i read the news today, oh boy

Kevin Drum:

We used to have the world's greatest system of higher education and we thrived.  Now we have the world's biggest system of penal institutions and we're broke.  That's the decision Californians have made over the past 30 years: more prisons and better paid prison guards, but lower taxes and less education.  (And not just higher education, either.)  It's hard to think of a stupider allocation of resources.  But hey — at least our property taxes are capped!  Hooray!

unemployment residue

I last taught at American River College in the spring semester of this year. I was unavailable for summer classes, and did not get assigned any classes for this fall (at times, I would be given classes at the last minute), and I applied for unemployment on the first day of classes. I mention this only as a way of explaining when, in my mind, my unemployment began.

I still received information from the English Department via regular mail, as well as departmental emails etc. Although the current economic climate in California isn’t particularly inviting, I continue to hope a class or two will fall my way (I have some reason to hope in this regard). So every day or two, I check my ARC email, so I can keep up and do whatever networking is needed.

Last week … maybe ten days, can’t remember … I couldn’t log in to my ARC Web Outlook or whatever it’s called. I figured the system was down, but it lasted for a few days. Then I noticed I couldn’t access old Internet files on my previous courses. I talked to my sister, who still teaches part-time at ARC, and she said her email was working fine. Which made me realize I’d been cut off.

It took another week to find out what had happened. Today, someone in HR explained to me that if I wasn’t working, I didn’t get email. This seemed rather sudden … I know people who left Cal a decade ago and only just lost their email access … but rules are rules, and while she said I could talk to IT, there really wasn’t much she, they, or I could do, other than get another job with them.

You know, I’ve often read about the legal disputes over who “owns” work-related email. I’m getting first-hand experience on this now. I have thousands of emails in my Inbox and Archives at ARC … student correspondence (it builds up when you teach online), department updates, information from my union, stuff like that. Not to mention everyone’s email address. As I said to the woman from HR (and none of this is her fault), it would have been nice to get advance notice that my access was going to be restricted. I could have saved necessary information. Instead, I’m left looking in from the outside, relying on personal email accounts (esp. unfortunate since I only have one person’s email address in those accounts, so the poor guy has to be the conduit for everything I need).

welcome to the boomtown

I’m in my fourth day of unemployment, but that doesn’t mean I’m not paying attention to what’s going on in my state:

Chancellor Robert Birgeneau of UC Berkeley … said the school currently expects to lay off about 300 nonfaculty employees, and will reduce faculty positions by 100 through attrition. Employees at all 10 UC campuses will have their pay cut between 4 and 10 percent, depending on income level.

"Everyone is really angry and demoralized because we're doing more and being paid less," said one veteran English professor who declined to give his name for fear of reprisal. "And then we're given a little pious lollipop stuck in our mouth about how Berkeley can still be a great school."

The school has also cut 8 percent of courses. But the impact appeared minimal Wednesday compared with the opening-day havoc at San Francisco State University a day earlier, where 10 percent of courses were cut and hundreds of students were reduced to pleading - often unsuccessfully - to get into required courses.

When an English professor is worried about opening his mouth, you know it’s bad.

All that money makes such a succulent sound:

ah, the memories

I did something today I hadn’t done in more than 25 years. I filed for unemployment.

When I was a steelworker, I would usually get laid off during the winter. The more seniority I got, the less time I’d spend on the dole, which was kinda sad, because as part of our union contract with the company, we got supplementary unemployment benefits. The result was that I made almost as much when I wasn’t working as I did when I was working … and I don’t like to work.

I’ve been “out of work” a couple of times since my steelworker days, but never in a way that made me consider unemployment. I spent several years as a student, of course, and then I was a graduate student instructor, and then I entered my Adjunct Faculty period. Starting around 2000, I’d fade in and out of jobs … when I left Cal in 2000, thinking I would start my early retirement, I got asked to teach a semester at San Francisco State. After that, my sister got me online classes at American River College, and I taught them regularly, except for the year I returned to Cal as a Mass Comm professor/advisor, and one other semester when I taught at SF State again. I taught summer school at ARC as well, except when we took vacations in Spain.

