Monthly Archives: April 2012

This Is Just to Say Whatever Comes to Mind

Small-town newspapers, where they still exist, are a precious treat. In Spring Green, Wisconsin, we get The Home News, “the only newspaper in the whole, wide world that cares about the River Valley area” every Wednesday. Of course, The Voice of the River Valley, a free monthly, also implicitly cares (though that’s not on its masthead). This past month The Voice had poems (in honor of National Poetry Month) and has regularly carried poems in the past. One of the things I enjoyed about the Home News’ former editor, in addition to his progressive politics and weekly editorials featuring his dog, was his willingness to publish poetry on the editorial page. He was following a long tradition. According to Mike Chasar (whose blog I like and whose book I want),

“through most of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth…amateur poets hotly debated issues of abolition and women’s suffrage in verse form, writing their poems quickly in response not only to the day’s current events but also to the specific ideas and claims put forth in the previous day’s poems. As recently as the mid-1950s, in fact, the New York Times was in the habit of printing poems alongside letters to the editor on its opinion pages, making little or no distinction between the two.”

The fact that I am able to quote at length from Chasar’s article, entitled “Writing Good Bad Poetry,” which appeared in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers magazine in 2008, is the result of an argument I lost (am losing). “We do NOT need to keep all these,” I’ve insisted repeatedly to my husband over the years about the boxes and boxes of magazines. But my school library doesn’t subscribe to Poets & Writers, and there aren’t very many articles archived online, so when I remembered the article & looked it up in the database at school, I could have ordered a copy of the article on interlibrary loan. Or I could do what I did, come home and find it.

The willingness to wait a few more days
To get what I wanted from interlibrary loan
Would free up so much square footage in my home
That I could house a family of refugees.
But I’m married to a pack rat. I am one, too.
It’s just I used to purge more often. He won’t.
Or rather, he seldom does. We never do
Much of anything until we absolutely must.
In preparing for a visit from the appraiser this spring
We both set to work cleaning and organizing
And yes, purging. The appraiser was the amiable dad
Of a former student of mine. He and my husband had
A rambling talk. Appraised well, we locked in three percent.
We’re not an episode of “Hoarders.” At least not yet.

Chasar recounts writing poetry for Iowa City’s Press-Citizen in response to an editor’s request. The editor was wanting something “akin to what George Orwell called ‘good bad novels,’ which the author defined as fiction that doesn’t aspire to official literary greatness but that is nonetheless skillfully and admirably written for the purposes or entertainment or political effect.” He analyzes some of the poems that got printed there and discusses what they did and didn’t accomplish, what “good bad poetry” in the newspaper can and can’t accomplish in general, and concludes the article by pretty much bragging that if nothing else, publishing poems in the paper got him a free beer.

When I include poems in my blog, my pay scale is even lower than Chasar’s (he wrote them for free), because no one’s bought me a beer as yet.

(Consider this a bald plea for a Furthermore or Lake Louie.)

So why do it?

Some of it’s inexplicable: I don’t really know why I write. I don’t really know why I’m compelled to share what I write (although every other memoirist and confessional poet understands why I feel copacetic about sharing my life with strangers).

I do know why I love sonnets, through which I record the world and process the world fairly often. Bob Wrigley once called sonnets the most anal-retentive form in the English language. In one way, you might think sonnets are the anti-clutter form, since you’re limited to a certain number of beats and lines (Song of Myself or Howl being the ultimate hoarder poems). But I think of a sonnet more as a phenomenally well-designed closet. You can pack an awful lot in there. And given the existence of sonnet series, and crowns of sonnets, and George Meredith’s 15-line sonnets, it’s an ever-expandable closet.

I could say I like posting poems in blogs because they encapsulate and elevate my everyday existence.

And if that’s true, it also explains why I don’t mind that the poems I post there aren’t even trying to be my best poems. Not art, necessarily. To chronicle the everyday, I have to write every day. And post every day. (Or as close to it as I can get—can I substitute everyfewdays as a synonym? My everyfewdays existence?) Other than minor tinkering, there’s not a whole of revision that can happen in that scenario.

