Monday, November 23, 2009

Competency vs. Incompetency

The first job I had after I graduated from Reed was at OWA. I was a good administrative assistant when I worked at a small trade association for Oregon Wines. I could run a mail merge, layout a newsletter, sell ads in our association’s directory, draft business letters, balance the books. I wasn’t great. I neglected to file. I made typographical errors. But I was OK at it. I could host in-office wine tastings, plan a three-day conference, design formal invitations for big fund raising events. The fact that I got paid half as much as my predecessor helped my boss be patient while I learned the ropes. I must have done well enough because when my boss left to be a lobbyist for the American Winery Association, I was promoted—not to executive director, the position my boss left, but to Administrator which meant I did all the stuff I did before, plus organized the monthly board meetings, attended lobbying meetings, corresponded with members and made sure members paid their dues and advertisers paid their invoices. I wasn’t great at it. I was 22. I was the only person left in the office. It wasn’t easy to have no one to go to for help but I lasted for another year and now I have mad mail merge skills and can desktop publish four-color, full-bleed brochures.
Today, over at Dean Dad, Dean Dad has embarked on a fight with Michael Berube over tenure. I get some of Dean Dad’s points. Tenure, when you end up with tenured shirkers, does kind of suck. But I mostly agree with the comments from anonymous comment #7—that tenure is a trade off for a more reasonable salary. My dad in 1987 made as much as I do in now. The idea that in an economic slump, I would be one of the last to let go gives me some extra kind of compensation when, especially at this point in the semester, I can’t imagine how I’ll get it all done—the letters of rec, the grant proposals, the recruitment campaign, nominations for contests and awards, portfolio grading. The promise of tenure is an economic one—if I do all this, then maybe, even probably, it will be worth a sustained, even though non-monetary, reward.
But the problem isn’t just this immediate economy. It isn’t just tenure as an additional, separate carrot as salary. As Ivory said, also in the comments, “The real issue is that academics can't kick the dust of a place of their heels and go elsewhere to work. It puts them at a terrible disadvantage in negotiating with their employer. As long as people keep going to grad school vastly in excess of the number of jobs available at the end of the pipeline, this will continue. The real remedy is for folks to make sure they have marketable skills so that the alternative to starvation is something other than endless adjuncting or postdocing. Knowing that you could tell your department chair to shove off for a job you would really enjoy is enormously freeing - it helps mentally deal with the slings and arrows of academic life because you know you're there by choice, not because you don't have any other choice.”
The economic problem isn’t really with the tenure system. It’s the idea that there are so few jobs and so many of us applying for them that lets the university value us so little. There are 300 people who could do my job. More. 1000. I’m lucky to have a job. I’m lucky.
It makes it hard to ask for much when the mantra running in the back of your mind is always “I’m lucky to have a job. I’m lucky to have this job.” So while I have competent, marketable skills like desktop publishing and mail-merging, I am completely incompetent to ask for anything more. I employ my desktop publishing, mail merge skills and even my budget-making skills for my job. I teach and advise and recruit. I go to meetings and organize meetings and think, if I would do the administrative part at 22 for $14,000 a year, certainly I can do it for what I make now. The eight years that went into teacher-training and writing make up for the rest of my salary. I am lucky to have a job. And yet, even in the mid-nineties that salary was still half a joke. When I took over for my boss, I did his work and my work for a fraction of the executive director’s former salary. My negotiation skills were as bad then as they are now.
I’ve never wanted to make a ton of money. That wasn’t the point. I wanted to be a professor. I wanted to write and teach. I wanted my SOE to be clear and the rewards for fulfilling it obvious. I wanted tenure not necessarily because it meant security or even academic freedom but because it was something I could work toward that wasn’t money, that I didn’t have to negotiate for. The rules for reward were established. They weren’t tucked into the folds of your negotiating skills bag of tricks. Since I have none, I end up better off in a “here’s what you came for, here’s what you get” kind of situation. If I knew jobs existed that said in 7 years, if you work your butt off, we’ll increase your salary by x-amount, I would have liked it too. I liked the idea of established reward. The world of negotiating is foreign to me. I read the Chronicle Forums and get freaked out by the general sentiment there that if you don’t ask for it when negotiating your contract, you’ve lost your chance at negotiating at all. The problem with negotiating at contract time is that you want the job. You played your hand pretty openly when you went ahead and applied for the job and came for the interview. There are 300 people who applied for my job. You don’t feel a lot of negotiating power when you can feel that crowd of people rolling their eyes at you, saying, I could do that job. As well as you. Better than you.
Conceivably, I could take my mail merge and desktop publishing skills (and now, with web-design!) skills and go (not that these skills are in such high demand). I’d flush 8 years of PhD school down the drain but I’m sure I could, as Ivory says, go elsewhere to work. My mom’s always reminding me that they’re always hiring technical writers at her work. But I don’t want to. I like the chair of the department. I like my colleagues. I like my students. And, when everything seems right in the world, I like the ratio of teaching to service to research. But even with the promise of tenure, when the service becomes, at the almost-end of the semester becomes almost 80% of the job and when the appreciation for the research and the teaching dips to nearly zero, I feel like I’m 22 again and mail merging and desktop publishing for $14,000 a year. I would like to ask for a little sign that I’ve gone above and beyond—a tenure plus something else kind of reward, something that would indicate that they would like me, not just the 300 others who could do the job but me in particular to stay. But that would send me to the negotiating table where I know, in the back of my head, that I’m just lucky to have a job.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Someone's Head

