Recently in class Category
Big Brothers Big Sisters requires a commitment of two to four hours per week, so over the last 400ish hours, we've played basketball, read books, painted, gone for walks, and hung out talking in bookstores, coffee shops, and restaurants. Amara's come with me to readings on the UNL campus and shared Christmas-Eve dinner with our family. When she's been incarcerated at Boys Town and, most recently, the state youth detention center in Geneva, I've visited her there, and we've written long letters back and forth. She's very dear to my heart.
Yet long-time readers of the blog have also been witness to my own slow attainment of a private space in which to write, think, and read--a long-time dream that finally came to fruition last year.
Oh, readers, I was ecstatic. Some writers have whole apartments to themselves, or whole houses--or whole houses plus a separate studio, even. All I'd wanted was one small room. (And it is small: 7'4" by 9'2". Like a tiny dorm room.) When I got it, I painted it myself and furnished it. I framed (this feels so corny to tell you) the address label from an envelope that came from my agent and hung it on my study's door like a little sign. I liked the way it called me Ms. rather than Dr., and the tidy way the typist had centered my name and address on the label: it felt old-fashioned and sweet, like the word poetess, like the kind of writer I dreamed of being when I was a little girl.
I felt, as a writer, like I had arrived. I'd claimed my territory. I felt Virginia Woolf and Sandra Cisneros (brooding always from their perches above me) smiling down at last.
So when our college-graduate son needed to move back home for six months, it was hard. There was nowhere else in our apartment for him to stay, so he stayed in my study. He taped up his pictures on my walls. Sometimes when he was out, I would stand in the doorway and look at all his stuff and just feel sad. I love my son, and I'm glad we were able to help him when he needed it, but I was so happy to regain that space when he moved.
I love it. When I close that door, I have solitude, silence, and a little world that is mine.
But now Amara's situation has deteriorated. The relative who was supposed to pick her up from the detention center last week called to say he didn't want her, couldn't take her. Can you imagine being seventeen and learning that? Her options are bleak. The best-case scenario would be for her to be placed in a foster home, but few foster parents want a 17-year-old girl. She could end up being sent to a homeless shelter with adults.
Amara deserves a little world that is all hers, too. She deserves to feel wanted, and she deserves a stable life, a chance at a wonderful future.
So last Wednesday (oh, readers, I draw a shaky breath as I type), her caseworker came to our little apartment and did an inspection to see if it met the state's standards. She initiated background checks on the Handsome Husband and me. And we will become, if all goes well, a child-specific foster home for my "Little Sister," who will become the resident of that wee room--if she agrees and approves. She could be here with us within two weeks.
Readers, I am so nervous. I'm kind of a workaholic, and I was loving having so much time to devote to my work. I've been more productive as a writer in the past five years (while working here at UNL) that at any previous time in my life, and the little room only helped with that.
So I don't know if this is a good idea or not: for Amara (we are pretty dull, really, as has been observed by less readerly members of my extended family), for my husband and me (who were loving our nest, which didn't seem empty at all), for my writing. (For my writing. Does that seem petty and hopelessly selfish? To a non-writer, it surely would. I know that. I know. On the other hand, I also have writer-friends and academic-friends who would be aghast at the notion of bringing a teenager into their home--who are going to think we're just plain crazy for inviting the messy complications we'll surely face.)
Well, we'll see. The process is moving forward; it's now a matter for courts and caseworkers to decide.
Sometimes life seems to be calling you, to be saying, Here. Do this. Sometimes the right path seems so obvious, you'd be a fool to ignore it.
Readers, I am anything but certain. The only certain part is my commitment to Amara. The rest is all spinning and up in the air.
But this feels huge, and it's for sure on my mind right now, so I wanted to share it with you.
You may have read Jennifer Williams' piece in Ms., which reminds readers that The Help's so-called "untold story" of black domestic workers' difficultie in a racist society has actually been amply explored by such black women writers as Ann Petry, Lorraine Hansberry, Alice Childress, Toni Morrison, and Jamaica Kincaid. Williams calls The Help
You may have even read the open statement by the Association of Black Women Historians: "We do not recognize the black community described in The Help. . . .":the perfect summer escape for viewers who embrace the fantasy of a postracial America. Those filmgoers can tuck the history of race and class inequality safely in the past, even as the recession deepens already profound racial gaps in wealth and employment.