Ron Wallace published a terrific book with the best sonnets from his project of writing a sonnet a day for a year–but he revised a lot to get to the book, The Uses of Adversity.

In general, I think art takes revision.

This is not all merely to say that when I look back at “Metaphors: A Semester” I pretty much go “meh,” although that is pretty much what I go. I suppose in that sense the five stanzas were art imitating life because “meh” was how I was feeling about the semester at that point, but we don’t really want art imitating life in those moments, now do we.

This is just to say–wait! Where have I heard that before?

And thus the most compelling question I can think of at the moment (other than the whole “What’s cooler? Mod Squad or Starsky & Hutch?” conversation we had at supper) is this:

If all our favorite poets had blogged, what would they have posted?

For better or worse, I feel certain Robert Lowell would have posted EVERYTHING. With him in mind, let me just say that I hope some of my blog poems, eventually, could end up in my own Life Studies. Until then, you know where to find them.

Metaphors: A Semester

damp pile of limp balloons

multiple balloons, inflated to bursting
in January
let go on schedule until March
then all at once
zip zoom
hanging suspended in April

you know how the house in Up floated away?
like that
but no passengers

some old-school blown-up balloons
along with helium mylar
and one miniature hot-air contraption
elaborately connected
mostly self-propelled
landing gently
grades turned in

damp pile of limp balloons

The Moan Tax

I pay for every blessing—don’t think I don’t.
Sure I’ve got a good job, but I work too hard,
And I’m lucky in love, but marriage takes work.
Don’t believe me? Listen to me piss and moan
About the house I have to clean, the food
I have to cook, the garden I have to weed,
My beautiful, rural commute ruined this week
with a spread-manure-fresh-dead-skunk reek.

I might be spoiled but at least I’m not content.

God forbid I should relax or take a break
Or cut back somewhere or say no to anything
Or take the risk of being seen as slacking
Or just enjoy the son I thought I couldn’t conceive.
I fight off jinxes with my constant, low-voltage rant,
Lest all my precious miseries be stripped from me.


This is and isn’t me speaking. Happy Hump Day, everyone!

Playing with Fire, Opdyke-Style

Two innocent-looking girls take the shade off a bedroom lamp, up-end a coffee can on it, and melt crayons in the shallow tray they’d created. It’s difficult work. The balance is precarious. It’s way too easy for the waxy mess to slop onto the carpet where it will stay, a clump one girl tries to cover with furniture or dirty clothes the rest of her childhood. Neither of them got burned.

But they did catch fire, having their own little moment of alchemy when the gold crayon swirled itself into the other colors.

They will graduate to ruining plastic pitchers with their experiments. What happens when you mix nail polish remover with nail polish? This cleaner with that one?

Both of them owned Easy Bake Ovens. Neither of them owned a chemistry set.

What happens when one of the girls pours just a little nail polish remover in a shower stall and lights it on fire? She had the hand sprayer ready and the water already running, and she watched the wall of blue flame for a count of two, maybe three, before she doused it.

Don’t believe in miracles? How about dumb luck? The fact that I escaped my childhood alive, without massive burn scars, the fact that my childhood home didn’t burn to the ground—-I have to believe in one or the other. Though I will say, in our own pre-adolescent way, my friend and I were methodical in our experiments. The hand sprayer was good to go, after all.

I never set off firecrackers or wired a birdhouse to explode, the way my brother did (birds never moved in, fortunately, smart birds). But my brother and I were both dangerously creative.

We particularly enjoyed burning trash. Out in the country where we grew up, on the edge of a tiny town called Opdyke, there was no trash pickup, so you burned what you could and dumped or buried the rest. Any other chore, we’d fight to weasel out of. Burning trash, we fought to see who got to do it. Our special favorite was finding anything labeled CAUTION, FLAMMABLE, or especially, DO NOT INCINERATE. At least we had the good sense to stand back. Sometimes there was a whoosh of flame or an interesting shade of smoke or if we were really lucky, BAM! An explosion when an aerosol can slammed against the side of the burning barrel.

