Category Archives: Politics

Ode on a Ding Dong (a fat sonnet)

O.k. so sure there’s the fine grit of baby aspirin
Or something like it now in Oreos and Pop Tarts
And Coke has, instead of sugar, Satan’s urine,
The whole country is obese and I’m too fat,
I get that, but Jesus, let me have one day of mourning
On hearing Hostess is going out of business.
The fact they’re anti-worker makes it worse–
I can’t even make a run on Ding Dongs
Without feeling I’ve betrayed Wisconsin’s spring
Of protesting, so I ate my last one without knowing
It would be the last time I would bite
Into a chocolate layer that resisted just
A tiny bit before giving way to cake,
And then…that creamy middle. I won’t say
I’m sorry for loving Ding Dongs. I am sad.
I’m not ashamed to love something so very bad.


It has made me furrow my brow, people saying things like “you know they’re bad for you” or actually listing the ingredients, in response to someone mourning the loss of Twinkies (which I personally won’t miss) or Ding Dongs (which I really will miss).

As if there’s someone out there who loved Hostess because they were under the impression that display at the end of the aisle was full of healthy treats.

One of the many, many things I loved about Kyra Sedgwick’s Brenda Leigh on The Closer was her addiction, and the way James Duff made obvious that she had unbridled love for things that were bad for her. I mean, gracious! Her going away present from her guys was a new black bag full of Ding Dongs! Or something like them, since I personally haven’t been able to find them wrapped in foil for a long time–perhaps there is a product I will come to love as much as Ding Dongs, but I suspect they were purchased and wrapped in foil by props people so that Brenda Leigh could unwrap them sensually. Foil can be sensual (at least in Sedgwick’s hands). Plastic wrap not so much.

So yes, Ding Dongs never were good for me. But I loved them and I will miss them, and you know what? You can criticize their badness all you want, but it isn’t as if now that they’re gone, the whole country will certainly get healthier.

That we’re all stress-eating, self-medicating with fat and sugar, that the country may well set off some new sort of plate tectonics by just weighing too damn much?

Don’t blame Ding Dongs.

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.)

NO ONE CAN STOP US (a rock anthem call and response)

I’ve read the following (poem? secular liturgy? homage to Springsteen?) in public two different times–once at a gathering of arts educators in Stevens Point, and once at the final Wisconsin Teaching Fellows and Scholars event attended by the UW Colleges shining star in the constellation of the Scholarship of Teaching and learning (we’re all hoping she’ll shine so brightly at Vanderbilt we’ll still be able to poach her light).

It will be the final piece in a chapbook of poems called Each Other’s Anodyne. Since my husband and I are self-publishing it, I can only say that it may well come out in 2012. In that chapbook, I’m trying to represent the full spectrum of what it’s like to teach–the good, the bad, the horribly ugly and the merely pitiful. I have lots of experience with the full range of emotional and spiritual responses to slogging away for 20 years with a four-four teaching load, and I am NOT happy about the current relationship between government and public education. But I wanted to end the collection on a hopeful note because honestly, if I can’t approach this profession hopefully, I think it’s time to move on.

I recommend reading this out loud in a group of teachers.  It feels  really, really good. Maybe especially on a Monday, and definitely as we enter that final push of trying to get a semester delivered.

NO ONE CAN STOP US (a rock anthem call and response)

When the quiet student
In the back row asks a question,
And it’s a good question,
A really good one,
And another student answers
With evidence and insight,
String that bead on your rosary.
Add transcendence to your resume.

We need to learn to treasure
How we live our lives as teachers,
How we succeed, and it’s mostly
Moment by moment.

Moment by moment,
Student by student,
This is what matters.
Teaching’s important.
No one can stop us.

The non-trad who stayed up all night
With a sick kid and a laptop.
The five-year-old cutie with red hair
And freckles, and more issues than freckles.
The hormone-driven, pimple-ridden,
Horny jerk who somehow found the nerve to say
“I loved that essay question.”
Shot by shot, our movie of the week,
In which we’re the inspiring teachers,
Shows our focus, our composition,
The structure of our concern, proceed
Student by student.

Moment by moment,
Student by student,
This is what matters.
Teaching’s important.
No one can stop us.

We have to feed our families.
We hope to retire before death.
We wonder if Canada would be better.
(If Canada would even let us in.)
But that moment when the soft white
Compact fluorescent light bulb comes on,
When someone learns something,
We know, as surely as we know how hard we work,
This is what matters.

Moment by moment,
Student by student,
This is what matters.
Teaching’s important.
No one can stop us.

Firefighters risk their lives
And lead parades with bagpipes.
Some activists lie down in front of tanks.
My cousin Rob stared down,
Survived, unspeakable things in Iraq.
All around us are dramatic
Examples of heroism and sacrifice.

