Factory Farms, Factory Books Friday, Oct 14 2011 

I fully accept the title of curmudgeon and Luddite when it comes to e-readers. I’m starting there, just so you know.

I’ll open with this, too: a lot of the arguments for and against e-readers and digital books are familar. And I think a lot of them are more or less emotional on both sides: Pro — readers can download a whole library to a single device, thus saving backs (people always say this, I mean literally this, though I’ve never met a single person with a back broken by carrying books around). Con — books are nice to touch. Some arguments try to sound informed: Pro — digital publishing opens up the possibility for more productive self-publishing. Con — E-books wipe out the mid-list author by eliminating serendipitous book-shop browsing and publishers’ marketing imperative. But it all boils down to neat-o nifty: Pro — but the iPad is so cool! I want! Con — but that bookstore is so neat! They sell coffee!

I fall on the negative side of these aesthetic arguments, much preferring the social spaces of reality than the world-divorced “sociability” of digital communication. And that suggests an argument we don’t hear enough, even if it isn’t my main point this blog-a-day. Simply, digital and economic consolidation are removing our opportunities for certain kinds of social interaction. The move to on-line university courses, for example, presumes that content trumps spacial proximity. Digital communication is remote, not tactile. Budget cuts threaten nerdy social spaces like libraries. Progressively, we’re losing out on opportunities to meet, exchange ideas, come up with new common visions for our culture. Assembly, in fact, rarely appears as anything other than a political act or loitering, both of which can get you in serious trouble. Thus we arrive at the semi-cynical, half-paranoiac destination of digital spaces serving to consolidate power within a narrow band of social and economic elites who, in fact, are among the few who can actually afford iPads, even though plenty of people who can’t really afford them buy them too.

So here we are. Lately, I’ve grown quite irritated at the large number of academics and socially progressive individuals who whip out kindles and nooks and iPads and other devices with absolutely no sense of consciousness. They, in fact, are the people who I’ve heard make the sort of justifications I opened with. Truth is, they like the toy, want the toy, and find a way to either not notice potential (in my mind serious) issues inherent in the paradigm shift, or actively invent (in my mind spurious) reasons why they’re okay. Yet, this is the same cross-section of folk who tend to be acutely aware, even activist about, the ills of globalization and industrialization.

But somehow that doesn’t apply.

I just watched Food Inc. the other night, because I’m way behind on things, and I realized it’s about e-readers. Bear with me here. So, the chief issue of the film is to call attention to how the rapid industrialization of the American food industry has consolidated power to a few multinational companies. As a result, people don’t know where their food comes from, don’t have control of where it comes from, and don’t realize the extent to which profit motives and predatory ag-business practice has transformed the working conditions and lives of farmers, meat packers, and our guts, which are now more likely to be exposed to nasty e-coli infections thanks to irresponsible animal husbandry and unsafe slaughter standards. The crisis is largely at the level of epistemology, as in we just don’t know where and how our food winds up on our table. The consolidation of the industry serves only the interests of big business economics, at the expense of people.

So, the film urges, rise up and eat your way to a better system. Buy local, organic, fair trade. Realize that your choices affect the working conditions of real people and the literal health of the nation. Certainly, people are doing this, particularly among the e-reader crowd I’m addressing here. These individuals with professed love for their e-devices also buy fair trade coffee, belong to CSAs, care about the social politics of American big business, probably trend toward the socialist. And these same people sat in a room where a campus bookstore manager explained that digital textbooks were taking over, without a doubt, that students would in the future only be “renting” textbooks a term at a time via some digital interface, that the profits the big companies see in these textbooks makes them inevitable. They listened to the famous tale of a digital version of 1984 being sucked back from e-readers. They listened to the manager lament the change from ownership of text — of a physical object that cannot be sucked back remotely — to the rental of material that exists nowhere. And then they talked about how convenient their e-readers were when they travel.

