Rain: On Not Mattering

by Jeff Oaks

It’s raining today, the small rain that is easy to bear and hard to hate, especially right now when the trees are swelling with blossoms and leaves. Through the coffeehouse window I can see branches of pink magnolia, branches behind that lush with white flowers. Behind that I can see down the street all the black branches are covered with green and vaguely red fogs of growth. You can see the work of water to soften the things that were girded against the winter. It’s easy to make the connection between the rain and the change that we all need here after an interminable winter, and to appreciate it.

I’m thinking this on a day when I’m painfully aware of changes at the university, where pressure is moving money and interest away from the Arts and toward the Sciences. We’ve been told that we’re losing several of the full-time positions we depend on, that we should to use part-time faculty as little as possible, that our enrollment caps (the term for the number of students who must be enrolled in a class before it will be allowed to run) are going up for both the undergraduate and graduate classes. Friends of mine might lose classes and thus money they’ve come to depend on, a sense of work that matters to them, and although we’re trying to make sure no one loses medical benefits, it feels like a big change to the fabric of work.

All this is based on economics, we’re told. As if economics were all that mattered. As if economics made up the whole of the university’s mission statement. We’re told and told things. We need to learn to do more with less. We need to learn new technologies. What we want to say doesn’t matter. We need to learn to present our work as numbers and buzzwords (even buzz-verbs) that unlike bees do not actually pollinate anything. They slowly glaze the whole place in a fine dust of impersonal data that seems as heartless as this past winter was.

We don’t complain too much, except in our newly renovated meeting rooms, where we think it’s “just us”. There are things to lose if we resist–months of “vacations” no other profession gets, travel and research budgets for the tenure track, jobs and houses and temporal architectures for those of us without tenure but with enough assurance of continued employment. We’re told that we’re all replaceable. Most of us love our jobs and the work we get to do, teaching, researching, writing, mentoring, organizing events. We don’t want to be cast out.

I received an invitation to be part of a panel for AWP next year. It was about the uses and value of undergraduate literary journals, to the students and the campus at large. I had to turn it down because, although I do think these literary journals can be great, I would’ve had to consider it from the point of view of our administration which let several earlier versions of the current journal die off without a thought. (The student government was supposed to fund it but the paperwork was so inane and the possibility of getting money even when forms were completed was tentative at best. The English Department was supposed to fund it, but of course then our budget was slashed. Finally our Honors College, which has its own funding line, came to the rescue, which has been a real lifesaver. But the HC lost its powerful dean and it’s not been clear to me from chatter I hear that the new dean is being taken as seriously.) In short, I didn’t think I could take the heartache of even talking about the subject. It wouldn’t matter enough for me to make the arguments. There would be no administrators there who could even hear or enact change.

At some point, we’re all going to have to face up to heartache and despair and fear and anger. And we’re going to have to be smart and use what we’re experts at–stories, tales, words, arranging and rearranging narratives. And we can use the new digital world we are now constantly being urged to embrace. We can start blogs, tell stories, learn to make movies, talk to the world outside, where real bees are dying. We’ll have to face up too to the fears and/or ambitions we have as writers. Many of the faculty still think dismissively of the internet and digital world in general. Print is still success. It won’t matter in tenure cases that you keep a blog, of course, so only those of us who don’t depend on tenure might be able to do it.

It’s also possible that some of the pressures coming down on us might give us a chance to reorient ourselves, our studies, our voices. How we change should be our choice though. We might have to evolve simply to protect the things we love, but we have to make sure we don’t simply become as intransigent as the administrators whose feet no longer touch the ground and so feel now free to make decisions as if nothing mattered but what and how they think.