Paying Lip Service to the Forgotten

For many people that I know and that I see around this country, the idea that a person like Donald Trump could be this close to the presidency is simply baffling.  A place we find it hard to empathize.  I am a person who always tries to remain optimistic.  The more pessimistic about things, the more I try to find that silver lining, that thread of understanding, and try to open the door to a more enlightened and positive mindset.  It is very difficult to do this about Trump and those who support him.  However in that journey I came across a couple of media pieces that have help.  One is this video piece done by The Guardian in the UK.  It is very well done and closely examines McDowell county in West Virginia and speaks to the desperation that many people are facing and why they would hang their hopes on someone like Trump.

The main thing that I want to discuss is this article from Cracked.Com.  Every once and awhile I’ll across a thought provoking article from this satirical site and this is one of them.  There are many points that I agree with, and few points that are hard to swallow, and I had to remind myself that I did have to open my heart a little bit more than I had.  There are also some important points that I disagree with, or rather omitted points that I think provide for a more fair approach to the subject.

Rural vs Urban voting
                        Rural vs Urban voting

The main thrust of the piece is that when you look at a map of blue vs. red, the state map that we often look at during elections gives us a false idea for how that break down happen.  The map in the article clearly shows that blue vs red is really urban vs. rural.  The fact that blue has been taking precedence nationally I think is fairly indicative of that demographic shift to an urban dominated country.  My state of Pennsylvania is a good example of how the urban centers of Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, and Philadelphia dominate the voting population even though most counties tend to be very conservative.  There are very many counties like the one investigated in WV in The Guardian video, and poverty and drug use is high.  As the Cracked article points out, rural America is a forgotten group of people and grows smaller and thus is paid less attention to over time.  Our country was once much more agrarian, many rural counties had factories or mines and all these things allowed small town and rural America to thrive.  This however is not the world we live in anymore.  As the article points out, even for the most part pop culture has left rural societies out of the conversation.  We forget where food comes from.  We are concerned about the mistreatment of urban minorities, but show little concern for the extreme poverty that many who live in rural areas or small towns live in.  The deterioration of their livelihood with no plan put into place for how to give these people a chance to better their situation.

Republican politicians often talk about two Americas, and in some way they are right.  They often talk about the good hard working folks in “any town” USA, and they are right.  How many times do democratic politicians even really actively campaigned in rural areas and made their concerns part of their platform?  I will concede that to many liberals, the needs and lives of rural America are forgotten or ignored.  I included.  We may find their attitudes deplorable, but let us also, at the very least consider how deplorable their lives have become over the past 40 years as jobs have moved overseas and that most of our food is produced by big companies and industrial farming.  And here comes Trump, who addresses the “common man” who says he’s going to bring coal jobs back (even though they aren’t coming back), who says he’s going to lower everybody’s taxes, who says that he’s going to bring companies from overseas back (he’s not), and make America great again.

My criticism with the article I linked is that (and maybe this is a problem with the media) we aren’t getting people who come to the fore, supporting Trump, and really making nuanced arguments about the difficulties in rural America.  What we have is a slick NYC businessman as far from rural as you can get being supported by people who rail against immigrants (even though they themselves were immigrants), who want religious law to influence government law (no abortion, end marriage equality), who shout patriotism without substance, who want to build gigantic walls that would only further their economic challenges, and who literally find their candidate’s offensive views on women to literally be no problem at all.

I think the article makes some great points and I think that in the end if we are going to survive as a nation than “WE the people” has to mean something.  We all have to do a better job at reaching across the aisle.  And this is one of my posts that is much as a call to action to me as anyone else.  I struggle sometimes when I see someone come on TV speaking hate and intolerance, but I don’t want to become a person who writes that person off as a loss cause.  So if there is this other America that is disenfranchised and needs are help than I am happy to do so, but that doesn’t mean I am going to turn my back on women, on racial minorities, religious minorities, on LGBQT people to do so.  Both sides have to want to heal the divide and that means that we have to start seeing everybody as important whether it is racial vs urban, all races, creeds, sexual orientation.  There are a lot of problems that we all have in common.  Let’s start there, and I think you’ll find that if we worked out those things first, a lot of the other things wouldn’t matter so much.

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Vicious Truths and Sweet Nothings

Fell into a perfect ending,
But the last page was missing,
I looked for right angles and straight lines,
And all I found was mostly irrational.

