That Sinking Feeling: Polar Bear Environmental Art

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By: Michael Engelhard

If art’s mission is to change public perceptions or to transcend established practices, it can no longer be apolitical, unaware of social or economic currents. The creators of an exhibit that examines the “cultural afterlife” of taxidermised polar bears (nanoq: flat out and bluesome, by Bryndís Snæbjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson) sum up a rather recent shift in our attitudes toward their subject: “During the last decade the image of the polar bear has moved in the public imagination from being an icon of strength, independence and survival in one of the most climatically extreme of world environments, to that of fragility, vulnerability and more generally of a global environmental crisis.” Their latest project, Matrix, focuses on the bears’ maternity dens in Svalbard, “perfectly adapted model[s] for habitat in the arctic environment.” Since the Rodin pupil Francois Pompon’s L’Ours Blanc (1922), the language of polar bear art has changed, as have its approaches. Drawing on wildlife biology and physics research, Snæbjörnsdóttir and Wilson plan to chart any changes in the architecture of polar bear dens that could signal the bears’ adapting to new environmental circumstances, such as shortened winters and poor snow conditions. By translating their findings for a larger, non-academic public the artists hope to inspire contemplation and questioning of accepted knowledge or dogma.

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With a different tack and a stronger slant, Ackroyd & Harvey created Polar Diamond (2009) after a trip to Svalbard. For this piece of conceptual art, the duo cremated a polar bear bone, which they obtained, with permission, from Svalbard, and artificially grew a diamond from the ashes. Their work sped up a process that in nature takes millions of years. It questions the price we pay for carbon. Ackroyd & Harvey think their diamond carries “an anticipation of loss, and the knowledge that rarity inevitably increases value.” at of course applies to both diamonds and polar bears: the number of lowest-grade jewelers’ diamonds has been estimated to be in the tens of thousands; polar bears number between twenty thousand and twenty-five thousand.

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Another conceptual piece deserves mentioning for its unusual fate. For his Ice Bear Project, the British wildlife artist Mark Coreth shaped an ice sculpture around a life-size, bronze polar bear skeleton. When the “flesh” melted, these bronze bones were revealed. As part of a WWF climate change campaign, the installation premiered in Copenhagen in 2009 before traveling to London, Sydney, and Montreal. In 2013, thieves with a big rig stole the skeleton—worth twenty-three thousand dollars—from Coreth’s lawn. The police feared they would sell it as scrap metal to be melted down. Once again, a political statement had been gutted by greed, for animal parts to be turned into cash.

Contradictions abound. Matters quickly get complicated. Inspired by the Nazca lines and children’s drawings, another Icelandic artist, Bjargey Ólafsdóttir, used organic red food dye to paint a gigantic polar bear outline on Langjökull Glacier, as part of a concerted e ort by artists and environmentalists to call attention to the 2010 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun. It looked as if Earthlings had made a statement for extraterrestrials, showing them that they care about bears.

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Less than half a year later, coast guard personnel killed a real polar bear stranded on Iceland’s northern coast—as bears have since Norse times—because it might disappear into the fog, wander into more densely populated areas, and there pose a risk to the public. A fraction of said public was very upset by the killing. It suggested marooned bears be outfitted with radio-collars and monitored—and restrained only if they became dangerous. Or they could be tranquilized and transferred to the Reykjavík zoo. Or officials could catch, cage, and repatriate strays to Greenland, where, of course, they might also get shot, as part of that country’s hunting quota for Natives. The polar bear killing in Iceland in 2010, like one in 2008, garnered attention domestically and internationally. Many people thought it “unfortunate” that Icelanders were killing bears when most of the world (and some prominent Icelanders) felt that the bears needed special protection. A rich Icelandic businessman offered the use of his private jet, and to pay for the polar bear’s relocation.

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Like ideas, artful images can change lives and even save some. In 2001, one of Alaska’s pro-development politicians raised a blank white poster board on the U.S. senate floor, like a modern-day Ahab poised for a strike. “This is what An-whar [ANWR] looks like nine months of the year,” he said, trying to sway fellow senators to open a refuge to resource extraction. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge he so decried has the highest concentration of polar bear dens in Alaska. An opponent of drilling later held up a book with winter scenes by Subhankar Banerjee, of polar bears emerging from their dens in the alleged white waste. The refuge remained one, for the time being.

In the new millennium’s politics, polar bears thus play the part whales played in the 1980s. From a theatrics-as-protest perspective, their shape lends itself better to impersonation than that of a rainforest or whale. But Greenpeace activists are not the only people who wear fake polar bear fur to discomfort the public. With her one-woman show Ode to the Polar Bear, the Inupiaq rapper and performance artist Allison Warden provides an indigenous take on climate change and development. Drawing on stories and experiences of her elders, she mourns the animal’s passing and that of a way of life. During her monologue, she slips into various guises, including a polar bear’s, transcending human-animal nature as did the shamans of old.

The many ways in which avant-garde artists employ the White Bear to question our society’s course and objectives prove its longevity as a symbol. Its role in this context is just one more we humans have assigned to this charismatic carnivore throughout the millennia. Let us hope only that the real animal will outlast these most recent representations.

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Michael Engelhard is the author of the essay collection, American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean, and of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon. He lives in Fairbanks, Alaska and works as a wilderness guide in the Arctic.