To me, the connections between the food model and the book model are clear. In food, the farmer becomes beholden to multinational companies, simply produces a product without any sense of real autonomy. As the film shows, those who buck the system find it tough going — here lie lawsuits and bankruptcy. In publishing, the writer becomes the same vehicle for product. The e-reader produces the same consolidation of market that we’ve seen create trouble in other sectors. Yeah, it’s nice to be able to carry a library in your pocket, it’s cool to have a nifty device, but that device helps create a non-local, disconnected, anonymous, even-more-than-it-already-is-mass-market-driven publishing industry.

The lesson of the food world is that when we give up control and knowledge of our food sources we open up ourselves to potential abuses by massive companies. Our food suffers, and we suffer. I simply don’t understand why no one seems to be talking about that same potential in the digital marketplace.

Do we need CSAs for books?

Isn’t that what colleges and universities kind of are?

So how troubling is it that the book CSAs are accepting the e-reader with so little consideration?

 

Three Years Wednesday, Apr 20 2011 

Like all card-carrying English professors, I listen to NPR on my way to and from work. Yesterday, I found myself cussing aloud after hearing about Ohio’s new push for three year college degrees. In particular, I gaped at a so-called “liberal arts college” that means to pilot a three-year, non-summer, undergraduate degree, apparently by cutting fluff that lies outside a student’s major.

1) Isn’t it the fluff that makes it a liberal arts college? That a communications major might actually need to know something about tv AND literature AND biology AND philosophy?

2) Isn’t trimming a degree by 25%, but charging more-or-less the same per-year charge kind of like the way peanut butter jars increase the size of the little bubble on the bottom, limiting the amount of peanut butter, but leaving the price unchanged?

3) Isn’t it likely that “streamlining” college degrees by getting rid of annoying distribution requirements (e.g. the part of education that develops critical thinking and interdisciplinary literacy) also makes it less likely that the newly-degreed will be less able to critically think about the bum deal students are getting in the U.S.?

Spring Fever, Student Evals, and the Short-timer Sunday, Apr 17 2011 

I. It’s been spring here for awhile, apparently, which was meant snow, rain, wind, gray skies, cold temperatures. But certain things are inevitable rites of the season: the semester is almost over. With the bad weather, students haven’t yet begun to stop showing up for classes to play in the sun. I guess this counts as one negative (the November-ish weather) and one positive (butts in seats), weighing out to a wash.

II. Student evaluation packets infested mailboxes a few weeks ago, begging to be infected upon our student population. I think ours are more annoying than others, since they have to be administered by another professor. And because the eval coordinators don’t actually coordinate who does whose. Thus a frenzy of emails circulates among the professors, each edition begging for a swap no one really wants to make.

III. As a sum of I and II, the product can be clearly interpreted as the near end of my run at my PA state school. Not a moment too soon, I’d say. This week, the university shut down applications because the incoming freshman class will already be the biggest in school history. This week, the state system announced the probability of faculty furloughs and retrenchments, since the 50% state funding cut will apparently have a negative affect on individual school’s ability to, um, keep the lights on. This week, the union filed a grievance against the system because the notification of potential furloughs and retrenchments didn’t follow the contract (which apparently means the notice should have announced specific furloughs and retrenchments instead of offering just a heads up). The union’s take: the system is just trying to strike fear in the hearts of professors since contract negotiations are currently underway. The union is afraid some professors might be swayed into retirement or job switches based on news like this.

My take:

A) I have a new job. Thank goodness I don’t have to stick around and watch all this b.s. materialize.

B) Student evals. Hmmm. Passive resitance, methinks. I ain’t playing. No email tag. No grovelling. No pretending that the info in the evals actually means something to someone leaving. Or really, that much to people sticking around.

C) Two weeks. And outta there. Nice.

D) Better start packing up the office.

E) I think the system AND the union are playing dirty politics, going round and round, not focusing on the very real financial crisis in the state budget. Just posturing, clacking antlers, going through the motions of trying to intimidate the other party.

F) Record enrollments and reducing numbers of faculty. Fits nicely with the school marketing schlock: “Beyond expectations.”

