It has been a week of convergences that have me thinking and worrying. Due to a beloved colleague’s departure, we are accepting applications for a tenure-track position in American Literature. Offering the academic holy grail means we already have numerous applications for the position just a week after the ad went live. But as I read through the letters and teaching philosophies of highly qualified, desirable people, all but one of whom we will have to turn down, I am troubled by what happened at a faculty forum on campus yesterday.
The forum was an opportunity for faculty to ask questions about the strategic plan. Some faculty members pointed out that the suggestions crafted by committees to be included in the plan were not there, namely raising faculty salaries to median average and addressing gender and other pay inequities. Other concerns were low morale and suggestions that the strategic plan include more objectives and fewer vague aspirations.
1. Information on median average salaries is not available; therefore, we can only strive to raise salaries to average.
2. Erasing pay inequality based on gender is a laudable goal, and we should add that to the strategic plan.
3. We can raise salaries but that will require raising tuition — do you really want to do that to students?
4. Don’t you want to aspire?
First, the information on median average salaries has to be out there. None of us believe that accrediting agencies and university associations do not gather this type of information. Second, good lord, gender pay inequities — let’s please address this as a nation as well as a university.
The last two — of course, we don’t want to raise tuition on students. They already bear a huge financial burden. But I am so tired of the continual guilt trip that is the discussion of salaries in higher education. Yes, we teach for reasons other than money, but we also have to pay our own enormous student loans and save for our own children to go to college. I looked up our average salaries on the Chronicle site during the discussion. Bleak. We are listed as “far below median” — the average assistant professor salary for my university is listed as $50,000, 9%. My actual salary is less than that. My salary has gone up $4000 since I was hired in 2007. On the flip side, the President of my university makes $349,000 a year.
So I look at these wonderful job applications –the fresh new PhDs and the people who have numerous publications yet have been stuck in adjunct or instructor positions — and I feel such warring emotions. I want to tell them what opportunities they would have here, how they can learn and grow, how they will have so much freedom in how and what they teach. I want to tell them how wonderful our students are, how they will get to have personal relationships with incredible young people who go on to do amazing things. I want to tell them how much they will love our department, about how much we love each other. But I also want to tell them that they will not be fairly compensated for their education and experience. That they can make more money as office managers. That they will struggle to pay loans and mortgages and to save.
It’s such a privilege to teach. But it’s also an incredibly demoralizing financial sacrifice.
It’s November. Thanksgiving Break is next week. After that we have one week of class and one week of finals and the semester is over.
November is a time of panic and tiredness and too many assignments and too much to grade. But it’s also National Novel Writing Month, a sheer exuberance of words, a glory of writers. It’s Thanksgiving, a time of reflection and generosity and gathering.
My students are finishing their 20% Projects and will give presentations during exam week. The goal is for each student to find his or her passion, the thing that will get them out of bed on cold November mornings year after year.
Right now, though, we are all tired. Break is still a week away and presentation glory awaits in December. Right now, we have to remember why we do what we love, why coming together in stuffy classrooms on cold, November mornings is worthwhile, why writing and reading and communing is an absolute privilege for which we are daily thankful.
I have anxiety. I’ve never been officially diagnosed because my doctors take my symptoms as normal manifestations of being a woman and a mother (there’s another post), but I definitely have anxiety. I listened to The Bloggess’ book not long ago, and my heart absolutely stopped when she began describing her panic attacks. “That’s me,” I kept thinking. “Oh my god, that’s exactly what happens to me.”
My panic attacks seem to be connected to absolutely nothing. I can be having a great day. I can be somewhere exciting. In fact they often happen when I’m somewhere exciting — at a restaurant or a movie or a play. They most often happen around nine at night when I’m settling down for the evening. This morning I had one in class.
I can feel a panic attack beginning. My skin feels crawly. My chest tightens. I begin to feel nauseous and my throat constricts. The bottom of my feet feel cold and sweaty. I start to flush, to feel hot then cold. My mind starts racing, my heart thumps and pounds, I feel dizzy. I become convinced that I’m either going to throw up or pass out. I feel the need to escape, to leave wherever I am. I want to escape my own skin. Usually the panic part goes away quickly, but the nausea, dizziness, and general feeling of horrible stay for at least a couple of hours. If I have an attack at night, I know I won’t sleep.
