ditto spirits, and the oddly purple text it produced? So do we, and we’ve found a whole slew of ditto machines in the basement supply room under Main Hall, along with cartons of stencils from the Kennedy era. Now those who want to create a handout will have to think twice before embarking on the effort: cutting shapes on wax-backed paper with a typewriter, not to mention fixing typos with a penknife and Liquid Paper. Now that’s pedagogical commitment.
Speaking of typing: Enough with those inkjet printers and their water-soluble text, as well as laser printers and their toner issues! We want to return to the days of tappety-tap-tap, still dear to the hearts of many old-time news reporters. For our Yellow Journalism School, we’ve located a stock of Olympia manual typewriters, guaranteed not to crash in the event of a power outage. We’ll restore the romance of the press, you’ll see! Just make sure to keep a carbon copy of whatever you write.
And finally, about those annoying whiteboards where the writing gets lost in the glare from the fluorescent light bulbs, and the multicolored markers dry out after five classes: We believe that a blackboard and chalk are more ecologically green than those newfangled nuisances, and we’ve recently re-slated all our classroom boards. Each faculty member has been issued a brand-new box of chalk for the upcoming semester, with instructions on choosing eraser monitors based on class performance. Clapping erasers used to be a privilege!
At U of All People, we remember.
David Galef is a professor of English at Montclair State University. His latest publication is A Man of Ideas and Other Stories.
Recently resigned, or deposed, community college president.
Yesterday I was the CEO at North East Central Community College here in Folsom County, West Dakota. Today, I’m contemplating my own crisis in leadership. Following a faculty vote of no confidence, and caving in to growing board pressure, I packed it in this morning. No one was surprised, really, including me. But more about that later.
This evening I am sitting here at the bar nursing a weak gin and tonic, assessing the landscape of my shattered career. This place is nothing fancy, that’s for sure. I don’t know when it saw fresh air last. Located in Payson, West Dakota, this bar and grill has been owned by the same guy, I.M. Contento, for nearly a decade. I’m a little bit out of my element -- but I’m comforted by the visual relics of my own blue collar past -- seed company calendars, jars of pickled pigs feet, softball trophies, and the effervescent aroma of bacon, beer, and cheese. Many of the locals know me and enjoy seeing me stop in for an occasional drink. I probably get in here once a month. Maybe more.
I’m not sure what happened. Enrollments didn’t increase, but they didn’t decline much, either. We opened up more centers. I had bandwidth upgraded. I was in Rotary. I brought in some of my former graduate school colleagues from University of T-cough- at cough-in to help invigorate the executive staff and to help bring this district into the 21st century in terms of management. I wanted diversity on the management team. I made all of the directors deans and all of the deans became associate VPs. Only one of the new VP’s had emotional problems, but no damage was done. He checked into rehab. Our quality initiatives must have moved the college forward. We redid offices, put in new floors and windows, and really spruced the place up, too. We won several national awards.
I remember there was some grousing when I had the president’s salary increased to 185K, but the board agreed we needed to be competitive in future presidential searches.
I guess the future arrived more quickly than I anticipated.
The hazy blue smoke in this bar settles at about stool seat level. I wish I.M. Contento would do something about that. Why doesn’t he install some fans or air purifiers or something? I should say something before I have another asthma attack. The country music just drones on and on. All those sad songs about lying, drinking, and needing to be somewhere else. How do these people stand it?
The lights around the mirrors seem so harsh. I barely recognize my own face in the mirror -- the burdens of ileadership, I guess. All those retreats, keynote speeches, conferences, dinners, trips to Europe -- just so much , so much over the years.
The governing board said I spent too much time out of state. They said I belonged to too many national organizations and attended too many conferences. They just don’t understand the difficult and complicated nature of being a community college president. Networking means survival and prosperity for the institution and for me. They don’t understand that the community is much bigger now. We can serve China! GI’s! Nebraska! Technology has empowered us to do so much more than teach welding, massage therapy, and fertilizer applications. We ought to do more than just serve the needs of our county taxpayers! We can have the reputation of being a global higher education leader! Oh, I guess it’s no longer we.
I remember hearing that Contento worked at a community college out west somewhere before he moved here and bought this place. I heard he was a dean or a director or something. Somebody said he has a doctorate. I did hear him, once, muttering something about the “illusion” community colleges project. Who knows what that is supposed to mean?
He must be out of touch with community colleges. Maybe he was a custodian or a purchasing agent or an athletic director.
I wonder if anybody ever talked to him about teaching for us as an adjunct.
I guess it’s not us anymore.
Well, the faculty senate sent me a letter asking why my own kids didn’t attend our college. I tried to explain, directly and honestly, that my wife and I had always dreamed of sending them to Nebraska State. We wanted them to have a university experience, you know, nothing wrong with that. Our kids really didn’t need the community college, you know.