My favorite line from their statement calls the book/film "troubling because it reveals a contemporary nostalgia for the days when a black woman could only hope to clean the White House rather than reside in it.". . . The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers. We are specifically concerned about the representations of black life and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism. . . . The Help is not a story about the millions of hardworking and dignified black women who labored in white homes to support their families and communities. Rather, it is the coming-of-age story of a white protagonist, who uses myths about the lives of black women to make sense of her own.
And apparently there's nostalgia aplenty, which has not hurt author Kathryn Stockett. She's just become "the first debut novelist to join the Million Club," selling over a million paid copies of her book on Kindle, and I think I heard that it's already sold upward of 3 million copies in hardcover and paperback.
You may have read Matt Zoller Seitz's piece, "Why Hollywood Keeps Whitewashing the Past," which calls The Help
And you might already know about Nelson George's criticism of The Help for its "false sense of authenticity" and its "candy-coated cinematography," which "buffers viewers from the era's violence."a college-educated white liberal's wish-fulfillment fantasy of how she would have conducted herself had she been time-warped back to the civil rights era. I wouldn't have just stood by and let it happen. I would have done something! Something brave!
You may have seen how Latina magazine jumped on The Help's bandwagon with its little featurette about "our favorite Latina 'help' roles of all-time!"--and the response by Latina Fatale, "Shame on Latina Magazine!"
But my very favorite so far might be what Roxane Gay says in her piece "The Solace of Preparing Fried Foods and Other Quaint Remembrances from 1960s Mississippi: Thoughts on The Help." Gay sees The Help as "science fiction, creating an alternate universe to the one we live in."
Sigh. Science fiction. An alternate universe. Cowboys & Aliens. Why are mass audiences loving these visions right now?
Several of my women's studies and ethnic studies professor-friends have seen the film lately, and I'm hoping they're going to weigh in about all of this here on the blog at some point. (At UNL, there are also tentative plans to host a panel about the issues the book/film raises. More on that later for local readers.)
In the meantime, to well-meaning nostalgic sci-fi fans of a postracial fantasy world: You is kind, you is smart, you is important. But have you ever read The Bluest Eye?
But I'd encountered her work before that, and probably so have you: in her terrific co-edited volume Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers' Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, which is full of practical, useful advice from nonfiction writers at the top of their game.
Now Wendy has a new book out that I can't wait to read: No Word for Welcome: The Mexican Village Faces the Global Economy.
No Word for Welcome explores the impact of global industrial development on the people, culture, and natural environment of Mexico's Isthmus of Tehuantepec, offering fully rounded portraits of the teachers, fishers, activists, and farmers who are working to prevent the destruction of their world. No Word for Welcome inserts individual human stories into the macro-story of economic globalization and opens a window for U.S. readers onto a beautiful, fragile part of Mexico.
Critics seem helplessly unable to stop loving this book. Sven Birkerts calls it "an engaged documentary account that is at once informative and stirring," and the Iowa Review praises Wendy's "graceful movement between cultures."
Sandra Cisneros calls No Word for Welcome, “Fascinating. Beautifully written. Deeply researched," and Phillip Lopate offers an unqualified endorsement: "On every level, the work succeeds. She has merged an enormous amount of investigation with a graceful belletristic tone, ferreting out the subject’s contradictions and complexities. It's a beautiful job."
What's more, No Word for Welcome has been published by one of my favorite presses, the University of Nebraska Press, which seems to be racking up Nobel Prize winners right and left lately. For me, their imprimatur has become practically a guarantee of smart, complicated, beautiful, and provocative reads. You can read a short excerpt here.
As Sandra Cisneros points out, the story of corporate industrialization, environmental and cultural destruction, and resistance by la gente is "a story happening everywhere, including our own backyard." This book is relevant to us all.
Bonus for Star City locals: rumor has it that Wendy will be here in Lincoln near the end of October. I'm hoping she'll give a reading somewhere in town (hint, hint, Indigo Bridge Books).
If she does, I intend to bribe my new crop of graduate students into attending. (Talented young people, consider yourselves warned.)
I've also been working on editing the great essays in FAMILY TROUBLE, which is just such a terrific project. I love it. I've learned so much from the contributors. Their insights about writing memoir about family members are dynamite. So wise. I think this book of essays is going to be really useful to writers, CW teachers, and aspiring writers.
I head out soon to visit my aunt in Key West, my last remaining relative on the island. (I've written about her in the forthcoming ISLAND OF BONES.) We get to spend a week together, and my cousin, who's four days older than I am, is taking some time off to come down from Miami, too! Castro family party!
