Tuesday, August 3, 2010

"What is our children learning?" and other late summer notes

On stepping down from his post the other day, our last English department chair sent us a long report. He's a man possessed of an apocalyptic streak in the best of times, but in recent months the times have met him on the level. While he's able happily to tell us that our crumbling building will be renovated next year to the tune of millions of dollars, he also passes on a reminder that we have lost 15 full-time faculty in the department since 2006. (I don't believe that includes the several faculty now on leave because they have left.) We are mostly losing bodies to retirement, and those are the bodies who have taught Literary Studies. Our curriculum now resembles a Soviet-style literary encyclopedia: one is hard-pressed to find the 18th Century or 19th Century Romanticism or even much Modernism to go with your little remaining Shakespeare. Composition and rhetoric has become a revolving door. Creative writing (a very popular concentration, indeed, with one third of the graduate students in it) is down to a skeleton staff. In the last ten years or so we on the poetry side have lost Nell Altizer, Juliana Spahr, and Faye Kicknosway/Morgan Blair. We gained Robert Sullivan for a few years, but lost him. Albert Wendt was here for several years as Citizen's Chair; he and Reina Whaitiri added amazing energies to the writing program, especially for Hawaiian and Pacific Islander poets. They're gone now. Cultural Studies is still relatively healthy, but will soon lack energies given it by students who have read widely and closely in literature.

I could say a lot more about the demoralization that is upon us, but won't for now. Let me just say that UHM, which is quickly becoming Manoa Community College, is not alone in suffering public neglect. The public schools have just started up again. At least this year there will not Furlough Fridays, or two Fridays a month when Hawai`i's budget was somehow salvaged on the backs of parents needing to find day care, if not mental enrichment, for their children. As Mari Matsuda notes in her essay in The Value of Hawai`i: Knowing the Past, Shaping the Future, "A true economic stimulus would flood the schools with funds" (99). Then teachers would have money to spend on their days off--and not days off foisted upon them by the state's economic crisis and an intransigeant governor who would not raise any new funds to ease it. Then students would be educated to take jobs beyond those in tourism and the military, sectors that dominate our economy the way Big Sugar and pineapple did in the past.

Last year my daughter Radhika, who is 8, had almost no science in her curriculum, let alone art or music. She had a teacher who was out for months with knee surgery and a substitute who spent almost all those months trying to figure out how to control the class. At least in the elementary school, parents still come around, attend assemblies, go to Lei Day and cheer for their children. My husband, who works part-time at a local high school, says parental involvement tends to end with grade school. The public high school kids are on their own. Some of them are on what he terms the "school to jail" program. Others are being set up for jobs in the service industry, jobs that won't pay the rent here. The best come to UHM, where they can get a good education (but see above).

In his essay on the university, Neal Milner argues that at least part of the solution to the mess is a nitty gritty approach , climbing "down to the local and the personal," as Anthony Grafton writes (106). "Cultural change," Milner writes, "involves small-scale, everyday grunt work--persuading, reassuring, keeping in contact, and resolving conflicts." That last item must gall Milner, who worked in the ombudsman's office until it fell victim to the budget cuts. That was a place where students and faculty went to talk about their workplace conflicts. And so we return to the departmental memo, and see how likely that might be, given this--and other similar--verbiage:

5. It should go without saying that faculty who are assigned to
department committees are also expected to (1) make themselves available
for committee meetings and (2) attend all scheduled meetings. What should
not be acceptable are eliminating whole days in the week from one's
potential availability for meetings, eliminating other hours that can be
rearranged when needed (e.g., office hours), and failing to provide timely
information about availability to committee members. Such situations may
need to be brought to the attention of the chair. Members should also
expect to be doing work outside of regular committee meetings in
preparation for meetings and/or in consultation with other members.

That's a situation--faculty not doing their committee work--that sounds more nitty than gritty. It's one among many that suggests that we cannot be easily "reassured," especially as we see the building getting emptier, even given the promises of renovation and (heaven forfend!) a new elevator. Milner has more to say about the cynicism that infects us in his essay in The Value of Hawai`i, edited by Craig Howes and Jonathan K. Osorio and published by UH Press. I'm not writing this with any answers in mind. Nor do I feel abject despair over the situation, although that feeling beckons like an over-sweet candy. It's awful to see an institution (higher education, if not any particular university) being destroyed by a thousand tiny and larger cuts.

It strikes me that the public university is quickly becoming a bit like a small poetry press, requiring an entirely local (in all the senses of that word) fullness of care. If we are not given adequate technology, let's bring our scissors, our glue, and our wildness to class with us, and hope that the lights are still on.


Another--happier--note. This summer has brought several poets to O`ahu, including Jules Boykoff, Hank Lazer, and Endi Bogue Hartigan, with whom I had coffee just this morning. Craig Santos Perez has taken the radical step of actually moving here. Jules and Kaia Sand will be coming in October for readings and talks. Some subjects of conversation:

--Hank: we talked about loving poetry that you can't remember as soon as you've read it. What's that! He was thinking of Lissa Wolsak's new collected, which he is reviewing and I have written a sequence of poems off of (with, around, over, under, about). A long conversation on forgetting ensued--rather on the difference between forgetting and recognizing that there is a residue to one's reading. How that residue affects us, or re-emerges in our own work, is something worthy of more thinking.

--Jules: oh, Jules mostly taught my daughter new soccer tricks. But we talked a mean streak about politics & poetry. His description of a project on leaf-blowers found its way into a line in a poem I was writing about their being our Aeolian harps. I write as one churns away in the field out back.

--Endi and I talked (but not long enough!) about the influence of Hawai`i on work that is not, strictly speaking, about it. I'm looking forward to reading her poems with an eye to the influence of her growing up here. Again, not an "about" per se, but a series of riffs. She has a new poem about prepositions, apropos.

--Craig will be guest editing a couple of projects for Tinfish next year. I'm going to put the press on sabbatical with me, and try to resist the urge to return immediately to the field of publication. The process is exhilarating, but wearing. And wearing out was how I felt before the summer's calm (before the leaf blowers).

And now they're off, for now, and the mynas are on again.
Having edited this, the mynas are off, and leaf-blowers are dopplering again.

Later: Al Filreis has written a kind blog post about Dementia Blog. "
To witness is to adjust. The illness becomes the medium." I wish I could say it half so well as that.


telephone Bill said...


Susan M. Schultz said...

I'm sorry I allowed that comment through.