But … well, I imagine you’ve heard, there’s an economic crisis, it has hit California especially hard, and there are severe cuts in the education budget. Online classes are popular these days, but they also have a higher drop rate than other classes … I’d start with 28 students per class and end up with 13, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t because I was a bad teacher, everyone had the same experience. So those were among the first classes to get cut in the English Department, leaving me without a job or classes to attend or any of those things people to, for the first time since 1984.

I am not particularly worried. I don’t mind not working, and at least now, knock wood, we don’t need the money (I don’t make much anyway, having worked only part-time in those 25 years except for the one year in Mass Comm). I’m not saying I’m retired, because if ARC called and asked me to teach in the spring, I’d do it, and perhaps I’ll even get ambitious and actively seek work. But it’s too early for that, since for now, I still consider myself an employee at ARC who is laid off, rather than a guy with no employer.

I waited until today to apply because this is the beginning of the new semester. I couldn’t file in the spring because I was still working, and I couldn’t file in the summer because I was out of the country part of the time and thus was unavailable even if they had a job for me. But starting today, I am officially unemployed.

teaching and learning

My dissertation director, Mitch Breitwieser, just received a Distinguished Teaching Award at Cal. This quote, from his "Statement of Teaching Philosophy," reminds me of the time when, in one of my many moments of insecurity, I asked Mitch at what point one finally got over the feeling that one was a poser, about to get caught. He replied that he didn't know, because he hadn't gotten there yet, himself.

A teacher’s conclusions can seem to have arrived effortlessly, but such facility can reinforce students’ feelings that, because they are struggling, there must be some personal deficiency, and such feelings reduce the chance that the intellectual problem will be solved, because academic success depends upon properly understanding the encounter with difficulty. If it is seen as an opportunity for intellectual experiment, students are liable to become invigorated and adventurous. But seeing it as the consequence of personal inadequacy dispirits students, leading many to quit, or to content themselves with the modest efforts that they come to accept as their best endeavor. Such outcomes are particularly tempting at Berkeley, where the institutional reputation can make even the hardiest egotists suspect that they snuck in when someone was looking the other way. Letting one’s own ideation show during class helps students to engage creatively with their own hard, but bracing, tasks.

i have the wrong job

I got a nice discount from eReader for taking a survey, so I grabbed a few books, and as I was filling my cart, I realized once again that I am not really suited for the job I currently hold (this being a recession, it's not clear that I will even hold that job past this semester). I teach English, and it's true, all four of the books I chose are written in English, but they are all non-fiction, and none of them deal specifically with literature.

The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead by David Shields is about our physical condition from birth to death. The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America is by Steven Johnson, who I have come to trust will write books I want to read, no matter the subject. Mark Harris's Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood uses the five Best Picture Oscar nominees for 1967 as a starting point for a look at the beginning of the golden age of Hollywood films. And Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are by Rob Walker is about marketing. Pretty much the only thing they have in common with each other is that they got good reviews from Salon.

That's not quite true. One other thing they have in common is that they probably wouldn't belong on a syllabus for an English class. And I'm an English teacher. And I never even bothered to see if there was any fiction that might catch my attention,

i'm beat

I've had a fascination with the Beats for at least 40 years now. I just had one of Those Moments ... in this case, it's a lot like a Moment I had back around 1980.