My latest doctor finally gave me a prescription for Klonopin which has helped, but it has its own problems. I try to just take a half, but if that doesn’t work and I have to take a whole one, I’m wiped out. Exhausted, light-headed, overwhelmingly drowsy. This is of course as disruptive to my day as the panic attack itself. The solution is no better than the problem.
I know many people suffer from anxiety. Hearing people’s stories makes me feel a bit better, less like a freak. But I’m afraid to talk about it much. I tell my closest, closest friends and family, but no one else. I need to be more open about it — we only change perceptions about mental health if we are open and willing to discuss our conditions. But I still feel like a defective freak, a person who just can’t keep it all together, who can’t hack it.
The biggest, the darkest secret though, is what it does to my child. Sometimes, I have to go to the bedroom and shut the door and ask him to please, please play with his daddy or with his toys. He’s sad, of course, and how do I help him understand that his mama who loves him so much just can’t be with him sometimes? Lately, when I’ve had multiple panic attacks in a very short amount of time, I find myself incredibly angry for no reason. Like Hulk angry. This morning I yelled at him and threw down his toothbrush. I can barely write those words. I can hardly bare to even think about it. I tremble to write it. How can I do something like that? How can he forgive me? How can I forgive myself?
Students come out to me in all sorts of ways — they tell me they are gay or are atheists (both somewhat dangerous admissions at a religious school) or that they have mental illnesses or learning disabilities or have been abused or raped. My heart breaks at each of their stories and for each of them, and I always so admire their courage. They come into my office and tell me their deepest secrets, their terrible vulnerabilities. I cry at the sheer trusting audacity of it all.
So here I am, trusting you, my community, with my deepest secret, my terrible vulnerability. You don’t have to do anything with it. Just listening is good. And if you too feel a bit like a freak, like a person who just can’t hold it all together, maybe you can know you aren’t alone.
My deep interest in the comparisons between sociability in 18th century England and social media in 21st century America (and the world, but I live in America) led me to structure my course on 18th century British literature around sociability, scandal, and satire. For the sociability unit, we are discussing coffeehouse culture, reading selections from The Tatler, The Spectator, The Female Spectator, and The Invisible Spy, and discussing public spheres and the formation of public opinion. Today we talked about Nancy Fraser’s essay “Rethinking the Public Sphere,” and applied it to coffeehouse culture and to the culture of social media.
The class is a wonderful mix of students. Four are traditional undergraduates (three are English majors, one is a communications major), and one is a retired education professor who loves sitting in on classes. We meet in a small seminar room that smells slightly of coffee. Everyone is rather comfortable with each other.
I knew today’s reading would be a bit daunting — the course is a 300-level so not all the students have had Literary Criticism yet. Fraser’s essay also requires at least a basic understanding of Habermas’ concept of an ideal public sphere as well as Althusser’s RSA/ISA/subjecthood philosophies and Foucault’s formulations of power structures. To help with all that, I created a PowerPoint that broke down the concepts a bit and contextualized some of those theories. (PowerPoint is here.)
We moved through the PowerPoint slides. They took notes for a bit, then we began applying the concepts and that’s when the discussion really began to get going. We talked about social media and slactivism. Our retired professor is a child of the 60s so she gave us insight into that decade of physical activism. We decided using social media to organize a physical protest or demonstration is the ideal action (i.e. Moral Monday protests and the overnight organizing against the Sharia Law/Motorcycle Vagina bills in North Carolina), but for most people, activism ends with a twibbon. We wondered if a proliferation of individual voices drowns out the message, and talked about how a coalition of public spheres needs to form so that individuals can see themselves as deliberative bodies. They decided class is the biggest stratified layer of public spheres now, and class issues exclude some voices.
I’ve used Fraser’s essay in my own work in the past, but only as it applies to literature. Today we applied these ideas to a networked culture that Fraser most likely couldn’t have imagined in 1990 when she wrote the essay. It was so exciting to see theory as a foundation for their thoughts on their own voices, on their participation within a democratic society. I also saw the essay in a new way as I’ve gotten older and have become more active in social justice and feminist policy issues. Good theoretical and critical writing enables people to peek behind the curtain of society, to see the inner workings, and, hopefully, to fix what is broken.