TRUTH AND CONSEQUENCES
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.
FIGHT GASLIGHTING WITH FACTS
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.
ANCHORING THE BOTTOM MIDDLE
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.