Our son is named Neal. It isn't accurate or fair to say he is named after anyone, but I'd be lying if I didn't admit that Neal Cassady was in my mind, if not my wife's, when we were choosing names. I've often said that I fluctuate between seeing myself as Jack Kerouac and seeing myself as Neal Cassady ... whenever I get around to re-reading On the Road, which is fairly often, I identify with one or the other, depending on where I am in my own life. When we were living in Antioch for that short and awful period almost 30 years ago, I was reading an oral history about Kerouac ... I read a lot of Kerouac biographical stuff in those days. This one was co-written by Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee. Gifford has gone on to some fame as a writer whose work has been adapted for movies by David Lynch, among others. I was reading this book, and I can't recall exactly how the conversation went, but Robin started thinking about the name "Barry Gifford," and one thing led to another, and I mentioned that he had dedicated the book to someone named Mary Lou, and it clicked for Robin ... back when we lived in Berkeley before that move to Antioch, when Neal was a toddler, he was in one of those baby groups with, among other kids, Barry and Mary Lou's son Asa. I found this to be quite astonishing ... that I had such a close connection to someone who had a close connection to the Beats, and I hadn't even realized it! Being the starstruck type to begin with, I imagine I was shaking in my boots at this realization.

Well, tonight I was looking up Richard Brautigan on Wikipedia ... I forget why. I clicked on the link for Trout Fishing in America, which was the real point of my search in the first place. I saw that a reissue had been released a few years ago, with a preface by Ron Loewinsohn. Well, I know Ron Loewinsohn ... he's emeritus now, but he was a professor in the English Department at Cal when I was there. Good guy, I must say. I can remember that he taught a course on the Beats, but I didn't make any real connection at the time ... I mean, somebody had to teach the course, and while I might have done a decent job myself, had in fact given a lecture on On the Road that was my first such speaking engagement at Cal, it wasn't my specialty, it was more a personal interest ... perhaps even an obsession, given that I have a son named Neal. Anyway, I was glad to know the course was being taught, and since Ron, as I say, was one of the good guys, I was glad to know he was teaching it. And with that, I continued on with whatever I was doing and pretty much forgot all about that course.

So now I see that Ron worked on the reissue of Trout Fishing in America, and that seems pretty cool to me ... it didn't strike me with quite the same headsmack as the earlier thing re: Barry Gifford, because when that one happened I was still just a steelworker who had no connection to literature or academics, whereas now, I'm an academic myself who was, for a short while, a colleague of Loewinsohn's.

And I figured, what the heck, I think I'll Google around a bit, see what Ron's been up to, blah blah blah. And that's when I found something that I suppose I always knew but most certainly never thought about ... I mean, really, how often do you remember this kind of thing until it hits you upside your head, like when Robin said "dedicated to Mary Lou? That must be Asa's mom, Barry's his dad."

You see, when Trout Fishing in America was first published, it was dedicated to Jack Spicer and ...

Ron Loewinsohn.

1968: november 5/6

The events of 2008 have overtaken me ... I forgot to post these on the proper days. Better late than never.

November 5, 1968: Nixon was elected President.

From 1932-1968, Democrats held the presidency for 28 years, the Republicans for 8. Similarly, from 1980-2008, the Republicans had the White House for 20 years, the Democrats for 8. The problems of the incumbent president (Johnson in 1968, Bush in 2008) made it difficult for their party's candidate (Humphrey, McCain) to succeed.

Humphrey was an interesting case. He didn't participate in the primaries. Instead, he gathered up delegates in the many non-primary states. Although his strategy worked in the sense that he won the nomination, it failed in at least one important regard: Democrats who had supported candidates like Gene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy took over the party and changed the rules, making the primaries more important and loosening the hold of party bosses.

Meanwhile, George Wallace, former Democrat and full-time racist, ran a third-party campaign that garnered almost 10 million votes and won him 46 votes in the Electoral College. The overall closeness of the race, combined with the 13.5% of the voters who went with Wallace, meant that Nixon won the election while getting only 43.4% of the popular vote. (Compare this to McCain, who lost in a "landslide" while picking up 46.2% of the popular vote.)

Did Nixon do a good job? I'll let Hunter S. Thompson have the final word on that, from his eulogy to the dead ex-pres:

You don't even have to know who Richard Nixon was to be a victim of his ugly, Nazi spirit.