Have you ever seen a statue
Of a teacher? Me neither.
But we know, we all know
Teaching’s important.

Moment by moment,
Student by student,
This is what matters.
Teaching’s important.
No one can stop us.

No government,
No governor,
No budget cut,
No bad idea
Can keep a really determined teacher
From jumping right into the mosh pit,
From coming on down to the altar,
From pulling up her own bootstraps,
From cutting down on the average
Number of disconnects
Between what he knows in his head
And what he does with his time.
No one can stop us from teaching.
No one can stop us from loving what we do.
No one can touch what we know in our hearts—
However much they meddle and undermine
And underfund and criticize, we know,
If they don’t, that no one can stop us.

Moment by moment,
Student by student,
This is what matters.
Teaching’s important.
No one can stop us.

(repeat as needed)

I’m making this public in hopes that it will spread some hope. Share it however you like, even set it to music if you want, but please keep my name attached to it, and don’t revise it without checking with me. And if it starts raking in the cash, of course I want my share. At that point I could retire from teaching and become the next Parker Palmer (whom I adore), spreading wisdom about teaching without having to teach to feed my family.

[NOTE: because I am in Wisconsin in a trouble time, I want to point out that this poem was composed last summer when I was not on contract, and I am posting this from my car, poaching Wi-Fi from a local eatery.]

GRIEF FOR THE UNCOUSINLY CHASM, Part 2 (my inner Cadfael)

What books do we reread? Sharing that information shares a lot.

One of the reasons I’m more o.k. this fall (in the turmoil of an effort to Recall Walker–please see note #1 below ) than I was last spring (in the anxious haze of protesting against Walker)—more able to hold onto my equanimity, less likely to feel whipped around by second-hand adrenaline, can be found in a couple of books I reread most years.

The Virgin in the Ice is the sixth book in the Brother Cadfael series. (The BBC made some fetching adaptations of some of the books, but I prefer the books themselves, although Derek Jacobi is firmly planted in my mind as the meddling monk.)

Edith Pargeter took the pen name Ellis Peters and wrote 21 of these books. I love them for several reasons (cf. note #2). Brother Cadfael is the monastery’s herbalist, so there are terrific passages about gardens and herbs and healing. Peters loved the changing seasons, and I love her passages about them.

In her last book, Brother Cadfael’s Penance, published just after she died, Peters muses on the beauty of November (which our early December still resembled until today, when it just seems COLD):

“Most of the leaves were fallen, the stems dark and clenched like fleshless fingers holding fast to the remnant of the summer, all the fragrances gathered into one scent of age and decline, still sweet, but with the damp, rotting sweetness of harvest over and decay setting in. It was not yet very cold, the mild melancholy of November still hand lingering gold in it, in falling leaves and slanting amber light.”

Peters doesn’t have the lush, swampy poetry of another mystery writer I love, James Lee Burke, but I appreciate her imagery, the occasional dab of a trope, and the perspective—a little surprising. A little twist on how we might normally see things. That’s what makes her books worth rereading for me—the gentle prodding to see the world differently.

She goes on to say that Brother Cadfael, now in his late sixties, “had never before been quite so acutely aware of the particular quality and function of November, its ripeness and its hushed sadness. The year proceeds not in a straight line, through the seasons, but in a circle that brings the world and man back to the dimness and mystery in which both began, and out of which a new seed-time and a new generation are about to begin.”

I’ve been appreciating the yin yang symbol lately, and this passage reminds me of that—the sense of circularity, the sense that the green on green on green of my favorite month, June, can’t happen without the gray on brown on white of late autumn.

Brother Cadfael, of course, is musing on his own mortality and concludes he should “go contentedly into the earth with the moist, gentle, skeletal leaves, worn to cobweb fragility, like the skins of very old men, that bruise and stain at the mere brushing of the breeze, and flower into brown blotches as the leaves into rotting gold. The colours of late autumn are the colours of the sunset: the farewell of the year and the farewell of the day. And of the life of man? Well, if it ends in a flourish of gold, that is no bad ending.”

Cadfael’s friend Sheriff Hugh Beringar (see harrumph in note #3 below) comes upon him at this point and says “God bless the work…if any’s been done here this afternoon. I thought you had taken root.”

The other Brother Cadfael book I reread yearly, The Virgin in the Ice, takes place several years earlier in the series, but also at the end of November and throughout December. It’s that point where things are gray and cold and it feels as though it could snow at any moment. Sort of like today. You can tell by the title things get cold and stay cold.

And this book comes to mind especially this year, the year of “the troubles” in Wisconsin, as one of my many clever colleagues put it. Brother Cadfael’s books take place in England in the 12th century, during what is sometimes called “the Anarchy,” when the Empress Maud and King Stephen fought for the throne and divided the country.

