Wednesday, May 30, 2012
I started writing last time about certain abiding misperceptions about what college and university professors actually do with their time, misperceptions that allow the governor of Arkansas to fear no political fallout when he forbids public universities from giving pay raises or bonuses to their faculties. These misperceptions are hardly unique to the state of Arkansas, and they are hardly new. As I mentioned in my last post, essays have been written detailing the cliched ideas about college professors that have been fostered over the decades, and keep getting fostered, by American cinema. [One such essay is "Box Office Poison: The Influence of Writers in Films on Writers" by Wendy Bishop, which is included in the edited collection Can It Really Be Taught? (Boynton/Cook, 2007).] I encountered the misperception just a couple years ago when I visited my brother in Houston for his daughter's wedding. At a day-after get together at my brother's house, his brother-in-law felt so convinced of the misperception that he freely opined, in my presence, that it must be awfully nice to be a professor at a university and thus not have to work very hard! The crazy thing is that the man actually did not mean to insult me but to state what he clearly thought was an objectively understood fact. I think, according to his own skewed perception, my brother's brother-in-law actually thought he was offering me a compliment. To his eternal credit, my brother stepped in and told his brother-in-law he was wrong, but I doubt the man went away much convinced. After all, the myth is just so strong.
One hears all the time about how in this or that American industry, workers are constantly expected to work more than 40 hours per week. More than 50 even. More than 60. I have no doubt this is true. American workers, on average, work longer than workers in any other country in the industrial world. But here's the thing: Please include college professors in that reckoning. College professors routinely work 50 and 60 hours a week--and for no extra pay. Extra pay isn't even considered. (Trust me when I say that any college professor who asked for overtime pay would get laughed out of any administrator's office.) Not only are we expected to work 50, 60, and sometimes more hours per work, but we are also asked--and I mean constantly--to also serve on this or that panel, on this or that commitee, on this or that task force, on this or that board; to write this or that report, to write this or that grant, to write this or that policy statement; to show up at this or that important university event; to host and introduce this or that visiting artist; to pay for this writer's meal; to be interviewed on this campus news show or by this newspaper reporter. For no extra pay or teaching release time. And understand this is in addition to all of our usual teaching, advising, and committee work. (Just yesterday at my church, I barely escaped from a guy who was angling to get me to read and critique his short stories for him. For nothing, of course. We get these requests all the time too, but that's another subject.)
All that most people see of college professors is the few hours we spend on a given class per week in the classroom. What goes unseen and unrecognized are the many hours spent preparing for that classroom time and the many more hours spent reading and responding to student writing. Any good college student knows that the time spent in the classroom is only a fraction of the actual total time taking a class demands. The standard rule of thumb for students is three hours outside the classroom for every hour in it. Well, if that's true for the student, imagine how it is for the professor. Try doubling
or--in some weeks--tripling that equation. (Teaching writing is extremely labor intensive. No multiple choice tests, I'm afraid.) And realize that at schools like UCA, four classes per semester is the standard teaching load. Realize too that working for our classes is at most only half of the work of the college professor. The other half is serving on a variety of committees: some on the behalf of one's department, some on the behalf of one's college, and some on behalf of the entire university. Realize that committee work is not optional. You don't get not to do it. And realize that in some departments--my own included--the number of hours demanded by committee work exceeds that demanded by one's teaching. For some reason, my department--as busy as we all are--is mad about committee meetings. More and more and more meetings, we cry. We always have important business to figure out and policies to nail down, forgetting that we already have very important and pressing business: teaching our classes. Finally, realize too that a college professor--at least a tenured or tenure-track one--has a "third half" to his job description as well. And that's carrying out research and/or creative activity. Even at a school like UCA, where four courses per semester is the norm, tenured and tenure-track professors are expected to keep up in their disciplines, to attend professional conferences, to remain active in their chosen creative fields, and/or publish articles and books on a regular basis. No surprise, this takes a great deal of time to do successfully.
So how does one work 3/2 of a job each week? Easy--by barely ever resting. Contrary to the notion of the lazy college professor, most people I know in the profession have hardly a minute to breathe. Forget down time. Forget leisurely hours spent mentoring students in our offices. Parents, I regret to say that no such time exists at the University of Central Arkansas. Forget even going out to lunch. I eat a brown bag lunch literally every single day in my office. Put aside the fact that, on a fixed income (see my last post), I can't afford to go out to lunch, what I really can't afford is the time away from my office. Once classroom time is over there is simply too much other pressing business that needs to get down: papers to grade, emails to answer, articles to submit to magazines, committee reports to write, grant applications to finalize, prep work to review for my next class, student advisees to meet, etc. It is literally never ending. I leave work everyday feeling lucky if I have managed to stay on top of the wave.
