Take This Job and Shove It

A (Not Going) Back to School Post

No, not me. Y’all know I’m too attached to things like food and my pretty house to walk away from lifetime job security, even in the dying world of American higher education. (Tim Burke explains that higher ed isn’t the only thing dying in our sorry, twisted, clueless nation. Go read his latest here.)

Pardon me while I take a sip out of my half-empty glass. It’s hot here today. This is not the Labor Day post I thought I’d be writing, in part because it is kind of downbeat and I prefer to be a chirpy, uplifting blogger, but also because it involves matters not often discussed in public. Quiet, please. Nice people don’t talk about personnel issues.

Newsflash: People are leaving academia, and they are talking about why. (H/T to Historiann for the first of those links.) Those of us who haven’t left had damn well ought to be listening — and thinking and acting on our own campuses to improve working conditions before it’s too late. Too late for what, you ask? Too late to save the dying world or the generation of scholars we helped to train? Maybe. Maybe it’s already too late, but shouldn’t we try to do something?

I am haunted by the words of the departing: “I found that I couldn’t do the work I used to love. My motivation stalled. Something broke, and it seemed irreparable.” “I was tired of a system that served black students badly, promising an education that it failed to deliver, condemning them to repeat classes, to drop out, to believe they were stupid; I was tired of colleagues who marveled when I produced an intelligible sentence; I was tired of attending conference panels where blackness was dismissed as ‘simple,’ ‘reactive,’ ‘irrelevant,’ ‘done’; I was tired of being invited to be ‘post-black’ as the token African, so not ‘tainted’ by the afterlife of slavery; I was tired of performing a psychic labor that left me too exhausted to do anything except go home, crawl into bed, try to recover, and prepare for the next series of assaults.

On my own campus, it isn’t just adjuncts who are quitting, worn down by brutal teaching loads and appallingly low salaries. The second quotation in the paragraph above is from my friend and former colleague, Keguro Macharia, who resigned his assistant professorship in May not to take a job elsewhere but to return to Kenya to focus on building not just a career but a sustainable life. He is not the only person to walk away from a tenure-track position without a firm offer or a clear sense of what’s coming next. I won’t go into detail, because others haven’t been as public as Keguro, but I know of at least three other assistant professors in the humanities at QTU who have resigned in the past three years.

The Woman Formerly Known as Goose points out that, when it comes to personnel issues, academics tend not only to be quiet but also maddeningly particularistic. We view each case in isolation and as somehow unique or exceptional. Oh, well, this one had health issues, you know, and that one had aging parents in a remote part of Never-Never Land, and I hear that other one was having problems with the book. For all our critiques of neoliberalism, we privatize personnel issues and fail to look for patterns and the structural inequities that might produce them. Is it a coincidence that all of the resignations I know of were from women or people of color? Given the glacial pace of hiring in recent years, shouldn’t we be concerned about this rate of voluntary attrition? I know I’m just a numerically challenged English prof, people, but this data feels significant to me. Shouldn’t we be paying attention to it?

I have worried for years about how assistant professors were faring in the cash-strapped, technocratic, lawyered-up, outcomes-obsessed postmodern university. Tenure has never been a sure thing, but it is a far less certain prospect than it once was, even for those who spend six years running themselves ragged on the hamster wheel of hyper-productivity. We mentor them to death, mostly, I suspect, to protect the institution from liability in the event of a negative tenure decision. We fill their heads with conflicting advice about what and where and how much they should publish. We urge them to focus on their research but worry if their anonymous student evaluations of teaching lack the now-expected comparisons to Jesus Christ. And some of us undermine them in ways large and small, treating them as a servant class or as children in need of hand-holding. In most cases, our actions are well-intended. We don’t want to lose them. We want to support them. We want to smooth the uncertain path toward tenure. And some of them are saying, “Thanks, but no,” and stepping off the path.

“I quit!” is both a refusal and an affirmation. It is a screw-you to working conditions that have come to feel unbearable, inimical to sanity or well-being. It is a declaration of the need/right/desire for something more or other than the hollow, uncertain promise of “security” in a broken, hostile, dying professional world. I applaud those brave enough to state their “I quits!” publicly and in thunder, though I mourn these losses to my institution and, perhaps, to my profession.

