Friday, September 24, 2010

In the Abundance of Shortage

I’ve heard it said that, barring any support from family members or close friends, missing two paydays would put most people into a completely chaotic life situation. Some estimates put it as 7 meals that prevent civil, functioning people from turning into wild, murderous sub-humans.

Now things aren’t that bad for me, yet, thank God, but I’ve had cause to think about these things a little because the Office of Veterans Affairs has not paid me several thousand dollars of educational benefits that I have earned and for which I’m qualified under the G.I. bill. They did the same thing to me last year, so I’m not surprised. I can’t get them on the phone (they’re sorry that all lines are busy at this time), can’t leave a message, and my e-mails go unanswered. We’ll see how things go in October. Maybe the money will shake free in the new fiscal year.

So to keep from dipping into money we’ve saved up for other things, we’re looking for ways to be more frugal. Not an uncommon impulse for most people these days, I think. One thing Margaret and I started doing was packing a lunch at home in the morning and bringing it to school. It’s worked out great. I bring my student self down to her office, we go get the lunch out of the fridge and, when the weather’s nice, we walk about 100 yards to the park and have a picnic. We get to breathe some fresh air in real sunlight, spend a little time together, talk about how the day’s going, make plans, talk about what the boys are doing, all the while saving big bucks.

So what were we doing before? Nearly always eating separately, going out to eat somewhere or eating lunch at our desks, which is more expensive and a whole lot less satisfactory. We didn’t really think about the brownbag lunch together option until we were forced to by economic necessity.

This whole thread goes along with something one of my profs was telling me this week. He told me when he was a grad student he found himself in a situation where he was a single dad of two little kids with no car trying to live and support his family on the graduate student stipend he was getting from the university. The kids were too little to be alone by themselves so when he had to go to the grocery store he’d put the 6 month old in a little backpack child carrier and the older child in a seat mounted on the back of the bicycle and take them to the store on the bike. He could only buy as much groceries as he could put into a couple of bags that he could wrap around the handlebars and shakily pedal home. When he got to the part of the story where you would expect him to to say, “It was terrible” he smiled and said, “It was the best time of my life. I’d go back and do it again in a minute.”

I think that thirty years from now Margaret and I will vividly remember the brownbag lunches in Spence park. Nothing extravagant. Not even anything romantic. Usually last night’s leftovers. Just people who love each other living life together. Just that simple. Just that perfect.

I’d still like to get paid, though.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Utilitarian Approach to Education

If you pay attention to multiple sources of information, you can see patterns and trends that paint a picture of where an institution or organization is headed.

I just got another e-mail from the A&M campus bookstore trying to sell me t-shirts and posters so I can be ready for College Colors Day Sept 3rd and pimp out my dorm room (think my wife would mind a Shakira poster in the bedroom?). This is the same university bookstore that has run out of the books I ordered for my SPAN 302 class, leaving 1/4 of the students still without textbooks by the end of the first week of classes.

I also saw a newspaper article (props to my boy Zane for putting it on Facebook), the link to which I’ll attach here: http://www.theeagle.com/am/A-amp-amp-M-grades-faculty

You can read it for yourself, but the moral of the story is that there is a plan afoot to measure faculty members by their financial effectiveness: how much money they generate from teaching and how much research funding they receive.

These three tidbits are indicators of what I think is a larger problem: Universities are more and more about producing revenue and less and less about learning. A few years ago, our campus bookstore was sold to a well-known commercial bookseller. Now, we know the bookseller is all about making money, so why shouldn’t they be more focused on selling clothing and dorm room doo-dads than textbooks for small classes? But shame on A&M for selling out to them and abdicating a basic university responsibility: making sure the students have access to a textbook.

An even bigger piece of the academic process is deciding what gets taught, and it seems to me that this proposal to apply a profit and loss approach to measuring faculty effectiveness could completely turn the university, as we know it, wrong side out. Profs will be forced to market their classes and absolutely maximize class size to show they’re getting a lot of bang for their buck. Why would I teach a class of 20 students when I can automate everything and pack 300 into a lecture hall and do the class that way? Liberal arts? languages? writing? philosophy? sociology? – out. The guys who can get grants to genetically modify a corn plant for more production or make a chicken fatter – in.

I don't think Socrates lectured with a big corporate logo on his toga. Oh, but that's right, he was sentenced to death and made to drink hemlock for being critical of prominent Athenians.