This article originally appeared in The Carbondale Times, April 27-May 3, 2011, p. 5. This version contains corrections that arrived too late for the printed version.
In the past two weeks I have attempted to be civilly disobedient (a little more emphasis on the disobedience than the civility, in the opinion of some), but to little avail. My bosses were prepared for faculty members to schedule their “furlough days” on teaching days, and have bullied those who tried it. They threatened one colleague of mine with a charge of “insubordination” if he did not make up the classes that were sacrificed. But my bosses seem not to have been prepared for someone to designate furlough days on teaching days and then hold class in disobedience. I told them that is what I would do, but the silence from my superiors has been unbroken since I announced this as my intention. Maybe I’ll just go away, you know?
I’m sure the SIUC administration is content to view my furlough days as being “really” those days designated for me by my department chair, days that come after classes are finished. I have said that I will be in my office on those days, meeting students and grading papers, but on one of those designated days, May 13th, I will (disobediently) attend commencement. The following day, Saturday the 14th, which I suppose would not be classified as a “work day” by my bosses, I will show up to (disobediently?) hood three Ph.D.’s who finished dissertations under my direction this year. If I were in the place of the Chancellor, I would be concerned about what a disobedient faculty member might do or say in front of all those dignitaries and parents at commencement –especially since these ceremonies might include the requirement that she shake my hand.
Civil disobedience is of little worth without publicity, after all. Opportunities as ripe as commencement would be rare, I think. No one would want to take away from the accomplishments of the students on such an occasion, but I am sure there are ways to symbolize the deafness and stubbornness of the current leadership without diminishing what our students have done. We faculty are nothing if not creative. I suppose there is still time for my superiors to respond to my memorandum, which you can also read:
That is the update on civil disobedience. Really it isn’t the point, though, it’s just the hoopla that happens when a contest of interests, wills, and (in my case at least) personal principles, becomes a public concern.
The labor troubles at SIUC are of general concern partly because thousands of people are directly affected, and tens of thousands more are indirectly affected. More than any other single entity, SIUC is the main engine of the economy and the symbol of the spirit of this region. What happens at SIUC pretty much happens to everyone down here. When the institution prospers, we all prosper; when it shines, we all do –and when it suffers, we wonder about our future. Every college town rises or sinks with its university, but our region is so isolated, and so devastated by decades of economic decline, that the dependence is deeper than usual, and the citizens more vulnerable to the school’s ups and downs.
I suppose I am saying that with so much at stake in a contest of interests, wills, and principles, serious study and reflection should be given even to the most routine of our habits. And that is why I want to mention the common tactic of stonewalling –that is, simply not responding to the repeated requests of others for answers, for dialogue, for face-to-face discussion. As a teacher, I can certainly attest that stonewalling a student is about the worst habit a person could develop. Meeting and talking with students who really want to talk –whether about their classes, their learning processes, their plans, or their hopes and fears—is the greatest delight that accompanies this calling. Like many of my colleagues, I would have difficulty estimating how much time I spend in individual or small group meetings with students in an ordinary week; I suspect it approaches twenty, much of that time being outside of typical working hours, and not including answering their e-mails!
These moments of interaction are the real opportunities we have for modeling a life that is both active and reflective, an examined life. This is the time when the souls of our students are open for constructive influence, because these are the moments when they choose us, their teachers, for guidance. Everything is different when you make the choice yourself, as I am sure most of you did at some point, when you think back on that one or two teachers who really made a difference in your life.
Different students are drawn to different teachers in the roiling plurality of the university, and it is true that some students never open up. But most do, to one or another of us, at some point, maybe when a doubt is nagging or a problem is hovering too close. For me as for most of my colleagues, that is the moment I’m waiting for, and whenever it comes, I have to be there, and that includes the middle of the night sometimes. And I could never stonewall a student. Just like my colleagues, I return every missed call and I answer every e-mail, even the ones that probably don’t warrant answering. Ask our students at SIUC and you will discover who actually talks to them and who helps them. I’m sorry, but I won’t be furloughed from this. It’s why I teach.
I must say that, in contrast, I do not find my communications with my employers treated with a similar kind of respect. When I ask for and need information, I often get silence, as I have with my demand for a resolution to which “days” I am really to be furloughed. I talk to students who receive the same treatment. Our administration is not exactly known for its openness and eagerness to help. It seems strange to me that our unresponsive leaders were once teachers. Of course, they don’t teach any more, nor do they meet with students or learn their names. They don’t even meet with us, their former colleagues, unless they have to –sometimes not even then—and they seem often to prefer to bring legal counsel in recent years. Is this why they sought to be our leaders? A small, ill-informed group of people who speak only to each other and their lawyers seems to me to be the opposite of what the school needs, and that means it’s the opposite of what the region needs –and thus the opposite of what you need.