In addition to mojitos, the Kino Sandal Factory (a family tradition), and the beach, my aunt is going to take me to see family graves and other sites of importance, because she's leaving Key West this fall for retirement, and she wants to make sure as many of the grandkids as possible know our history before she leaves. Since it's become such a resort destination, Cayo Hueso (island of bones) is just too damn expensive for ordinary working people to afford to live there. My family, which has been there since the nineteenth century, will be there no more. Qué lastima.
I'm looking forward to seeing my sweet aunt, a long-time librarian at Key West High School, and my cousin, who works to ensure that female horticultural laborers in Latin America have decent workers' rights and protections. They both rock. Cool single Castro women. We're going to say coño and make flan and laugh a lot.
I haven't been to Key West since I was seventeen and spent a week with my grandmother, who's gone now, so it's kind of emotional for me. I remember taking the Greyhound there from San Antonio. It wasn't exactly the most fun spring break for a college freshman--Nanny wouldn't let me go to the beach; she was sure I'd get "corrupted by the hippies"--but it was love, you know? Family. And this will be, too.
Not to mention Americans' logic, or ethical sense.Social Security has nothing to do with the deficit. Addressing the Social Security issue as part of the deficit question is like attacking Iraq to retaliate for the 9/11 attacks -- there is simply no relationship between the two and attempting to conflate them does a grave disservice to America's seniors.
Gotta go teach--
Newfield, a professor at UC Santa Barbara, breaks it down here in a recent interview, "Why Is College So Expensive? The War on Public Universities." Claiming that we allow the evisceration of affordable, high-quality higher ed at our own peril, he utters clarifying gems like these:
In most countries, a top education goes to the top 1-2 percent. The secret of us [California] and other states -- Michigan and Wisconsin, for example -- was that you could get that kind of quality for 10 percent. You had general access to something really good that would put people in strong position as adults.~
[Right-wing elites] attacked every reform in the humanities that racially integrated the curriculum, including attempts to broaden ‘great books’ courses at Stanford in the late 80s. The humanities as a source of knowledge in society was gradually discredited. In the early 90s, attacks began on affirmative action in California and elsewhere.
The other flank of the culture wars is the budget wars and my argument is they are basically the same thing. The goal was to discredit fields that had studied negative aspects of American life. The second goal was to use budget pressures to de-fund disciplines that seemed too critical of the established order. History, literature studies, anthropology, sociology -- anything that isn’t econometric and efficiency oriented, anything too skeptical, all of that stuff should only be tolerated if it can pay its own way.
So it’s ok that Yale has a good French department because students are paying full rate but the public shouldn’t be asked to pay for analysis of French canonical literary text -- in other words, don’t teach critical thinking skills that could be used against the mortgage industry.~
Public universities have brought poor, working-class, immigrant students of color into a high-quality education and not a crap college education.~
Higher tuition is not going into staff salaries and faculty salaries, though some of it pays for the football coach to make $2.8 million a year.~
The interview, which makes the intriguingly counterintuitive claim that high costs of science research are shunted toward humanities and social sciences departments--and argues that we need to pull back from thickening the already-thick layers of administration and focus instead on the "core functions" of higher education: "teaching and the best possible research"--is well worth reading in its entirety.
People don’t seem to realize the U.S. has the first generation that has attained less than its parents. This correlates with the era of privatization, which has been going on for 30 years.
California has lost the entirety of its educational advantage. The U.S. has lost the entirety of its educational advantage over the rest of the world. No one without educational advantage has economic advantage.
Enjoy. And mil gracias to Emma Perez (whose own three degrees, by the way, are from the UC system) for the heads-up on the interview.
Some of you may even have observed the growing frustration with the privilege of tenured workers "on numerous blogs and op-ed pages." Some of you may have nodded in recognition at the sketch Shea relates: according to the increasingly popular notion, we tenured elites "are guaranteed jobs for life, teach only a few hours a week, routinely get entire years off, dump grading duties onto graduate students and produce" obscure research, or even "stop doing research altogether . . . dropping their workweek to a manageable dozen hours or so, all while making $100,000 or more a year."
Gentle readers: I wish.
But how absurd. Only in a society with a strain of relentless anti-intellectualism would such a caricature take hold.
As a counterexample, here is one person's story: mine. I hope other tenured professors will make theirs known.