On this Labor Day weekend, I challenge those who are going or have already gone back to school this year to look around and notice what’s happening with assistant professors on your campus. Do you have data or observations that comport with what we’ve noted at QTU? How do you think your junior profs are doing these days? What great ideas do you have for supporting the up-and-coming without making them feel that they are being infantilized or surveilled?

While you ponder those deep questions, take a listen to the song that inspired the title to this post. A guy named Johnny Paycheck did the original back in 1977, but the Dead Kennedys did a cool cover in 1986. No, I am not cool enough to know that, but fortunately the Google machine is. Happy Labor Day, workers and ex-workers and non-workers of the world. Unite.

All the News That’s Fit to ME!

The Madwoman's Breakfast Table, 8/6/13

The Madwoman’s Breakfast Table, 8/6/13. You’ll pry my print edition from my cold dead hands.

Look, I’m not reflexively opposed to the sale of my home-town newspaper, The Washington Post, to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, though I was, like pretty much everyone else on the planet, stunned by the announcement late Monday afternoon and the bargain-basement price — a mere $250 million — of the deal. As a friend quipped on my Facebook wall, “If I had known they were just going to GIVE away one of the greatest institutions of all time, we could have all pooled our pennies and bought it.” Indeed. I have always dreamed of having an attorney general of the United States be so unhinged by my vast power that he’d go all locker-roomy over my lady parts.

Anyway: I will confess to getting choked up when I read stories about the Graham family’s multigenerational commitment to the paper and the city of Washington. David Remnick’s haunting piece in The New Yorker about Donald Graham (chair and chief executive of the Washington Post Company) choosing to break his own heart by selling the paper rather than break the Post by holding onto it rings true to what I’ve learned about the family over the years. The love and loyalty employees felt toward Graham is evident in dozens of tributes and reactions that have been produced in the past 48 hours, including these by Ruth Marcus, Kathleen Parker, and Michelle Singletary. So, for now at least, I’m buying the story that Graham’s decision to sell, made in concert with his niece, Post publisher Katharine Weymouth, was anguished, noble, and quite possibly in the best interests of the paper, journalism, and the world. Like others, I’m also encouraged by the tone as well as the substance of the statement Bezos made to Post employees the day the sale was announced. It was modest, reassuring, deferential to the Grahams, cognizant of the fact that journalism is not just a business but a public trust with a unique role to play in a democratic society. Bezos affirms the paper’s old values and its obligations to its readers, even as he acknowledges the need for change and embraces “the opportunity for invention.”

Newspapers have been struggling for decades to hold onto readers and make money in a world transformed by bits and screens. If Bezos has ideas for how to do that more effectively than Don Graham and the Post‘s other ink-stained wretches have been able to do, then more power to him. A deep-pocketed internet mogul known for his patience might be just what is needed to figure out what newspapers ought to be and do in a post-print information ecosystem.

At the same time, I get more than a little queasy reading stories suggesting that we might be on the brink of the Amazonification of the newspaper industry. A paragraph like this one brings a mild burning sensation to the back of my throat:

Technology analysts said that the kind of predictive analytics perfected by Amazon could be used to provide Post subscribers with personalized news feeds based on where they live and what they have read before. People browsing The Post’s Web site or tablet app could be served ads tailored to their past purchases, and then could buy products with a single click, media industry experts said. Reader voices could be integrated into online storytelling, with the community voting on the most valuable comments.

Reader voices could be integrated into online storytelling. I’m sorry, sweetheart, but have you ever clicked into the toxic waste dump that is the comment section on any story WaPo ever runs? Lord, save me from a world that caters to and includes such voices! Seriously, though, folks: Is customer-centric news really what the world needs and a democratic society requires? I know, I know — Suddenly I sound like one of those fist-shaking gloom-and-doomers railing about how the interwebz are leading increasingly to a personalization of the system of communications, potentially locking each of us up in a “Daily Me” in which our opinions are never challenged and enabling us to avoid news altogether if we’d rather bathe our brains in gossip, sports news, and cat videos instead. The concept of the “Daily Me” is elaborated by law prof Cass Sunstein in his book Republic.com. The argument is provocative, but I’ve always been resistant to it, finding it in some ways both techno-phobic and elitist. Sunstein overestimates, in my judgment, the virtues of an old media public sphere in which what he calls “general-interest intermediaries” expose readers to a broad range of thought and opinion. (How broad was that range, really, and who had access to those limited old media spaces?) Further, he underestimates some of the potential benefits of a mediascape that empowers the people formerly known as the audience to participate much more actively. Surely that is good for democracy, right?

