Monday, June 25, 2012

One mystery solved

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After a series of longish posts for the past few weeks, today I'm merely offering a short update about a matter I blogged on several months ago.  As you know if you read my post of January 17, and many people did, last year an agent with whom I worked closely and well on my Van Gogh novel stopped communicating with me at a crucial point in our relationship.  I had sent him what I thought would be the make or break version of Days on Fire.  I thought I would subsequently receive the final thumbs up or thumbs down.   Instead I received nothing, no word at all, for an embarrassing stretch of months.  Even after several gentle coaxes from me via email, the agent did not reply.  Finally, I could only assume he decided not to represent the book. My only question was why he refused to tell me that.

A couple weeks ago, a full year after I mailed him the last revision of the novel, what surprise do I receive in my email box but a message from the agent in question.  He apologized profusely for not keeping in touch.  He explained that his health had taken a turn for the worse (he is a decidedly older gentleman); also, more problematically, in February a longtime, crucial assistant of his passed away.   Due to that assistant's passing, he inherited a great deal of unexpected work.  He has decided, he said, that given the state of his health and the burdens he has inherited, that he cannot take on any more new clients.  For what it's worth, he seemed genuinely sorry that he could not represent Days on Fire, and I might as well take him at face value for that sentiment.  At least I did receive a final communication, to which I replied to thank him for his efforts and wish him good health.  I'm sure that everything he said in the email is true, but even so I have to wonder why I heard nothing between last June and February, when his office life became so much sadder and more complicated.    That part of the conundrum I'll probably never get an answer to, but at least the greater mystery has been dispelled.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Who is the real university?

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When I wrote a two-part post a couple weeks ago, I thought that would be the last of my ranting for a while, at least on the subject of the business of college professorship.  But something happened the other day at my university that has me thinking, about both new issues and old.  Please pardon one more lengthy post on the subject of writers and other teachers who work in higher education.  The impetus for this post is the sudden resignation last Friday of a high ranking administrator at the University of Central Arkansas, the college where I work.  In a curt, out-of-the-blue email, the president of UCA notified the whole campus of this man's resignation and thanked him for his service.  As you might expect, faculty were curious and even buzzing.  Speculation began as to why the man would resign so suddenly.  We figured we would hear something soon as to the why, if not from the administration then from one a few prominent local reporters who have been dogging UCA for many months, covering every facet of its business (especially the unseemly kind).  Three days later, however, no explanaton has been released.   Newspaper articles appeared Saturday, but these offered no reason for the resignation or much information of any kind.  Then Sunday, the day when papers are their largest and fullest, no articles on the subject appeared at all.  Meanwhile, one can gather from commentary on the web sites affiliated with these newspapers that nobody in the know is talking--not the Board of Trustees, not the administration, not the man who resigned.

The only item of interest that was reported in Saturday's articles was that another administrator apparently emailed the university president to say that she feels sorry not just for the man who resigned but "for all of us."  All of us?  All of whom?  The entire university?  Or the tight coterie of administrators bunkered down in Wingo Hall?  And if there's reason to be sorry for "all of us" does this mean some new, previously unknown economic calamity is about to befall UCA, which has suffered through two economic calamities already due to lies, mismanagement, and--yes--even illegal behavior by recent former presidents?  Maybe not, but if so, doesn't the administration owe an explanation to its employees, who are always the ones to bear the cost of any economic downfall?  (Both mismanaging former presidents--even the one who committed the crime--received truly enormous buyouts and were sent merrily on their way, while faculty and staff were left to pick up the pieces and endure the financial consequences.)  And if the current resignation of this  high-ranking official has nothing whatsoever to do with finances, nothing that is going to affect the working lives of the hundreds of faculty and staff at UCA, shouldn't the administration say that at least, to put to rest useless but inevitable speculation?

Here's the nagging question behind my post today, and the real reason why I'm bothered by the lack of information forthcoming: Who and what, after all, is the real university?   Common sense should tell anyone that the thousands of students who pass through a university every year--and the hundreds of faculty who undertake the labor of teaching those students and advising those students and making sure all the paperwork is filled out so that they can finally graduate--and the scores of staff who assist these students and faculty in thousands of countless and crucial practical matters--are the real university.  It is for the sake of such people, to enable them to do their work better, that a university administration exists at all.  And yet increasingly I sense at UCA a deep, fundamental division of upper administration from faculty, students, and staff.  Increasingly, I sense an attitude from the administration that suggests it sees itself as the real university while everyone else on campus is meaningless, even contemptible.  Increasingly, I see a lack of concern for faculty needs, for faculty governance, for faculty opinions.  This despite the fact that our current president is supposed to represent a change of direction for UCA, a change of both style and substance from the homewreckers of recent memory.  I'm still waiting for proof of this new direction.