I wonder how many of the patrons here at the “Noseguard Pub” take classes at NECCC? This second drink is really watered down. I wonder if we -- oops -- they -- should work up a transfer curriculum in Bartending? Could we articulate that with NEWDU? Is that part of the guaranteed transfer curriculum? Would bartending fit into the MYJAK or the LOWJAK pathway? Or should it be in an AAS program? I know some of the NECCCT (er, that’s NECCC now) faculty thinks we should focus on AAS degrees. Hah. What do they know? We’re higher education leaders. We ought to be offering BA degrees. We? I mean they, of course. I’m done. But my future is wide open.
There must be a hundred openings nation wide for community college presidents right now. How can that be? We have millions of professionals trained in leadership skills. Maybe this county is just too rough cut to understand what I was trying to do here.
Based on what I learned at several conferences, I recommended we take “Technical” out of our name and emphasize transfer education. I remember several of the local machine shops, meat cutters, massage therapists, hospitals, carpenters, clinics, and local businesses questioned that move -- both the name change and the focus shift. But I was convinced we could become higher education leaders. Just convinced. Six out our 53 full time faculty have doctorates. One even has a Ph.D. They are all actively involved in committee work and have been through total quality training. Heck, I sent 22 of them to NISOD last year. That is Excellence! The nearest university, North Eastern West Dakota University, is over 50 miles away. They are snooty and elitist. We are the only postsecondary -- I mean higher education -- institution serving the county. And we serve the entire county pretty darn well when the ITV system is working!
I must have been mumbling out loud. Contento wandered over and jumped in. “That’s the problem, Dr Dolly" -- “Call me Phil,” I interjected – “OK, uh, Phil, you have tried to make a postsecondary institution into a higher education institution. The town wants jobs, not philosophy. They send their kids off to NEWDU for that. And another thing -- why do you recruit athletes from Uganda to run track? You’ve got South Korean tennis players! Why are the football players from Texas? Why is the woman’s basketball team from Window Rock Arizona? This is Western Dakota, for God’s sake. Let these kids who grew up here, whose folks live here, let these kids play."
He really is out of touch. Some of those NECCC athletes just competed in the Olympics for their own nations! And one of ‘em medaled!
“You know, Dr. Phil (nomenclature he seemed comfortable with), I think many of the faculty at Payson High right here in town have better teaching credentials than your full time faculty. Stop all those leadership speeches! Who is it you think you are leading? Everybody at your college is a leader! Doesn’t anybody work? Have you ever asked yourself what the town thinks of NECCCT? Oops. I mean NECCC. Really asked?”
“And whenever I dial a phone number at NECCCT (oops, I mean NECCC), I get an answering machine. No one ever returns my calls. What kind of customer service is that? Are your people in meetings all day?”
Thank goodness, he’s wandered off to flirt with that curvy redhead at the end of the bar.
He evidently hadn’t heard I resigned -- he still seems to think I’m the president. No matter. Contento is obviously out of touch with best practices of community college management, too.
Oh. The accreditation people were concerned 50 percent of our total enrollment comes from dual enrollment with high school kids (and the classes are taught at the high schools by high school teachers). How can that be considered double dipping? I am very comfortable with those partnerships. I told the board and the faculty such outreach was important to stakeholder satisfaction.
Uh oh. He is coming back. No -- he sat down with a bottle of Scoresby’s. Good. Looks like he’s eating one of those bar pizzas -- the kind that is always half burnt.
I understand Southern Canada Community College and Arctic Region Community College may soon have openings for CEO’s, but it is so tiresome dealing with those consulting firms…
The smoke in here is really getting bad. This third drink seems to be stronger, anyway. Now I’m eating some two day old popcorn. Is there anybody in here who isn’t smoking or wearing a tattoo? All those piercings! Please!!! And that music!
It’s a darn good thing I negotiated the parachute package back in '06 when they gave me a five year contract. But I’m not sure how Molly and I will live on 100 grand this next year.
I guess I’ll email those head hunters at findaprez.com tomorrow. Maybe I’ll try www.ccpresidentsrus.com. There must be a community college out there needing my leadership skills, my knowledge of management styles, my commitment to the learning college philosophy, my zest for policy governance, and my networking abilities. I really can bring a unique skills set to an institution.
I just hope they don’t ask me if I have any publications.
The notion came to me while I was on the phone with customer service for Citibank. I was walking across the empty quad trying to keep my cell squinched between jowl and shoulder, fiddling with the lock on my old leather valise -- my father’s, really, but he’s long gone. “Andy” -- "Amitava," more likely -- was having trouble locating a recent payment.
It was one of those piquant days at the beginning of the semester, the afternoon air tinged with coming cold. The quad felt bright and still. I had finished a summer of intense work on my manuscript, Neo-liberalism and the Global Lyric, and I was feeling good about my prospects for promotion. It’s not easy being a tenured radical. I have deans to appease and undergraduates to offend. Most of all, however, I have books to write, and that’s not so simple as senior colleagues make it sound. I am close to finishing my second, making me ripe for promotion to full professor -- in spite of Horowitz and his humorless ilk. I deserve it, having slaved away my virile years as an associate professor. But I’m not quite there yet. I have to complete that sticky chapter on Poetic License and Creative Commons. Then the index.