Of course it is, but I have to admit I began anxiously imagining a nation of “Daily Me” readers this morning when I saw that story on Bezos’ obsession with the customer’s experience on the front page of the paper he will soon own. Thus, when I got to the Opinion page and saw Carter Eskew’s brief reflection on what kind of owner Bezos might turn out to be, I found myself nodding in agreement:

For now, we have to rely on patrons to save journalism. What kind of patron will Bezos be? Yesterday, he said, reassuringly, that “the values” of the Post don’t need changing but went on to say that readers will be the publication’s “touchstone” as will “understanding what they care about.” This last bit worries me. Bezos built the greatest retailer in history understanding and anticipating what people want and giving it to them. But that’s an incomplete model for the news business. What people want is local, sports, human interest, gossip and rancorous and self-reinforcing debate. All that is great, but it needs to be put in service of what people and our democracy need: hard information, accountability, truth. That is what Bezos bought yesterday, and you can’t put a price on it. Now he must protect it.

Even the most committed techno-utopianist has to admit that it isn’t enough to give people only what they want when it comes to news and information in a democratic society. That tension between What Readers Want and What (We Think) Readers Need is one that has always bedeviled the news business, and it’s been exacerbated hugely in the desperate hyper-competitive battle for eyeballs, clicks, and money that the business has become in recent years, particularly for news entities that are owned by publicly traded companies (like, you know, The Washington Post Co.). Putting the Post back into private hands may save it from the relentless cost-cutting that would have been necessary to placate shareholders, but we have to hope now that Jeff Bezos truly appreciates what he’s bought. If he’s the good guy and the visionary that everybody seems to think he is, then surely he’ll come up with something more creative and socially beneficial than the Amazonification of the news industry.

Right? Tell us what you think, loyal readers. Is this the Best. Thing. Ever? Or proof that we are doomed to know only what we already know because our corporate computer overlords think it’s all we want to know?Let us hear your loud, lovely, and well-informed reader voices!

The Virtue Rut

Two years ago, almost to this day, I put up a post over on the old blog called “The Virtue Binge.” Friends and longtime readers know that I lost a significant amount of weight in 2011. (That adventure is documented [and related issues of the cultural politics of body size are explored] in a cluster of posts you can find here.) “The Virtue Binge” focused on my transition to maintenance after I had reached my goal weight seven months after I signed up for a well-known Lifestyle Adjustment Program. Like many of my posts on body matters, “The Virtue Binge” wrestles with how to talk and think about such matters without being punitive, terroristic, or fat-shaming. At the same time, it conveys the joy, even the giddiness, of feeling happy in my body again after years of feeling out of shape and out of sorts. I even offered readers tantalizing glimpses of the results of my renewed commitments to eating less and moving more:

Photo Credit: Anon, Self-Portrait After Plank Workshop, 7/30/11. Originally published here.

Self-Portrait After Plank Workshop. Photo Credit: Anon, 7/30/11. Originally published here.

Two years later, as you might suspect from the title of this post, I find myself in a different, more anxious place. I’ve decided to blog about it for reasons not unlike those that led me to go public with my recent colonoscopy: I’ve got a body. You’ve got a body. Why should we keep quiet about that? Perhaps by talking, we can learn from each other, help each other, or at least enjoy a few commiserating laughs. Also, it’s summer. I don’t feel like blogging about MOOCs. Or Anthony’s Weiner.