So what does my day look like when the semester is on? Here's a characteristic snapshot: 4:45--rise; 4:45-5:30--read professional material; 5:30-7:00--write at my desk; 7:00-8:00--wake my sons, give them breakfast, walk the dog, get showered and dressed, take one of my sons to school; 8:30-3:00--teach, attend commitee meetings, meet with students, work in the office; 3:15--pick up one of my sons; 3:30--walk dog; 4:00--check email and/or read professional material; 5:30--prepare dinner; 6:15--eat dinner; 7:00--help my wife clean-up dinner; 7:30--supervise my son's musical practice and help with his homework (or attend a required evening event at the univeristy); 9:00--read in bed and fall asleep. For the record, most days, by 3:00 in the afternoon I've already worked a 10 hour work day and usually have additional professional work ahead. And of course that work carries over into the weekends as well. The blue collar work ethic? Don't tell me about the blue collar work ethic. What I witness, day in and day out, is the white collar work ethic. And, trust me, I am no unusual case.
What about summers, you say? Don't you profs all have the long, lazy summer to enjoy? Well, actually, given how poorly we are paid (see my last post), many of us teach in the summer too. Those of us who don't--well, they don't. But as my friend and fellow writing teacher Tony Gifford likes to say: "I don't have the summers off: I have my weekends all squished together." Far from being lazy and unproductive hippies, your average writing professional who is also a college teacher--and that's many of us--is among the hardest working human beings on the planet. I don't expect everyone to get this. I just wish the governor of Arkansas did.
Tuesday, May 29, 2012
I'm stepping aside from the usual theme today to discuss a subject close to the heart of any writer who works in the academy--and that's many of us, including those of us who love to read and write historical fiction. So maybe it's not off subject at all. My subject today: the actual business of professorship. Why write about this now? Well, the immediate cause is three news items that appeared in recent weeks on the front page of our local newspaper, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. But the truer, abiding cause is a long held frustration at certain notions about my job that are as deeply seated in the American consciousness as they are fallacious. It's commonly expressed among professionals who work in higher education, especially professionals who teach writing, that no one understands what we do. Certainly, no one gets how hard work it is. There's the age old cliche of the college professor: the bearded, avuncular man in the tweed coat with elbow patches who smokes his fragrant pipe while whiling away lazy hours talking philosophy and encouragement to his circle of dewy-eyed young charges. Essays have been written about how this cliche has been fostered--and is still incredibly maintained--by a host of mostly bad and even occasionally decent movies. Whatever the motivations of those who invented and insist on still fostering this cliche--and I suspect it was derived from a certain fond nostalgia toward old professors they admired but never actually knew--I'm afraid that the impression that finally lingers in the minds of generation of viewers isn't Oh, how valuable and influential is this professor, but Man, this guy doesn't really work, does he?
Back to the newspaper articles. The first article was a report from my own university, The University of Central Arkansas, where for the sixth year out of the last seven, our board of trustees has voted for no pay adjustment for faculty even while giving the president of the university a raise. By "no pay adjustment," I mean exactly that: no change in pay whatsoever. Not even a cost of living adjustment. For the record, UCA faculty would have been ecstatic to get a cost of living adjustment. All we actually asked for was a 1.5% increase, which doesn't even keep up with the cost of living but would put us not quite so far behind come fall, when the increase would have gone into effect. Oh, and that one year when we did receive a pay increase? Well, that was a big whopping 2.5%. Long story short, to work at the University of Central Arkansas is to live on a fixed income, with all the problems that entails. And keep in mind that employees at universities are not senior citizens whose birds have all left the nest, but are often young parents trying to support growing families with expanding needs. And one more thing: Public school teachers--along with every other employee of the state--receive regular COLAs and pay increases, by law. Why not faculty in higher education, you say? I'm curious about that too.
