What if it's all bullshit?

I’m not much one for mottos.  I’ve never been prone to hanging motivational signs and slogans on the wall or recording them in notebooks.  Such things tend to annoy rather than motivate me.  But upon my return to in-person teaching this year, that’s changed.  

Except for teaching class, I work from home.  Our campus is one of those sorry few in the nation to forego most any safety measures against the spread of COVID.  Consequently, those who can do so stay away from campus as much as they can. My home workspace is my daughter’s old bedroom.  We shipped her off to college just this fall, to a place far from here where the students are vaccinated and masked, and where, we hope, the professors and university staff don’t dread their jobs and daily fantasize about quitting.  I use my kid’s old desk.  It’s not one I like much but it suffices.  And it has a handy shelf above the workspace where I have now taped up various postcards I find aesthetically pleasing.  To them, last week, I added one with my new motto.  It features a little girl sitting in a pew, dressed in church best, palms together in prayer, and the caption:  But what if it’s all bullshit?  That little girl is my new spirit guide, my familiar, my aspirational self.  My ambition is to greet every new university announcement and email with her doubtful refrain.  It could just all be bullshit.  I expect that most of it is.


Despite the ways that both long practice of scholarship and the culture of academia can foster cynicism, I’ve always retained some of the naivete with which I started.  Study and higher learning were not a substantial element of my upbringing, yet a trust that people should try to do right and that learning mattered was.  In my family, being smart and knowing things was counted good.  This is why my maternal grandfather was prized for his ingenuity in cobbling together his own farm equipment out of scrap and why my grandmother made sure her children didn’t slide into hillbilly diction without rebuke.  Academia always seemed like a place remote from us, but we nonetheless held it in high regard – indeed, a marvel of sorts.  Some of my kin worked hard their whole lives just so they could at last retire and enjoy the leisure to read, study, and think, so, as one of my uncles put it, my life is rather astonishing:  I get paid to read, study, and think.  In this context, I’ve always found my career a kind of shock, always harbored a naïve wonder at it all underneath the less romantic machinery of grading, teaching, publishing, and faculty meetings.  It is from my residual sense of wonder that I have suffered most in what my university has become, or perhaps just always was.


Here can begin a litany of late revelations I have suffered, but I will let just two suffice. 


The first revelation I will here relate came this summer when I discovered how poorly I am paid relative to my male peers and even juniors.  I am a full professor, the only woman faculty member in a department of men, and, if I can be a bit immodest, do my job well.  I publish reliably. I serve on about half of our PhD students’ committees.  I try to teach humanely and meaningfully, and, as the only woman, end up doing all sorts of things that trace to that unfortunate isolation – from mentoring women students to having my comments in faculty meetings interrupted by that one guy who never suffered a woman to complete a thought out loud.  Put plainly, my salary doesn’t make sense on any of the relevant vectors: rank, merit, gender equity, or even just basic fairness.  I am surely not worth less than the many who outearn me. This seemed to me just obvious – indeed, so obvious that I expected it could be fixed.  After all, the university has a new “strategic plan,” full of pillars or planks or verticals (the tedious terminology evades me now) committing us to values such as equity, excellence, diversity, and so on.  Surely a department would not underpay its only woman and one of its most active scholars.  The pillars, planks, and maybe even verticals were all against it.


I discussed my salary situation with my father, a retired insurance company man.  He’s the son of a gas station mechanic and housewife, a man who made good and who, in his own life, always prized hard work and fair-dealing.  He thought I ought make a case for better with careful data – in his line of mid-managerial work, facts always mattered.  So that’s what I did.  I noted that my salary sits at just 58% of what full professors in my discipline at a peer institution make.  I calculated that I earn but 82% of what our highest paid associate man makes and that the highest salary we want to offer any new assistant hire is just 3% below my own.  There were more numbers than all this, but these will do to sketch the picture I drew out to send the dean.  (My chair was already on my side, but this sat outside his powers.)  I told the dean that I wished to have my salary rectified and that until it was I would truncate what I do.  I listed the dozen speaking engagements and writing opportunities I had declined the month I had been mulling this.  These were to serve as illustration, a way to say that merit and fairness need to matter in the matter of my work.  If the university could not provide me better, I’d find it for myself by doing less.  I also avowed a refusal to assist in recruiting more women.  This was both point of principle and mere prudence.  I cannot lie well enough to lure in more women, nor am I paid well enough to try.