“Sir! You there sir? Very good, sir. No. I can find no record of a payment to Amazon of two hundred five dollars and ninety-five cents. You say it was for the collected works of Carl Max?”
“That’s Karl Marx, Andy, volumes one through six, and I distinctly remember making that payment. The old fashioned way. By check.”
“Very good sir. Please await the outcome of my patient inquiry while I put you on hold . . . “
I dropped my father’s valise and looked up, pasting the phone against my face. The quad was suddenly swarming with undergraduates. They surged out of classroom buildings, krill in colored T-shirts: muscles flexing, breasts bouncing, smiles flashing like newly minted money.
They were back.
I had to teach.
When would I find time to write another word?
“Sir, I am very sorry to report that despite my best efforts I cannot locate any record of a payment on the works of Carnal Mocks.”
“Andy I will consult my records. Good day -- if indeed it is day in Bangalore.”
I’d begun my day in gladness. Despondency and madness was right around the corner.
My book. My promotion.
These damn students.
Then it hit me.
Why not ship these students overseas?
Why not relocate higher education offshore?
I’ve read Friedman. I know the world is flat. I’ve heard the reports on NPR about the low cost of high-risk surgery in the developing world. If middle-class Midwesterners can fly to Mumbai to resection their large intestines, if phone calls from New York to Cincinnati can be routed through the Punjab, there’s no reason higher education can’t become a big-time player in the global economy. Colleges across America could take much better advantage of our flattened world with its telecommunications, capital flows, and transnational mobility, ridding their campuses of an unseemly physical dependence on students.
I could finish my book.
I spun on my heel -- Bruno Magli, size 9 1/2 -- and struggled against the tide of teeming flesh toward my office in Eliot. I wanted to fire off a memo to the dean with the idea hot in my head. I am lucky to have tenure, of course, and my joint appointment with the Department of Cultural Studies at least gives me a platform for interdisciplinary work. But as recently as a week ago our associate dean for alumni development and faculty research had urged a group of us associates, over buffet bisque, to “think outside the box.”
His words hit me like a headshot: “bring us your fresh ideas. We have the money to fund them, especially if they save the College money.” He spat the words out with a kind of breathless intensity. They rang in my ears as I stepped into my office, slipped my key back into the pocket of my blazer (Armani) and snapped open my MacBook Pro.
In the subject line I typed “Thinking Outside the Quad”.
dear dean squelch,
i’m writing with a bold new idea i believe can save the college large sums of money that might be better directed toward funding faculty research or alumni reunions. it fits perfectly with the new initiative announced last week by the associate dean for alumni development and undergraduate education to encourage all students to spend a semester studying abroad. while I fully support that proposal, it think it’s far too modest. why not push it to its logical conclusion? why not require every student in the college of the liberal arts to spend his or her entire undergraduate career studying abroad, preferably in the developing world?
i’m sure you can appreciate the appeal of this initiative (I call it the GLOBAL EDUCATION IMPERATIVE), but allow me to describe it in some detail. as i see it, there are several compelling reasons to relocate all aspects of undergraduate education offshore. the first is economic, and even if there were no other reasons (but as you shall see, there are!),this one would justify the whole initiative. we are all familiar with the regrettably uneven distribution of wealth across the globe. as corporations have been quick to realize but universities have not, this unfortunate fact produces a similar unevenness in costs of production. considered as a commodity, higher education requires the same outlays in labor and overhead as a pair of air jordans. it seems reasonable therefore to follow the nimble lead of the nike corporation and implement a business model that redistributes the cost of producing undergraduate education to offshore locations notable for low wages and property values. I would recommend india and malaysia. both are attractive for robust telecommunications networks and deteriorating but serviceable physical infrastructure, minimizing direct costs to home institutions for internet access and student housing. even including overseas transportation, the per capita investment in offshore education falls far short of current tuition levels, accruing to home institutions a handsome increase in revenue with absolutely no adjustment in price.
perhaps you worry about the costs of staffing so many courses at institutions abroad. that’s no worry at all, since it concerns only local managers of offshore venues. here too india and malaysia are prime locations, possessing vast and undercapitalized human resources. those countries swarm with educated persons reduced to selling trinkets on beaches or washing windshields at stoplights. they would jump en masse at an opportunity to pursue teaching as a vocation at wages quite attractive to home institutions. in the unlikely event of a shortage of qualified teachers in these locales, it would easily be remedied by our regular overproduction of graduate degrees, particularly among exchange students. such circumstances could mean job placement for a whole cadre of graduate students currently devoting untold years of their lives to professional prospects that we all know will never materialize. The GLOBAL EDUCATION IMPERATIVE will find jobs for them abroad, much to the delight of their spouses, children, and dependent relatives.