 

 

 

Image captions:

Fig.01) Donald Gialanella’s Spirit
 of the North, concept for a sixty-foot sculpture welded from scrap automobiles for a downtown park in Fairbanks, Alaska. (Donald Gialanella)

Fig.02) L’Ours Blanc (1922), by Francois Pompon, at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. (Wikimedia Commons)

Fig.03) For Mark Coreth’s Ice Bear Project (2011), he displayed a bronze and ice polar bear sculpture in various cities—here in Sydney, Australia. (Jaime Borja)

Fig.04) The Icelandic artist Bjargey Ólafsdóttir painted Red Polar Bear (2010) on Langjökull Glacier to draw attention to activists’ demands that states agree to reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere from its current level of 400 parts per million to below 350 ppm. (Christopher Lund)

Fig.05) Livestock production is responsible for 51 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Vincent J. F. Huang’s Polar Bear Hamburger (2014) reminds us of links between food and the environment. (Vincent J. F. Huang)

Fig.06) Aurora, the Greenpeace animated bear—a giant “puppet” used in political protest. (Epping Forest District Council)

Fig.07) Ad for a European environmental campaign. (Marc Paeps/ TBWA Group)

Author photo: Tuti Minondo

We’ve Always Done It This Way

I wrote the post below during my last semester as an adjunct instructor at a rural community college. I resurrect it here because Warren Waren over at Racism Review just published “Institutional Racism: Comparing Oscar Nominations with Higher Education Faculty.” It’s a must-read, especially for anti-racist White academics serving on hiring committees, as faculty and EEO representatives at PWIs (Predominantly White Institutions). Inspired by the recent hashtag campaigns #OscarsSoWhite and #OscarsStillSoWhite, Waren draws deft comparison between the Oscars academy (94% white) and academe (“15% of the enrolled student population at America’s colleges, but only 5.5% of all full-time faculty are black.”).

While serving at my college, I was on the “Diversifying Hiring Committee” a campus committee whose mission was in part, dedicated to increasing faculty of color at our campus. I learned much about hiring practices in higher education and the harsh truth of social reproduction among White academics. I agree with Waren when he says, “Ultimately, I feel that both the Oscars and the academy will have to look a lot more like the people they serve or they will be replaced by institutions that do.”

 

 

Originally Published by The Adjunct Project Spring 2012

This is gonna be hard to write, maybe even harder for you to read. But, I’m tired of the silence; tired of all the things I haven’t said out loud because I’m scared of what will happen to me or what people will say. Well hell, it’s time to speak out.

I have served as an elected part-time faculty representative on my college’s academic senate since spring 2008. The academic senate is the faculty organization that serves as oversight for all things involving instruction at a college…including curriculum, grading policies, faculty professional development, and policies regarding student preparation and success (to name a few). I like serving on the senate, enjoy advocating for my part-time colleagues and knowing “how things work” (e.g., the big picture) at my organization. But, the last semester and this one have been pure hell for me; I’m being bullied by several members of the senate, including a few that occupy the senate executive positions.

On February 1st, the organizations two Diversifying Hiring Committee chairs gave a presentation at the academic senate, asking for approval to change an aspect of our hiring policy; a change that would increase the potential for diversifying our faculty, which is not representative of our service area. The change the two chairs requested would result in the Equal Employment Opportunity representative position being separate from the Hiring committee chair position, which would result in less “group think” and an empowered equal employment opportunity representative. The current literature from the Human Resources field supports this view because organizations, especially college’s, tend to “reproduce themselves” through their hiring practices…people hire people who they are comfortable with and who look like them…at my college this is called “a good fit.” This restricts opportunities for other academics and it limits (controls) who teaches our students.

The discussion was disheartening. Now mind you, I’m the only faculty on the senate who identifies with a specific culture and ethnic heritage (I’m working class culturally and mixed race ethically). The comments from members of the senate were that it was “too hard” to reorganize hiring committees (although 7 had already separated the positions to maximize the equal employment opportunity policies we are required to uphold as an entity of the state and federal government). Additionally, there were comments from full-time faculty that “we’d always done it this way” (quoted from our faculty professional development coordinator) and that it would be “too hard” to find faculty to serve on hiring committees under the pressure of time. A part-time colleague brought up the fact that part-time faculty can serve on hiring committees, opening up the current pool of available faculty to serve on hiring committees from around 165 to nearly 700. What was deeply disheartening is that one of the chairs of the diversifying hiring committee (a Dean) told me himself (when I’d previously asked to serve as an EEO rep) that I was not eligible because I am part-time; a blatant lie, which I found out about that day.

**The moment that resulted in the letter I’m posting with this note however, came when I questioned a statement from the academic senate vice-president that “‘they’ don’t like living in rural areas.” Who is “they?” If you are one of “them,” then you know that they are talking about people of color…again, the composition of our faculty is not reflective of our service area, nor does it uphold the organization’s mission of equal employment opportunities. People who get the job look like the people hiring them; they must “fit.” At any rate, I disagreed and said that they (my white colleagues) were not going to like what I was about to say and then I said it. It is a white assumption that people of color do not like living in rural areas. Rural areas themselves, trees and dirt, are not especially threatening. It is the hostility and rejection, the history of “Sundown Towns” and knowing that one cannot be their real self. That one must leave their true self at the door and act “appropriate” and “professional” according to standards dictated by white, upper-middle class educators

After the meeting, four white, upper-middle class people held a meeting and agreed that my pointing out a “white assumption” about hiring “…was indeed offensive and therefore inappropriate and unprofessional.” The senate executive has been trying to give me the boot for a while and I imagine that they thought they had me with this, that I would shut up at last. Instead, I’m pissed off and fed up with keeping the secret of the racism, prejudice, and ethnocentrism I observe amongst colleagues and in academic senate meetings (FYI: International students you are part of this too. It’s been said that you all are “taking something away” from our local students and that you don’t stay in the U.S. and go back to your home country, it’s been implied that international students are “using” the college, which is xenophobic, to say the least). Do I fear getting fired, yes. Do I care, yes. Do I care more about exposing racism, prejudice, and ethnocentric viewpoints at my organization than I do my career, yes.

 

 

**I cannot publish the letter here lest I get my e.com colleagues in hot water with my former employer. What I can do is describe receiving a letter marked confidential in my department mailbox the week after the academic senate meeting and opening it with shaking hands. How I knew what it would say, that I had no right to feel as I did and that somehow by bringing up race in the context of hiring during a senate meeting I would pay dearly, and I did. I was never spoken to again but that is nothing compared to the ongoing damage of systemic racism in institutions and implicit bias on academic hiring committees.