He has poisoned our water forever. Nixon will be remembered as a classic case of a smart man shitting in his own nest. But he also shit in our nests, and that was the crime that history will burn on his memory like a brand. By disgracing and degrading the Presidency of the United States, by fleeing the White House like a diseased cur, Richard Nixon broke the heart of the American Dream.

It is Nixon himself who represents that dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character that almost every country in the world has learned to fear and despise.

The next day, a strike began at San Francisco State that had long-range importance. It wasn't related to the election, despite the timing. The strike led to the establishment of an Ethnic Studies department. It also introduced semanticist S.I. Hayakawa to a mainstream audience. Hayakawa, who had been an English professor at SF State, became President of the college a few weeks into the strike. He closed campus for a week, and then, when it was reopened, famously pulled out speaker wires in an attempt to silence protestors. Hayakawa became an instant hero to some, and was later elected to the U.S. Senate. The main thing I recall about his Senate stint was that he would fall asleep during sessions. Hayakawa is dead now, as happens to us all. Ethnic Studies still exists.

mindset of the young

Many years ago ... I can actually pinpoint this, it would have been the spring of 1991 ... I was a TA for fellow grad student Pete Richardson, a terrific teacher and friend. One day, Pete was talking about the movie Body Heat, and as he spoke, he could see by the expression on the students' faces that they didn't get the reference. C'mon, he said, you all know Body Heat! One of the students asked him when it was released ... 1981, he replied. What was it rated, the student wanted to know. Oh, it was rated "R", he said. Upon hearing that, the student noted that she was only eight years old when the movie came out ... they wouldn't have even let her into the theater without her parents.

I was reminded of this when the latest "Mindset List" arrived in my email box today. This list, released annually, offers "the experiences that have shaped the lives–and formed the mindset—of students starting their post-secondary education this fall." It "is not a chronological listing of things that happened in 1990, the year they were born. It is instead an effort to identify the worldview of 18 year-olds in the fall of 2008." It makes more sense once you look at the list. It's interesting for more than just teachers, I think, but it's designed in part to help us get a feel for the cultural context of our new students, and to recognize areas where we might make "Body Heat assumptions" about what our students have experienced. Here are some highlights ... these are items about people who were born in 1990.

For these students, Sammy Davis Jr., Jim Henson, Ryan White, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Freddy Krueger have always been dead.

GPS satellite navigation systems have always been available.

Martha Stewart Living has always been setting the style.

WWW has never stood for World Wide Wrestling.

Films have never been X rated, only NC-17.

The Warsaw Pact is as hazy for them as the League of Nations was for their parents.

Clarence Thomas has always sat on the Supreme Court.

IBM has never made typewriters.

There has always been Pearl Jam.

The Tonight Show has always been hosted by Jay Leno and started at 11:35 EST.

Lenin’s name has never been on a major city in Russia.

Employers have always been able to do credit checks on employees.

Caller ID has always been available on phones.

They never heard an attendant ask “Want me to check under the hood?”

the mindset list

Tomorrow morning, I have orientation for my fall course, which begins the school year for me. Meanwhile, every year, Beloit College releases its "Mindset List," detailing … well, I'll let them describe it. "Our effort is to identify a worldview of 18 year-olds in the fall of 2007…. The list identifies the experiences and event horizons of students as they commence higher education." Click on the link above to get the whole list … here are some that caught my eye.

Most of the students entering College this fall, members of the Class of 2011, were born in 1989. For them, Alvin Ailey, Andrei Sakharov, Huey Newton, Emperor Hirohito, Ted Bundy, Abbie Hoffman, and Don the Beachcomber have always been dead.

They never "rolled down" a car window.

Wal-Mart has always been a larger retailer than Sears and has always employed more workers than GM.

They were introduced to Jack Nicholson as "The Joker."

They learned about JFK from Oliver Stone and Malcolm X from Spike Lee.

They never saw Johnny Carson live on television.

The World Wide Web has been an online tool since they were born.