Two examples and then I'm done.  And please feel free--anyone who reads this--to tell me if similar conditions, or very different ones, exist at your schools.  If your conditions are different, please explain why.   First example: For nearly two years I served on a university task force assigned to develop a fair, clear, and consistent maternity leave policy for faculty across campus.  There was no such policy before and there still is none.  There are no standard practices from department to department, so the fate of any one person's situation depends on the relative generosity of one's chair and dean, and the relative collegiality of one's colleagues (who may be asked to cover another's classes without any additional pay).   In other words, one can't really count on anything.  Some faculty have received humane and sensible maternity leave; others have gotten none.  Others have gotten worse than none; they've actually been reprimanded for being pregnant.  It's an aburd situation, a lawsuit waiting to happen.  Well, after two years, and many many meetings, the task force came up with a very good, clear policy.  One that would apply across the board, would not exploit fellow faculty, and would not by any means bankrupt the university.   Everyone who worked on the task force--even the administrator who acted as our chair--was very excited about the proposal, even proud of it.  We couldn't wait to see it enacted.  So what happened to it?  As soon as the proposal hit the first administrative level it was rejected outright.  We like the current system better, was the word that came back; it will cost less money.  (Yes, and it will abuse many people, break many hearts, and leave the universty naked before a lawsuit.)  Supposedly, the task force was going to review our proposal in light of administrative complaints, but we were never called together as a body again.  The policy proposal was effectively dead in the water.  Two years of work--conscientious, painstaking work--was utterly wasted.  Because of one meeting of administrators.

Second example: As I mentioned in my earlier rant, faculty at UCA have received no pay adjustment for six out of the last seven years.  Moreover, there has been no indication that we should expect any pay adjustments for the foreseeable future.  Worse, there has not been the slightest indication from the administration that this represents a deep and abiding problem, one that needs to be resolved.   In my opinion, in any profession, pay adjustments for productive employees, even if that only means cost-of-living-adjustments (COLAs), should be regular and expected.  Rewarding employees is a normal and vital aspect of keeping any business running smoothly.  Thus a year in which employees receive no pay adjustment should be considered an aberration and an embarrassment, a situation for which employees are owed an apology and promises to do better by them in the future.  Again, this strikes me as common sense management: show the people who work for you that you care about them; you care about their economic conditions and you care about their morale.  At UCA, the exact reverse situation is in place.  A year in which faculty and staff receive COLAs is seen by the administration as an aberrant one; so if they actually deign to bestow upon us that lousy one or two percent increase we are supposed to bestow upon them slobbering gratitude.  And we certainly should not expect any additional COLAs anytime soon.  Years in which there is no COLA?  Well, that's just business as usual, and why should we ever expect one anyway?  Right now, there is no force driving the administration to grant COLAs to faculty and staff.  There is no meaningful pressure on them to do so, and no negative consequences if they don't.  Something like this requires presidential leadership, presidential involvement, presidential commitment.  None has been forthcoming.  UCA administrators en masse do not appear to be motivated by any sense of obligation toward or respect for faculty and staff, nor by any desire to reward and to hold on to hard-working employees.  If that were the case UCA faculty and staff would receive COLAs every year.  (I'm not even talking raises here.  That's pie in the sky; an impossible dream.) The administration's attitude appears to be: If we don't have to give faculty a pay adjustment, why should we?  We can spend that money on our own projects.  