Me & Tony Talk About the Corporatization of Higher Ed on Facebook

I like the “On this day” app on facebook. I don’t teach anymore but I’m reminded of things I taught or read and what I thought about them, it’s good to reflect now that I’m an official “post-ac” (that’s a former academic, mostly adjuncts, who got fed up with the b.s. and left academia for greener pastures).

In today’s facebook feed I was reminded of an article I read in 2010, “What do we mean by leadership in an academic institution?” At the time, I was a busy Sociology adjunct at Butte Community College, I served on 7 committees, including serving as an at-large senator on the academic senate. I also applied for and participated in a two-year leadership program at my school called the BCLDI, or Butte College Leader Development Institute. I didn’t know it when I applied, but this was a program intended to train and develop future college administrators. Coming from sales and industry, I wasn’t put off by the business lingo, in fact, I embraced it and then later, rebelled against it. I realized I was being trained as a tool for the McDonaldization of Higher Education, someone who’s skills were being exploited for the corporatocracy, I’m a sociologist, it wasn’t hard to turn away from the corporate/leadership nonsense. I’d left Barnes and Noble (a bookstore job!) because a manager was hired from Staples Office Supply who didn’t read and referred to books as “units.”

At any rate, this businessification of higher ed has sucked out the learning and turned it into a meaningless path to the job market, where faculty are there to “serve customers” and where administrators are guardians of the bottom line; a world where for example, a chair who senselessly power wields and causes colleagues misery is kept on because, “she’s great with the FTE’s.”

Today, I had one of my great facebook conversations with my former prof, thesis committee chair, and good friend, Tony Waters. I could tell you about it but instead, I’m going to copy and paste our conversation right here. Make sure you give a click and read this first so you know what the hell we’re talking about in the conversation below: “What do we mean by leadership in an academic institution?”

Tony: “I liked the comment about academic leaders being recruited for their “marketing skills.” The higher you go in the administrative hierarchy, the more likely you are required to spend a great deal of time with donors. Another word for spending time for donors? Marketing.”

Julie: “This is good, just reread it. I copied this part because I think it highlights the issues with power wielding that come up when faculty take on administrative power: “One of the things that happens to their brains is that once given a title with some attached authority they start to believe they are taking on the mantel of leadership. The term is thrown around very loosely as if it is interchangeable with the title of authority. To be fair, however, many faculty and staff develop expectations that just because someone has the title of provost or chancellor, or whatever, that they must be leaders, as if by definition. A better term for their roles would be coordinator. The issue, at base, is how good are they at coordinatorship?””

Tony: “That’s also a good quote. I like co-ordinators. But co-ordinatorship can corrupt–and turn into a concentration of power. In academia it corrupts because people like me would prefer to ignore the problem, and focus on their teaching and writing. I think he also makes that point!”

Julie: “That’s the marketing thing you’re talking about, a little bit of authority in the hands of untrained faculty often results in unnecessary power wielding and lots of interdepartmental drama.”

Tony: “From the Dean level up, there is often an emphasis on “fundraising” from private donors very prominent in the job description because such fund-raising is viewed as necessary for the survival of the modern university. The problem is that the only people who have the money to be fundraised from are businesspeople who use their business-based views of the world to tie strings to “donations.” This is an important part of how the “business model” has become so prominent in university administration today.”

Julie: “…this is why President Zingg has worn out his welcome, once a college prez is “spoiled” by controversy they are a poor marketing tool for donors. They retire or leave under a cloud only to appear fresh and ready to sell, sell, sell at their new school. Butte’s prez was transparent with us about that when I was in the 2 year leadership program. I think that’s why I got encouraged to attend pre-admnistrator training, I have that sales/marketing background, it wasn’t a turn off like it was for many faculty.”

*Please share your thoughts on the corporatization of the university in the comments, we want to hear from you and commiserate!

 

 

True Believers and Personality Tests

I used to be a true believer in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). I can’t remember when I first encountered the 93 question test but it was probably during grad school. I was at my height of believing in it though, when I was part of a two-year leadership development program at my old job. I learned a good deal about leadership and made great friends,but there was also an emphasis on personality types that overshadowed much of the programming. Thinking about different personalities and social dynamics is interesting and useful in some settings. But, the complete lack of objectivity (on self-report data that reveals only positive attributes) is not useful to predict behavior, hire employees, and otherwise assess one another and ourselves.

Of course, I thought my results were valid because I was feeling smug about how honest I was with myself and because the results made me look good. But I’ve changed my mind in the last couple of years and as usual, it’s because the facts don’t play out. There is research galore that says, “…it (MBTI) has no more reliability and validity than a good Tarot card reading.”  So, it can sound like science but it isn’t and is no more useful than using astrological signs as part of the hiring process. There is also big money involved for the company that sells the test and certifies “practitioners” (to the tune of nearly 20 million a year).

It’s cool if you disagree with me, I know personality tests and astrology are beloved subjects to many. I’m also guilty of this sort of American essentialism, wanting to think that there is some core essence that is me, the individual and that if I can identify those attributes then I can live a more positive, happy life.

Life is not so simple, though maybe we wish it was.

Read the article over on Vox and watch the video to decide for yourself.

Cowboy Nation

A few nights ago, my husband and I saw the new sci-fi film, The Martian. We arrived early, grabbed our pairs of 3D glasses and set off to find seats, towards the back and on the aisle. I’d felt somewhat nervous as we sat there, paranoid with thoughts about Thursday’s mass shooting in Oregon and because back in August, employees at the theater I was sitting in had called the police to report a suspicious person who was later found to be carrying a loaded .45. It turned out to be “nothing” but I still felt weird and watched as people came in and sat down. I thought my nervousness was a PTSD thing until I mentioned it to my husband when we were munching on wings in a restaurant after the movie. No, he felt strange too and like me, noticed that none of the patrons had sat in the first eight rows of seats nearest the exits. We were all seated in the rows above and behind the first level, and sitting close together at that. There were a few people that sat in the lower rows but they moved before the previews started.

