Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The Ice Storm: A Few Observations About The Workings Of The University

From the upper deck of Tenured Radical.
Last week the snow day was great, a gift of 24 hours that (depending on your teaching schedule) created the equivalent of a Thanksgiving break.  Now the weather is increasingly a drag.  Despite the dangers and inconveniences of coming up to Zenith, one canceled day seems to be all the educational enterprise can sustain, and we receive messages saying that it is "our choice" whether to come to campus or not.  This often puts one in the untenable position of deciding how much of one's personal safety is worth risking to not fall any further behind than one already is, given the difficulties of travel (or even walking down the street) in the last ten days.

In 1997, Ang Lee made a film called The Ice Storm about the emotional perils of suburban living in the 1970s.  Based on a 1994 novel by Rick Moody, the movie shows one evening in the life of two New Canaan families.  The ice storm stands in as a metaphor for the ways that they are all emotionally "frozen;" and the effects of the weather force a series of unexpected events that, not surprisingly, "freeze" the dynamics between people and make it possible to see them in new ways.

Similarly, this spate of bad weather causes one to see things differently.  Whether my observations are right or not -- well, I am not sure.  But here goes.

Giving academics choices might be a way of administrations not making decisions about what authority they wish to have over the institutions they govern.  Under circumstances in which law enforcement is asking people who live in this state not to drive, under what conditions does it make sense to tell your faculty that it is their choice whether to teach their classes or not?  Looking at it the administrator's way, one might say:
  • Zenith is a residential campus, and 99.9% of students live on it.  Therefore, why shouldn't they go to school?
  • Some faculty might be more nervous about falling further behind in their work than they are about driving to work;
  • Conditions might improve by afternoon, so that whereas morning classes might be impossible, afternoon classes might be more manageable;
  • Faculty hate to be told what to do.
The elite residential college still presumes that the default position for faculty is to live in the college community, preferable on the borders of campus.  I have not infrequently heard reports that our trustees and long-time faculty and administrators are appalled that some faculty live elsewhere, and I have heard all kinds of casual criticism of those of us who "live in New Haven and New York."  These cities are mentioned in the same breath, despite the fact that one is  25 minutes from Zenith and the other 2 hours and 15 minutes from Zenith (and that's if you are flying.)

The Radical back yard:  maple tree and bamboo.
Now, I do think that everyone on the faculty ought to be doing the same work regardless of where they live, and that this mandates equal attendance under normal conditions. I have always done my best to adhere to this, whether I lived in Zenith, New York or New Haven. But I also think that the casual disregard for the safety of those of us who have to drive to work (whether it is from the outskirts of Zenith or from another city) is rather stunning.  The assumption is that those who can get to work easily set the norm; the rest of us are deviant to a greater or lesser degree, and in danger of revealing ourselves as slackers.  This norm was set back in the 1940s and lasted until the mid-1970s or so. It was set prior to the emergence of two career couples, the employment of people of color at Zenith, working mothers, parenting fathers and the ability of GLBT people to find, and live openly in, heterogeneous, progressive communities.  Zenith has many virtues, but it doesn't accommodate any of these things well, either as a school or as part of the small city that it inhabits.

People who have tenure might feel more free to exercise the choice to cancel class than people who do not.  You would think this would be perfectly obvious, wouldn't you?  And yet, universities maintain the weirdly benevolent fiction that, despite the inequalities of rank that they treasure, we all have equality of choice despite our rank.

Suggesting that some people will not come to work because they are frightened or cautious is demeaning.  I say this, perhaps, because I am now of an age where the idea of falling and hurting myself does frighten me, and I sometimes wish for that reason and others that I was still young.  But I am not sure whether my caution originates from a place of being more fearful, or whether I have more garden-variety common sense than when I was young.  Once, when I lived in Zenith, I went to school in an ice storm: I lived up a hill about a half mile from campus.  As I began to descend the hill, which was covered in sheet ice slicked with rain, my car began to shimmy around, and I slid down the length of the hill sideways, towards a blind turn from which, fortunately, no one emerged to take me to Jesus.

Like every other entity, universities are trying to carry on as if they have not cut services drastically and this does not have an effect on our work.  I did meet my students yesterday, so loath was I to lose contact with a class I had only begun to teach.  They are a group of first and second year students who are reading really hard stuff, and if we don't spend some concentrated time together they would feel justified in being utterly confused.  But going to school wasn't what you would call a "good choice." It was a bad choice.  The roads were incredibly dangerous, but not half as dangerous as navigating a campus that was unshoveled, unsalted and unsanded.

