Friday, October 22, 2010


I just finished reading Stephen R. Donaldson's latest book, Against All Things Ending.


The book is sizable, well over 500 pages, but its physical size matches the immensity of the goings-on in the pages. In it, the end of a world is very much at hand, and the tragedies embedded in the very beginnings of that world are made manifest.

As with every volume of the series, Donaldson's command of language is exquisite. The extent of the man's vocabulary continues to be a delight. Reading him forces me to improve myself; I have to go to the dictionary every time I read him, and my own vocabulary is far from small. Donaldson's choice of words, though, is not a flashy thing; he does not write as though to show off that his knowledge of the lexicon is as it is. Instead, the words he uses are that right words; when he writes of "roynish" creatures or of the "caducity" of a formerly-fat character, or of the "atavistic vertigo" that afflicts the titular character, he does so because those words singly encapsulate phrases of meaning whose recitation would belabor and the text.

That text already does quite a bit. It is not easy, after all, to maintain the level of tension of the impending end of the world without sending the reader past the willingness to suspend disbelief, and Donaldson does do so, leaving the reader, following an uneasy triumph, facing the imminent final cataclysm but entirely without seeming contrivance (the victories are too partial and too dearly bought for the common stuff of fantasy). Nor yet is it easy to bring the reader into the minds of those who are not, for various reasons, wholly sane without losing comprehensibility--yet Donaldson succeeds in this.

The text, though enthralling, is not perfect. Page 511 displays a proofreading error (though it may well be that only my having spent time grading papers today attuned me to seeing such things). Also, like earlier volumes of the collected Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, there are incidences of the titular character enacting violence against women (in one particularly jarring case, against his own daughter--though not of the kind that that phrase would commonly bring to mind), which, coupled with his leprosy and his distinct lack of prowess--the more so in this volume than even in others--makes of him very much an anti-hero. But the book is very much more about a particular woman, the exigencies of her choices, and the ultimate revelation to her that the only choice that is ultimately effective is the choice to trust to others.

That is one of the major messages of the books, that trust in others is always necessary for success, even if it does invite the possibility of betrayal. Another is the reminder that there are always consequences for the acts we do, and that many of them are neither those we would intend nor those we would endure if given the choice. But the most important, perhaps, is that hope remains while life endures: while we continue to choose and to work to an ending of our design, however poor our situation looks, something might happen that none of us expect.

Saturday, October 16, 2010



The school at which I work was reviewed by one of its accrediting agencies last year, and assessment was one of the areas in which the school was found wanting. Accordingly, the school scrambled to put measures in place to correct the lack, and as a result, I have been attending a series of assessment meetings during this first semester of being full-time faculty.

(It still sounds really nice to have a full-time gig.)

The idea of evaluation and assessment has, consequently, been much on my mind. It became more so when, as happens from time to time, a student asked: "Do you want us to pass?"

I would like to have quipped at that student "All except you," but I did not; I actually behaved myself, despite the class more or less erupting into a discussion where the students more or less agreed that my reporting them as having earned As would represent me having done my job. The sentiment thus expressed is one commonly voiced, and I think it speaks to students not understanding the purpose that assessment/evaluation should have.

I explained to my students that what it looks like, at least initially, when a great many students show As on their transcripts is that their instructors are not enforcing rigorous standards. In brief, it shows grade inflation, and grade inflation devalues achievement. It makes all involved look bad: when all students get As, the A doesn't matter, and when all students get As, the curriculum obviously cannot be that difficult, so that it looks like the students aren't being challenged and the teachers aren't pushing the students.

"If it's not hard," I tell my students, "then you've got no reason to get better."

Some of them get the point. They understand that I push them so that they will be forced to improve or suffer penalties to their transcripts and finances (I also make a point of repeatedly and, I think, impassionedly calling upon them to come get help with their difficulties with course materials--but only few ever take me up on the matter). But a great many suffer* from the notion that higher education is about credentialing, as Jane Jacobs notes. They do not view college as a place to test old ideas and develop new ones; it is for them instead a means of getting a nifty little piece of paper, and they want to get it for minimum effort.

That desire, to gain most for least effort, is a natural human desire. But it is not one that I am going to reward in my classroom. Doing so would do a disservice to those students who actually want to work at their education--and it is with those students that I am most concerned.

*The term is used deliberately.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


It has been some time since I last made a blog entry. Of note has been only this:

Contract negotiations between my union and my employer stalled out, forcing a shut-down this morning. Fortunately, the shut-down was short-lived, as a contract emerged quickly from the closed-down school. As it turns out, the union is getting pieces of almost everything it asked, though management has retained the possibility of layoffs in the future, depending on enrollment and potential federal regulations.

I get to keep getting a paycheck for the work I do, which is good. I have little seniority, which is less good, but I have also made sure that my bets are amply hedged.

And so I'll be teaching tonight.

Saturday, October 2, 2010


I mentioned earlier that I work for one of the proprietary colleges in New York City. As should not be a surprise, I am part of the union at that college; aside from my personal belief in the power of collective action (and its Constitutional justification in the First Amendment), it is more or less one of the terms of employment that I be enrolled in that union.

The union contract with the school expires on October 9, and so the union and the management of the school are currently in the process of negotiating the next contract. Right now, though, the management is arguing that because there is a chance that regulations being debated might in the future hurt the school, the management (which reports that enrollment and incoming monies are up right now) needs to be able to do, among other things, the following:

Cut the wages of all union employees (which includes all teaching faculty as well as the whole of the clerical and maintenance staffs) by 4%,

Cut employer matching contributions to the 401k by 1.5%,

Exclude newly-hired part-time faculty from participation in the 401k,

Extend the probation period (during which an employee may be fired without cause and without access to grievance procedures and protections) to seven semesters for teaching faculty and five for staff,

Install cameras in every classroom to use for "Lecture Capture," which can be used as a surveillance tool (inhibiting the academic freedom on which intellectual inquiry depends) and as a means to rebroadcast lectures as a moneymaking tool,

And reduce total teaching hours (including hours taught at other institutions, so that it messes with people caught in the traditional plight of the adjunct--bouncing between institutions in an attempt to cobble together enough hours to make enough money to live on).

These management demands are not acceptable to the union membership, obviously. And it is not simply because of the financial impact they have on the members, but because they will negatively impact the ability of the teachers to teach.

That impact will come from the reduction of employee connection to the institution. By giving the employees less reason to partake in the community of the school--particularly the part-time employees who, here as in most other colleges and universities across the country,* comprise the bulk of the teachers students encounter in their pivotal first year of classes--the school gives them less incentive to do the myriad outside tasks that result in good teaching. Limiting teachers' hours forces them to seek outside employment, thereby reducing the amount of time they may spend with students outside of class in office hours and consultations and the like, which in turn sharply limits the ability of students who might do well with a little extra help to get that help. And denying employees access to benefits reduces their connection to the school. So, too, does putting them under minute surveillance, for while observation from time to time is a boon to teaching, constant watching speaks of distrust, and who among us responds well to being told we are not worth trusting?

Because of these things, the union membership voted on Thursday to authorize a strike. The motion carried overwhelmingly; some eight members voted against it, while those in favor numbered in the hundreds. We do not look forward to this; we hope instead that the management of the school will come to its senses and not attempt to set up, in the interest of making money in the short-term, policies that will exert a long-term negative effect on the institution and the students it serves.

But we will not let these things pass.

*This according to information taken from Profession, College English, and CCC in their last few issues.