Well, in a non-union environment, and an environment in which administrators increasingly see themselves as the real university and everyone else as considerably less real, this situation will only continue year after year after year after year, through economic good times as well as bad.   After all, only in an environment in which faculty and staff--and even students too--are considered less real than upper administration would a university feel that it didn't owe the campus an explanation for why a high-ranking official resigned.  It's all more of the same from UCA administrators: circling the wagons, insisting on secrecy, evoking executive privilege, viewing themselves as a world apart.  As if that's worked in the past.  Ironically, what I've seen and what I know from my years in higher education is this: university presidents and officials come and go with shocking rapidity; while they're here they act like they are the thing, but all they do is award themselves gigantic salaries, initiate their own pet initiatives, ignore faculty cautions, and make a royal mess.  If you're lucky, they're chased off soon.  At best they do no damage.  Meanwhile, faculty, staff, and students endure: taking and teaching classes, imparting and improving knowledge, nuturing ideas and ambition, developing talents, caring for tender souls, shaping and changing lives.  Doing the real work of the university.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The violent imagination of Tom Franklin

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It would be hard to find a more easygoing guy than Tom Franklin, who I had the pleasure to meet when he spoke at my campus this spring.  Beneath the care free, self-effacing, regular guy facade, however, is an extremely fertile, even lurid imagination for crime.  Violent crimes--that is, murders--feature prominently in all four of his major works: the novella Poachers (2000) and his novels Hell at the Breech (2003), Smonk (2007), and Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter (2010).  These are no mere crime fictions, mind you, but carefully crafted, literary books.  It's hard to think of a contemporary author who I read with more pleasure.

In Hell at the Breech, Franklin transports his violent imagination to the late 1890s to depict the rise and fall of an Alabama crime gang that calls itself "Hell-at-the-Breech."  As is often the case with historical novels, the starting point for the novel is factual.  An actual gang of this name murdered and robbed with near impunity for over a year in Clarke County, Alabama in the late nineteenth century.  But as Franklin explains in a short note preceding the start of the novel, he did not feel tied to the historical record when it came to plotting his novel, all the characters of which are inventions of his own imagination.  A stickler might call the book an alternative history, or even a historical fantasy, but I prefer to think of it as a vividly conceived and effectively rendered fiction set in an earlier time period.  We've had this discussion before in this space: how much freedom should a historical novelist allow himself when writing about true events and real people?  Different novelists would answer this question differently, and finally there's no one perfectly successful equation.  It's kind of like asking for a definition of "creative nonfiction."  (Well, maybe that one's even harder.)  So it is refreshing to see Franklin dismiss the problem altogether by saying, in essence, "No matter what the historical record says, this is my story and my characters."  Bravo, Tom.   Anyone looking for purely objective and established data on any historical events--be that Hell-at-the-Breech's rampages, the Irish campaigns of Elizabeth II, or anything in between--should know to turn to history books not novels.  One should turn to historical novels because one enjoys entering an earlier time period by means of a story.  And if you do enjoy such stories, don't deny the storyteller his most powerful tool: imaginative liberty.

That said, Franklin recreates both the period and the place expertly in Hell at the Breech.  Franklin is Alabama born and bred; and no other writer I know is as centered in the landscape and temperature and languid rhythms and social currents of his home state than Tom Franklin.  A knowledge so sure it extends backwards to the 1890s as easily as if he just time traveled from there.  The props and the setting and the weaponry (always important in a Tom Franklin novel) are note perfect.  His characters, meanwhile--those inventions of his imagination--are difficult, unnerving, and remarkable, fundamentally a challenge.  None of them, even the seemingly virtuous, the ones with whom our sympathies reside, finally act with a great deal of virtue.  Each and every one of them exhibits wide glaring holes of selfishness and simple weakness that engender the violent events depicted and then make them worse.   Franklin rotates the book's point-of-view so that you are not merely reading along with the "good guys."  That would be too easy as well as dishonest.  Indeed, what becomes uncomfortably clear is that the "bad guys," while certainly unlikeable and even monstrous, are not without righteous cause--at least from their point-of-view--and some of the "good guys" (even the one the reader has the least reason to suspect) turn out to be compicit with the evil of the muders.  In the end the "good guys" end up killing as much as anybody else in this novel.  The knotted social situation of haves and have-nots, years of pent-up social seething, and the accumulation of a myriad petty jelousies, releases itself in a war that can come to no good end, even if it does come to an end.  Trust me, Franklin knows how to tell a story, and this is one story you'll want to plow through to find out just what is that end, unsightly though it may be.  Then you'll wish the book wasn't over.

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A morning lagniappe: I thought I should pass along a bit of publishing news.  A short story of mine--not a historical story--has just been published in the online magazine Literary Mama.  No, I'm not a mama, but I am a daddy, and the story is part of LM's effort--because it's Father's Day time of year in the USA--to publish creative work in which adult speakers look back upon the fathers they knew as children.  The story is titled "My Word."  You can read it here.