So, what’s with the decidedly un-giddy sound of the sequel to “The Virtue Binge”? What is “The Virtue Rut,” and how did I end up in it? First let me say that I haven’t gone all couch potato on you. I haven’t given up exercise and gone back to a steady diet of Cheetos and dry martinis. A typical week still includes a couple of 4-4.5 mile runs and a 90-minute yoga class. We were away from home for much of June, and I’m sure it won’t surprise you to learn that I did quite a bit of eating and drinking while we were gone, first on our Italian adventure and then visiting with family on the shores of Lake Michigan. Still, I give myself credit for not sitting on my duff the whole time we were traveling. I sought out opportunities to get my heart pumping and reveled in the pleasures of active vacationing: a sweet early morning run along the banks of the Arno in Florence, a 20-mile bike ride on southwest Michigan’s Kal-Haven Trail, a walk/jog/photo shoot through a Tuscan vineyard drenched in some of the most glorious light I have ever seen. I love to travel this way. I always feel that I haven’t really visited a place until I’ve taken a run through its streets. And stumbled across something like this:

Photo Credit: The Madwoman in Italy, 6/21/13

Photo Credit: The Madwoman in Italy, 6/21/13

Fine, Madwoman, we get the picture (haha), but we’re still waiting for you to explain what you mean by the virtue rut. Oh, right. Sorry.

What I mean is that, two years after a major weight loss, my weight recently has been trending upward, and I think it’s because I’ve gotten complacent and maybe a little bored with the routine of trying to stay more or less in the same place. This is a familiar story, of course: You lose weight. You’re proud, you’re happy, you know what you need to do to keep it off. Time passes. You skip a workout here, eat or drink too much there, weigh yourself the next morning and discover that you haven’t regained 53 pounds overnight. So you start playing little games, letting old habits (another bite of this, a couple more glasses of that) creep back in, and the next thing you know, you’re up a pound. Or three. Or seven. No wine for me tonight, you think, and maybe an extra ten minutes on the treadmill. But, shoot, we’ve got that dinner with X tonight. . . . It’s a vicious cycle. You know where it leads. Can you stop the cycle? Change the pattern?

It’s comforting to know the problem I’m having might arise, at least partly, from changes in my metabolism rather than defects in my character (as the fat-shamer’s emphasis on willpower, evident in the paragraph above, tends to imply). Recent studies suggest that weight loss triggers hormonal shifts that increase appetite and slow metabolism because biology is fighting to keep weight on. The theory is that being too thin was once an evolutionary disadvantage. Your inner cave woman, with rocks to move and bears to outrun, wants the whole damn 2-pound slab of Tuscan T-bone, not the petite filet.

Let them eat BEEF! Photo Credit: The Madwoman, 6/20/13

Let them eat BEEF! Photo Credit: The Madwoman in Italy, 6/20/13

I dig the theory, because it jibes with my sense that, even allowing for some admitted overindulgence, my body seems almost eager to put on weight. Is that what I mean? I struggled with how to complete that sentence, writing first that my body was resisting my efforts to maintain a certain weight. Perhaps I just mean that my metabolism seems to have slowed down. I’ve felt sluggish lately, even on the treadmill. I overheat easily and find it difficult to sustain my usual pace. It’s clear to me that I need to make some adjustments in order to drop the pounds I’ve put on and get back to where I’d like to be weight-wise. We’re really just talking about a few pounds, folks, but I know it will require taking in fewer calories and burning more. I figure I need to add at least one more vigorous cardio workout a week, but here’s the rub: It’s too hot to do much running outside, and I’m bored as hell on the treadmill. I need a fun new cardio alternative.

Yes, this is an open invitation to tell me what you are doing for fun and fitness these days. Zumba? Spin? Z-GoGo? Canoeing in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota? Boxing with bears in a national park? I’m open to anything that will raise both my heart rate and the corners of my mouth. I don’t mind being virtuous, but I’ve got to get out of this rut and make myself want to work out again. The more playful it feels, the more likely I am to do it, repeatedly.

I look forward to hearing from all of you sweating, happy people. And from those of you who are, like me, fighting the doldrums of summer and middle age. In the meantime, the interwebz are full of good advice on how to reach or maintain your preferred weight — such as this, for example, or this. Scott Mowbray, editor-in-chief of a little magazine I like to call Food Porn for the Conscientious, has recently gone public with his own effort to lose weight in something he’s calling the Social Diet. I disapprove of the d-word, but I like the social part and admire his openness. Check out his posts on the magazine’s blog here.

As always, kids, The Madwoman reminds you to love your body, whatever its size. It’s the only one you’ve got. Now, click on that comment button and tell me what you and your body are doing for fun.

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