Saturday, May 14, 2011

Telephone; or, Some thoughts on publicness

Please note that my office telephone has been disconnected due to budget cuts implemented by the state of California.

    --Professor Ian Duncan's email signature file

Call all you want, but there's no one home

And you're not going to reach my telephone.

    --Lady Gaga

There's a Telephone-like quality to news of the effects of the statewide California budget cuts on individual UC campuses, departments, and programs. You remember the game from early childhood--you pass a message around the room, whispering from ear to ear, and then giggle at the end when the original message is juxtaposed with what the last person finally heard.

This is partly because it is genuinely difficult to understand the distribution and effects of budget cuts (why were East Asian language courses radically cut just when a new East Asian library building was going up? an observer might, with fairness, ask).

But it's also because it's difficult to get an official account from anybody. With budget cuts comes a stigma, and therefore a dilemma. It is difficult to fight budget cuts without clearly representing how badly they damage the department and the university. But as soon as a department or a campus admits to having been hurt by cuts, it faces a loss of prestige and a concomitant flight of talent. Part of the damage that the budget cuts inflict comes from anybody knowing about the damage--or thinking they know.

The result is a mixture of genuine confusion and official obfuscation, in which information flows primarily through rumor and statistics--the latter to be understood as the superlative successor to Mark Twain's "lies" and "damned lies."

And that's how the UC budget cuts' effects on my department came to be emblematized, through a Telephone-like process, by telephones.

It's well known by now that English faculty at Berkeley no longer have office phones. Ian Duncan (to his credit, in my opinion) said so in his email signature file for about a year. Evidently there are members of UC administration who consider us a "bad" department for having let on about this fact. Anecdotally, I hear it's whispered among (and sometimes, by competing departments, to) prospective graduate students that our lack of phones is an emblem of how terrible the cuts have been for us.

Well, it is--an emblem, that is. But surely we English scholars can think a bit critically about just how that emblem signifies.

William Deresiewicz's recent, much-circulated, and rather good article in The Nation casually dropped the following statement: "Stipends are so low at the University of California, Berkeley, the third-ranked research institution on the planet, that the school is having trouble attracting graduate students."

I can't speak for other departments at Cal, but I know that the statement is not true for English--at least not this year. It's not that graduate stipends aren't low (they're graduate stipends; they're low by definition), and in fact we also had unusually low yield this year. But informal surveys (rumors, rumors) suggest that our peer departments did too.

So while it's tempting to make a causal narrative out of it, as Deresiewicz does, in this case the narrative seems unsupported by the evidence.

In fact, graduate stipends in Berkeley's English department are commensurate with those offered at much wealthier peer institutions. For instance, although we joke about our transbay colleagues at Stanford ("You get a car! You get a car! Everybody gets a car!"), the truth is that their fellowships ^for incoming students as of this year^* don't materially exceed ours. It's perhaps a little janky that our fellowship packages are often cobbled together piecemeal due to the bureaucratic idiosyncrasies and, yes, economic constraints, of being at a public university. But that's always been true of Cal.

Here's the thing about the phones: they're symbolic, in more ways than one. Part of the reason they seem like such a basic infrastructural need is that they're such an old infrastructural need. In point of fact, they don't get a lot of use, and are a low priority--that's why getting rid of phones was a very reasonable response to budget cuts. The Wesleyan historian Claire Potter, who blogs as Tenured Radical, recently wrote, "Take my phone. Please." After all,
By doing this, you could free up some money in our zero-sum budget game to reduce the cost of my benefits or bump up my research money. Or give me a tiny bonus to subsidize my cell phone costs. Or keep the money and allow me to deduct the cost of my mobile from my taxes as a legitimate business expense. And it would clear a lovely space on my desk where I could put a vase of spring flowers -- or a box of Kleenex, to prepare for the next round of budget cuts.

She's alluding to budget cuts at a private university, by the way.

Sure, it's pretty bootleg that we can't afford phones, and if you have enough bootleg working conditions it becomes a serious problem. If anyone from the state legislature is reading this: THIS NO PHONES SITUATION IS COMPLETELY BOOTLEG. But in and of themselves, office land-lines are not indispensable for teaching or research. In contrast, graduate fellowships are, increasingly, indispensable. So yeah, there's no phone on my desk, but our entire incoming graduate cohort--of modest size, for us, but nonetheless bigger than the incoming cohorts of our peer departments--is funded, because people in the department worked to make it happen. It's about telephones, and it isn't.

