What the university did for me today

So, I should be working on becoming a billionaire science fiction screenwriter, but I’m blogging instead. Having, for all intents and purposes, signed off Facebook, I’m left stewing in just my own thoughts. I struggle, as many professor colleagues do, with how to act, post-election. While many colleagues report having mutually tearful discussions/debriefing with students in their classes, I’ve just boiled and fumed. I’m so busy, always running – papers flying, coffee sloshing – it’s easy to say, “Ah, the election has no relevance to a discussion of malolactic fermentation in winemaking,” and move on. And my science students do not express their dismay or anger, as my humanities colleagues report. Thus, days elide into weeks, and I get this feeling that there’s a missing ingredient, something I’m not doing to help me articulate and resolve the worry I feel. Time to stir the pot.

I’ve written already about tuning out social media. Positively, I’ve also re-started my LA Times subscription, along with the paper edition on Sundays; I’ve subscribed to paper editions of the Atlantic, the New Yorker, and Asimov’s Science Fiction; I bought my spouse subscriptions to Ploughshares and The Paris Review. I’m dedicated to feeding my family on fresh, whole ingredients only, and all my sauces will be hecho a mano from now on.

And now, as is being proclaimed left, right, and center, many folks seem to be abandoning or scaling back social media. So much for being different, but I’ve noticed how social media’s shortcomings seem to be affecting people. Just the other night I went to my wife’s work holiday party. It was fun. I danced with Joy. But a friend came up to me, pulled a slip of paper from her pocket, unfolded it, and showed it to me, “A message from MIT faculty reaffirming our shared values.” Earlier in the week, I’d shown that anti-Trump open letter to my wife, who passed it on to her colleagues, who each showed it to their spouses, and so it appeared at the party… people are looking for tools, actions.

That tattered, smudged scrap struck me, inspiration passing from hand to hand like a static charge. The MIT website had captivated me, as well, of course. And after days – and days stretching into weeks – of incoherent confusion and anger, my senses began to accrete around the notion that action must swallow grief.

Now, the CSU issued a post-election statement, and my campus’ president issued a statement, as did our academic senate. None of these fed my fire. All were unsatisfactory in various ways, but mostly in that they strove for a kind of neutrality, no, a vagueness that frustrated me. By failing to clearly state: “here is what is wrong with this situation” to avoid aggravating key constituencies… after all, Fox News blares out of some offices, and many students are Trump supporters, silent majorities, the University relies on state monies, etc, etc. The academic senate’s resolution is better, and I voted for it like everyone else. But it is inward-facing, with no goals: no one will ever read that resolution again, certainly no students will. But more importantly, it gave me no guiding light to act on.

So I went camping. My wife insisted on it. “We are joining friends in Joshua Tree just before Thanksgiving.” Ok, I said, but I have these video conferences to do for job searches, how will that work? Well, it’s Black Rock, there’s cell service. And thank goodness, because, as the desert wind stomped on our tent and whipped through the door of my car, the leader of our group looked out at me from my laptop and dropped some truth. She explained that this cultural surge of ignorance and hate is an attack not only on the marginalized and the idea of a multicultural society, but on the places where the marginalized are given a voice… in our case, on the University and on the intellectual structures professors build there.

As an aside, at that same party another person derided my livelihood as a professor and (dare I say) a public intellectual, proclaiming it “not a real job” and, since it generates no money, offers nothing to society. So, maybe the party wasn’t that fun, but I hope she’s reading this (I know, who is?) because her ignorance isn’t just an aside: it’s the point. I learned that my job must now be to help everyone, even college-educated professionals at private school faculty holiday parties, understand that Universities are not where their kids learn how to get rich; it’s where their kids learn to use their minds, learn to formulate questions, learn how to answer questions.

Anyway, I went home and started writing an open letter of my own. And, whereas I’m not such a good writer… And, whereas I hope the letter captures faculty sentiment more broadly… And, whereas I hope our letter is outward-facing… I started asking for help. I asked the woman who crystallized my thinking. I asked an actual writer. I asked a computer science professor. I asked some political science professors. I asked for advice, input, help.


And did I ever get it! There are problems with the letter. Some things are still worded poorly (well, I do write at a ninth grade level, or so one internet robot claims). It doesn’t capture every nuance that every professor on my campus might hope it would. But those failings are mine, not my colleagues’. The participation of my fellows was the biggest boost I’ve had in lo these 4 weeks. Never mind that it’s the last week of the term: we can wordsmith all weekend. Need a .org set up with email validation? No sweat; it’s already done. Need ideas for an evidence page so that the website models the best behaviors faculty have to offer? We’ll do it, and build undergrad capstone projects out of it to boot.

These are real connections with physical humans, bolstered by real actions. Not “all those in favor…” Not clicktivism. Not shared rage over a shared article. These people worked, helped because they are compelled to take action. And one more beautiful thing about working at a University (yes, I’m looking at you self-satisfied holiday party lady), is that I’m surrounded by people who know how to do stuff… all stuff. Think. Write. Create. Build. Invent. Show. Teach. Question. Answer. And for some reason, they’re all willing to help, all the time.

So, yeah, we managed to get this open letter (a la MIT’s site) published in a matter of about 3 days. I apologize for its shortcomings, but I hope you take a look at it. I hope you tell me if you disagree with it. I hope you sign if you feel you can. That you share it with friends if you can’t, preferably as a printed, finger-creased, salami-greased note. But mostly, if you read it, I hope you will stop and consider the real value of educational institutions and teachers to the wellbeing of our society… from pre-K to postdoc. No, universities are not the only place young people get woke, not the only bastions of clear thinking, not the only places committed to valuing difference, not the only places suffused with the will to open discourse and social justice. But they might be about the densest accumulations of people dedicated to sharing those ideals with your children. We out-of-touch intellectual elites might also be first up against the wall when the revolution comes, so show us a little love at your holiday party.


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