maybe the single most attractive aspect of global education today, however, is the effect it will have on undergraduates. they will be as well-rounded as they are well-traveled. they will be, in the noblest sense, cosmopolitans as they experience first hand the dynamism and energy of life in a developing country, its collective creativity in the face national underinvestment, the everyday struggles of its brave, brown indigenous people. it is impossible to put a price tag on character, of course, but this much is incontestable: four or five years of undergraduate education abroad will enrich the souls of our nation’s youth, preparing them through extensive personal experience to live as global citizens in a world that one day will be as diverse and as highly leveraged as america.
finally, an outcome that is no less a boon for being obvious: students who study abroad do not study here. they do not clutter our classrooms. they do not damage the grass. think of the savings of manhours and womanhours spent preparing lectures, advising students, leading discussions, grading papers, filing grades, managing complaints -- all the distracting inanities of undergraduate teaching. let them fall to the parochial ambitions of the offshore workforce. let us reserve the vision and energy of home institution faculty for the higher calling of research. it would be a truism to say that distinction in academic research correlates inversely to time teaching.
the GLOBAL TEACHING INITIATIVE will minimize the latter and maximize the former, with the inevitable result, desideratum of any dean, that most departments in the college of liberal arts will see a rise, possibly a precipitous rise, in nrc rankings. only undergraduates stand between an active research faculty and its full potential. they remain the vestige of an earlier, balefully nationalistic phase in the development of higher education. let’s step into the twenty-first century. let’s globalize higher education. let’s ship these students offshore and maximize profit and profitability. allow me to conclude with a vision of the future of higher education: campuses free of the beer-swilling spawn of an overfed bourgeoisie; faculties free to realize full productivity as researchers, writers, and public servants, and most importantly, students free to learn the ways of life in a world economy turned global quad.
I pushed the send button without even proofreading. That’s how confident I am. And that’s how enthused I remain at the prospect of a university without students. I’m not clear yet whether my Dean will adopt the GLOBAL EDUCATION INITIATIVE in toto, but she e-mailed me the next morning to arrange a private meeting. Her tone was not the usual faceless gray. Words like “innovative” and “luminous” peppered her message. I even detected a hint of administrative promise, or do I read too much into the phrase “future advancement”? Imagine. Me, the dean of alumni development and global education. I could do it. I could implement the vision.
I wonder, though, if I could serve in such an important capacity and finish my book.
Paul Youngquist is a professor of English at Pennsylvania State University. This essay first appeared in issue 70 of the minnesota review.
In the last three years, the History Department at U of All People has revamped its course codes four and a half times in response to complaints that the current system was either obsolete, confusing or just annoying. Clearly some coding is necessary to distinguish between what’s required for all students and what satisfies the period distribution (almost anything).
In the wake of last semester’s color-coded system, which turned out not to show up on most computer screens, the History Department Central Course Code Committee has come up with a new system (see detached memo). Please follow these codes when advising students, and remember, if you don’t like the system, you shouldn’t have begged off the committee.
HI designates History, not to be confused, though many of you are, with the new HI or Human Individuality program started by the Psychology Department; or HIST, which used to mean History but which now merely shows that you’ve been at this institution for over a decade. Example: HI 103 stands for History 103, the Study of Historical Methods course that’s now a requirement for all incoming majors (see academic catalogue 06-07) and that we foist on adjuncts to teach.
If a course is marked as HIFM, that means it’s cross-referenced with the Film Department, as in HIFM 200, Filmed History, which is not the same as FMHI, History of Film (for some reason satisfying the pre-1800 period requirement in EN, or English). HIPI constitutes our collaboration with Political Science, though we didn’t think of the way it sounded 'til after it was too late to change. Similarly, HIPE is cross-listed with Phys Ed, though this is more a theoretical possibility than anything else.
In addition, here are some special designations:
HIRT: any course taught by Professor Richard Tuttenbaum, who should have retired a while ago. Given that Professor Tuttenbaum has been using the same textbook for years, a tattered copy of Don’t Know Much about History, no HIRT course may be repeated for credit, and in fact any HIRT course counts as only two out of the usual three credits.
HITR: History in Translation, specifically French, an idea thought up by Professor Ronald Lesoeur to get that semester abroad in Paris, but which remains untaught.
HIFI: this is a joke made by our audiophile committee member that somehow got into the minutes and was uploaded into the online listings and for some tech reason can’t be deleted but which may safely be ignored.
As for numeric designations: level 100 courses are introductory classes, level 200 courses constitute our overloaded sophomore surveys, 400 level courses are tougher than 300 level courses and therefore rarely generate sufficient student enrollment, and no one knows what 500 level courses are, since we have no graduate program in history.
As you go about your student advising this fall, please print out a copy of the new course codes and refer to them whenever the need arises. In the process, please ignore all previous codes. As Santayana never quite said, “Those who remember the past are condemned to get the codes wrong.”