One of my brother’s friends was badly burned when he used gasoline to burn his family’s trash faster. All we learned from that, apparently, was DON’T USE ACCELERANTS. (Which is actually a really good thing to learn.)

An analysis of this could reveal boredom, misdirected intellectual curiosity, some variety of pathology, or a combination of all three. But we also were being true to our Opdyke heritage and our family heritage, whether we knew it or not.

On our father’s side of the family, we were only one, maybe two generations removed from people who had stills in the hills. My father’s childhood home burned to the ground, twice I think. I have a vague memory that it was my grandfather’s fault, but I’m not sure about that.

On our mother’s side, we had our solidly creative Gran’daddy, who could solve pretty much any intractable problem by sleeping on it. He regularly dreamed the solution. He could also find water by dowsing—I’ve always been afraid to try. I don’t want to know if I have that particular gift.

When it came to fire, Gran’daddy worked as a volunteer firefighter and I remember being part of a crowd watching them set the old one-room schoolhouse on fire so the volunteers had something to practice on. (I also remember one odd little boy flashing his penis to everyone that day. At least we didn’t have that pathology in my family.)

In terms of creativity and fire, I have to think of Gran’daddy’s work with Sparky, a welder and inventor in our little town.

On the main street, which now has a name but didn’t when I lived there, Opdyke had a post office, ½ of a building that also housed an old-fashioned store with a wood-burning stove. We waited for the bus inside on cold days. (At this point my memory blurs with an episode of the Waltons–I can’t believe I was so lucky and that this was the early 70s, not the 30s.) Next building down was a two-story, red-brick garage where Sparky had his shop. That was pretty much all there was, business-wise.

I know Sparky and Gran’daddy worked together to make parts for various farm machines, but I also remember fabulous inventions, like the rotation hot-dog roaster for camp fires.

It never once occurred to me to ask to visit that shop, and no one ever offered.

Had my son’s school existed at that time, in that place, there probably would have been a field trip there, or we’d have had Sparky come to class to demonstrate.

At least I like to think so, and I like to think River Valley Elementary Studio School is in the process of living up to part of its initial purpose, to give kids space to be creative as part of their education.

It’s not just that I want my son to also escape his childhood without burn scars. It’s not just that I want him not to burn our house down.

I want him to be able to play with fire and learn even more from it than I did.

On reflection, I am utterly baffled that I took Chemistry I in high school but not Chemistry II, where the students regularly made explosives behind the teacher’s back. (Well, other than being completely burned out by my senior year and also hitting a very solid three-dimensional brick wall when I tried to imagine molecules in 3-D.)

In my creativity research, I am trying to learn how to encourage and assess students’ creativity. I’m struck by these quotes from Arthur Cropley, in his book, Creativity in Education and Learning: A Guide for Teachers and Educators. He points out that

“Surveys have shown that in theory at least teachers overwhelmingly support creativity as something that should be fostered in the classroom….However, in actual classroom practice they often frown upon traits associated with creativity or even actively dislike characteristics such as boldness, desire for novelty or originality.” I don’t know how much I exhibited those traits in the classroom, but I can definitely see my obsession with fire as a bold “desire for novelty” (something other than another rerun of Gilligan’s Island) and I don’t know of any other children who set their shower stalls on fire, though a lot of people may be like I was until this moment, sensibly keeping things like that a secret. Cropley has a list of things to do to make creativity possible in the classroom, and it’s striking to me how most of those apply to my brother’s and my trash burning processes. Cropley says we should

• “encourage students to learn independently
• have a co-operative, socially integrative style of teaching
• do not neglect mastery of factual knowledge
• tolerate sensible or bold errors
• promote self-evaluation
• take questions seriously
• offer opportunities to work with varied materials under different conditions
• help students learn to cope with frustration and failure
• reward courage as much as being right.”

