Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A Conversation with a Friend

I was chatting with a friend about a mutual acquaintance, and had a bit of insight.  The mutual acquaintance, let's call him Flute (it's a Shakespeare name, right!), was on the university senate while I was on it.  I didn't know him socially at the time, and the senate's pretty big.

Imagine, issue X would come up, and there was a practical option, which wasn't actually ideal in terms of students or adjuncts or something, but was practical in terms of cheapness and actual workability.  So, maybe it's class size for intro basketweaving, which would ideally be 15, but in practice runs at 20.  We can't afford 15, and 20 is pushing it in terms of the budget.

So there's discussion and going to be a vote.  And Flute would raise his hand, and I'd know he was going to say that there's no way we can vote for 20, and he'd go on to talk about the ethics of the issue and such.  I eventually realized that I pretty much always agreed ethically with Flute, but that I didn't want to hear about that because I felt like the cause was long lost and we were all going to vote for the cheaper or more "practical" option.  That is, in a way, I resented someone speaking for what I knew was right because I'd already given up on what was right.  And Flute isn't the most eloquent speaker; he's rough around the speaking edges, and takes longer than he should sometimes, because he feels so strongly about stuff and is so unwaveringly certain about his stance.

I don't think I was alone if not wanting to hear about what we should do because I don't think I was alone in having already given up.

Now, I think of some of the times in my department when I've felt compelled to speak against an issue because I think it's ethically important, and I could see other people in my department roll their eyes, and I think I've turned into Flute in some ways.  (I try not to take very long or hold things up, but I do feel compelled to speak sometimes.)

There's so many things around here that are ethically shady: big class sizes, use of adjuncts, lowering requirements for majors and such.  But we vote for them because we feel like we're trying to survive.  I think it hurts our morale more than we acknowledge.

And in some cases, I think it's devastating for our students.  I'm thinking of the ways racism works here, the ways that administrators talk around problems with racism and systemically support racism, all while claiming not to.

I went to a training session last week on "bias" which was pretty much what you'd expect: we're all biased and we need to think about biases we aren't so much aware of and consciously work against them. 

But what we should be talking about is racism and systemic racism on campus.  Talking about bias is patting white liberal folks on the head and saying that they don't want to be racist, so if they just work a little more, then we'll make things better.  And that way, we don't have to challenge the systemic racism or even acknowledge it.

(That isn't to say that I as a white person don't need to think about my racism and work towards anti-racism in my own behavior and beliefs.  But that's not enough, and not the big issue.)


  1. "I don't think I was alone if not wanting to hear about what we should do because I don't think I was alone in having already given up."

    This is the problem at HU -- people don't want to talk about things, because they have already given up on trying to change the university. It's heartbreaking, the cynicism. And it really affects morale. We have a revolving door in our faculty it seems. Everyone leaves but me, and I've tried!

    It's pretty hard not to be bitter sometimes. But at least we're not alone...

  2. I think there is the situation you are describing, but also people for whom *everything* is a high moral issue. Because you have to decide which battles to fight.