I am a first-generation college student, and my family neither valued college nor helped with my college expenses.
After four years of undergraduate education, for which I went into debt despite scholarships, I was the fortunate recipient of a fellowship from Texas A&M University. With a baby to raise, I lived in two rooms on the $10,000/year stipend, wrote a masters thesis on the poetry of Wallace Stevens, and earned my M.A. I had no car. I walked to school. I walked with my toddler to the laundromat. I walked to the grocery store. Et cetera. I finished my M.A. in two years.
I was then happy to be made a teaching assistant, teaching a 2-2 load (two classes in the fall, two in the spring; 28 students per class) to the tune of $12,000 a year. For five years, we lived on that. I continued to take out student loans to pay for necessities and, later, for a Montessori daycare and then an Episcopalian private school for Grey, because the public school in our neighborhood was very weak. I put education first as a value, as a priority--and not as an upward-mobility strategy; rather, I valued critical thinking, a trained mind, thoughtful living. Period. I valued it for myself and I valued it for my son, and I willingly (and gratefully) took on debt to attain it.
For a while at A&M, I tutored in the Writing Center; I routinely worked with business and finance majors who received offers, fresh from their B.A.s, of $60,000 a year and upwards.
I finished a Ph.D. with a scholarly dissertation in five years. (I believe the average is 7 years.)
When I received one tenure-track job offer while finishing my final year of graduate school, I felt lucky. Many of the rejection letters, perhaps to soften the blow, included the numbers of applicants for the job. More than 200. More than 400. In one case, more than 600. I felt lucky to have any offers at all. This was after 11 years of higher education.
My salary was $37,500 in my first year at Wabash College. By contrast, someone I knew well, who went to law school (a three-year postgraduate investment), began his first job at $85K. Year by year, merit review by merit review, I inched my salary up. I routinely worked 60- and 70-hour weeks; I taught free courses through the public library and through the Clemente Course program in order to help the community. I paid over $700 a month, every month, toward my own student-loan balance. But ten years later, chairing my department and teaching a 3-3 load, I still had not reached my friend's entry-level salary.
And three years into teaching as a tenured associate professor at an R1 (a research 1 institution, the supposed grail, where we get to work with graduate students and teach a 2-2 load), I still have not. And that's okay. I'm happy. I feel lucky. I'm not in it for the money. Most of us aren't.
Shea's piece quotes the blistering new book by Andrew Hacker, who claims that "today's senior professors can afford Marc Jacobs." Hardly.
I started my teaching career in consignment wear, graduated to Target, and this year's big back-to-school expenditure consisted of two shirts and this thrilling sale purchase from Talbots:
Item # Description Size Color Qty Price
------ ----------------------- ---------------- ---------- --- ---------
231642 Cardigan Misses L PERIWINKLE 1 @ $14.49 Each
231642 Cardigan Misses L PALM LEAF 1 @ $14.49 Each
Yep, thirty bucks plus shipping. And readers: my cardigans look pretty good.
In seven months, I will have paid off my student loans. I will be 43. I am a tenured professor, I have never had a graduate student do my grading, and I have had exactly one year "off" (at half-pay, not full-pay--the standard deal) during my thirteen years of employment as a professor. (During that year, I wrote two books, one of which was The Truth Book, and the other is a still-unpublished scholarly volume.) Here at UNL, sabbaticals are competitive, not a given.
I would not claim that there's no truth in the caricature. I would not claim that the pyramid scheme of classroom staffing (with a few tenured and tenure-track professors at the top and many underpaid TAs with 2-2 loads and adjuncts pulling 4-4 and 5-5 loads) doesn't deserve careful, thoughtful reform. I have always thought so.
And there well may be deadwood in some departments. There well may be unproductive professors who are overpaid.
But that has not been my experience, and it's not the story of the colleagues I see around me, who are hardworking, passionate teachers who care about students' progress and futures--and who have been vetted rigorously, year after difficult year. Remember, there's a severe weeding out: many graduate students don't make it to the Ph.D.; many Ph.D.s don't get a tenure-track job; many young professors on the tenure track are turned away, sometimes heartbreakingly, at their second-, fourth-, or tenure-year review.
Say what you like about the foibles and excesses of tenured professors; they have earned it. From a huge and eager field of contenders, they are the ones whose teaching and research stood multiple tests.
If anyone's handing out Marc Jacobs to professors, I'll be first in line. Until then, I have rewarding, challenging work that I love. I paid the price, and I'm not complaining.