We did “neglect factual knowledge” for the most part, and I don’t remember much self-evaluation. I don’t remember frustration or failure, but I think the wall of flame in the shower stall scared me enough I went back to burning trash as my main experimental mode, where you could “reward courage” with an occasional but deeply satisfying explosion. We were hell-bent on making our own “opportunities to work with varied materials under different conditions.” My 8th grade demonstration speech involved dripping candle wax into a pie-pan of water. “What’s it for?” the teacher asked when I was done. It hadn’t occurred to me I needed a purpose–it was just really fun to do. But what I said was, “If you use scented candles, these can be put anywhere to make things smell nice.” I don’t remember being punished or rewarded for that project.

I want to officially and publicly and sincerely apologize to my parents who are learning about most of this for the first time along with everyone else reading right now. (I explained and apologized long ago for the mouse bones the repairman found in the dishwasher when it broke down.)

“Sin boldly,” Martin Luther said, which is what I think of when I read “bold errors.” I wonder, as a teacher, if I make any room at all for that in my students.

It scares me to death to imagine what kind of experiments my already creative son will think up. I mostly hope it’s in a classroom with safety goggles and fire extinguishers available, but I think it’s part of my job to let him experiment at home as well.

Because playing with fire? Having a sweet face that will mislead some people into thinking he doesn’t have a dark side? He comes by that naturally. So did I.

Getting the Pay Raise You Deserve, Part III


I don’t work too hard. I work hard

enough, having joined the small but growing worldwide Church of Enough, not to be confused with the service club called Just Enough, whose border blurs with the Club of Just Barely Enough, which is too similar, frankly, to the Club of Not Really Enough, aligned of course with the also growing club of Not Nearly Enough who might as well admit they’re paying members of the Piss Poor In Nearly Every Measurable Way Society. No, we’re the Church of Enough–not to be confused either, please, with those in the mildly amiable but really too puffed up Club of More Than Enough, who won’t admit this publicly but they share office space with the growing Crystal Cathedral of Too Much and a splinter group, the Cult of Much Too Much, who are Calvinistic in believing anyone without the proud banner MUCH TOO MUCH (a hand-tatted silky thing they work extra hours to buy), anyone who sleeps eight hours in a row, anyone who cares to whisper, “balance,” anyone who stares at a cobalt bottle in the afternoon light, anyone who smiles just must by definition belong to what they see as the biggest club of all, Just Not Enough.

Moderation in most things
is our creed. If we met
we’d chant it but we don’t
have meetings. To qualify
for membership you must
come to us having attended

enough meetings already.

A humble enough start
has bloomed like rust
in the machine
of the rest of our lives.
When progress grinds
to an ugly steaming stop
in our backyards
we’ll be there to sing songs
around the dying fire.
We will have progressed far

I wrote this poem a very long time ago, maybe as many as 15 years ago, when I first read Juliet Schor’s The Overworked American. It became a signature piece for me at poetry readings for a while, although it still scares me to read it in public sometimes, since I assume someone is thinking and might say, “You could work a little harder, couldn’t you?”

But it’s an important end-piece for this particular series, and it’s important enough to me that my husband and I are going to be selling broadsides of it, with a gorgeous image he took of one of my cobalt blue bottles. (Contact me if you want one.)

As a friend of mine said, “It’s all about who’s in the lifeboat with us,” and as I added, “who’s down the hall in the nursing home.”

Are you with me? Want to come to my house when progress grinds to an ugly steaming stop? When that fire goes out, we’ll build a fire in our fire pit (which my husband and I made from the recycled drum of our front-loader washing machine) and drink some beers or possibly home-brewed hooch, which would both save us some cash and let me hark back to more of my Bullock heritage.

I’m saying it loud, saying it proud: Enough. Say it with me: Enough.

Getting the Pay Raise You Deserve, Part II

Raise your hourly wage by working fewer hours.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those days are gone. Gone, daddy gone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting the Pay Raise You Deserve, Part I

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Raise your hourly wage by working fewer hours.

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