Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Kafka's workshop

i don't know whether it's years of working with students, who are themselves infantilized at every turn, a weird protestant frame of mind, or a historical hangover from the mid-1990s, but the cheapness of this place floors me. i try to be a professional, but unfortunately it's in spite of the roadblocks in my department.

for those of you who think being a professor in english at the university of alberta is all bonbons and choice parking spots, let me disabuse you. here is a partial list of the things i pay for:
  • a computer. that is, if you're not comfortable using good ol' wax tablets. if you buy a computer on a research grant, the university owns it -- but you have to pay for repairs. is there tech support? sure! at the moment, there are 3 guys for over 300 professors, half a dozen digital humanities research labs, and hundreds of teaching websites.
  • photocopying. i've just had a big fight with our administrator over this one. there's a new system in place -- but we're only allowed to transfer a certain number of our old copies to the new system. "photocopies are a liability," she explained to me. "you were given an allotment for a given year; if you didn't use them, i wonder why not." uh, because i'm trying to use less paper? because i was on sabbatical? because the last year i was teaching full-time i ended up on medical leave? any of those sound legit? but why am i photocopying on the first day of teaching anyway, you ask?: because although my first-year english course was designated full and closed according to the student registration system, it turns out that someone else in english has been enrolling students hand over fist during the last three days. don't even start me on this.
  • letterhead: yeah, that's right. we get an allotment of l/h at the beginning of the school year, and if we need more -- for instance, because more than a dozen students request letters of reference -- we have to go and ask a secretary for more. she will pause before unlocking the cupboard, to ask, "how many more sheets do you need?"
  • whiteboard markers. okay, technically, you can request 2 at the beginning of the schoolyear, but if you lose them, replacements are on you.
  • voicemail, long distance, voicemail-to-email: here's how it works. every three months you get a receipt for your administrative expenses. on the front page is a total, usually under ten dollars. stapled to this front page is the evidence, mostly strips of paper cut from a massive detailed phone bill. if these calls were made for "legitimate business expenses" -- if, for example, you're a graduate coordinator recruiting students from outside the 780 area code -- you can write an explanatory note on this bill and return it, and the department will pay for those specific calls. are your eyes swimming? exactly. think of this: it is somebody's job to go through the phone bill for a department of 56 professors, 20-30 sessionals, 120 graduate students and 8.75 non-academic staff members and scissor out long distance charges, access-code by access-code, in order to recoup this money. now, when long distance was ten cents a minute within canada and we were facing 21% budget cuts, this was perhaps -- perhaps -- understandable. (in one of the most gob-smacking trades of all time, the department of philosophy in '94-'95 got rid of professors' telephones completely, in order to maintain research assistantships for their students.) but in the twenty-first century? what's the fear, that we'll go hog-wild on long distance? jesus h. christ.

this kind of nickeling and diming takes a toll. it tells instructors that they are not professionals, that the work of teaching and learning, research and administration, should be done just like it was done in graduate school. result: we internalize this ethos, we become bad professionals. and the money issues bleed out into other things, more serious things, like time (oh, i'd love to go to my kid's soccer game, but this article was due yesterday), attention (i'll check my email just one last time before i go to bed), or a sense of self-worth.

practices like these also tell department members that they are not trusted, and that "the department" (whatever that is) does not care about the quotidian concerns of its teaching staff. it downloads the importance of teaching onto instructors: if it's important enough to write on the board, you'll find a whiteboard marker! if you want to use new technologies, you'll figure out how to build, fix and maintain them yourself!

don't we hear such messages about teaching and learning from the general public often enough? do we really need it at home, too?


Eddie said...

Having seen an array of non-specific events (I'd rather not get sued) that can occur within Alberta's Post-Secondary halls when things are otherwise left unchecked I really found your sentiments hard to sympathize with. I wonder how long you actually spent thinking about the possible alternatives - really the only one I came up with was there should be a monthly exemption on phone costs and only items above that are pursued for accountability.

And I guess accountability is my word of the day, as rather than support your conclusions - entitled to your personal feelings as you are - that's all I'm seeing here: an obligation on professors to be accountable.

I can't object to that in principle, and you've not introduced here anything I can object to in fact.

Heather Zwicker said...

thanks for reading, eddie, and writing. i totally agree with the principle of accountability. to take just one example, the auditor general's crackdown on research grant expenditures was long overdue.

but isn't there something to be said for a larger sense of social accountability -- or maybe 'stewardship' is the better word? what i mean is, i have a lot of education. some of it, sure, is from a private university in the US, but most of it is from canada, so heavily subsidized by taxpayers. i believe that that social resource -- me, educated -- is put to better use teaching undergraduates how to write well and training the next generation of researchers than it is running back and forth to staples to buy a new toner cartridge.