A department's reputation is as fragile as a lady's, and as easily damaged by rumors, whether accurate or not. Much ado about nothing can still make young Claudios considering graduate study wary of committing to a Hero who seems less than virtuous solvent.

But the aptness of the analogy should make us pause over how we are tempted to react to rumor. Ought we try to hide the damage the budget cuts inflict, as if defending our maidenly virtue?

I'm inclined to agree with the aptly named, clear-sighted Krystal Ball, the 2010 congressional candidate who refused to be intimidated when opponents challenged her virtue by circulating sexual photos of her on the internet. Instead of trying to suppress the photos, she challenged the premise on which they were meant to discredit her--what she correctly identified as "the tactic of making female politicians into whores," as if the unseemliness of being both a woman and public made her (tautologically) unfit for public office.

After all, what do the rumors say? That UC is struggling economically?


Let's re-examine the premise that the cuts that we are continually fighting are some kind of embarrassment for the department.

Berkeley English is and has been great, but it was never because it was rolling in cash. We've always been public.

To suppose that Cal's vulnerability to cuts is embarrassing--to whisper, Telephone-style, about our telephones--is, fundamentally, to think that our publicness is embarrassing. It's worth noticing that that's a political premise. Like a woman running for public office, or the rumors themselves, we do a little too much circulating for comfort, it seems.

What has happened to our national discourse when the idea of a truly great public university seems an oxymoron? Not to put too fine a point on it: if you think Berkeley's publicness is an intellectual liability, then you are part of the problem--the national problem of that perverse and pervasive neoliberal reflex, not "always historicize" but "always privatize." By the same tautology as that applied to women running for office, the very fact that we're public is assumed to be a disqualification for serving the public. Always privatize.

The Berkeley English department challenges that premise. Cal's publicness is part of its greatness, across the university and within the English department. There were UC-wide faculty and staff furloughs last year; it was the faculty that pushed for a graduated scale that would at least partially protect lower-earning university employees from the full force of the impact--an improvement on the blunt two-tiered model first proposed by university administration. And I've repeatedly seen Berkeley faculty stand up for the labor rights of graduate instructors and of non-academic staff. Our graduate students--and our postdocs--are unionized. Are yours? Or have your tenured faculty persuaded themselves that graduate instructors are "apprentices"?

People don't come here for the money--you couldn't, really. It's an exciting place to be, partly because, frankly, we can't just buy famous scholars (ten years after they've made their marks on the field)--we have to cultivate them ourselves. Our undergraduates, largely products of the California public K-12 system, are often less polished than those at private institutions, but they're also creative and diverse and ferociously intelligent. Some of our best are community college transfers--mature, curious students who really know what they want out of an education.

Economic scarcity makes some things difficult at Cal: that's a fact. We can ill afford further cuts. I'm furious at public disinvestment in higher education, and I fear that recent drastic tuition hikes will forever alter the quality of our wonderful student body. Also, whoever it was who floated that online course evaluations idea: total fail.

But we know how to make the best of what we have, to protect the least secure among us, and to advocate for humanities research and teaching. We do it damn well, all while producing some of the best research and best-trained students in the country.

No need to whisper. No need at all.

[UPDATE: Dean Andrew Szeri's response to Deresiewicz (scroll down)]

*clarification added 5/14, in a characteristically slimy way.

Goble, Mark. "Cameo Appearances; or, When Gertrude Stein Checks into Grand Hotel." MLQ 62.2 (2001): 117-63 [pdf].

Halberstam, Jack. "You Cannot Gaga Gaga"


Anonymous said...

You're just plain wrong about the difference between Cal English stipends and Stanford's.

Cal's are about 21 for the first two years, followed by years of 16 (teaching), 16 (norm time), and maybe a block grant (19).

Stanford's are low 30s each and every year.

If that isn't materially different I don't know what is.

Natalia said...

I'm speaking of stipends for incoming grad students, which vary at Cal because our students compete for university-wide fellowships. My incoming fellowship was *not* 21, believe me--it was 16! Many in my cohort were completely unfunded. But Cal is steadily raising grad stipends, because it's necessary.

