Monday, April 18, 2011

Why We Teach, Part 1

Editor's note:  This is the first in a series of four articles by SIUC Philosophy Professor Randy Auxier that are to appear in the Carbondale Times.  Stay tuned for future installments.
I am writing these notices to draw attention to and to explain my own tiny act of civil disobedience amid the labor struggles at SIU and throughout the nation. I am a professor of philosophy at SIU and among the subjects I teach and write on are non-violence and civil disobedience. I have been on the fringes of various activist groups for most of my adult life, sometimes supplying music, sometimes money, sometimes logistical support, sometimes spoken and written words. But this column commemorates my first actual foray into civil disobedience.
Acts of civil disobedience infringe the "rules" in some way, and the perpetrator understands that punishment may ensue, and he must be ready to accept it. The act is done for its symbolic value, to draw attention to some injustice or some foolish policy so that, in due time, pressure may build against those responsible for the foolishness. Anyone who tries such a stunt is also likely to be derided and criticized for thinking himself morally good enough to stand out from the crowd. I don't think myself better than anyone, but the cheap shots people may take at me, including, I expect, my own employers, just go with the territory.
What is my chosen crime? I have decided to teach my Thursday class at SIU, for the next four weeks, even though it is meeting during my "furlough days." Before I say why I am doing this, full disclosure is needed.

First and most important, I am the one who selected Thursdays for furlough. Had my employers realized I was selecting my teaching days, they probably would have attempted either to forbid that or at least dissuade me. My employers are not, however, very good at planning and keeping track of things, so they may have to try to "fix me" after the fact, like they do with almost everything. Since I am a salaried employee (not paid by the hour, day, or week), and since even my monthly salary is just a convenient division of a yearly total, the idea that I should specify particular days to take off is silly.
Like all SIU professors, I have an individual, annual "workload" assignment that I sign and agree to fulfill and for which I am paid a yearly salary. This is not the union contract; it is an individual contract with the university. (It only has to conform to the requirements of the union contract.) Currently my union has no contract with the SIU administration, but I am choosing to honor my individual contract by working as I said I would. I believe the administration is violating the university's contract with me by refusing to pay what they agreed to pay for those services. But none of this is really very important-- just the legal mumbo-jumbo that accompanies every formal relationship in our legalistic age.
The second reason is far more important. I chose class times for my "furlough" days because, like most of my colleagues, I work just about all the time anyway, and I would certainly not simply "take a day off" no matter what day I might put on the form. I don't work individual days, I work every day, just like most of my colleagues. I cannot remember a time when I didn't. It is not a simple matter to become a tenured professor at a university, and most people who succeed in attaining that goal have developed work habits and schedules that would make a drill sergeant proud. But we work largely on our own, so it makes sense to set my "time off" when everyone can see me working.
If you wonder what we do when we aren't teaching or preparing lessons, I invite you to type into any search engine the name of any SIU faculty member and the name of his or her discipline (for example, type in "Randall Auxier" and "philosophy") and see what comes up. Go ahead and do that for anyone you find among my colleagues at SIU. What you will find in nearly every case is a visible record of research, publication, and community and professional service for each of us that would rival any work you might well imagine being done by any two or three human beings.
Not everyone at SIU is well paid, but I admit that I am (by my own standards, at least). The "four days" (which is really just a two percent wage reduction, since "days" don't mean anything for those on yearly contracts-for-services) will cost me about two-grand. You can do the math. By the local standards, it's good pay. By national standards, it's just a little below average for someone of my rank and years, since SIU these days runs behind the national averages. But I am not being disobedient just because I don't like having my wages reduced. This state, which I am proud to live in, raised its taxes this year and I supported that, even though it will cost me about the same as the "furloughs." I voted for the people who,democratically (unlike the administration at SIU), decided to take that money. They told us they would do it, we voted them in, and they did it. I would be willing to give them still more of my earnings by the same process. It costs money to have adequate state services, especially education. I am happy to pay for it.
Like most of my full-time colleagues, I don't care about the money in this labor dispute. If we cared about money, we would have done something else for a living. People as smart as we are, with the work ethic we have, can make far more money doing something else-- indeed, almostanything else. We were drawn into this life by two things: the love of our fields of study and the love of teaching. We are passionate about passing on to young people what we learn in our research and we are very good at it-- we had to be to survive in this economic environment. We change the lives of young people every day and we make the world a better place, and that is why we teach, and for the sake of teaching well, we also contribute to and benefit from others in our fields. It is that simple.
Teaching is a sacred relationship and it is the very foundation of every society. Business may fuel the progress of civilization, but there wouldn't be civilization to put the fuel in without shared knowledge and values. Education is, however, a delicate thing, not easily captured in institutional structures on a mass scale. It is difficult to nurture and easy to damage the sacred relations between teachers and students. The hand that rocks the cradle of education rules the world of thirty years hence. Right now you are witnessing damage, and unnecessary damage at that. The consequences will spread over decades in this region.
In my opinion, we have not benefitted from stable or even competent leadership at SIU for a very long time, and we do not have it now. The "four days" are not necessary to balance the budget and the demoralization of the campus and disruption of the community is also unnecessary. These policies are not the work of wise leaders. If I have counted rightly, in my eleven years here, we have had eight chancellors and eight provosts. There is a reason they did not last. They were not good at their jobs, and with each change, our long range prospects for prospering, as a university and as a region, have dimmed. The outlook has never been worse than it currently is, nor has the leadership ever been worse-- and at SIU, that is saying something. We've had some real losers.
When you, dear reader, are deciding whom to believe, and whom to support in the conflict that is coming, I would remind you that almost all of you have long-term friends who teach or work at SIU. We are your neighbors, we actually live here, and we will be here when the current cadre of administrators and trustees has either moved on or has failed so spectacularly as to require removal. The faculty and staff does not generally play for your sympathies in the press by attacking the competence of the administration, but why not ask yourself, if they are so good at their jobs, and so very worthy of your trust, why is the university in so much trouble all the time? And if they are good, why don't they retain their jobs? And by all means, you should feel free to wonder how people with their salaries could feel comfortable calling those who are paid only a fraction as much "greedy."
There is no serious financial problem at the university. When the audit for this fiscal year comes in, March of next year, you will see what we already know. This is not about any financial crisis at the university. There were tight times, but those ended a year ago, as the record will eventually show.

I will say more, but for now I would like simply to inform both you and my employers that I fully intend to keep my individual workload contract with them by teaching my class at 10 a.m. this Thursday. If they would like to come and drag me from my classroom, or otherwise discipline me for actually teaching my class, I suppose I can't stop them. After teaching, I think I will also remain in my office for the rest of the day, with the door open, just in case any students or administrators would like to discuss philosophy or the ruinous and unnecessary strife being caused by the current administration policies-- the policies of incompetent people who are actively ruining your university, your community, and this region for the next few decades to come.


  1. Very eloquent and hits the nail on the head.

  2. Agree with most of it. However, there are more than a few professors at SIUC, and dare I say whole departments, that lack Auxier's commitment to pedagogy. Such was my experience as a student in the 2000s.


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