I’ve prepared a speech for just such an occasion,
You’d swoon and be moved to tears,
But when it came time to speak,
My throat closed and I choked on every word,
I let it drop to the floor and fall to pieces,
A dissection of imperfection,
A bloody vulnerable mess to be sure,
But I wanted there to be no doubt,
You’d capitulate and even smile,
I’ve got questions that wait for answers,
But as long as your voice answers,
It doesn’t matter what you say with it,
Or if you just sit in silence,
Thinking mirrored thoughts,
Moving in mirrored movements,
Taking a little walk around the room,
Staring at doors down the hall of the mind,
As beautiful as the memories behind them,
The knob is right in front of me somehow
Is it locked or was I afraid to open it?

Leaning back, I slump on the floor,
The wood is warm, just close your eyes.

It’s life and there’s nothing tidy about it,
Your heart stops without warning and starts again,
And you go on like nothing ever happened,
It’s a cold glass of lemonade on a hot day,
It’s a long heavy sigh that aches but doesn’t hurt,
And I can’t stop myself from another deep breath.

Don’t Bring Me Down

There have been numerous articles now posted in local papers about the upcoming possibility of a state system of higher education strike in Pennsylvania.  And with that comes comments.  It has been unsettling to see the amount of ire towards educators.  I know there are a lot of conservative people in PA.  In a way PA is probably a good microcosm for the general breakdown of the country in Republican vs. Democrat.  There is a thread in attitude by the critics of the strike and I just wanted to briefly talk about it.  I don’t know what to do about it, but it does make me sad.

  1. There is of course general ignorance towards the problem.  Nobody really understands what educators go through on a daily basis, but apparently we can all easily be replaced with more qualified people at a lower cost.  For most people it’s all about the bottom line.   Dollars and cents.  Critics don’t think of whether or not changes to our contract might not cause the quality of education to suffer, we are simply greedy people who want more money and don’t care about our students.
  2. There is an overwhelming sense in these hard times that if other people are suffering we should suffer too.  One person commented “Let them not work for a year and see them struggle to pay their bills just like us.”  When did we become a country who simply wanted to tear each other down.  Shouldn’t we be trying to raise people up?  I want other people to have good health care…if mine became bad I wouldn’t be asking for others to have their health care reversed.  As we tear each other down, it seems like the only people going up are the very wealth in our society.  I saw a meme recently that was based on a Harvard Business study on perception vs reality.  Most people think CEOs make 30 times what the average American worker makes, when in fact it’s 350 times more.  Here is a video that illustration financial perception vs. reality.  It seems to me that the wealthy have done an excellent job at pitting us against each other.  In the south poor white people blame poor black people or poor Latinos for their problems.  Average workers are pitted against educators.  Teacher salaries are actually quite low compared to other countries and yet we are painted as people who are draining the system.  Poor people are pitting against law enforcement.  Yet law enforcement doesn’t pay very well, and pensions are being cut.  Law enforcement is an important job that requires intelligent and highly skilled people.  Somewhere in lost in the sea of finger pointing are wealthy people laughing at us all and distracting us from who is really
    taking away all of our money.
  3. Anti-union sentiments are strong.  I never really thought much about unions and their value.  I know unions can become corrupt.  Anything can become corrupt. Churches, government, business.  But overall I’ve noticed that when there are no unions, workers are taken advantage of more strongly.  This country has a history of workers not being treated fairly and humanely.  Unions have helped us rise out of that situation.  They have brought us child labor laws and helped workers make living wages.  And while there are plenty of examples where workers are treated well without a union, by and large this isn’t always the case.  Some companies have no need to form unions, others I think it is very important.  Our union is unique because our contract also contains important elements to educational quality.  Investing in education pays off, but when we treat it like a business and we don’t invest in that business, the quality suffers.

Education itself may need reform, but the answer isn’t to reduce quality.  Let’s look at what research demonstrates as effective pedagogy and make that happen in our schools.  Let’s make education truly affordable again.  Let’s not bring each other down, and focus on the true cause of our suffering.  People on welfare aren’t my enemy.  People who have lost their jobs, their benefits, who have had to take pay cuts aren’t my enemy.  I would support you every step of the way for you to improve your quality of life, and be treated fairly by your employer.  I’m not your enemy either.  I’m in the middle income tier in PA, as are many other professors.  Your teachers on average are in an even worse place financially.  The middle class continues to get thinner and it’s not good for our country.  There should be common ground between democrats and republicans to work together to build the middle class.  Weakening education and tearing middle class people down, doesn’t seem to be the answer.