Having sent my email to the dean, I then set in to wait, but he emailed quickly back to say that there was nothing he would do.  There was no money, for a start.  And, too, if he paid me fair, he’d have to do the same for others.  Someday, he added, the university would upend the couches seeking loose change and disburse this to departments.  Then my department could spread the change around however it saw fit and I might get some.  Ok, he didn’t say exactly that – there was no mention of couches.  But all that he would offer is that money for “compression, inversion, merit, and equity” might someday come available, and when that day arrived, I would along with all the rest be considered for a raise.  Based on how such things have gone before, I understand that if I get lucky, I might someday earn 83% of what my junior earns.  


I showed the dean’s email to my father.  As he read it, he grew quite aghast.  “Do they not worry that women might sue?” he asked in the mode of the company man he used to be.  In the mood of my affectionate father, he just wondered, “How soon can you retire?  You need to get out of there.”  My father is like me, too naïve to take such blunt, remorseless refusal well. The part that bothered him, and me, the most was all the email didn’t say.  It was written sans regret, without apology, absent even empty hand-waving at my value or token gestures of appreciation.  Indeed, it read just like a form letter, an impersonal auto-reply to which the name of any seeking money could be quickly appended.  The tone throughout was condescending and insulting, as if asking to be paid fair was importunate and even stupid.  And, really, I have come now to suppose it was.  


This week the university’s regents met and approved an $8,000 salary increase for a male law school professor who has argued in print that women need to be more modest, both in their dress and their activities.  We women should avoid those actions that cannot be well and demurely performed in a skirt.  At a recent meeting with university staff, our president greeted questions about below-market staff pay with a brief homily on life.  As the student paper reported, he offered that "comparing salaries is not a good way to live life."  A better course would be for "staff to determine if the work they do is equal to their pay."  I tried this strategy last week when I received an email cheerfully announcing yet another administrative hire.  We have lately named some new fellow as our "Chief Innovation and Corporate Officer and Executive Director of the Office of Innovation and Corporate Partnerships."  Despite a strong temptation, I resisted all thoughts of his salary and focused only on my own.

Is my work equal to my pay?  I have doubts.  Whatever the "work" might be, I do not think I've done it.  I do not even own a skirt and this has come to seem a crucial failing.  The things one does to earn the better pay round here are things I have not yet discovered.  To be sure, I wrote the books and articles, taught and mentored students, and served on the committees.  These were the liturgy I thought we all believed, but now I ask:  What if it's all bullshit?  The suspicion that it is but grows apace, as the pandemic finishes off what the process with my salary started.

What I can say of my university's pandemic arrangements could here grow long and daunting.  It is primarily a list of absences, of things not done and care not taken.  Although we are located in an area considered "extremely high risk," the university requires no vaccines or masks.  We practice no social distancing or mandatory testing, and rely upon an app for exposure notifications, an app used by fewer than 1,000 on our campus of over 30,000.  The campus health center only gives a few hundred tests a week, and these aren’t even free.  There is no contact tracing, no automatic notice given faculty if one of our students comes up positive.  


We the faculty can “encourage” masks in class, but not require them.  We are allowed to plead our cases as we will – citing our unvaccinated children, our immunocompromised parents, or our own poor health and vulnerabilities – and beg our students to wear masks.  This has mostly amounted to instructors exposing the tender skin of worry for their loved ones before students who but roll their eyes or scroll their phones.  We have lost far more in dignity and faith in humanity than we have ever gained in masks this way.  