I never used to think about guns when I went to the movies.

I did think about guns and mass shootings when I was adjuncting at Butte Community College. After a difficult semester, (you can read all about it here) I had a student show up trying to add the class he’d failed the previous semester. He was not the student who’d harassed me but I remembered him, he came to class daily but turned in few assignments and didn’t take exams, the assignment I remembered was the poster project. I’m not easily spooked but in the email I wrote to the college’s V.P. I said:

“I was very uncomfortable because he failed my class last spring and I felt there was something else, something odd taking place. I gave him my business number (good customer service might save my life someday) but I felt a great sense of threat from this student; he spoke often of violence in spring 2010 and did a poster assignment on methods of torture in other countries…”

I couldn’t stop the student from showing up because he was third on the waitlist; he was demanding of my attention before class and asked me to write him a letter of recommendation (I said ‘no’). The previous semester he’d glowered at me from the front row, followed behind me when I walked to my car to leave for the day, and made a point to tell me that he’d noted the make and model of my car and license plate. Now, he was back and this was the response from the V.P.:

“The concerns that you have from your past experience should have been documented and acted on at that time, which may have resulted in him not being able to take your class.  I would suggest that if this student does get into your class you send him to me for a discussion about his behavior and consequences’ for his possible future bad behavior!”

Yes, I’d screwed up during the difficult semester and did not tell admin about this student, I was dealing with too much and didn’t have enough support. I also second guessed myself. Now, there was little I could do and campus police made me feel like an idiot after they’d spoken with him; he seemed to “respect” and “like” me, he was seen as overly attached not as a creepy, giant man who followed me around on campus. I felt stupid for feeling scared but I still felt scared and intimidated. Fortunately, he dropped the course because of a schedule conflict but he continued to follow me on campus until I started carpooling to save money, he drifted away after that.

I think about that student when there’s a school shooting, one that is usually perpetrated by a young man who’d never made much trouble in the past. Often, a young man with a passion for weapons and violence in conjunction with a sense of being wronged or ‘dissed; a young man who feels he is a beta among alpha males, a man who can’t connect with women and is thus, lacking status.

After a school shooting, we argue about gun control on facebook and blame the incident on mental illness and bad parenting. We social justice activists argue with conservatives on twitter that are quick to blame the shooting on “Muslims” and certain that all we need are more guns and protection, including arming teachers. There’s an unsettling feeling as new information comes forward, the young man had a manifesto, his mother was a “gun nut” who stockpiled weapons out of fear of gun control, his father had “no idea,” and survivors describe him as appearing “happy” while he murdered classmates. He was a virgin who didn’t have a girlfriend.

This happens frequently enough that we know the pattern as it unfolds. I’m sure I’m not alone in predicting these factors following Thursday’s murders. Mass shootings are old hat for us here in the United States (“stuff happens”). As of October 1, there were 294 mass shootings in 2015, “more than one a day” according to BBC News. Given this, why can’t we stop them from occurring? Will it be gun control? Will “Good guys with guns” protect us? Australia initiated strict gun control after the worst mass shooting in the country’s history. Perhaps the Australian’s did something we in the United States are unwilling to do:

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, Michael Pascoe blasted American society as immature and unable to take basic actions to save lives: In his very fine speech this morning, full of sorrow and frustration, President Obama made a mistake: Australia is not like the United States. We decided not to be. We decided to grow up instead and become a more reasonable, rational society that explicitly values human life and prefers to think the best of people, rather than the worst. The US is too immature a society to be allowed to play with guns. It has never shed its Wild West mythology. Americans still use their courts to kill people, which sends a message in its own way… It’s a country that values property more than life.”

The U.S. is a revenge-loving, Cowboy culture, if someone offends or hurts us we want them to pay. Been disrespected or humiliated? Get a gun and feel confident! Feel powerless and afraid? Get a gun and feel confident! Our society scarcely addresses the issues behind the issue of mass shootings. Complicated things like drug and alcohol treatment, curbing the school to prison pipeline, and ongoing gender inequality/“macho” culture, problems not easily resolved.

This mindset, “‘Dis me and you’ll pay” is at the heart of much of our mass violence. It’s in our movies and TV, books, graphic novels, and video games. Our entertainment reflects who we are, not vice versa. I think that’s what I was thinking sitting in the theater on Saturday night, worried that someone was going to use us patrons as a proxy for their rage. It was similar to the fear I felt with the student who did his lone assignment on torture, feeling paranoid and trying to talk myself out of it. I don’t like fear or fear-mongering but let me say this, three days after the shooting in Oregon, four California students were apprehended by police for plotting a school shooting, they’d clearly outlined the targets for their revenge. The following Monday, October 5, the FBI issued a warning for Philadelphia-area colleges that there was a potential for a campus shooting.

The Umpqua Community College gunman’s mother is being called “paranoid” in the media but if you read her online comments, you’ll see the over-confident cowboy in there. It was true for her son too; witnesses describe him as confident and seeming to enjoy the momentary sense of power while killing.

Cowboy nation.

It’s what psychiatrist James Gilligan wrote about in his book Violence, where he says, “All violence is an attempt to replace shame with self esteem.”

Shared Governance or Managed Dissent at Chico State?

The demand for civility effectively outlaws a range of intellectual, literary, and political forms; satire is not civil, caricature is not civil, hyperbole and aesthetic mockery are not civil nor is polemic. Ultimately, the call for civility is a demand that you not express anger; and if it was enforced it would suggest that there is nothing to be angry about in the world.”  –Michael Meranze

Finding parking near Chico State is a pain in the ass. I finally find a ten-hour spot, drop some quarters in the meter and head toward campus on a Thursday afternoon. It’s a hot day in this walking town and I arrive on campus, walk past the bike racks near the Bell Memorial Union and toward the path that will take me to Colusa Hall. Not too many students are around except a scattering seated on a circle of benches in the shade of a tree in front of Trinity Hall.