I’ve been in Wisconsin for twenty years now, and in the election cycle we’re often called a battleground state. Of course our battles don’t result in deaths, so calling our current conflicts “the troubles” is an exaggeration (see note #4 below). We have not suffered the violence they suffered in Northern Ireland and I hope we don’t come any closer to it than we already have, although things sometimes feel very powder-keggery and tinder-boxy.

And of course we’re not in a civil war in Wisconsin, although we are surely divided. Polls have shown that almost no one here is in the “undecided” category.

One of the things I love about Brother Cadfael is that he doesn’t choose sides with Maud or Stephen. In fact, he makes the point to numerous characters over the whole series that although he understands fighting for a side with all your heart—before he was a monk, he was a foot soldier in the Crusades—this is not his fight.

I am not Brother Cadfael—I have chosen sides and I’m not sorry for that. I am partisan. I have a dog in this fight, as my father would say.


At one point during a battle in Brother Cadfael’s Penance, he is told,

“You’ve done enough brother…in a quarrel that’s been none of your making.”
“None of us,” said Cadfael ruefully, clambering dazedly to his feet, “has ever done enough—or never in the right direction.”

And although I’ve chosen sides and am working in my pitiful way to help Recall Walker, I do rue the quarrel. I do feel dazed. I do wonder how we’ll emerge from this hard time, if we’ll ever be other than a battleground state. I wonder if we’re doing enough, or too much, or always in the wrong direction. All of us, I mean—the side I’m on and the side I’m not on.

So I have summoned my inner Cadfael. There is a part of me I’m holding apart, a neutral monk, as it were, someone who can see the strengths and weaknesses of both sides. It helps. And in that mode, I was able to send a friend request to someone I’d unfriended on Facebook when he made a perfectly civil comment last spring in support of Scott Walker. It’s a tiny gesture toward common ground, but it was sincerely meant. Last spring I felt so unhinged I couldn’t bear to see even his civil disagreement as anything but but a devastating blow. Things feel very different now.

He accepted my friend request and I felt deep gratitude, perhaps out of proportion to the act. But I am grateful for grace, wherever it appears.

I’m still partisan. If a woman ends up being the Democratic candidate for governor, I will absolutely get a bumper sticker that says MY CASTLE STANDS WITH THE EMPRESS MAUD.

But as I look across this particular chasm, I want to at least make eye contact with people I care about on the other side. Obviously we’re very far apart politically, and in some cases the chasm runs deeper than politics. I’m just hoping that what connects us runs even deeper.




#1Once again, let me assure readers I have worked on this blog off-campus, using my own computer.
#2There are words I find in these books I don’t find anywhere else and I long to use them in a Lexulous game: tocsin, hauberk, and seisin among them.
#3This is one of my problems with the BBC series—Sean Pertwee was Sheriff Beringar in just a few episodes, but he was the first one I saw, and perfect, I thought, and then I was sorely disappointed every time he wasn’t in there, nearly aggrieved, really. Since the friendship between Cadfael and Beringar is a huge part of the stories, the disappointment appeared frequently.
#4Perhaps akin to the hyperbole of Sylvia Plath identifying with Holocaust victims because her emotional life was HARD.

GRIEF FOR THE UNCOUSINLY CHASM, Part 1 (La condition humaine)

“England was already frozen into a winter years long…. King Stephen was crowned, and held, however slackly, most of England. The Empress Maud, his rival for the throne, held the west, and came with a claim the equal of Stephen’s. Cousins, most uncousinly, they tore each other and tore England between them, and yet life must go on, faith must go on, the stubborn defiance of fortune must go on in the husbandry of the year, season after season, plough and harrow and seed, tillage and harvest.”     Ellis Peters, The Virgin in the Ice

I have pledged to sing at karaoke at the Shed next time around IF my friend Melinda is there and IF Bruce Springsteen’s “No Surrender”  is playing. I’m terrified to sing in public—it has to do with a childhood trauma in which I taped myself while singing along to a favorite record, after which, at some point, the tape was stolen and played in front of others, and I was assured by the thief that everyone laughed and thought I was a horrible singer—but Melinda makes me brave, and Springsteen makes me brave, and Lake Louie’s Warped Speed Scotch Ale also makes me brave.

Melinda is one of the main organizers of Spring Green’s Recall Walker effort (see note #1 below) and I am helping a little, though the number of signatures I’ve gathered is pretty pitiful.