Mount St. Helens: beyond expectations.

Charlie Sheen: beyond expectations.

Bernie Madoff: beyond expectations.

Pittsburgh Pirates: beyond expectations.

Two weeks…

An Interlude of Fiduciary Betrayal Saturday, Apr 2 2011 

Currently, I teach at one of Pennsylvania’s 14 actual state schools (Bloomsburg, California, Clarion, Cheyney, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Indiana, Kutztown, Mansfield, Millersville, Lock Haven, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock, West Chester), not to be confused with Pennsylvania’s semi-state schools, who rely on state funds for a significantly smaller portion of their operating budgets (Pittsburgh, Penn State, Temple, Lincoln). Needless to say, in this Defund Education Now! political climate, all of these schools have suffered a recent betrayal of the public trust. Governor Tom Corbett announced a budget that cuts funding to the 14 state schools by 50%.

You probably know this. You’ve probably heard about this.

As you might expect and hope, there has been some (though hardly enough) public outcry about this asinine proposal. A few public rallies in my university’s quad, for example, have drawn small crowds enjoying the opportunity to chant in the open air. And education supporters on the campuses have begun a postcard campaign, with the hopes of flooding the governor’s office with physical representations of our outrage. I guess the idea is to produce some kind of Miracle on 34th Street moment, when a stream of postal workers carry in bag after bag of postcards and dump them on the governor’s desk.

I believe. I believe. It’s stupid but I believe, says some little girl when thinking about her future public education in our state.

These aforementioned postcards have been distributed at the aforementioned rallies. Which leads me to side two of the betrayal LP. An email came across our faculty list the other day, within which a professor wondered where he might get such postcards, since he hasn’t been able to make it to the rallies. You see, he wrote, I only come to campus on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

So much, so wrong there.

A financial crisis looms, and a faculty member wants to get involved! Activate! Protest! Send those postcards! But, um, I really don’t like to come into campus more than three days a week. Can’t make any exceptions there, to attend a rally, lend my voice to the protest. So could you just send me something, which I’ll just kind of limply send on?

I dare say, there aren’t too many successful revolutions that would have worked out if the participation was similarly (un)motivated.

All’s quiet in Egypt on Tuesday, but expect more street protests Wednesday. Thursday is, of course, a “grading day,” so the streets should be fine again.

Could probably lend out the guillotine on Tuesdays and Thursdays, because the revolt will be quiet then.

Tea on Thursday? Sure. I only fight the British Empire on my M-W-F schedule.

Now, I’m fully aware that professors who “come into campus” on a limited number of days often use the other days to work from home, do field work, visit archives, and generally practice all sorts of legitimate, important academic work. But I’m also fully aware that most non-professors totally don’t get this. They see someone feverishly defending a M-W-F on-campus schedule as someone only working three days a week. Untrue, unfair, but that’s the reality of perception. And I think when the time comes to, say, curry public favor in support of education, it might be time to think about what we look like to people on the outside. Perhaps drive into work on a day we’re usually not there, so we can pick up that postcard.

But in Pennsylvania, where a faculty union defends our rights (and is currently negotiating a new contract — wonder how that’s going?), the battle for public image doesn’t fare so well. A couple of years ago, the union exacted its greatest public victory in overturning a system-wide smoking ban by invoking a meet-and-discuss technicality. It was a matter of principle, union reps said, conveniently ignoring the fact that the ban was exceedingly popular among faculty (the, um, union part of the union) and the public. That victory came at great cost, I think. It offered clear proof of the petty contract-waving the union could do. There was no moral victory despite the invocation of principle, because that “show of strength” by the union did nothing to make the state wary of, say, cutting a budget in half. It only made people outside of academe roll their eyes. Again.

Let me be clear that I’m not blaming faculty and educators for the current state of affairs. Without a doubt, the education cuts across the nation are a function of idiotic, misinformed Tea Party types who fail to recognize the definition and necessity of public service. But I do think we in education need to do a better job of reaching out to non-academics. We suffer under the cloak of stereotype, but our actions often inadvertently reinforce those same stereotypes.