It was also clear to me, by the way, that Zenith is entirely unprepared to feed lunch or dinner to large numbers of people who might come to campus in such weather and find themselves trapped there; nor were there any arrangements made with a local inn to get a special rate for those of us who might come to school today and be unable to get home.

Ah well.  Out to scrape and salt the end of the driveway as we seem to have no city services in New Haven either this year.  My street has not been plowed, salted or sanded once since it started to snow two weeks ago, and I am sorry to say to the libertarians in the audience, this has not resulted in citizens banding together to do it themselves.  Kiss my a$$, Ayn Rand.

27 comments:

Historiann said...

"Kiss my a$$, Ayn Rand.:"

BWAHA-hahahahaha!

The Ice Storm still gives me nightmares.

Staying put at home makes sense to me. Although I agree with your analysis that it's a wienerish way out of making a decision, I'd take Zenith administrators at their word that teaching today is "[y]our choice," and make sure they and everyone else stick to it.

I don't know how you easterners are surviving this winter. I sure feel like I picked the right decade to move out to the high plains desert, even if yesterday's and today's deep freeze has meant breaking ice in the horse troughs every few hours. At least I haven't had to shovel a path to get out to the barn to do it!

E Tuck said...

SUNY campuses will cancel classes but not close academic offices, which means that staff need to take a vacation day to stay safely put.

Anonymous said...

Please do not go to work in dangerous conditions. That is a way of preserving your life and sending a message to your university. As someone mentioned, it is particularly unfair that many institutions force staff to take unpaid days or vacation days when the campus is closed. So, since you work at a private and therefore non-unionized campus where staff have no contract protections against this kind of abuse I also urge you to work on their behalf to get the administration to give all workers the right to stay home when getting to campus is dangerous and not to be punished for this choice.

es said...

Zenith's childcare was cautious enough to refuse to open. So add parents to the list of those who face admitting they can't handle a normal ice-storm day.

Anonymous said...

I would love LOVE to live on the borders of my college. In fact, just last year I saw a house for rent within stone's throw of my department, and I called. Rent was $8000 a month!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (I bring that handy little fact up whenever an upper-level administrator bemoans the lack of faculty living on or near campus. Give me a 500% raise and I will give it serious consideration.)

Tenured Radical said...

Actually, Anonymous, many of our staff are unionized, although many aren't, nor are any administrators; and the untenured faculty have no contract protections. But your point stands.

haphazardmusings said...

"Zenith has many virtues, but it doesn't accommodate any of these things well, either as a school or as part of a community."

Does any university? Not to minimize your point, but I think issues like these are symptomatic of a broader devaluation of academics as people.

Also, I loved your closing statement. Hear, hear!

Janice said...

We don't close for weather very often, which can be rather crazy as the campus is only accessibly by a two-lane winding road that runs between a rock-cut and high-end houses overlooking the lake. It closes frequently for accidents in bad weather and then? You're trapped for both drivers and transit users.

I hear administrators normalizing the on-campus student experience, yet they know the majority of our students are off-campus locals. One student told me of the three buses she takes to campus every morning and back home at the end of the day. That's hours in transit in the best of weather! In these winter storms, transit users and drivers take their lives into their hands coming onto campus.

rustonite said...

We closed, starting at 4 pm Monday, right through today. It was the only sensible thing, given that we're in a city and the public transit system has had to slow way down (although not stop, brave souls that they are). They also told the students that anyone who could go home, should, consolidated dining to minimize the amount of staff who would have to come in, and closed all the non-emergency offices at the med school. Although, weirdly, the athletics department did not cancel any games. Priorities!

Comrade PhysioProf said...

In 1997, Ang Lee made a film called The Ice Storm about the emotional perils of suburban living in the 1970s.

What an awesome fucken movie!! When it came outte, my date and I sparked up a couple fatties and absorbed the ATMOSPHERICS!

Dean Dad said...

I don't usually join in administrator-bashing, since there's no shortage of it on the interwebs, but that's really weak.

Putting the burden on individual faculty is oddly passive-aggressive. It also makes no sense at all for lab sciences, where faculty decisions would have direct impacts on the lab techs who actually set everything up and break it all down. If some come in and some don't, ay, caramba.

Either open or close and be done with it.

shane said...

