Uncertainty and Upheaval

Recently at my university budget cuts and space reallocation have caused a great deal of upheaval in people’s lives and as a result, uncertainty about their place. “Does what we do matter?” they ask. Or with more clarity: “what we do doesn’t matter. [ergo] We don’t matter.” Also in the past year, at least two faculty have died–one very young and one at retirement age, the former due to hospital infection after gradual healing from an aneurism, the other in his sleep. At least two students committed suicide. At least four senior faculty have applied for positions and only one has gotten what he wants. A new doctoral program got slapped down at the state level. We stayed home for two days due to snow, and now our entire humanities/arts building is shut down for a week due to an old transformer blown and so, no electricity. Faculty are holding classes outside or in other buildings, but if the “fix” doesn’t fix it, we have 6 weeks of classrooms to find, not to mention offices and art labs. One of my programs was told to anticipate a move in two years and now we’re told we need to be out by August and the building that had been “promised” is now not quite so.

So those are institutional uncertainties, just a smattering of the kinds of upheaval that seems increasingly to define us. Not that in the past we didn’t lose opportunities or find ourselves without an institutional home (for awhile) or lose colleagues and students in tragic ways. But things have ratcheted up in ways we are not accustomed to–what does that mean for how we teach? For how we do our creative and research work? For how we serve the institution and our fields and communities?

Then there’s context: are we feeling a kind of uncertainty for the first time that others have known for a long time? And who, for that matter, are “we”? Our part-time instructors whose low-paying jobs with us are vulnerable to full-time faculty needing a section and to budget cuts? Part-time faculty are paid for out of College funds, yet the tuition goes to the general fund–and now they go for budget cuts by axing the part-time faculty line. Now the College has no permanent budgeted money to pay the xx% of classes taught by part-timers, so they turn to lapsed salary lines–but if those have been carved into increasingly smaller pieces of pie, it soon looks like there’s no money to pay out.

Are staff included in this “we”? Those without whom the university would grind quickly to a loud halt. Those who make a third or a half of what faculty make (not to even mention the upper administration of the coaches). Does “we” mean just my university or is there a nation-wide escalation of worry and doubt–ask Detroit or New Orleans.

Depending on who you listen to, it’s clear that some “we” or another is increasingly under fire or the magnifying glass. Some of the we’s are privileged and others are not so. But I don’t think it’s just a matter of the usually-comfortable now squirming. It’s more like the almost-always uncertain are now on a par with the newly uncertain, like a burgeoning class onto itself. If you are listening to Fox News you get one sense of who the devil is, threatening our very personhood. In fact, if you listen to the 24/7 news you know that things are dire and getting worse. Somehow they’ve been doing that since 9/11. And if I’m to talk about uncertainty from middle-class, educated, hunky-doriness when communities are decimated by white flight or drugs or joblessness and the cold shoulder of our classist racist society, then I have to place one within the other: the most important element of context is that opportunity in this country is neither blind nor subtle. That’s a myth. Note: thanks to Isabel for calling my attention to this article about “FUD”: http://billmoyers.com/2014/03/25/understanding-the-propaganda-campaign-against-public-education/

I haven’t even mentioned the uncertainty and confusion of our personal lives–“our” meaning all of us in this country–home foreclosures, lost jobs, abuse, drugs, prisons, homicides and rape, the list is merciless. But I want to resist a fatalistic attitude–and I understand if that seems like a privilege in itself. Still, the most powerful examples of the kind of resistance to fatalism that I’m thinking about come from those communities most beleaguered. Fierce elders coming together, musicians and artists, boxing clubs, community gardens, book clubs in jails.

It is exactly out of our personal space–unpredictable, messy, vulnerable–that we have the resources to navigate the landmines and maneuver around the gaping holes before us, perhaps even to disengage the bombs for others and close the holes as we step over them. (Using metaphors of bombs makes me uneasy, since real people are still losing legs to land mines left after war and new wars ongoing.) What is it we have to pull out of ourselves? There is really no limit, but I think maybe these are few:

Affirmation for others and ourselves. If we support each other out loud then we begin to believe that we’re not alone, that it’s not “just me.” Tenderness. Showing a little kindness. If someone snaps or yowls, imagine first that it comes from a place of pain, not of willful meanness. Confidence–I want to put our heads together with a certainty that we can come out the other side with minimal wounding and better understanding. Laughter–maybe if we have these first three then we will find ways to laugh. Nothing so awful stays so long as to prevent humor. It’s like water finding the cracks and seeping into our conversations. A pun will do just fine. A not-cruel imitation. A juxtaposition that makes an image. Those adorable goats scampering across a floor (thanks, facebook).

As I look at my little list it appears that they all are both personal-community strengths, and that feels right.

Last night as our night was winding down, our five-year-old granddaughter Leah lay down beside me, her head on my lap. It was a bit of “throwback Thursday” for her, as she had one of her old sippy cups with water and was holding it to her mouth, her eyes closed. She got a little chilled so we grabbed what was within reach: a cloth napkin, a kitchen towel, and the scarf I was knitting, which she pulled around her head. Adorable moments are always easier with children, and yet it’s what we do, we humans, when we are confident–maybe not completely secure–but at least confident that we won’t be alone when whatever is that’s going to hit us comes roaring in.

Leah winding down for the night

Leah winding down for the night