I am back at my alma mater for an Academic Senate forum.  The campus is in an uproar—the first week of school, the campus President announced his retirement at a time of widespread dissent over his stewardship from staff and faculty.  Signs of a toxic workplace culture are common at Chico State in recent semesters. There is high employee turnover, rumors of favoritism, abuses of power, and retaliation by administrators. The week before the forum things had seemingly come to a head.  Following his retirement announcement, the President announced a promotion (and raise) for a crony Provost to permanent status before she quickly withdrew herself in the context of widespread dissent from faculty and staff.  That same week, a “campus climate survey” was released that illustrated campus wide dissatisfaction with the administration and leadership (or lack thereof).  In other words, things are roiling at Chico State and a special Academic Senate forum was called to calm the waters.  It was so bad that even the Chancellor’s office sent representatives from system headquarters in southern California.  How would they do it?  How would the Senate forum restore “Chico nice?”

I haven’t been on campus in a while, I am alumni but I also worked here, taught sociology as an adjunct lecturer for a couple of years, and have personal experience with Chico State’s hostile work environment. I arrive at the hall, people are in line almost to the door waiting to sign in and I slip past, my ball cap dipped down. I find a chair, move it to a corner near the food table and try my best to look like I belong. I’m dressed like a student, jean shorts, black t-shirt, outdoorsy sandals, and ball cap; I don’t work here anymore so I left my old faculty uniform at home. The uniform is here though, dress shirts and ties (it is a senate meeting) and nice blouses and other work clothes. There are tables and chairs set up facing each other in small squares all throughout the room and more chairs circle the outer ring of tables. There are several screens around the room for the coming PowerPoint and survey presentations.

People are social as they file in, friendly hellos and lots of meeting and greeting. After all, this is Chico State, known not only as a party school, but also as a place where people socialize easily.  The room fills up quick and soon enough, its standing room only (except at the front table) and a woman laughs with a co-worker standing beside her who says, “You’re supposed to be saving me a seat.”

I don’t think this many people were expected to show up.

There is a lot of activity at the food table. My fondest memories of faculty gatherings include standing around with colleagues and snacking on an array of cheese cubes, cookies, pastry-like items, and all the self-serve coffee, tea, and water we could handle. In hard budget times, serving food is somewhat of a bribe but a good one, professionals are more cooperative with snacks; we are like grade school children that way.

The meeting begins with the academic senate chair welcoming all the attendees and saying, “Give yourselves a hand.” That is familiar; so I jot a note, “how many more clapping sessions will there be?” Next, the chair briefly discusses the agenda and says, “We have a task, which is, that we are demonstrating ourselves to be the type of campus a new president will want to come to.” There is a few claps and then scattered applause before everyone jumps on board with clapping. There is more of the expected clapping as different segments of campus are recognized for being here, from the sound of the clapping, most of the audience are staff members.

A week before at the fall convocation (for the uninitiated, it’s a kind of welcome back to school event), Chico State president Paul Zingg announced that he would be retiring at the end of the school year. I predicted this, but that prediction was only a head note, something I filed away when I started reading about the problems at Chico State. My thinking when I heard the announcement was that he was being forced out, a ritual of change in higher education where a new president is like a fresh start for a campus with problems. But the problem isn’t one person; it’s a matter of culture.

Chico State has a trust problem. Its faculty does not trust administrators neither do the staff and it was clear that the CSU board of trustees had sent representatives to the senate forum to quell dissent. Reports about bullying and harassment of employees had been in the news for over a year. And the phrase “toxic environment” was repeated in social media and quoted in online media. As the meeting began, the senate chair read two quotes about positive change and growth and said “I want you to consider that as we move forward today in a positive atmosphere.” Followed by: “We are going to conduct a very civil forum here” …Uh-oh.

My own hackles were raised by the idea of a “very civil forum.”  I was an adjunct Academic Senator for four years at the other college I worked at, Butte College, and I recognized the tone in the chair’s message (somewhat scolding) .  Apparently, the employees in the audience needed to get the underlying message that they had better behave and that maybe they hadn’t behaved in the past. I watched the faces around me as the chair spoke, co-workers shared knowing looks and eyebrow raises, and another elbowed her neighbor and rolled her eyes.

Campus wide, over 50% of Chico State’s employees do not believe “Communications throughout the university are open and carried out in good faith and in an atmosphere of trust” (Campus Climate Survey p. 31). Given this, the next phase of the meeting was telling. This part was presented a la PowerPoint by a statewide CSU senator who began by saying, “What I’m going to do is walk you through some things you already know that speaks about the conduct in the affairs of the university” and proceeded to go over the basics of shared governance. It was clear there was a purpose and it revealed itself when the speaker got to the topic of collegiality.

The speaker stands in front of us and says, “Note that nowhere does it say, ‘and always smile at each other and say good morning.’ Collegiality doesn’t mean smiling and saying ‘hi,’ it means finding ways to work together even if you don’t like somebody very much.”  Hmm, I think to myself. That might be true but that wasn’t much of a “positive” statement and it felt weird. A friendly, connected workplace is a happy workplace; polite actions are part of creating a satisfying work culture and there is plenty of research that states that fact. So why was the presenter pooh-poohing generalized friendliness without explanation? It’s true that academe is notorious for ego politics and small stakes wars but if you want to promote civility wouldn’t you want to promote pro-social behavior, ya know, communication and stepping out of the silos?

The senate forum was beginning to feel like same old b.s. I thought our time was being wasted, if the audience knows what shared governance is, why in the hell go over it again? This is an all too common tactic for managing dissent through institutional processes and symbolic gatherings, fill much of the time with senseless presentations and leave all interaction and discussion to the end of the meeting, people are more tired and many will have left for other obligations.