David Galef is a professor of English at Montclair State University. His latest publication is A Man of Ideas and Other Stories.
Advising season at U of All People is upon us, that time of year when full professors hide behind their office doors, practicing the fine art of seeming to be unavailable as clueless students roam the corridors. One Comp Lit professor averse to the whole process thought he was being smart in printing, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” in 52-point Helvetica above his door, not realizing that those who seek advising often have abandoned all hope.
“Abandon all cash” is illegal to post, though a quorum of the faculty in the Economics Department voted to issue a price list for services rendered.
In one department that shall remain nameless (all right, it was Psychology), at least 30 students made it from their first freshman days to graduation without ever being advised. Equally damning, twice that number in Psychology who were advised regularly never made it past their sophomore year.
“Tell ’em what they need to do. Post the info. If they don’t access it, that’s their problem,” the Sociology Department chair liked to repeat, a policy called into question after the university lost a major lawsuit levied by a disgruntled student who was never told that she needed to graduate. Starting this year, therefore, U of All People has decided to streamline the whole messy process of advising with this handy set of guidelines:
Advising For Students
If you don’t know who your advisor is, log in at <www.uallpeople.edu/what-me-advise?> and follow the onscreen instructions. Once you locate your advisor, contact that faculty member at once (because, chances are, that person doesn’t know either), and set up an appointment to meet.
Please bring these documents to your advising session: a #2 pencil, a #2 eraser, a list of courses you’ve taken, and a list of courses you hope to take that will be utterly compromised by the end of your session.
To make matters easier for you, we now have these resources online:
To view your unofficial transcript, go to the registrar’s homepage, input the secret code that changes daily, and click on 1. To view your fortune, click on 2. To read the instructions in Spanish, register for Spanish 101 this spring.
Advising sessions should last at least 10 minutes, despite the Theater Department’s infamous 60-second takes or the Philosophy Department’s marathon periods of two hours.
Sample questions to ask your advisor:
What courses do I still need to graduate?
Does Rhythmic Swimming satisfy the Fine Arts requirement?
Questions not to ask:
Why do I need to take science when I plan on being a novelist?
Is it true that Professor Rudin gives A’s to students who go to his parties?
Codes for checking course availability online:
C: Sorry, this section is closed or has been canceled. O: This section is open for the next five seconds, so click now. N: This slot never really existed but was posted simply to get your hopes up.
Be advised that University 101, a core course that you need to graduate, is offered only every five years.
There is no longer a Finger-Painting concentration within the Art Department.
Depending on what year you entered, graduate requirements may differ. Check weekly to see what we’ve come up with.
You need 126 credits to graduate. Taking five courses per semester at three credits per course, you still won’t have enough. If this state of affairs bothers you, see our Maymester, Wintersession, and other revenue-boosting schemes.
Transfer credit: up to 30 grudging credits, and get it in writing because we may later deny it. As of September 2008, you may not transfer any course credit from the Storefront Community College that says it exists in Scranton, PA.
Advising For Faculty
Please show up.
David Galef is a professor of English at Montclair State University. His latest publication is A Man of Ideas and Other Stories.
Mice in a maze and little people: for many (especially faculty) who work in higher education on any number of campuses, this might seem an appropriate appellation for the characters in Spencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese? The theme of this brief book, studied as illustrative text in many leadership and change courses taken by administrators chasing after an Ed.D., is to read the writing on the proverbial wall and embrace change.
The characters in this story, as part of their jobs, have to negotiate a maze to find cheese and then, when the cheese supply becomes exhausted, face the choice of remaining in place or of changing the way they look at things in order to find more cheese. Two, Sniff and Scurry, move on and ultimately find a new supply of cheese. Two others, Hem and Haw, stick around, exhibiting a sense of denial. Ultimately giving in to hunger, Haw moves on, following his two adventurous friends, while Hem stays put, never to be heard from again. During his journey of self-discovery, Haw scribbles inspirational sayings on the wall, hopefully for Hem to follow, and eventually finds his friends and a new supply of cheese. As the story winds down, a mysterious noise is heard “offstage.”
At the end, they all, presumably, live happily ever after as a result of their adapting to change. In viewing the situation in modern academe, however, this concept of change is often equated to being "fashionable," rather than having a productive purpose, and many, it seems, feel that in order to attract students, we must be fashionable. When we were growing up, the “happily ever after” ending was the ultimate goal; however, might there be a reason the Grimm boys and others never told us what “happily ever after” was really like? In the following story, I've explored one possible definition of happily ever after, set in a situation that may feel familiar to many. Our story begins shortly after the ending of Who Moved My Cheese?
“Well, that wasn’t so bad, after all, was it?” Scurry asked. He looked at Haw when he said it but his remarks seemed addressed to Sniff, as well. They sat in the room that was Cheese Station N, enjoying a nice camembert smeared over Ritz, washed down with cheap Cabernet from a cardboard box with a handy spigot Sniff had managed to locate and drag in. A week had passed since Haw had come straggling into Cheese Station N.
