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Flower Gardens, Furloughs, and the Long Hot Summer on the Horizon

April 14, 2009

Recently, a colleague of mine – and I use that term loosely since I’ve never met him, he doesn’t know me, and, due to the rigid nature of the academic hierarchy, we hardly ever have reason to cross paths – had an article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The author, one Keith Miller, is, by his own admission, a professor – which I take to mean that he is either tenure-track or tenured. The topic of his short essay: the mandated furloughs we are being required to take due to the budget crisis Arizona is currently failing to muddle through with any logic or dignity. I first found out about this article because it was circulated by our department chair via the department email listserv. After a short time in circulation, other faculty – who are also tenured or tenure-tracked – applauded Dr. Miller via the email listserv for his fair and balanced article.

At first, I wondered if the use of the phrase “fair and balanced” was a backhanded dig. (Sorry Fox News – nobody but you and the cult of brainwashed neo-cons think you are either fair or balanced. Ditch O’Reilly and Glen Beck and then maybe we’ll talk.) But then I remembered that the department chair only sends things out on the listserv that he sees as upbeat and positive. After actually taking time to read the article, I can only assume the reason it was passed on was that was a mildly clever whitewash of an untenable situation. The text is a positive affirmation of not only the enduring nature of educators, but a sorry attempt at humor that is supposed to suggest bitterness and frustration. Dr. Miller’s essay is a first person narrative on how he spends his furlough time, and a short critique of the problems associated with trying to maintain a regular teaching schedule while being required by law to do no academically associated work (including, it seems, research – which I was surprised no one raised more of a fuss about.) I read about him playing catch with his son, and killing weeds in his lawn. The tone is light and pleasant in the way most academics mistake for being clever and witty.

However, I don’t really think I pull off that sort of wit very well. Actually, I don’t think I pull it off at all; and it is for that reason that I avoid it altogether and stick to simply telling the truth. If the truth is absurd and funny, it is because the truth is absurd – not because I think I’m all that clever. And the truth in this case is, these furloughs, while seemingly fair and evenly distributed from the top of the academic food chain (President Michael Crow) to the bottom (the rest of us), are not fair, nor are the effects evenly distributed, creating a situation that is more than absurd. It’s ludicrous.

Along with the loss of pay due to furlough, my pay checks are also cut because HR, in its infinite wisdom, decides to take out extra money to cover our health benefits over summer in the last four or five pay cycles; in real life terms, this amounts in total to $200 per check. That means I’m losing $400 a month, most of which – say 95% — is loss income due to the furlough. That amount just about covers my car payment, my electric bill, and my cell phone bill. We don’t live extravagantly. We don’t even have cable. And yet, I am being told, via my shorter paycheck, that we need to cut our expenses and be more frugal.

But consider for a moment what that loss of income means when you make say, $24,000 (after benefits) versus someone who makes $200,000 after benefits (approximately what my department chair makes. If you don’t believe me, look. Its public money and on the public record.) Or, how about someone who makes seven figures (like Michael Crow) and doesn’t have to even pay rent on the Presidential house or a payment on the university car he drives. My department chair, like me, is losing somewhere between 8 and 10 percent of his income… which amounts to almost my entire net income. Michael Crow is losing six figures himself, if my math is right. These are all hefty numbers. But proportionately, when I lose $400 a month, that’s more than an inconvience. It’s not just a matter of living more frugally. And even with what my wife earns, we’re still trying to figure out how to live with less without having to play the “what bill are we not going pay this month” game.

I’m sure that my department chair and Michael Crow feel the pinch; but there is one other important aspect of this discussion, though, that needs to be brought in, which Dr. Miller neglected to mention in his pastoral tales of playing catch with Junior. Instructors (people like me) have not been told yet whether we are being rehired for next year. There have been rumors circulating that we will be notified this week (tomorrow, 4/15, actually) as to the fates of our contracts. The simple logic is that they need us, and so there’s no reason they shouldn’t bring us back. Because they didn’t rehire most of the adjuncts – who, along with us, teach nearly all of the First Year Composition courses – there are classes that will need to be covered. Surely, the more naive of my colleagues say, they will HAVE to bring us back. “Or at least,” they qualify, “most of us.”

Oh sure. Most of us. Maybe. What most of my fellow Instructors either don’t say or don’t realize (I allow myself to believe it’s the prior, not the latter – my own brand of optimism) is that while we teach what we are told are “important” and “crucial” courses – we are not irreplaceable. Also, from a purely pragmatic point of view, there are cheaper ways to get it done; and from the administrative perspective, my fellow instructors and I are not valued colleagues and fellow professional educators. We are the bottom of the food chain. They have, like all people in positions of power, linked their own survival to the survival of the institution. Michael Crow will still have a job. My department chair, since he’s so “good” at what he does, will have a job.  We were promised nothing, so they owe us nothing. It may be the humane thing to tell us so we can either stop worrying and trying to figure out what to do next, or get a non-academic resume together to find another job.  But their humanity is not a foregone conclusion. They are bureaucrats, from the department chairs on up the chain through the college Deans, Vice Presidents, and President. They are the same kind of political creature that has given us a recession, failing banks, a crumbling stock market, and rising unemployment. No, Michael Crow isn’t to blame for Fannie Mae or Freddy Mac; but he is the same creature. If you get stung by one wasp, you’re not going to forgive all the other ones who buzz by you; you’d squash them all, and then find a can of Raid to finish off their kids.

And no, before you misread, I’m not suggesting violence is the answer – but I am suggesting that we are assisting them in pushing us out if we presume our lives, our families, or our bills have any part in how they decide to move forward. We like to think we’re important because – well, we are. To us and to our immediate families and friends. But we shouldn’t be so egocentric as to assume that the powers that be see us as important; especially when there are so many of us who would take any deal just to keep working – even if it meant larger classes and a higher load for much less money.

To me, that might be the most reprehensible thing of all. Adults who are (seemingly) intelligent enough and qualified enough to teach writing and dabble in critical thinking skills are as easy to bully as five year olds at a high school football game. And if you’re the one who DARE suggest that people should get together (meaning: organize), or when you articulate outrage at being handled like children rather than educated professionals, then you (meaning: me) are labeled a crank and dismissed. Scratch that. Actually, the most reprehensible truth is that in the end, all that talk of community and togetherness is nothing more than empty rhetoric offered to keep us happy and doing the work that none of them could do. So with all due respect to Dr. Miller, I’m glad that he can play catch with his son, and I’m glad that he has time to nap and to buy lawnmowers. But don’t tell me I need to be optimistic and wait it out, and don’t tell me that I’ll “come back, smiling.” Summer’s coming, and in Arizona, that means living in a convection oven. Those of us with year contracts have learned how to survive; but after the summer’s over, you will have a job to go back to. Yes, you’re losing money, but your job is secure. So go play ball while the rest of us actually worry about paying rent.

One Comment leave one →
  1. lost-n-thot permalink
    June 11, 2009 5:31 pm

    seriously, i always knew there was something wrong with all teachers… but this is a prime example! TEACHERS ARE IDIOTIC MORONS THAT NEED TO CONTROL EVERYTHING! you are very inspiring, and interesting… but im not saying that is always a good thing. ur a freak! embrace it.

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