Thursday, October 27, 2005

The California Special Election, or, Terminate the Teachers 

The California special election takes place in just under two weeks time, and I need to return to the discussion I began here and here. This will be a very important election, as it will have a number of long-term consequences. Aside from the effects of the individual propositions, they will set some important precedents, which will determine attitudes towards public services in the future. Where California goes the nation follows. It is vital that everybody get out and vote.

It is with great reluctance that I place any personal endorsements in this sphere, but the advertising on both sides has been appallingly simplistic and manipulative. I feel compelled to give my perspective, particularly for the three propositions—74, 75, and 76—which will effect education. Here’s my take on these issues:

Proposition 74
This proposition increases the probationary period before tenure for teachers from two years to five. The reason for doing so is to eliminate the large number of bad teachers that plague the school system. But how big is this problem? Small fries compared to the other problems: low funding for education and many social problems amongst the student population. If there are a large number of bad teachers, the reason is because the low pay and the difficulty of working conditions make the profession unattractive to those who might make better teachers. Schwarzenegger’s solution, will certainly get rid of some bad apples, but will also make the profession even less attractive. The result? The lost teachers and potential teachers will lead to a shortage of teachers in the schools. The schools will be forced to adopt recruiting strategies to respond to this crisis, and the only way to do so is to lower standards. In other words, voting yes on this proposition will not lead to any improvements. It will, however, lead to the further degradation of the teaching profession. In combination with Proposition 75 and/or 75, its negative effects would probably be magnified. If you care about having good teachers—if you REALLY care about having good teachers—in our schools, vote for education reforms that support the profession. It’s the only way to improve things.

Proposition 75
This proposition prevents public employees’ unions (such as the teachers’ union and university faculty unions) from spending employees’ dues on political lobbying (such as television advertising against propositions like this one) without the employees first opting in to such a programme. Currently, they have a choice to opt out. In other words, the default is changed. The argument is that these unions spend their money on causes which the dues payers do not necessarily support. Here’s the real situation, at least for the California Faculty Association. Our pay is docked about $25 a month for union dues—even if we don’t join the union. If we do join, we pay more. That sounds horrible! But consider this. The union does not always lobby for positions I support; but it is the ONLY pressure group that lobbies the government to raise my salary. Name me one employee who doesn’t want a higher salary, especially in a low-paying profession? Unions are the major lobby for the teaching profession, since the general public—since the seventies—voted not to fully fund education through property taxes. We need them, even if we don’t always agree with their positions on individual issues. The best way to address one’s disagreement with a union is to get involved and try to influence it. At the very least, opt out of paying the higher dues but support the union’s activities by agreeing to pay the lower ones.

But what if you are not a public employee? Is it appropriate for you to vote to change the rules? Yes, if you truly believe that public employees have too much power, and that public professions are just squandering your tax money on frivolity and cushy salaries. But surely they are not. Public education, to name the system with which I am most concerned, is chronically underfunded by the general public, who then complain about its ineffectiveness, as do the devisers of Proposition 74. Proposition 75 weakens the only organisations that consistently speak up for education. Voting yes on 75 will make the teaching profession less attractive and, ironically, feed the poor teacher problem that Proposition 74 claims (wrongly) to address.

Proposition 76
This proposition gives the governor broad powers to adjust the State budget downwards in order to prevent overspending by the legislature. It is marketed as fiscally responsible. It is—according to a business model. But the public sphere is not a business. There are some things you can’t downsize to balance your books. The Governor claims that the legislature will not be fiscally responsible on its own. That’s true because they are influenced by other forms of responsibility like education and public services. Schwarzenegger, I believe, clearly feels no responsibility for these social goods. Nor does he see their long-term value. Cutting funding to education weakens education and leads to a less educated work force. A less educated work force leads to a weaker economy and more social problems. A weaker economy and more social problems lead to more budgetary woes. In order to have a stable economy you need to have invest a certain minimum amount in public services, and we are already well below the necessary minimum. Republicans might argue that balancing the books and keeping taxes low will stimulate the economy and filter down. But even if this is true, it does not help the public sphere in a society where the wealthy don’t pay taxes which fuel money back into the public sphere. Proposition 76 is a great proposition for a governor who will be able to use it to great effect and who will long be out of office when the negative effects hit.

An important provision of Proposition 76 is that it will roll back Proposition 98 (approved by voters in 1988), which sets a minimum amount of spending for education. That this provision should be included in Proposition 76 shows precisely where the Governor will take aim if the proposition is approved. The fact that there are three propositions supported by the Governor targeting education lends further credence to this.

Things to remember:

  1. You get what you pay for. If you don’t pay for education—one way or the other—the available educational opportunities will not be good ones.