It’s not a perfect analogy, just sort of loosely, vaguely analogous, but if we time-traveled to England about 850 years ago, Melinda might be a chatelaine whose castle declared for the Empress. Or an abbess whose nuns sheltered the right kind of knights. Or a merchant who acted as a courier for secret messages. Whatever she would have been, I’d have been the third kitchen helper or the clumsiest nun or the woman buying gloves, standing there acting as though I didn’t know exactly what was going on. In short, I would do pretty much whatever she needed me to (pitifully, probably, cf. above).

And I think, if we were standing there some 850 years ago, as the late autumn hardened into early winter, we would say we understood why others fought for the king.

We agreed recently it must be hard for Walker’s supporters, who were happy when he won, and who now wish people would just leave him alone to do his job. We agreed we felt the same way about Obama. We had this conversation standing across from a church gathering Recall Walker signatures, just after an older gentleman had called us “damn fools.”

This tendency to disagree, whether or not blood is shed, makes me think of Robert Penn Warren in his poem “Folly on Royal Street.” Our grand captiousness is, pretty simply,

“La conditione humaine,
which was sure God what we were.”
Empathizing with people I disagree with doesn’t stop me from disagreeing, however—not this time.

Of all the things I’m angry at Scott Walker about, the devastating blow to educator morale is high on the list, and one colleague springs to mind more than almost any other. This is a young man well on his way to earning tenure, admired by his colleagues, loved by students. He’s one of those people with a large personality and an energy level to match. But when I saw him this fall, he looked utterly bedraggled. It was late on a Friday afternoon, but he’s someone I would typically expect to see bopping around even at that point, annoying the rest of us who experience dips in our energy levels from time to time.

He said he was depressed and I would say he is also burned out. He works a lot of hours, more than I do, and isn’t sure how long he can sustain the pace. I know times are hard, so this isn’t the place to argue about salaries—most of the people I know who teach in the UW System do understand how lucky we are to have jobs, how lucky we are to have relative job security, to be able to provide for our families with our salaries. But our salaries were stagnant before 2008, and beyond that, the divisiveness in Wisconsin has made it acceptable for some people to say right to our faces that they think we’re overpaid and underworked. Let me assure you—this young man I speak of has never underworked a day in his life. As for overpaid, well, he’s not sure he’ll be able to keep up his mortgage. If another college in a state that’s supporting higher education even slightly more than Wisconsin comes calling, he might listen. Or we might lose him to a private college, the way the UW Colleges is losing our premiere researcher in the field of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning to Vanderbilt, beginning in January. Or we might keep him, but not really him at his highest potential, not him, not really, not if he stays depressed and burned out. Everyone loses if someone like him isn’t routinely thrilled to be doing the job he does.

When I saw him in early November, we talked briefly about the Recall Walker campaign, about ten days before it kicked off. He said he wasn’t going to participate, that he just couldn’t. And we agreed that last spring had been very hard emotionally.

Yes, I protested at the Capitol. Three times. One of those times I got to touch a hero of mine, Susan Sarandon. I hadn’t realized she was there, but I was moving one way in a mass of people and she was moving the other, and I recognized her, reached over to touch her arm, said, “Thank-you,” and she looked up at my ridiculous blaze-orange-ear-flap cap, on which I’d written “Public Employee”” and said to me, “Thank-you.” That’s one of my top-ten life moments. I won’t apologize for it.

But it was an adrenaline roller coaster last spring. I think the collective weight of the citizens of Wisconsin stayed the same, but only because the pounds gained by those of us eating emotionally (one friend began putting bacon on her veggie burgers) were balanced out by the pounds lost by those too tense to eat.

My young colleague said he couldn’t help with the Recall because he couldn’t go through that again. I said I understood, but said I felt calmer now. “How?” he asked. “How?”

I’ve been articulating my answer, and it’s taken me a month. Here’s how.

I am currently in the process of healing from burnout. I think I’ve been on the edge of burnout most of my life. I remember it most clearly beginning in high school, so it may be correlated with hormones. I come by this naturally, the tendency to push to extremes and then collapse. My mother does it (though less as she ages, so maybe it really is related to hormones), her sisters do it, her mother did it…. I’d like to stop doing it. There’s a terrific book called Tired of Being Tired that has helped a lot.

So that’s part of the answer to my colleague—healing from burnout. Because, as Ellis Peters says, “life must go on, faith must go on, the stubborn defiance of fortune must go on in the husbandry of the year, season after season, plough and harrow and seed, tillage and harvest.” Our professorly version of that would be semester after semester, grading and prepping and conferencing, teaching and turning in grades. We go on because we have to, and there are still so many moments we love what we do, which is part of why so many of us are working on the Recall.

Or as the Boss would say, “No retreat, Baby, no surrender.”

#1 Because this particular blog has political content, I have been careful not to work on it while on campus, and I am using my own laptop to compose it.