Fly the W!

cv1nmnbwgaigtqsJust down the street from Truman, Cubs fans speckled Uptown with blue, and W’s flew from car windows.  We sat inside room 2929 for the last time, in the quiet sanctuary of a classroom amidst a bustling sports climate. One of our readings, an excerpt from a book entitled No University is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom, touted the interwoven policy checks and balances of school governance as a metaphorical three legged stool.  The readings cultivated a rosy, almost Edenesque vision of academia where concerned and valued teachers, and administrators motivated by individualized student needs came together to form an educational Utopia, that when seen from above shared much in common with an aerial perspective of a grandiose garden, blooming Greek Philosophers amongst the azaleas.

Yet, the more closely I get to know my colleagues, the more I find myself gawking at gaping holes in the armature, and cobwebs glinting in the afternoon light.  Modernity, society, even democracy, are just masks we wear.  We’re all always hanging from a cliff, about to plummet, one finger slipping after another, worrying whether we have food in our teeth.  Such is the life of a teacher.  So we wear pant suits and sweep up our hair.  We post our syllabi on Blackboard, and every morning, as we float through traffic on 290, following the glowing red lights like a blind, baby turtle chasing the moonlight towards the high tide, we are filled with fresh hope.  Another day, another classroom.  Another Smart Board waiting to be illuminated.

But the more I speak to my colleagues, the more I am wracked with doubt.  I’ll maintain anonymity here, but some of the greatest and most thoughtful and passionate teachers I know are so fraught with frustration, so pushed to the limits of their limits, that they are apathetic about all things shared governance.  Yet, I notice, and feel it worth repeating, that for all their angst, they still try.  At Faculty Development week last month, one tenured professor was so distraught by the revised mission statement workshop that he started breathing heavily, and at one point, I wondered whether he was sleeping. Another tenured faculty member showed me his notes during an assessment meeting.  He told me that in order to cope, he places the word “zombie” or “mutant” in front of everything he writes.  He had a whole page of notes on “Zombie assessment,” and “mutant SLO’s.”  Another esteemed tenured faculty member has taken to writing poetry about her frustration with Faculty Development Week:  “What is a Faculty Developed?” she queries, in a similar vein to Wordsworth wandering amongst the wayward daffodils.

During an impromptu teacher karaoke night, one of the most respected faculty members at the school admitted to me that she so badly wants to win Faculty of the Month, “Just so I can decline the parking spot and the award money.”  She explained that it was her greatest dream to stick it to the president.  Then there’s a dear friend of mine who seems like the most put together, calm, organized and confident person I’ve ever come across, who confided in me when I had a rough week in semester 1, that when she was going for tenure, she was so anxious she broke out in hives.  “Is it better now?” I asked her, meaning, is it better on the other side of the tenure mountain? But she adamantly claimed that it was all the same.  She didn’t feel any different or any more powerful.  She was overwhelmed and busy, but maybe that anxiety came from caring about her students, her courses, and the ins and outs of every detail of her work life.  It didn’t get any easier with time.  And maybe that comes from being a committed teacher who reinvents oneself each and every semester.  But I think it’s very dangerous to rest my faith in any hope that it will all get easier.  And I worry that this concept of community checks and balances and shared governance is just a first glance of land in a wild and swirling sea.   And I hope that this blog is only my first chapter, that I’ll have much much more to say in the long run.

But I can’t help but think that the Tenure Assistance Process (TAP) process, which was designed by teachers for teachers, aims to cultivate optimism, and to generate a new influx of tenured professors who are ambitious and hopeful about shared governance.  I think it is possible that in encouraging us to be active participants, with the best of intentions, TAP is trying not to mention the frustration, politics, and angst, which seem for some reason inextricably linked to educational institutions.   Instead, TAP wants us to hold a candle, a stake in an academic future.  They want to fill us with hope.  The same way all those aforementioned distressed tenured faculty still show up to work, and try each and every day.  But I can’t shake a sinking feeling.  I’ve been reading Frankenstein for the first time.  And I’m vacillating between thinking there’s a monster murdering everyone we love, leaving bruises like purple azaleas on mangled necks, and thinking it’s all in my head— it’s just my own madness.

And I just can’t shake a mangling fear that the Cubs will lose the Series.  I want to believe in them so badly.  I stepped outside of Truman and was immediately confronted by blue W’s and high-fives.  The whole city is wrapped up in it.  If they win, Chicago will be elevated by it.  But 108 years, and the curse of a goat– that’s a lot to stomach.  It’s a potent self-doubt that hangs in the air.  It’s the very same doubt that I have to swallow each and every time I walk into my classroom and greet my students, faces locked on their Twitter feeds, eyes red from working the night shift.  They’re here for me, and I’m here for them.  We’re all tired.  We’re all hanging off the cliff.  The Cubs are the under-dog we all root for every time the good guy gets the girl.  And shared governance and Utopian academic politics are worth fighting for.  Somewhere, azaleas are in bloom.  If the Cubs sweep the Indians, if I confront my Frankenstein, somewhere far away, on the other side of the tenure mountain.


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