Trump to Try Liar’s Paradox at Final Debate

Campaign Manager Kellyanne Conway

New York, NY – After another uninspiring, if not disastrous debate, Donald Trump’s campaign manager Kellyann Conway announced that the presidential hopeful will be taking a different tack.  “There are still many undecided voters,” said a serious Conway, “and it is our belief that anyone who is still confused right now, will respond well to campaigning on a platform of confusion.  This plan has also been developed based on feedback from a focus group reaction to Trump’s answer about dealing with Russia in Sunday evening’s town hall debate when he said “But Syria is no longer Syria. Syria is Russia and it’s Iran, who she made strong and Kerry and Obama made into a very powerful nation and a very rich nation, very, very quickly, very, very quickly”  “This unique mixture of bad grammar,” said Conway, “confusing references, and ambiguous language struck a chord with many of the undecided voters in the focus group.”   We talked to one of the focus group members Shirley Francis of Little Rock, AR. “I really didn’t quite catch what his plan was, but he seemed to know a lot about it.” A puzzled Francis paused to consider her next statement. ”There were a lot of words thrown out there, very quickly, and it sounds like a really complex situation that I can’t hope to understand.  But I believe that he does.”

We asked Conway if she could reveal anything about this new strategy.  “Well I don’t want to give too much away, but I don’t think it will really hurt if I tell you.” An excited Conway continued, “Fact checking shows that pretty much everything Donald Trump says is a lie, and we want to capitalize on this, along with that confusion factor I touched on earlier.  We believe we can gain votes by using an Epimenides Paradox or what’s more commonly known as the Liar’s Paradox.”  To this reporter’s knowledge, it is the first time a self-referencing logical paradox has ever been used as an election strategy but Conway seemed convinced that a generous usage of the paradox in the final debate could easily win Trump 2 to 3 key swing states. “Our research shows,” claimed a confident Conway, “that voters in swing states take pride in their state being of national importance during elections and against all odds almost prefer to remain stubbornly undecided.  We feel that by trapping their mind in a perpetual state of logical contradiction that they will be unable to reason why they should vote for anyone else except for someone who himself is a paragon of confusion and logical contradiction.”  When asked how specifically she will employ this strategy at the final debate Conway responded, “Donald Trump, before every response will simply say, ‘Everything I say is a lie…’ and then continue with what he planned to say. Even those who think he lies a lot will be forced to think that he must tell the truth some time, because if that statement is true that he can’t always be lying. Of course,” Conway conceded, “that statement can’t be the truth either. As they try to make sense of Trump’s responses while pondering the paradox, they will be in a constant state of confusion and should at the very least not vote for Hillary, and we feel will likely vote for The Donald.”

It remains to be seen how this strategy plays out on October 19th, but at this point any strategy is fair game as the presidential hopeful continues to slip in the polls.  “The Trump team just wants the undecided voters to know that we think they are the backbone of America,” said a warm and smiling Conway, “and just because they are completely directionless, they can still help move our country in the right direction.  Also, we want them to know we’ll be putting up a website that will give them easy directions to their nearest polling place, because we don’t want them to get lost.”

Area Man Dissatisfied with Locker Room Talk at Local Gym

Omaha, Nebraska – Area man Derek Sonnerson expressed his deep disappointment in the locker room talk at the local LA Fitness that he had been a member of for 5 months.  “I find myself in a position of needing to join a new gym because my current locker room talk doesn’t live up to the high standards of misogyny and descriptions of sexual assault I had been led to believe happened in this environment.”  Sonnerson who pretty much just wanders around the machines to stare at the females working out, and then heads back to shower to talk about them as objects has found the opportunities for guy talk severely lacking.  “You know, I stuck it out at this gym for several months, come at different times of the day, but can’t really seem to strike up a conversation with anyone about my creepy sexual exploits.”  A dejected Sonnerson said reactions have ranged from disinterest to disgust.  “Most of the time guys are just talking about their kids, sports, or politics.  It’s really disheartening.  One time I came in and these two college students were talking about some hot girl one of them was going to ask out to the movies and I said something like, ‘are you going to wait until the lights are low in the theater before you grab her pussy?’  They just told me to fuck off and called me a loser.”