“What wasn’t?” Sniff asked.
“No. Because it’s what we do. We’re professionals. That’s why the organization values us, because we do what we have to do and we do it well. That involves being adaptable and flexible.”
“Maybe, but ask Haw here if it’s what he does, as well.”
“Haw did okay. It just took him a while to come around. But once he did, he did okay.”
“Why are you two talking about me as if I’m not here?’ Haw asked
“Because you’re one of the little people. They’re like leprechauns; they don’t exist.” Scurry said.
“Whoa! That’s way out of line. No need to insult Haw just because he took a little longer to come around.”
“Did I say that out loud? Sorry. No offense meant, Haw. It’s just that, as they say, if you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem.
“I’m not part of the problem. Didn’t I even author the “Handwriting on the Wall” to document our lessons learned?
“Only after you were forced into the publish or perish situation,” Scurry said.
“That is so not right!” said Sniff. “Where do you get off being so judgmental?”
“I’m his supervisor now. I’ll be conducting his evaluations from now on. Yours, too.”
“They. Them. Us.”
“You know…THEY. As in ‘ They say…”
“When did this happen?”
“Remember that noise we heard outside shortly after Haw showed up last week?? Well, I went outside to see what it was and it was the Big Cheese himself. He was so impressed with the way I scurried until I stumbled into this cheese cache that he offered me either early tenure or a nice pay raise and an administrative position. You’re now looking at the Associate Dean for Cheese Acquisition and Curriculum Development. That also makes me your boss.”
“If I remember correctly, I was the one who sniffed it out. That’s my job.”
“Details. Details. We’re getting away from the point.”
“There’s a point to this?”
“Well, yes. You have to admit things haven’t been running as efficiently as they could. Look how long it took for you to sniff out this room. And how long it took Haw to come around. We need to make some changes around here.”
“What kind of changes?”
“I don’t exactly know yet, but, well, changes.”
“Give me a for-instance.”
“That wouldn’t be right. WE need to come up with something. I’d like you all to be on board with this thing. After all, Wheatley says that people only support what they create, and I’d like to think I have your support.”
“You mean like adding to our course offerings? I’ve been thinking of an Advanced Edam course that would really benefit our students.”
“Not really, but I like the way you think. Keep guessing; I’ll let you know if you get close.”
“I’m not going to play this game. I’m busy. I have to continue refining my cheese-sniffing skills and prepare lessons and grade projects. Plus there’s the Gruyere committee, and the Brie committee and the Swiss committee, the faculty senate…”
“Good! I told you I like the way you think. We think you have too many outside responsibilities to concentrate on our true mission so from now on we won’t trouble you with having to participate in all those things. We’ve formed a Leadership Sitback Committee that will take care of all those things for you from now on. All of those piddly committees are going to be disbanded.”
“And what is a sitback committee?’
“You know. That’s where we sit back and tell you how it’s going to be.”
“Oh come on, Sniff. You know yourself this faculty has become too independent-minded. It needs to be brought under control.”
“Oh, really? And who’s on this leadership sitback committee? Any faculty?”
“Well…no. But your interests will be represented. By me.”
“What about shared governance?”
“Does the word chaos ring any bells? Remember that leadership seminar we attended? One of the slides? It’s the least effective of the organizational types.”
“I seem to remember that other types of effective organizations can grow out of chaos.”
“You’re twisting words instead of looking at the big picture, Sniff.”
“I see. Well, go do your thing; just leave me alone. I have a job to do.”
“That’s just it. I’m here to help. By the way…”
“We think you may be losing sight of the mission.”
“You know… we. The administration. And the trustees. The guys with the money? Hello?”
“Here it comes. The threats.”
“No threats. We’re all in this together; that’s what you’re not seeing. We work together to improve things.”
“Well, I’m all about improving things, provided someone can show me some rationale. Hell, even old Haw there is capable of change when he has the proper motivation. Haw? Feel free to jump in here any time, Pal.”
“Me? Actually Sniff, I like this change stuff. It felt good once I got into it. Not to mention I got to eat all the cheese I wanted once it was over. Who knows what other good things we’ll stumble across if we start making other things happen? Besides, my “Handwriting” article was well-received. My agent tells me he thinks he can turn it into a pop psychology best-seller if I expand it a bit.”
“I see. So I’m all alone in this, hmmm?”
“Don’t think of it as an us or them situation, Sniff. As I said, we’re all in this together. We all want the same thing, right?”
“I’m beginning to wonder.”
“Well, back to the mission…”
“I thought my mission was to continue sharpening my cheese-sniffing skills and then teach our students how to sniff out their own cheese.”
“That was last semester. The trustees seem to think we’re concentrating too much on Brie and Camembert and not enough on pasteurized process slices and Cheez Whiz.”