The point being that the budget cuts have resulted in a lot of janky things (telephones), but not lower graduate stipends; in fact, graduate stipends have increased substantially.

Also, rent in Palo Alto is higher than in Berkeley/Oakland. Which seems unfair, seeing as how Palo Alto is such a dump, but it's true.

Anne Fernald said...

Terrific piece. I love the way you link those whispers about money to antiquated ( if persistent) gender mores. But really just a terrific intervention.

Natalia said...

Thank you so much, Anne. I'm extremely interested in the way that telephones in particular are used to figure (female) publicness as a form of inappropriate female desire, but I realized the post was getting unwieldy, and in any case, I'm not entirely sure how to pull it all together. But that's why I linked Mark Goble's article on Gertrude Stein and the telephone and Jack Halberstam's piece on Lady Gaga's "Telephone." (A version of Mark's article is also in his recent book, sadly not yet in paperback.)

With the Gaga video in particular, there seems to be an awareness of phones as an archaic and somehow uncontrollable communication technology. ("Should have left my phone at home 'cause this is a disaster"--as if you couldn't turn a phone off.) With "the fame monster," one is beleaguered by the phone; the phone, strangely agential instrument of celebrity, keeps you from focusing on "dancing."

This is in contrast with the early Gaga of "Just Dance," in which losing the phone is a source of anxiety to be assuaged by the pleasure of dancing ("Can't find a drink, oh man/ Where are my keys? I lost my phone, phone/ [...] Just dance...").

But now I'm just rambling about Lady Gaga. Such is the blogging life.

Anyway, thanks for your comment, Anne. (Loved your paper at MSA, by the way! Virginia Woolf ftw.)

Anonymous said...

Many incoming offers are still unfunded.

Natalia said...

Yes, I believe that is the case -- currently.

ajmcc said...

i appreciate the big-ups to the department, and the enthusiasm about it even in the face of the catastrophe-language. however i do think it's worth noting that our stipends aren't necessarily equivalent to those offered at private peer institutions. since they are, as you note, a bit cobbled together, we have a range of funding packages, and the low end of that range is i think a good 50% below what is offered at, say, certain elite east coast institutions that will remain nameless. and we have a 2 tiered system, alas, where some folks come in without any funding at all, which also doesn't happen elsewhere. we also have much less summer funding, when we have it at all. at UCB, the department has been dependent on the Deans Normative Time fellowship, funded by grad div, for a good 15-20% of the multi-year package, and that program has been gutted and is probably on its way out. and finally, because a lot of our funding comes from the university thru service teaching (rather than from the department), our teaching in the ABD years tends to be more onerous and less cushy than the TA positions more typical elsewhere. as a result of all that, i also don't think our yield rate is quite the same as at richer institutions: for instance--and at the risk of being anecdotal--i was shocked to hear that in the aforementioned elite east coast department, the yield was around 80-90%.

now i *do* think that we can't underestimate how much better off we are as a result of being unionized--not only for all the righteous ideological reasons (it exposes our real relationship to the institution/department; it allows us to see ourselves in solidarity w/ other campus workers, esp nontenured faculty; it reveals the non-idealized nature of the business of higher ed, etc etc etc.)--but also for real material ones: i have also been shocked at how much bullshit the graduate students at the aforesaid school put up with when it comes to stability and certainty of employment--not knowing in advance what or with whom or when you'll be teaching, getting assigned sections for multiple courses, wildly variant workload from semester to semester, terrible health insurance (or none at all). so i'm just sayin' that i think it's a bit more complicated, tho it remains admirable that schools like UCB remain as competitive as they are.

Natalia said...

Hurray, this post is back; BOO, all of yesterday's comments are lost.

In any case, yes, of course you're right, Annie. It is complicated, and I'm a huge believer in that 500 pounds a year and a room of one's own. That this year's incoming cohort is completely funded is partly due to luck and partly due to some hardcore creativity on D's and E's parts.

What I should have made clearer is that this post is meant to be less about whether Berkeley is awesome than about the nature of publicness and public funding. Berkeley's funding has always been comparatively terrible, but it's getting substantially less terrible just as the overall financial situation gets worse, because the department is increasingly committed to graduate funding (and decreasingly committed to having phones). In other words, the impulse to correlate graduate funding to budget cuts is a feature of a reflexive sentiment about publicness, not a description of the actual situation.

ripley said...