2 hours northeast of Zenith, my institution closed today and may well close tomorrow, if morning comes and we're still slicked with ice. This is fortunate, since the local commuter rail was canceling more-or-less every other trip to campus in an effort to keep any of its trains running at all.

Anonymous said...

That's a profoundly ableist policy, actually. Icy, slick conditions are a serious problem when you're using a wheelchair, cane, or other device to move around. If Zenith is anything like my university, it's hard to keep the paths and walkways free of ice with even the best of intentions.

Eileen said...

Most of the faculty and grad student TAs at my uni do live on the boarders of campus, if only because town is so small, but our massive and under-plowed, under-salted campus is still a treacherous hike. Even with good boots and young ankles, my students and I were wet and bruised from icy falls today, thanks to recent budget cuts to the grounds crew. Shivering, wet excellence without money (to quote an eminent historian).

Another Damned Medievalist said...

I do love that faculty at SLAC are encouraged to teach online, prepare alternate assignments, or absorb snow days into the schedule -- or make up classes on designated make-up days. Unless weather is so bad that power is out, it's really easy to be safe, warm, and teach in pjs.

Katrina said...

Are all of Zenith's students resident on campus? I am wondering how commuter students are treated: would they be penalised for not being able to make it to class?

[My verification word is PHALIK. Am finding that incredibly amusing].

Tenured Radical said...

Katrina: We have practically no commuter students, which I think contributes to the ancient belief that faculty ought to be "in residence" too.

Susan said...

I've been at 2 major midwestern public universities. At both places, there were big snow storms -- big enough that the local public transportation system shut down. At MWU1, the administration canceled classes after 3 pm (once) but required staff to take vacation if they wanted to leave early. At MWU2, no classes have been canceled. Faculty could cancel classes (and some did); staff, faculty, and TAs were "encouraged to come in and work but also make safe decisions."

As others have pointed out, as terrible as the passive-aggressive decision-making is for faculty, it's even worse (and classist) for staff who often live even farther away.

Cancel classes or create the appropriate accommodations (lodging, food, etc for staff, commuter students, and faculty alike).

LouMac said...

I like how this post reflects on the socio-economic inequalities embedded in universities' assumptions about where their people live. In many towns, living close enough to campus to be able to walk or take a major bus route, is an option only open to those earning 6-figure salaries. The more likely a worker is to be penalised for staying at home (staff, custodial services etc., junior or adjunct faculty), the more likely they are to live in places that make coming to work a challenge even on good days, let alone during a storm.

Even as a tenured faculty member, I live 25 miles north of my campus because living in city limits is unaffordable. Lots of staff people - and increasingly, lots of students - live in this same suburb. We can't afford the cost of a campus parking permit, so we take the bus. Even when it's running normally, the last bus leaves campus at 5.30, so custodial and night staff have no decent way of commuting from here. I've heard stories of custodians sleeping in supply closets until they can catch the next bus. The transit system shuts down at the first snowflake, so no way can we come in during a snowstorm.

Absolutely, the assumption of easy access to campus at any time of day, is highly classist. It's also the product of a period when most workers were straight men who had stay-at-home spouses to take care of things while they attended late meetings etc.

Oh, and I hope everyone at Zenith cancels class.

Natalie P. said...

I'm a PhD student at a certain institution down the road in New Haven, which has not had a snow day since 1978. And since I don't live in the "grad ghetto" right next to campus these storms have been a real nightmare. We too have the "faculty choice" approach. It's a complete cluster%^&, and puts a ridiculously unfair burden on individual professors. I'll be teaching next year, and am a bit concerned about how much "choice" I will have when it comes to my section...

Susan said...

Well, and I noted that a building in Zenith's town actually collapsed with the ice.

I was in grad school during the great blizzard of 1978, and my university closed classes for 4 days. it was simple: the roads were totally impassible by vehicular transport, so if you didn't live within walking distance, that was that.

Tenured Radical said...

Three buildings have collapsed so far, including two out of the three that contain the restaurants that are most favorable to entertaining job candidates. Is it a metaphor?

SW said...

I really like your point about the assumption that faculty and staff live on the borders of campus. My SLAC brags about the on-campus housing that it offers for faculty and staff. I hate that they tout this as a great benefit because 1) I am very uncomfortable having my housing tied to my employment. I like to keep my work life and the rest of my life very separate. And 2) Offering on-campus housing to a minority of faculty and staff is an excuse to keep salaries down for all faculty and staff.

ecarson said...

25 here in Houston and not only did schools shut down, but the city shut down just about every major road.

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