Sonnerson says his current challenge is getting out of his current gym membership.  He’s submitted a request for a refund citing “unfriendly locker room environment” as his reason.  We talked to the LA Fitness manager Michael Thorn about the situation. “Frankly at this point,” Thorn said with some exasperation, “I’m prepared to give him is money back.  We’ve been getting a lot of complaints.  Women say he’s leering at them; men say that he keeps bothering them in the locker room.  I have to clear it with upper management, but usually in these cases it’s a no brainer.  He’s bad for business, we just want him out.”

Sonnerson seemed optimistic, “I know somewhere out there is a gym just waiting for a person that devalues women like I do and with a locker room full of guys that want to talk about it.  I just have to keep searching.”

Educational Quality in Jeopardy in Pennsylvania Universities – Why a Strike Might Happen

Dear Students,

I love university.  From the very first moment I started as a student, I thought it was great.  The buildings, old and new, housing different academic fields, knowing there were extremely knowledgeable people who were dedicating their entire lives to those fields and passing on that knowledge to students.  I was nervous my first day.  University, I think no matter how small a university you go to, it feels big.  Big ideas, a campus much bigger than your high school and anxiety filled visions of getting lost, looking stupid, and feeling small run through our minds.  By the end of the first year I realized I was in love.  I felt that after 1 year of university I had learned as much as I did my entire time in high school.  I was exposed to diverse groups of people, diverse sets of ideas, and could literally feel my mind and my values growing.  Now I know my experience is not everybody’s.  It’s not everybody’s calling to devote themselves to this institution we call university, but by my junior year I knew it was my calling.

Society is made up of many different parts, and I believe that universities play an important role.  Whether a student pursues an Associate or Bachelor degree, or chooses to specialize more deeply in their area of interest through a graduate program, the character and knowledge they bring into their new roles in the “real world”, as a result of their education, is important.  We live now in a nation where universities are under attack.  Education is becoming increasingly undervalued.  Yet history clearly demonstrates that when societies make education a priority, it promotes greater innovation and economic growth, empowers people with knowledge as an antidote against oppression, and gives us the ability to flex our minds and adapt in an ever changing and increasingly technological world.  The most current attack on universities in this nation is in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE).  If a new contract isn’t agreed upon between the faculty union and the state system by Oct. 19th, the faculty at 14 universities across the state will go on strike.  This has the ability to cause great disruption to the education of our students and because the state system is trying to spread the message that our striking is out of selfishness and desire for money, and a betrayal to the students we say we care about, I wanted to take a little time to explain why we’re striking and why it matters.

Educational Quality

wcu_rally
                             Faculty Rally at West Chester University

Several proposals by PASSHE remain sticking points in our ability to come to a fair agreement, and most of them have to do with educational quality. The state has conceded on some of the items that would have a negative impact on teaching from their initial proposal.  Some of the major ones still outstanding are as follows:

  • An increase in workload for full-time adjunct faculty. Adjunct faculty are an important part of a university because as faculty retire or move on, as programs grow, we need quality adjuncts to fill teaching roles.  When we get good ones and the position becomes permanent and tenure track, it is an easy transition for that faculty in their new role as a permanent professor.  By increasing their workload to 5 classes (a lot by any university standards) and reducing their pay by 20% the probability of attracting quality adjunct faculty is reduced.  In addition their increased workload will have negative impacts on the quality of teaching and thus the student is not served well.  The state also wants to significantly reduce the pay for part time adjunct faculty as well.
  • Increased reliance on adjunct faculty. Ultimately adjunct faculty would like a job with more security as we all would.  Adjunct faculty are only there to teach and generally play no other role in the university.  They don’t advise students, they don’t serve on committees or are required to do university service.  And why should they?  They don’t have the same protections as tenure-track faculty and can be let go at any time.  The state wants to increase the cap on the percentage of adjunct faculty at each state university.  Coupled with the last point, this means less quality teaching.  It means that since adjunct faculty are often looking for more permanent work, this will result in universities constantly utilizing less experienced lecturers who have never taught courses before.  Any student who has taken a class from a first time teacher for a course, you know it’s not as good as it could be.
  • Increased workload for those supervising internships, supervising student teachers, and teaching lab courses. Any time there is a numbers increase on supervision, the time with each student is less.  Good supervisors do a lot of work and it is a very helpful role.  The increases in workload for internship supervision is by 67% and for supervising student teachers 20%.  The most egregious one for me is the reduced value of lab courses.  This is a difficult one to explain, but basically one hour of lab used to count as one contact hour, but now they want to reduce it to 2/3rd of a contact hour.  Faculty in the state system are required to teach 24 contact hours an academic year.  So those who teach lab courses will have a greater workload even though labs have grading, and take time to prepare just as much as a lecture.  This will also discourage faculty from offering lab courses.  Lab courses are part of important hands-on experiences.  They are usually in smaller settings too, where students have more interaction with their professor.  Increased hands-on experience in the classroom is proven in research studies to be an important part of quality teaching. So why doesn’t the state system want that?  Because if I am teaching a 3 credit course with 3 lab sections, I have 6 contact hours for a 3 credit hour course.  A regular lecture course with no lab is 3 credits and 3 contact hours.  So if I teach labs I teach less credit hours.  You, as a student, pay by credit hours.  You are a dollar sign to them, and nothing more.  They don’t care how well you are taught, or what research demonstrates about effective teaching practices.  It’s about how much money they can make.  This is what’s happening all across the U.S. in public higher education.
  • Allowing administration to move faculty to different departments to teach different courses. Did you ever have a teacher in high school teach you a subject that wasn’t their specialty?  It happens in middle schools and high schools all the time.  Have the PE teacher, teach a history class, have the biology teacher, teach a couple of math classes.  This could happen at university now as well, where teachers who didn’t specialize in a particular area are forced to teach outside their area of expertise.  How much would you expect to learn or enjoy such a class?