But I'm here to argue against these uninformed caricatures of what a tenured professor is and does.
Consider the motives of those who attack higher education. By dismantling the one remaining arena where our educational system explicitly privileges critical thinking, discussion, informed debate, and original research over rote, to-the-test cramming, what do they stand to gain? By tapping into and channeling the justified anger of parents who've seen tuition payments climb--as we too saw, for our son (and we sucked it up, because education's what we value)--what long-term goals do they seek to achieve?
Rather than "all but calling for an end to the role of universities in the production of knowledge," perhaps these tenure-bashing pundits (and frustrated parents) should call for colleges and universities to invest in more tenure lines, so that the vast bulk of undergraduate teaching would be done by carefully vetted experts who publish original research in their fields, not underpaid TAs and exploited, harried adjuncts. Those adjuncts should be given a shot at job security and fair compensation for their work--but until more tenure-line positions are approved, they can't be.
It's the business model that dominates most universities, not individual professors who've struggled to navigate it, that should be taken to task.
Be wary. That's all. Find out the facts for yourselves. If you know professors, ask them for their actual stories.
If you are a professor, tell yours. Tell the public the truth about tenure.
Readers, to quote a favorite poet: I have been to Paris since we parted. And Amsterdam, and the Cinque Terre, and Venice, Umbria, New Orleans, Austin--all spiced with heavy helpings of family, family, family. This month of incredible, dazzling traveling (and interpersonal family dynamics in full, illuminating bloom) will keep me ruminating and writing for weeks and months to come.
But for now, I just wanted to share this happy news from David Brooks's column in today's NYTimes:
Recently, book publishers got some good news. Researchers gave 852 disadvantaged students 12 books (of their own choosing) to take home at the end of the school year. They did this for three successive years.I was excited, because I'd returned from Austin, where my sister-in-law Cool Julie manages a bookstore, with a totebag full of books for my "Little Sister" Amara. Julie hand-picked several novels that her female teen customers are finding hot right now, so here's hoping Amara likes some of them. Usually, we book-shop together. Amara picks the novels, and then we both read and discuss them. (Readers, it has taken me outside my usual zones of taste. Yeah. But it has been pretty cool, too.)
Then the researchers, led by Richard Allington of the University of Tennessee, looked at those students’ test scores. They found that the students who brought the books home had significantly higher reading scores than other students. These students were less affected by the “summer slide” — the decline that especially afflicts lower-income students during the vacation months. In fact, just having those 12 books seemed to have as much positive effect as attending summer school.
David Brooks, of course (with whom I'd say I have a love-hate relationship, except it's more tepid than that) manages to use this good news about the efficacy of reading in the service of a larger argument that privileges hierarchies, elitism, and prestige, using the language of all the Great-Books proponents who've ever made you yawn.
But still, good news is good news. This summer, consider treating the disadvantaged teen of your choice to a dozen books of his or hers. Let books make a difference. Let the beauty you love be what you do.
Congratulations to poet Carrie Shipers, whose collection Ordinary Mourning is just out (as in yesterday) from ABZ Press. To read three of her striking poems, go here.
Also right now, in the USA, an estimated two and a half million women--most of whom are women of color from the global South--labor as domestic workers, making possible the labor and leisure of all those who choose to leave the care of "the most precious elements of [their] lives: their families and homes," to others. Ai-jen Poo's essay looks at our interconnections, sketches out a feminist bill of rights for domestic workers, and calls for change:
The upside-down concentration of the world's resources and wealth in the hands of a small minority at the expense of the vast majority is in fact unsustainable for everyone. Domestic worker policy demands that we recognize and value the basic care that we all require to live and provides a model for reshaping our economy to serve our collective human needs.
Vicky Ward's forthcoming book about the fall of Lehman Brothers, the Manhattan financial firm that went bankrupt in 2008, is excerpted in the April 2010 Vanity Fair (which someone had left at the Y). The article is specifically about "the plight" of the wives of these guys who pulled down $15 million annual salaries.
Describing the long-suffering, loyal wife of one philandering deputy to the C.E.O., it includes this immortal line:
No blinds? Gasp. The tragedy.She had stuck with him through tough times when they were so poor they couldn't afford blinds for the windows in their house.
So this is just a little shout-out to all of you who wouldn't consider the absence of window treatments to be "tough times," exactly, together with a wry little moue in the direction of Wall Street.