I’ll offer local examples:

*My campus is located in a small town, which is itself about the size of the student population at the university. We might ungenerously call this town “provincial.” As a result, many faculty choose to live in Pittsburgh and maintain an hour-and-a-half commute. Not a big deal, since most of those who do so can firmly defend their M-W-F on-campus schedule. But it is a big deal because of the message it sends. Those faculty who live in the city are physically abandoning the community of the town where they work. Sure, there can be no argument against the increased cultural opportunities in the city, but I would wager that most who live there attend such events without the kind of frequency that would make the living arrangement transportationally efficient: they spend far more time on their work commute each week than they save by living close to the museum they visit once a year. The real reason people live in the city, I think, is because they don’t want to stand in a grocery line next to one of the locals. They don’t want to be part of this small, ex-coal community that suffers daily economic strain. They’d rather hang out in Squirrel Hill coffee shops and be all aristocratic. That, I think, is a betrayal of the public trust almost as vile as the slashing of budgets for political gain. Academics should be part of their communities, plain and simple.

(There are plenty — a majority — who do stay local. And there are many who are actively local. So I am not trying to offer wide castigation. But even though fewer in number, those who refuse to live in the provinces send a very loud message with their absence.)

*The pay-scale of our faculty, which is the same across the 14 universities, is un-freaking-believable. Our campus happens to be a doctoral institution, but the general profile of the state system is clearly regional, as is the student population of our own locality. Compared to major doctoral institutions, our pay scale lags behind a bit, and that’s a comparison many on our campus choose to make. But compared to the actual profile of the system — for which the contract is written — remuneration is higher than average, sometimes 20k to 30k better at a given rank. Full professors with seniority are pulling 100k under this contract, and they do this living in smaller towns with low costs of living. The effective salary of faculty at my institution is extremely competitive on a national scale. Further, the average faculty salaries far exceed the average incomes of local residents. Faculty build giant houses in exclusive neighborhoods, outfit them with Swedish saunas and wine cellars, then complain they’re not being paid enough. It is, of course, expensive to commute to Pittsburgh three days a week.

* I just can’t write a specific example about this one efficiently, but suffice it to say: we’re located in Appalachia, and many faculty choose to think of Appalachians (i.e. their neighbors) within the exaggerated and uncharitable stereotypes of popular culture. Faculty are superior. The locals are backward and ignorant. This does not engender a good town-gown relationship.

*Our union celebrates its strength and unity, but when the campus cafeteria workers formed a union that the contract food service company refused to recognize, the faculty union did nothing. A show of support there would have seemed morally imperative. And standing up for the low-wage earners on campus who were simply seeking a fair shake was both the right thing to do and, y’know, good p.r.

There’s some ungainly looseness to this post, I realize, but I’m seeking to connect it with a simple underlying idea: as academics, we moan a great deal about how the greater public doesn’t afford us the respect we deserve, while at the same time our actions often do not return respect to those outside of academe. Our professional activities are not the problem, even if those aren’t always easily communicated to those unfamiliar with the biz. The real problem is that we sometimes forget that we are members of the communities where we live (local, state, national). We are not voices above, outside, or lateral from the public. We are the public.

Faced as we are with tremendous political attack, it’s crucial that we start thinking about the coded message we send. A proper professoriate will always make waves, challenge standard thinking, and push a culture forward. But we need to do so with an inherent consciousness of image. I truly believe the “public” has no problem with academic culture as a culture of intelligent debate, but I think everyone rankles when confronted with apparent elitism. We can’t afford to positions ourselves as aloof, above, distant, different, any of those things. We can’t afford to do it even by accident. We need to clearly communicate how we are both vital to the public interest and, in fact, part of that public.

The slogan bopping about campus right now is, “United We Stand, Underfunded We Fail.” As academics, we need to parse that “united,” make sure that is clearly being defined as a public unity and not merely professorial privilege.