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.
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.
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
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?
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"