“I see. So a bunch of used car salesmen and insurance agents who managed to buy seats on the board know what’s best for our students now?”
“I’ll ignore that. They think we’re out of touch. They want us to partner with the community. They think the current job market involves finding more of the slices and the squirt stuff, not the exotics.”
“And food service and hospitality industries. In case you haven’t noticed; we teach a little of everything. They can specialize in whatever kinds of cheese they want to find, if they feel like limiting themselves.”
“Why are you being so defensive?”
“Ah, we’re going to put this on me now? I’ll feel free to defend good practices and I’ll also feel free to change when I see the need. When I get disturbed. Remember that one? What Wheatley said, since you want to bring the experts into this, about different parts of the organization get disturbed at different times? And they feel free to change in accordance with that disturbance? And don’t forget Calabrese’s discussion of pacing requirements, while we’re talking about time frames for being disturbed and for implementing change.”
“You’re getting hostile now.”
“I’m getting disturbed, but not by what you think. And I’m thinking of making a change or two, myself.”
“Don’t be like that. We’ve always been friends. Why turn against me now just because I’m sitting in a different seat? I’m just trying to be an effective leader, and you know, as Rost said, ‘real leaders intend real change’.”
“Don’t try playing that relationship card with me. You’re being a dweeb. And I believe he said ‘real leaders and followers intend real change’.”
“And he was talking about transformation as it applies to leadership. You’ve undergone a transformation, all right.”
“It’s not what you think.”
“Enlighten me. Bring me on board. Hell, I’ve always been proactive. I’ll embrace change in a heartbeat if it helps us accomplish our mission better. I’m all about transformation if the results are positive.”
“Ummm…that’s another thing: results.”
“There’s a problem with my results?”
“Well, I took a look at your DWFI rates after the trustees mentioned them and both I and the rest of the administration feel they’re maybe a bit high.”
“My students’ grades reflect their performance. By the way, I do have a bit of academic freedom, don’t I? I’m free to teach my courses however I deem best, so long as students who succeed can meet the stated objectives. The DWFIs are the slugs and oxygen thieves. If students show up and if they do the work, they succeed. It’s simple.”
“We were just thinking your standards might be too high. Instead of having them find 4 pieces of cheese throughout the semester, why not just two? And we all know life happens. If something at home prevents them from attending classes, well, is attendance really all that important?”
“If they can’t find cheese here under controlled circumstances, how are we going to expect them to find it for themselves when they’re out there on their own? I don’t want them going out there and having an employer say ‘who ever told you that you could find cheese, anyway?’”
“That’s their problem. All we have to do is document the process. And that brings me to another thing: accountability.”
“I know all about that.”
“Not like this you don’t. From now on we’re going to document everything: we’re going to map activities to stated learning outcomes. How many left turns they have to make and how many right turns they have to make to find cheese. How many sniffs per minute. That sort of thing. You know best how to do it; you’re the pro.”
“Exactly. They brought me on board because they felt I was the best at sniffing out cheese and I had a proven track record of teaching others to find cheese. I always felt it was the results that counted. If they survive my courses they can find cheese. And as I said, if they show up and do the work, they’ll survive my courses.”
“It’s not so much the results now as the process. Do we have a systematic, documented process in place to teach cheese-sniffing? If we do that, the results will take care of themselves.”
“Don’t be sarcastic. I’m trying to help here and you’re not being much of a team player. What are you afraid of? Move beyond that fear, as Johnson says.”
“The only thing I’m afraid of is that you’re moving the cheese yourself and telling me I should anticipate it. I read, I keep abreast of changes in my field, I sniff out not only cheese, but changes in the cheese situation and I adapt accordingly, all without having to be told. Do you want MY opinion on what needs changing around here, given our current situation and the way things are going?”
“My point exactly.”
“Sniff, this conversation worries me, even as I sit here drinking your wine. You know, you’re coming up for cheese-tenure this year and it would be nice to be able to say that we’d like to keep you around forever. We value you as an important member of the team and consider ourselves lucky to have you.”
“You know, I was looking for a job when I found this one.”
“Realistic. But I’ll tell you what: none of this is worth falling on the proverbial sword over. I’ll dummy down the courses and count all the procedural goose-steps. Hell, I’ll even convince them they like Cheez-Whiz. You’ve got your bobble-head.”
“But that’s not what I need. What we need. We need you to be on-board. To embrace change. Change is a good thing. It’s natural. Organic. Didn’t you read that part of Wheatley?”
“I must have forgotten. How silly of me.”
“So…are you on board?”
“We still friends?”
“Sure. Pour some more of that wine and let’s get drunk. We’ll celebrate friendship.”
Frederick Bridger, instructor of Literature and Writing Skills at Montana State University-Great Falls, has published fiction and poetry in numerous venues, print and online. He coincidentally entered his "terminal year" a week before tenure eligibility, shortly after the existence of this story became known.