As you might expect, this has produced tensions between administration and faculty.  Some faculty have made complaints to OSHA, some have written up petitions duly signed by many, some have moved their families out of town to places of greater safety, some organized a walk out and a protest, and others have retired in dismay.  I wrote an article myself about our plight.  I then became a repository of faculty angst, as colleagues emailed and talked to me about their plights.  Then I, too, heard all the stories of children, parents, and poor health.  And a few who wondered if or when I would be fired for writing as I did, for summoning down some public shame upon this sorry and benighted place.  This style of worry is a secondary disease upon us all.


Academia has perhaps always fostered fear:  concern that one is not good enough, that one won’t get or keep a job, that one must always push and perform.  But the feel of this has changed, the worry not the usual or familiar.  I struggle knowing how to capture with words just what it’s like.  The fear round here just grows beyond all bounds.  Anxieties for health, our own and others’, are its deep taproot, and worry about keeping one’s employment are trunk and branch to this.  But the full canopy of glooming shade is achieved in the fear that one’s whole life is now made but a farce, that it is become but utter bullshit. 


Learning can, in the wrong sort of context, be a blight upon the soul.  It has been here, in a land where professors are mostly just reviled.  As news stories of the unrest among faculty on campus have circulated across social media, the responses are dispiriting.  About faculty or staff who leave, the commentary evinces a delight – “good riddance” someone will post, while someone else triumphs in “one less libtard in the town.”  The news of our petitions and our pleas will generate repetitive injunctions to “shut up and teach” or “quit your job if all you can do is whine.”  The local commentary on our plight is all awash in bile.  We are a hated population.  This rhetoric of cavalier meanness finds no resistance from our administrators.  I think in fact that it might help them.  Faculty with no public support are easier to rebuff or to ignore. 


Our administrative bosses do not really talk to us.  When faculty gathered in protest outside the building that houses all their offices, they stayed inside.  They neither said nor sent a response of any kind at all.  What we hear from them comes mostly via email, in messages that purport to extol the work that we do to “change lives,” indifferent to the fact our own may feel at risk or perhaps more basically just worthless.  We are told that we are “family,” while pleas about our actual families cannot even find a hearing.  We are enjoined that we should not “forget to look at both sides,” though what the “side” against a modest measure like requiring masks would be is never quite spelled out.  Presumably, it lives on the corner of “shut up and teach” and “good riddance,” in the neighborhood of those who love the university but care not at all for its professors.  In truth, I wish our administration would simply speak in the straightforward vulgar idiom of social media.  At least then we would not be left with the sense that the administrators pee on our shoes while asking us to agree that it is raining.  At least then we would need no more to read the false, the vacuous, the unbelievable presented to us as if they’re true. 


I could go on in this fashion and daily struggle to resist a full plummet down the rabbit hole.  There is a special perversity in pursuing a vocation that hinges entirely on the premise that knowledge matters while obliged to deny what knowledge shows.  As a scholar, I could not do my job if I accepted the sort of “reasoning” we are given for the cruel arrangements under which we labor.  And that is the fundamental bullshit on which all the bullshit sits.  The very thing my job has made me is the thing my job no longer wants.  I am trained to live comfortably and well inside the space of reasons, to venture into wilds for evidence, to govern what I do with knowledge.  My life project was in part to teach others to do likewise.  That which makes me what I am is also that which makes me now unfit for the world I must inhabit.  We here have exited the space of reason.  


I cannot venture to say what world it is that we inhabit, but I do so tire of being told a fiction about what it is.  Strategic plans, changing lives, vigilance, pillars, planks, and verticals – all just empty prayers to a god destroyed.  We go through the motions still, all in our Sunday best before young people who deserve so much more and better than a faculty degraded and derided.  At least, I console myself, in my discipline there is still room for the most crucial of tuition I can give them, developing the skill to ask and keep on asking:  But what if it’s all bullshit?