It made sense then that the next part of the presentation was about the “Campus Climate Survey. It was interesting and well explained (and in great detail) but again, seemed to be another instance where employees who were there to feel heard, were being talked at and explained to. As if they were being told, “you have shared governance, we did a survey and you have a voice…so shut up.” Indeed, Birnbaum (1989) says that the senate is largely a symbol where “an institution could suggest the existence of faculty authority even when it did not exist” (p. 428).

The next portion of the presentation was a timed period of group work that had volunteer moderators (collected together at the last-minute) at each table to “keep the conversation civil” and to collect notes “as a record of the activity.” The change of pace was obviously welcomed because the subdued room got loud and there were bursts of laughter while employees arranged their selves at the tables. Still, one employee made a point to question the validity of the group activity and said, “I wonder if you could say more about the purpose of this activity? We’ve done a lot of this…possibility conversations, senate retreat, what are your goals?” The senate chair took the mic back and went into a lengthy, bureaucratic explanation about process that sounded like good old-fashioned C.Y.A. (Google that acronym if you need to).

What is the purpose of an academic senate forum? A forum is a place of public expression but what I observed had more to do with social control and managing dissent. Several official entities used the phrase “move forward” more than a dozen times and I heard the word “positive” throughout the meeting and in the context of employee behavior, e.g., “I would hate for you to only spend time on the negative.”

Does avoiding the negative improve working conditions? Will positive thinking lighten workloads or result in staff promotions and recognition? Will it make bullying go away? The employees came to the senate forum to be heard but I don’t think they felt heard, I think they felt controlled. Civility is valuable but you don’t create a culture of civility by avoiding conflict. The high turnover, rumors of favoritism, reports of mistrust, abuse of power, and retaliation; they are the signs of a toxic workplace culture. The representative attending from the Chancellor’s office said, “We are all collectively responsible,” which is another way people at the top shirk actual responsibility by spreading it around to those on the lower rungs of the hierarchy.

I don’t think they bought it and I hope they stay angry.

 

Resources for further reading (in addition to highlighted links above)

How I Spent My Summer Vacation (and Other Stuff)

It was 53 degrees this morning where I live at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Fall is in the air, which is nice because with the drought going on it’s been a long, hot, and breezy/dry summer in our woods and it’s still fire season, at least until we get our first good rain. While I have been here in northern California goofing around with my dogs, hiking, writing poetry, and clearing brush, Tony was writing stuff for the blog, and traveling throughout Germany and in Thailand and China; Marianne was busy with her dissertation work and being a mom and gardener (her tomato pictures on facebook looked really good!).

There is something comforting about the rhythm of the school year, and even though I’m not a teacher anymore, I adhere to the education season still and feel like it’s time to get back to work. This week we want to let you know about our new ethnography.com facebook page, where we post blogs but also images, resources, and other fun stuff for smarties. Please stop by to give us a “like” and help us spread the word.

Following an eventful week of participant observation, I will be posting blogs this coming week about my visits to the Academic Senate Forum at Chico State and the Butte County Fair in Gridley, CA. The fair was a working class extravaganza and my husband and I enjoyed being in the company of others who find flower displays and diving dogs entertaining.

The Academic Senate Forum at Chico State was another kind of classed experience. I spent two and a half hours with the professional middle class (PMC) in a meeting environment that was all too familiarly strange (I served on the academic senate when I was an adjunct at Butte College). Chico State has been on my radar, stories of huge workloads, distrust of administration, compensation and lack of step increases/opportunities for staff, administrative overreach, and issues with Diversity. You can read about it from Chico State’s Orion here. And, here’s a link to get the skinny on what the problems are, which includes a link to the “Campus Climate Survey” at the bottom of the page. I will be posting about this later in the week, so check back if you want to hear this ethnographer’s story of an Academic Senate Forum.

Don’t forget to stop by and see us on facebook!

 

The Tattooed Professor Has Some New Year’s Resolutions for Academics

The Tattooed Professor (AKA Kevin Gannon) has some New Year’s resolutions for academics and they’re so good, we wanted to tell you about it. We like the Tattooed Professor here at e.com, we think he’s cool and provocative; I like him because he is direct, something we working class people value. This time, the Tattooed Prof offers some kind words for you professors beginning your academic year. He wants you to be mindful and committed to a “better academe” because lord knows, higher education is fraught at the moment.

It’s great advice, the kind I used to ignore when I was adjuncting at Butte Community College and Chico State. I’d say, “Seven classes, no problem!” Academic Senate, 5 committees, and advising a student club? “Oh heck,” I would tell colleagues, “I like stress.” And I was full of shit, let me tell ya. What Tattooed prof wants you to know (me too) is that life-work balance is a good thing; eating at a table instead of in front of a computer is even better. Take time and don’t stress out, remember as Tattooed Professor’s wife would say, “Will any babies die?”

Seriously.

In addition to some good advice to chill out, I liked these points:

  1. Know your colleagues: Yup, tenured and tenure track, that means you need to stop and say hello to your adjunct colleagues in the hallway. Adjuncts are the red shirts of academe, and they know it. If you are truly committed to collegiality and student success, you will need to make an effort to cross that status boundary because a culture of collegiality starts with you all; those with power have to make the first move.
  2. Climb over silo walls: In other words, there are people at your workplace doing stuff that makes things flow and keep things running, these people are called “staff” and they are some of the most invisible and least appreciated people on your campus. While the president is thanking all the faculty in convocation and you all are atta-boying and atta-girling each other, these folk are waiting for you to leave so they can clean up. Get out of your offices and take a break from your clique, there are all kinds of people working on your campus.
  3. Know what you love to do: This one is my favorite because it was the kick in the ass I needed about writing. In this one, Tattooed Prof wants you to “Know what it is you love to do, and make time to do it.” Yeah, it’s hard to write, teach, do idiotic administrative paperwork, and eat/sleep/be human. I remember. Read this part especially, it is encouraging and important. These are words I heard before, but I like the Tattooed Profs version better: ASS IN CHAIR.
  4. Perspective: I kinda already talked about this one, but again, we smarty academic types struggle with life-work balance, we want to do it all and we can get pretty stressed out when we cannot. Academe is a culture of being stressed out, I have seen (and participated in) the “I’m so stressed out” Olympics, where I and colleagues would compare our crazy/busy lives (I usually lost because I don’t have kids). At any rate, remember to ask yourself, “Will any babies die?” If the answer is no, then CHILL OUT.
  5. Check your privilege: After reading this one, I want to have a collegial coffee in the campus coffee shop with Tattooed Professor and his administrator wife. Finally, a White dude with tenure lays it out. I don’t need to say anything else, I’ll just drop this quote below.