apscuf-contract-now-670x280

Matters of Money

So you might say this is a pretty one sided discussion what about money.  Clearly faculty want more money right?  So let’s talk about that a little.

  • Well who wouldn’t like more money? But keep in mind we have already been without a contract for almost a year and a half and have been on a salary freeze.  We would also like to be treated with similar salary increases as the state has offered other unions in the state.  We would like our salaries to keep pace with inflation.  Who doesn’t want that? However, if you talk to any of your faculty, you’ll probably find that they care less about that, than impacts on their work quality, and the quality of education they can provide you.  To show you how committed the faculty are to improving education, recently the state system tried to offer faculty more money to their salary to try and have us ignore all the measures they are taking to reduce educational quality.*  The union refused to sign a contract based solely on a salary increase, and refused to be pitted against adjunct faculty.
  • Health care costs are also currently a point of contention. There are many unions who have had to take a hit in increased health care costs.  How far we will get in regards to this issue remains to be seen, but we do believe that quality health care should be something provided by employers and changes proposed by the state system would incur additional costs in range of thousands of dollars to faculty.  We have taken smaller hits in the past which have essentially negated salary increases.  This year, most faculty expect a similar result and don’t expect more net salary given the increased health care costs we are likely to incur.

The mission of PASSHE is to provide the highest quality education at the lowest possible cost to students.  The problems that we face in higher education in this country are perhaps broader than just what we are facing here, but if tuition costs are not going down and quality continues to get lowered something about the system is broken.  We have less direct say in these larger problems, but we can be advocates for the quality of education you receive as a student.  Thus, I felt it was important for students to know that your faculty do care about you.  We don’t see you as a customer or a dollar sign. We see ourselves as people who play a role in your future, and thus the future of the region, the state, and the nation, and we feel the quality of education you get is important.  We are tired of decisions being made about teaching dictated from a group of people who haven’t spent any time in the classroom.  If you are concerned about the strike, you and your family need to send an e-mail to the university president at the university you attend.  You need to contact Chancellor Frank Brogan (Chancellor@passhe.edu).  You need to write your local state congress representatives.  We faculty, still hold hope that a strike will not be necessary, and if it happens a strike is no holiday to us.  I’ll be just off the California University of Pennsylvania campus, on the picket line, every day, hoping sooner than later, I will get to walk back on the campus and give students the quality education they deserve.  You may not agree with our taking a stand on these issues, and that’s okay, but I hope you can respect my right to see this as important, and I hope that you all will take a stand for whatever you truly care about in your futures as well.
In Solidarity,
Swarn Gill
Department of Earth Science,
California University of Pennsylvania

*Note:  The article that discusses the offer made to faculty to increase their salary, states that our average salary for faculty is over $100,000.  This is untrue.  Salaries at public universities are publicly available.  Here you can find all salaries of all employees in the university system.  You can export this data to excel.  I calculated the average salaries from cell B270 to B6315 (which is almost all faculty) and came up with an average of just under $80,000.  A big difference from what PASSHE is saying.  The data is from 2013, but represents the contract we are currently under.