Yeah I'm with ajmcc about the pay issue (and the union one, obviously!) - As I was getting involved in the Academic Student Employee union contract campaign last year and was studying up on GSI pay, I recall learning that UC GSIs were paid a lot less than GSI's at comparable institutions. So I'm surprised by the statement here that in English they are not?

And the evaporation of fellowships, both Normative Time (renamed something else) and the cutting back of summer fellowships (since GSI pay doesn't cover the summer) chip away at that further. Add in benefits decentralization which the admin recently admitted means they will likely cut back on GSI positions and hire adjuncts (who aren't the same drain on benefits)...

Many grad students I know have warned or discouraged applicants as our work experience has gotten progressively worse. I stay away from all departmental meetings with prospectives these days.

Natalia said...

I hear your reservations and agree, and thanks, too, for taking the time to comment.

But again: the point of this post is not "Berkeley has tons of money and is offering huuuuuge fellowships." That's obviously not the case. What's happening is that other departments are offering more money up front and our DGS is duct-taping together counter-offers. Increased departmental commitment to graduate funding is in part in response to the UC-wide trends that you mention.

Which is to say that the undermining of public institutions is real and terrible and should be talked about. But one form of that undermining is the automatic assumption that public = failing, and that such failure is intrinsic to publicness rather than engineered.

Anonymous said...

Natalia, it demonstrates a lack of both integrity and courage on your part not to be able to acknowledge a simple, egregious mistake when you've made one. Case in point: your outrageous claim about the commensurability of funding for Berkeley and Stanford English Ph.D. students. It has been pointed out to you many times over that you're 100% wrong about this claim, but you are too craven and self-righteous to admit your mistake. Shame on you. Let's see how you manage to dodge this complaint in your characteristically slimy way.

Natalia said...

Do go on, anonymous commenter, about my lack of integrity and courage.

Anonymous said...

"In fact, graduate stipends in Berkeley's English department are commensurate with those offered at much wealthier peer institutions. For instance, although we joke about our transbay colleagues at Stanford ("You get a car! You get a car! Everybody gets a car!"), the truth is that their fellowships ^for incoming students as of this year^* don't materially exceed ours"

Even with your edit, this is still false. The incoming cohort is "fully" funded only because the cohort happens to be comprised of those who were offered funding. Out of 30+ admits, only 12 decided to come. At least half of those who declined were without funding.

The funded stipend sits at about 21,000. Stanford's is over 30,000. This is not material equivalence in any way, shape, or form.

While I disagree with the name-calling and character assassination of the other anonymous commenter, I do think you'd do well to own up to your mistake.

skg said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
skg said...

I agree with Natalia's assertion that graduate funding has become substantially less terrible, even while it remains difficult.

ripley: Moving target. While I was teaching (roughly 2000-2005), UCB English was right in the middle for what GSIs were paid in the U.S. It's no longer 2005, I recognize; I'd observe only that it's necessary to quote numbers, locations, and years when making assertions about relative pay.

Having said that, at this point I cannot. But I predate normative time (when I started teaching, my annual income from teaching nine months of the year was $12,000 before taxes, and Clinton's handy tax shelter wasn't in place yet), so I'm chalking it up to faulty memory and not being in a position to tally the numbers annually.

More funding is available now for summers per fractional grad student than in my day, whether or not you count teaching.

skg said...

I think I've managed to delete an accidental double post. Still hiccuping, Blogger, eh?

Natalia said...

Anonymous, were you at the same department meeting I was at? It's my understanding that all incoming offers for those who accepted were matched or exceeded. If I'm wrong about that I'd be happy to correct the record, but the compelling testimony of anonymous blog commenters has yet to move me.

What's more, these details are certainly worth setting straight, but are not material to the argument, i.e. that "state budget cuts = worse graduate fellowships (because: telephones!!!)" is a fallacious assumption hinging on erroneous beliefs about the nature of public institutions.

Anonymous said...

In case you haven't noticed yet, what you call factual 'details' are crucial to everyone but you. You just don't get it.