  2. Teachers (and professors) are human. Just as you wouldn’t expect quality products to come from a sweatshop, you can’t expect educators to deliver a quality education under poor working conditions.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

I really am cursed 

One week after dealing with a blocked sewer line sending dirty water welling up from my sinks, I came home from work to find a small wet patch in the carpet right beneath my desk chair. The wet patch started to grow--fast. It turned out that there had been a leaky pipe in the (thankfully fresh) water injection system in the toilet of one of the units above me. Water had come out at the rate of at least a gallon a minute and flooded my neighbour's second bedroom. He didn't notice since he currently not living there -- that because his place is under construction, since it was flooded during the last rainy season due to our poorly constructed roof. So the water gradually made its way under the wall and into my carpet. It was 11 pm before I had managed to get a plumber to ascertain that (a) it was not more sewage, (b) it was not rainwater (we had been experiencing torrential rain all day, (c) turn off the water to the offending toilet upstairs, and (d) vacuum up some of the water in the carpet. It took another two hours yesterday for the carpet shampooers to come, suck up more water, and clean. Needless to say, very little work has been done in the intervening time. Sigh.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Living the High Life 

My planned ramblings on PhD reform have been trumped today by my response to an NPR report on the new Miller High Life (that's what loosely passes for beer, if you happen to be reading this from a country with a fine brewing tradition) advertising campaign. For the present, you can see the advert at http://www.millerhighlife.com/. Although The basic thrust of the campaign is that Miller High Life, with its Girl in the Moon emblem, has been around for most of the historical events (major and minor) of the last century. It appeals to nostalgia, not for things remembered, for the past in general--at least the past that overlaps with Miller's history. The obvious message is that by drinking the beer you are somehow connected people and events in, say, 1906. It's a very effective advert, albeit some of its effectiveness comes from its abandonment of the traditional conventions of beer advertising.

The way the Miller High Life advert connects people to the past got me thinking about the way that we in the world of literary criticism, and more specifically those of us who study the Middle Ages, form such connections. To read the publications of the MLA and other professional organisations, there is a crisis in the profession about how we sell ourselves to the public. Our discipline will never survive unless we show how it is relevant, and we've been doing a very bad job of it in recent years. But I wonder. Have we really been doing such a bad job. Yes, the discipline is in trouble, but look at the resources available to us for getting our message across. Almost nothing. We have minimal budgets, a wealth of competition from a myriad other subjects, the general difficulty of the field (ack! all those languages), and the subject doesn't directly generate a lot of money. Nevertheless, we continue to gain new students and there's certainly a fair amount of medievalia (however distorted) in the general pop culture. Given the circumstances, surely we are doing a fabulous job. Perhaps we should be congratulating ourselves rather than agonising over our seeming irrelevance.

But could we do better? Could we be as effective as, say, a Miller High Life advert? What's the difference between those who use the past to deliver their product and those who deliver the past as their product? Well, don't answer that one. I'm sure there are a great many differences between a brewer and a medievalist. My point, though, is that both work with the premise that the past is somehow relevant. Admittedly, Miller has a product, the beer, which serves as the medium for the connection between the consumer and the past. Perhaps that's what medievalists (and literary critics in general) need: a product to help forge that connection. Supposedly we have various such projects: good writing skills, critical analysis, and the like. But these are nothing like as tangible as a bottle of beer. Could we come up with something more tangible?

To approach that problem, I think it is helpful to look at things from Miller's point of view. Their beer is really just a fermented liquid, not a metaphysical medium for connections between the past and the present. The rest is good marketing--devised by a good marketing company. And this is where I think the medievalists really differ from the brewers. The medievalists have to do their marketing on their own. The brewers can call on experienced marketers who (for the right price) will devise a way to sell their product. I wonder whether things would be different if we had the same resource available to us. In fact, I think there are ways that this could be done by clever interdisciplinary work, the use of grant money, and the like. But even if no such solutions are taken on board, it might be a good idea for us all to take a closer look at the techniques used by professional marketers to see what, if anything, we can learn from them.

If this seems like a load of nonsense, wit it the ale of Milwaukee, to misquote another Miller entirely.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

I think I'm cursed 

Yesterday's plans were disrupted by my discovery that my copy of Microsoft Outlook had become corrupted and had not sent any mail for the past week. After I spent about two hours fixing the problem, I set out to return to the Saturday I had intended to have. But then there was a loud "glug glug" sound, and dirty water started well up into our sinks and overflow. It turns out that there was a block in the sewer line. Eight hours later, after much flooding and working with plumbers, the problem is fixed, but we are still cleaning up the mess. So much for a relaxing weekend. Alas, my planned entry on reforming PhD programmes will have to wait...

Friday, October 07, 2005

Spam Attack 

Sadly, this blog has finally fallen prey to spam in the comments, so I have had to enable word verification. Apologies for the inconvenience to anyone leaving comments.

I have a backlog of topics for discussion, so look for another post over the weekend.

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