It was a typical 1970s weekday evening. The sky was growing dark and I, an elementary school student, was sitting at the kitchen table of a modest North Jersey cape cod putting the finishing touches on the day’s homework. The back door opened -- a telltale sign that my father was home from work. As he did every day, Dad stopped in the laundry room to take off his muddied work boots. As usual, he was tired. He could have been covered with any number of substances, from dirt to paint to dried spackle. His hands were rough and gnarled. I kissed him hello, he went to the bathroom to “wash up,” and my family sat down to eat dinner.
I always knew how hard my father worked each day in his job as a general contractor. When I got older I spent summers working with him. I learned the virtues of this kind of working class life, but I also experienced the drudgery that came with laying concrete footings or loading a dumpster with refuse. I worked enough with my father to know that I did not want to do this for the rest of my life. Though he never told me so, I am sure that Dad probably didn't want that for me, either.
I eventually became only the second person in my extended family to receive a college degree. I went on to earn a Ph.D. (a “post-hole digger” to my relatives) in history and settled into an academic life. As I enter my post-tenure years, I am grateful for what I learned from my upbringing and for the academic vocation I now pursue. My gratitude inevitably stems from my life story. The lives that my parents and brothers (one is a general contract and the other is a plumber) lead are daily reminders of my roots.
It is not easy being a college professor from a working-class family. Over the years I have had to explain the geographic mobility that comes with an academic life. I have had to invent creative ways to make my research understandable to aunts and uncles. My parents read my scholarly articles, but rarely finish them. My father is amazed that some semesters I go into the office only three days a week. As I write this I am coming off of my first sabbatical from teaching. My family never quite fathomed what I possibly did with so much time off. (My father made sense of it all by offering to help me remodel my home office, for which I am thankful!) “You have the life,” my brother tells me. How can I disagree with him?
Gratitude is a virtue that is hard to find in the modern academy, even at Thanksgiving time. In my field of American history, Thanksgiving provides an opportunity to set the record straight, usually in op-ed pieces, about what really happened in autumn 1621. (I know because I have done it myself!). Granted, as public intellectuals we do have a responsibility to debunk the popular myths that often pass for history, but I wonder why we can’t also use the holiday, as contrived and invented and nostalgic and misunderstood as it is, to stop and be grateful for the academic lives we get to lead.
Thanksgiving is as good a time as any to do this. We get a Thursday off from work to take a few moments to reflect on our lives. And since so many academics despise the shopping orgy known as “Black Friday,” the day following Thanksgiving presents a wonderful opportunity to not only reject consumer self-gratification, but practice a virtue that requires us to forget ourselves.
I am not sure why we are such an unthankful bunch. When we stop and think about it we enjoy a very good life. I can reference the usual perks of the job -- summer vacation, the freedom to make one’s own schedule, a relatively small amount of teaching (even those with the dreaded 4-4 load are in the classroom less than the normal high school teacher). Though we complain about students, we often fail to remember that our teaching, when we do it well, makes a contribution to society that usually extends far beyond the dozens of people who have read our recent monograph. And speaking of scholarship, academics get paid to spend a good portion of their time devoted to the world of ideas. No gnarled hands here.
Inside Higher Ed recently reported that seventy-eight percent of all American professors express “overall job satisfaction.” Yet we remain cranky. As Immanuel Kant put it, “ingratitude is the essence of vileness.” I cannot tell you how many times I have wandered into a colleague’s office to whine about all the work my college expects of me.
Most college and university professors live in a constant state of discontentment, looking for the fast track to a better job and making excuses as to why they have not landed one yet. Academia can be a cutthroat and shallow place to spend one’s life. We are too often judged by what is written on our conference name badges. We say things about people behind their backs that we would never say to their faces. We become masters of self-promotion. To exhibit gratefulness in this kind of a world is countercultural.
The practice of gratitude may not change our professional guilds, but it will certainly relieve us of our narcissism long enough to realize that all of us are dependent people. Our scholarship rests upon the work of those scholars that we hope to expand upon or dismantle. Our careers are made by the generosity of article and book referees, grant reviewers, search committees, and tenure committees. We can all name teachers and mentors who took the time to encourage us, offer advice, and write us letters. Gratitude may even do wonders for our mental health. Studies have shown that grateful people are usually less stressed, anxious, and depressed.
This Thanksgiving take some time to express gratitude. In a recent study the Harvard University sociologist Neil Gross concluded that more college and university professors believe in God than most academics ever realized. If this is true, then for some of us gratitude might come in the form of a prayer. For others it may be a handwritten note of appreciation to a senior scholar whom we normally contact only when we need a letter of recommendation. Or, as the semester closes, it might be a kind word to a student whose academic performance and earnest pursuit of the subject at hand has enriched our classroom or our intellectual life. Or perhaps a word of thanks to the secretary or assistant who makes our academic life a whole lot easier.
As the German theologian and Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer explained, “gratitude changes the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy.”
John Fea teaches American history at Messiah College, in Grantham, Pa. He is the author of The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).