      Ask yourself: who chairs our committees? Who speaks the most in faculty meetings? Do we enable academic bullies? Contingent faculty have an array of macro-institutional dynamics stacked against them. And this is just on the faculty-staff side–our students also experience the effects of power and privilege. What’s our role been in that? Who do we call on in discussions? What assumptions do we make about students’ levels of preparation or suitability for different programs of study based upon their backgrounds? What are we implicitly doing with and among our students? What are the “hidden transcripts” embedded in our interactions with our classes? Have we abetted the operation of privilege? Or have we called privilege out–named it–and let our students examine it critically, to discern its operation and effects?

Enjoy reading this piece, here’s the New Year’s Resolutions for Academics again if you missed it above. At the bottom of the page, Tattooed Professor posted a pic of his Pittie-Boxer mix Daisy, a beautiful dog with a great mantra: “Wag more, bark less.”

***Here’s my Pittie-Jack Russell mix Twilly, his mantra is play, play, play!

The High Cost of Mean Bosses

Yesterday’s New York Times featured an opinion piece on rudeness and incivility in the workplace and the high cost of mean bosses. It’s true, mean bosses suck. I’ve only had a couple, and most of my bosses during my low wage service years were pleasant overall or mostly absent, which is nice too. When I was a higher ed adjunct, my “boss” was the department chair. Technically they are not “the boss”, they are the people who have the responsibility to schedule classes and push some additional, administrative paper. And this is the problem with department chairs: they usually lack management training and leadership experience, academia is a loner gig. But this often means that department chairs run things based on personality; if they are an asshole, it’s going to be a rough few years.

I don’t work in academia anymore. But, I am job hunting and wondering what kind of boss I will have next. So, give “No Time to Be Nice” a read and wish me luck.

9 types of bosses

 

Artichokes

By Guest Writer: N. Jeanne Burns
A friend said recently that one definitive marker of social class is whether you know how to eat an artichoke. This probably isn’t true for migrant farmworkers who toil in or around Castroville, California, the self-proclaimed “Artichoke Capital of the World.” Or even for people who grew up on the Mediterranean, where the plant is native. But M.F.K. Fisher, who herself grew up surrounded by fields of artichokes, recognized the class-climbing rank of the thistle in her essay “The Social Status of the Vegetable.” And the distinction feels right to me, even seventy years later, despite other, more elite foods like pâtédefoisgras making a clear status statement. Maybe it’s because you can get artichoke hearts on home-delivered pizza or in jars at even some of the smallest grocery stores. But the flower itself is hard to find and looks threatening when you spy it on your produce shelves.I don’t recall the first time I tasted an artichoke, sometime in my twenties. It was probably in a dip, the vegetable’s real flavor and texture drowned out by mayonnaise, cheese, and canned artichoke brine. However, I remember the first time I saw an artichoke in the grocery store, looking more like a wall of soldiers guarding the asparagus than the tender, delicious vegetable I would come to love. I pretended to examine grapefruit while I watched several people pick through the bin and place two or four blooms in their carts. Iwas embarrassed because people around me seemed to know something I didn’t: how to turn that oversized greenpinecone into a meal.I couldn’t ask my mother, because she wouldn’t know. She’d grown up in Appalachian rural poverty and ate only what her family could grow. Artichokes didn’t appear on their table.Knowing scarcity herself, she made sure our working-class family always had sustenance, but never cooked more than we could eat at one sitting. The food stayed within the boundaries of her experience. Fried chicken. Canned green beans and raw bacon boiled together for half an hour. Fried pork chops. Collards and bacon fat, cooked until the greens were wilted, dark and shiny with grease. Fried salmon cakes made with fish from a tin. Canned peas boiled to mush. Mom kept a large tin of bacon grease by the stove to fry eggs, make gravy, and glaze biscuits. Her spice cabinet held only salt, pepper, and cream of tartar. She hated garlic.I’ve come to love more subtle tastes and textures than my mother taught me to appreciate.In my early thirties, I went with friends to a restaurant I’d heard was very good. The waiter brought tiny plates to our celebratory table. On each, a minute crouton cradling a smear of fresh mozzarella was covered with a fresh basil leaf and drizzled with a sweet brown liquid.”An amuse-bouche from the chef,” he said, “topped with balsamic vinegar.”We’d been waiting over an hour for the last of the party to arrive and were very hungry. By the time my friends and I downed the diminutive appetizers, wiped our mouths and returned the napkins to our respective laps, we wanted more and let the waiter know.

He laughed. “That was one-hundred-year-old balsamic–$250 per ounce.”

Its velvety sweet flavor hinted at a heavy red wine, but with a subtly sharp vinegar taste in the background. I’d never tasted something so good or so expensive. I wanted more.

After that dinner, for very special times my partner Liz and I wanted to mark, we splurged at restaurants where haricots verts are slender green beans, charcuterie is a selection of shaved deli meats, coulis is a thin sauce. I never liked steak until I felt my first bite of filet mignon melting on my tongue. And you would never have seen me eat a parsnip until I had tasted pureed root vegetables at a local French restaurant.

I don’t tell mom about my food escapades because I’m certain she’d be offended at the amount of money we spend on a dinner for two and be worried about how I dressed. “You wore hose and a slip, I hope,” she’d say, the o in hope drawn out as if there were a u after it. She never wanted her social class to show and taught me to mimic people I judged to be a higher class than I, as she had.