The other two news items were as follows: a notice that the governor of Arkansas--who I actually once voted for (but only once)--forbade public universities across the state from giving one-time pay bonuses to their faculties. Even if the boards that control those universities decided bonuses were deserved and economically feasible, they were forbidden from giving them by governmental decree. Can you imagine if the company you worked for decided it wanted to give you a raise--and could afford to give you a raise--but then at the last minute the governor of your state stepped in and said, Whoa, not so fast there. Nothing doing. A little frustrating, huh? Now add to this scenario the background situation of no pay adjustment for six out of the past seven years. A tad more frustrating, isn't it? Now add a few more background facts: Your region ranks last in the United States in pay for public university faculty. Your state ranks last in its region. Your university ranks last in your state. And your college--the College of Fine Arts and Communication (CFAC)--ranks last at your university. So as UCA CFAC faculty you are the lowest paid public university faculty in the entire country. The other relevant news item described pay raises to be enacted at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville come fall. The raises aren't that big, and that's not really the news. The news is that UAF faculty, like UCA's, went so long without one. So long the school was losing good faculty and having a hard time attracting good new faculty. (I'm quite familiar with this phenomenon.) The crux of the matter to me is: Why is this allowed to go on year after year, even at the state's flagship university?
The answer can be found in my first paragraph. The public does not believe that university faculty actually work, a fallacy and a prejudice that appears to be shared by many legislators and even the governor of my state. It's a shameful fact that only a minority of the population of Arkansas has earned a college degree. What that unfortunately translates to in the running of the state's business is a lack of respect for higher education and a lack of understanding for what it can do, for how vital it can be to one's improvement, to remaking and resetting one's life. Too, unfortunately, it translates into a lack of respect for, and a lack of understanding of, the work done day in and day out by faculty at colleges and universities. Clearly, the governor believes there is no political fallout coming to him by denying the bonuses. (And he's a Democrat!) Indeed, I have to think the governor believes it is a popular political play to deny bonuses to supposedly pampered, supposedly whiny university faculty. (This is not the first time, by the way, our governor has gotten in the way of pay adjustments for public university faculty.) Otherwise, why would the governor of Arkansas--a completely political animal--do it?
Finally, the matter should and must come down to this: If the above image of university faculty is fallacious, what's the reality that's suffering beneath the lie? This post has gone on too long already, so that's a question I'll have to answer next time.
Tuesday, May 22, 2012
As I described in my last post, I've been thinking about contractions in nineteenth century speech recently, out of concern that the characters in a series of historical stories I've written not sound too "contemporary." Is it really true that our 21st century speech is so much less formal than the speech of two or three centuries ago? Are contractions really a characteristically modern habit? After all, isn't it a timeless human instinct to try to do anything as quickly as possible, including constructing words and phrases? And don't other languages--French, for instance--have contractions built into the formal fabric of their tongues? (Yes, they do.) I figured--just two days ago, in fact--that instead of guessing around, I ought to do a little actual research on this subject. And what better way to determine if contractions are right for my nineteenth century fictional characters than to look at nineteenth century fiction? Thus I turned to one of my favorite nineteenth century authors, Nathaniel Hawthorne. I grabbed The Marble Faun off my bookshelf, pulled it open and skimmed Hawthorne's characters' conversations. (I didn't select the more famous Scarlet Letter because Hawthorne consciously set that novel in a much earlier time period.) A page or two--twenty pages--a third of the book. Nothing doing. No contractions. Okay, I thought, so maybe there's something to this anti-contraction bias.
But not so fast. In The Marble Faun, Hawthorne's characters are Italians and Americans travelling in Italy. Might they not speak a more formalized English as a result? Perhaps. So I tried another book. The House of the Seven Gables, a Penguin Classics edition printed in the mid-80s. A page or two--twenty pages--thirty--Shoot, I might as well give--Wait! There it is! On p. 103! Phebe is speaking to Hepzibah, and she uses the word "don't"! Eureka! Then I started noticing other "don't"s scattered throughout the book. But, wait a minute, I saw only "don't"s. I didn't see an "I've" or an "I'm" anywhere. I started to develop an elaborate private theory that "don't" entered American speech habits earlier than any other contraction. But no! I found it! On p. 82! Uncle Venner speaking to Hepzibah. Not only does he use "I'm," but "I've" and "Here's." Proof! Proof I say to ye! Americans have long spoken in contractions! (In fact, printed texts, because of their inherently more formal nature, are flawed as a means to detect spoken speech patterns, anyway. In other words, if Hawthorne could deign to use contractions in The House of the Seven Gables, the American speech used on the streets outside that house was probably rife with contractions--and a whole lot else.)
I followed up with some quick internet researching and discovered that indeed the anti-contraction notion might be nothing more than a modern nostalgic fantasy. Some commentators have noted that in the Coen brothers 2010 remake of True Grit, the tough western characters speak very formally. The Coen brothers were apparently told that such speech habits were indeed characteristic of the old west. You're right in thinking this is rather counterintuitive. You're also right if you suspect that the Coens got it wrong. It's true that Charles Portis's 1968 novel does evidence uncontracted speech, but it also evidences contracted speech. Commentator Mark Liberman considers the case of Portis's novel on his blog Language Log and argues that when Portis uses uncontracted speech he probably uses it not for historical verisimilitude but to convey character. Meanwhile, Liberman reports, the use of contractions in Modern English can be witnessed almost from its beginning. Even Old English evidences contractions! Liberman goes on to quote from a 1989 article by linguist Barron Brainerd, who charts contractions of the word not "from its first explicit appearance at the beginning of the seventeenth century in monosyllabic forms through its linguistically productive phase in the eighteenth to its general acceptance in the nineteenth." Accepted in the nineteenth! Ah hah! I know I sound like I'm gloating, dear reader, but it's nice to find yourself validated. (By the way, Liberman also compares Twain's 1876 Tom Sawyer with James Lee Burke's 2008 Swan Peak and finds a higher frequency of contraction in the former work.) Most of all, it's nice to know that I don't need to savage my historical fictions by rooting out all contractions. Some maybe. Some. But in deciding when and when not to remove contractions, the question of characerization can indeed take precedence over anything else. And that's exactly how it should be.
Monday, May 21, 2012
As I've mentioned once or twice on this blog, over the past nine months or so, along with several other writing projects, I've been working on a series of historical fictions set in Nantucket, Massachusetts. I've been sending them out for a few months now, and in response to one of these stories I received what might be the most impressive, conscientious rejection email ever. Though the editor only got the story a day or two before, she wrote a three paragraph response outlining the strengths and weaknesses of the piece--a far cry from the customary anonymous form email that typically arrives several months after you submit. One hesitation of hers was that she felt the narrator's voice, both interior and exterior, was a bit too contemporary. (The narrator is a twelve year old living in 1823.) She pointed to a couple examples: the phrase "they blew it," for instance, and the fact that the narrator compares another character's eyes to the color of chocolate (which would not have been a common food product in 1823). Beyond that, the editor did not really elaborate on why, for her, the boy's voice felt too contemporary.
I read over the story, of course, and while I caught a couple other phrases that perhaps warranted editing or deleting, mostly I noticed that I did not hold back in using contractions when this boy--and his even younger friend--spoke. I suspect that perhaps it is these contractions that struck the editor as "contemporary." And this didn't really surprise me. When I composed the story, as well as the others, I consciously avoided trying to ape a 19th century style of speaking. Some--perhaps even many--writers of historical fiction would disagree with me about this, but I feel that if I try too hard to make my characters sound dated, the reader won't see the character but the speech. Besides, you can't have all your characters talking formally. A writer needs a way to indicate that a character is younger or less refined or simply more jaunty than another character. Using contractions--and slang--is a means to do this.
That said, considering the editor's reaction, I starting culling back on the number of contractions my narrator used. I didn't eliminate them. To do that would make my character sound more adult and more educated than in fact he is. It would be a violation of his personality. It would also, I fear, make him seem stiff and mannequin-like, make him less a person than a collection of strained mannerisms. But I did certainly cut a number of contractions along with reworking certain problematic turns of phrase. To be honest, I didn't feel like I had a choice. If the narrator is simply not believable as an early 19th person then that will persist to be problem with other editors and perhaps result in the story never seeing the light of published day. I then proceeded to review all five of my Nantucket historical fictions with the same concern in mind. I began editing out contractions, especially in the stories with the earliest dates. The last story is set in 1920, so I saw no reason to remove the contractions at all. Leaving them all in, I figure, is one way--an implicit way--to signal to the reader the passage of time, along with explicit (and relevant) references to the Great War, to the defunct Nantucket Railroad, and to the Volstead Act.
I think this latest round of editing has strengthened the stories, but it also made me think seriously about this issue of contractions. Is it really true that Americans in the 19th century used no contractions? Or did they use some but not as many as we do? So far I'd been proceeding only on instinct and general impression. It was time--before these stories got set in stone--to do some actual researching. What did I discover about contractions in the nineteenth century speech? Tune in tomorrow to find out!