When my mother told me she first used a napkin when she was fifteen, in 1960, I had a lot of questions. What did she use to wipe her mouth before 1960? (An arm or sleeve.) Did all her friends and school mates wipe their mouths with their sleeves? (Yes.) And, finally, how did she learn to use a napkin?

An upper-middle-class family had come into the hills seeking a live-in babysitter and found my mother. She moved away from her family for the first time to take this summer job. When mom was asked to set the table, she was told to set out napkins (she doesn’t remember whether they were cloth or paper). She watched the family members wipe their mouths. She mimicked their actions, inferring correctly that people in a class above hers use napkins.

My neighborhood housed firefighters, truck drivers, and janitors so I first encountered middle class people in college. Since then, I’ve observed and mimicked cultural mores many times. I have failed at the part of inference sometimes.

My first time in college, I saw lots of well-dressed pretty women wearing safety pins that had been decorated with variously colored short ribbons that seemed to match their clothes. I made a color-coordinated pin for each of my outfits and wore them until a woman who was offended that I would steal her sorority’s colors dressed me down. I never again trusted what I saw to be appropriate.

Still, I watched and learned.

I grew up with paper napkins. We kept them by our plates and picked them up to wipe our mouths. If we were eating something particularly messy, I would spread out the paper and tuck the tip into my shirt. The restaurants we went to growing up all provided paper napkins. Sometimes they gave us rectangular and thicker napkins than the Viva brand we used at home, but they were always paper.

The first time I used a cloth napkin was at prom, which was held at the Hotel duPont, the nicest hotel in town. But I kept it on the table.

I was in my late twenties before I noticed people around me putting their napkins on their laps. This didn’t make sense to me. The mess I make when I eat is on my face or on my shirt. I never get stains on my pants because the drips drop at the shelf on my chest. Why wouldn’t I want the napkin closer?

I asked a friend when I first noticed the napkin in the lap, and she laughed at me, saying only white trash tuck their napkins in their shirts. A napkin on my lap still doesn’t make sense to me, because after my friend laughed at me, I became afraid of asking about social class conventions.

Finally, at twenty-nine, I had my chance. My friend Nils presented artichokes to go with the baked chicken he’d just taken out of the oven.

“How about artichokes for our vegetable? Fresh from my garden.”

I nodded and smiled, hoping to see artichoke prep firsthand, but knowing I would have to pretend that I already knew how to cook and eat it.

“You start the chokes while I get the chicken out of the oven?”

“No, I’ll take the bird out. It’ll only be a minute.” I didn’t even want to touch the artichokes because they looked painful to handle.

He palmed the blooms and told me a story about getting kicked out of the kitchen of his Navy battleship because the cook thought he got in the way.

So the leaves don’t hurt, I thought.

“He also didn’t want me to get my officer’s uniform dirty.”

“I don’t want you to stain your clothes either. That’s why I’m dealing with the dirty bird!”

As I tented the chicken with foil, I watched him cut off most of the stem and place the thistles into a steamer. The pot’s top teetered on the tallest one, so he balanced it on one edge.

“Have you ever had artichokes cooked any other way?” I asked.

“Hearts in brine, but those are steamed too. Have you?”

“Oh, I thought since you’d traveled the world in the Navy, you’d have seen some unusual things.” I moved to the kitchen table and started folding napkins that he’d taken out of the dryer a few minutes before into rectangles, wanting to keep myself occupied so he wouldn’t ask me to check on the vegetable. Or ask me to turn the fabric squares into a bird.

“I’ve seen lots of strange things. Nothing with an artichoke. I think there’s only one way to cook and eat an artichoke. To eat any thistle.”

After carving the chicken he placed one bloom on each of our plates, and a bowl of what looked like mayonnaise between us. The green globe smelled most like steamed spinach. He ate his chicken before picking at his vegetable.

Then he plucked off each leaf, one by one, dipped it into the sauce he called “broccolati,” which I now know to be aioli–mayo with lemon and garlic–and scraped the tender flesh off each leaf with his teeth.

I followed his lead until I got to a hairy blob. I didn’t know what to do, so I took my napkin off my lap and placed it onto the table, which I’d learned the year before, was the signal that you are done with your meal.

“You’re not going to eat the heart? That’s the best part!”

I wanted to eat the heart, but I didn’t want to embarrass myself by not knowing what to do with the hairs.

“No, I’m full. You go ahead if you want.”

Nils scraped the hairy ball out of his artichoke heart with a spoon, being careful to get every fiber but none of the vegetable’s center, cut the heart in four, and ate them without any aioli. While he scraped at mine I asked him how he learned to eat an artichoke.

“I don’t remember. My mother cooked them for us, and I suppose I learned from her.”

These days the Internet and YouTube how-to videos can teach me just about anything. I can, for instance, mimic my partner’s very privileged family when we go to very fine restaurants to celebrate a birthday or anniversary without worrying that I’ll be judged as white trash. I’ll use the tiny spoon to sprinkle salt on my dinner like everyone else at the table, and will learn later about why petite bowls and spoons are better than a salt shaker, with the poet Pablo Neruda’s tenderhearted warrior always on my mind.

I’ve used online video searches to learn how to make a lamb balsamic reduction, how to sprinkle fleur de sel as a finishing salt on a delicate endive salad, and how to slice open a mango, all things my mother would find too strange for her liking.

Though I’m sure she’ll like that I now keep a small jar of bacon fat in my freezer, because in the twenty-some years I’ve been out of her house, I’ve not found a better fat in which to fry an egg. The next time I see her, I’ll make a dip with mayonnaise, crème fraîche (telling her it is sour cream), and white truffle oil (telling her it is made from mushrooms), and I’ll teach mom how to eat an artichoke.

Class Lives

Published in Class Lives: Stories from Across our Economic Divide, 2014, Cornell University Press