Someone's head, I'm not naming names, measured 35 weeks yesterday. Since that someone is only thirty-two weeks and two days old, that makes the head extra large. Zoe's head is very big. Her head is bigger than mine. Back in GR, the doctor thought her head so big, she should have an MRI. The MRI showed that Zoe has a big head. It is now known that big heads are the norm for Zoes and certain someones. The big head is fine. Good news even. Big heads are just great, once they're on the outside. Those of us who bear the big heads wish that perhaps the heads would grow big only once they're on the outside.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Not writing

I was writing, maybe, once. Earlier in the semester. But then the we had company. And then the swine flu. Zoe was out of school for seven full days. She also seems to have given up her nap. Erik is in the midst of scraping the cottage cheese ceilings (don't worry. No asbestos. We had it checked by a lovely lab in Sacramento). He's retaping and remudding and sanding and it will look lovely but the whole house is awash in a fine mist of drywall sand. Especially the living room where I usually write.
Did I mention Zoe gave up her naps? That means Saturday and Sunday afternoons are no longer dedicated writing days. Also, Mondays are now reserved for prep for Tuesdays. On Tuesdays, the line of advisees is so long that I have stayed an extra hour or worked to get someone's transcript fixed on a Friday. Wednesdays are meetings and special recruitment days. The summer program I'm in charge of needs me to begin to plan it. John D'Agata is coming in February and since I'm taking off three weeks in January for the baby, I need to get a jump start on that now. And I have 7 letters of recommendation to write.
But the worst part is, I'm starting to drop balls, which makes it hard to write. What was I thinking? How is this book supposed to work? Did I want to talk about my grandmother or how much bacon I ate for breakfast? I did something stupid on Sunday that resulted in me looking like a complete idiot. I also am literally dropping things like salt and woodchips and grapes and pieces of drywall mud all over the floor. I have 32 emails in my inbox (and, because of Sunday's error, I've tried to be very careful about my emails) and a research proposal due. Plus, Sunday morning, before I made this massive email screw up, I edited the book one last time. I caught some things. I'm sure, in my mental state, I missed a few more. Zoe's cough returned. I knew it would. The rumor about the swine flu is that it keeps on coming back in new and more intriguing forms. When she coughs, there's no sleep. So when I go to write, even for the hour I have today when Erik took Z to the park (she's off for Veteran's Day), instead of writing, I forget even what my project is and check my email which I'm not allowed to check. Food. The Apocalypse. So why do I end up writing about my doctor's visit? Or blogging? If nothing else, blogging counts as writing. Perhaps this post isn't entirely blithering. Perhaps I can take that confidence over to the Word doc over there, waiting for me.
And yet, I come into the living room, turn on the gas fireplace and realize, my lap top no longer fits on my lap.

Monday, November 02, 2009

H1N1--at least I hope it was

The pathology of the H1N1 progressed like this at our house:
On Monday, Zoe’s nose runs. It runs all the way through Tuesday and Wednesday. On Thursday, she was grumpy and feverish. On Friday, I call the doctor’s office. The nurses say to watch for lethargy and for respiratory distress. I tell the nurse that the doctor promised to prescribe Tamiflu. The nurse says no. There is a nationwide shortage. And Tamiflu comes with side effects. If she turns blue, take her to the ER, they say.
On the one hand, I feel better. They have confidence that my kid, even with her Reactive Airway Disorder, could kick this thing. On the other hand, if they aren’t giving Tamiflu to my asthmatic kid, who were they saving it for?
I sniff and hung up. I have had a stuffy nose for days. To sleep, or rather, to not sleep, I have to turn onto one side, let my sinuses drain into one nostril and then turn to my other to drain the other side. I imagine white blood cells attacking, attacking and then succumbing, succumbing. My mother- and sister-in-law are coming to town. I hate the idea of inviting them to come and take a dip in the flu germ bath that is our house. I turn and turn and don’t sleep. As if not sleeping is a vaccine. As if worry acts as some kind of Lysol.
Is insomnia a symptom of the H1N1? Are insomnia, worry, and overzealous phone-calling underlying conditions? If so, perhaps that’s why pregnant women succumb more than others. Or is it just that it’s already so hard to breathe. Insomnia, worry and phone calling are each conditions of struggling breath.
Saturday, Sunday and Monday—rebound! Zoe is up and around and not collapsing in my arms. We go to get our 8:10 and 8:15 o’clock shots. The nurse said as long as she wasn’t wheezing or didn’t have a fever, Zoe could get her shot. She was not wheezing between 8:00 and 8:30. I hope wheezing or fevering at the exact moment of the shot is what the nurses meant.
That night, Erik and I have to go to Phoenix for the Regional Emmy’s. Have to go might be overstating it a bit, but Erik bought a tuxedo. After the vaccine, I feel slightly less frantic about the swirling, imminent flu of death. I write directions to the hospital on a yellow notepad. I also include directions to the Thai restaurant to mark my sense of perspective and balance. She’s on the mend. I couldn’t have written directions for Thai if I thought she was still that sick.
We return on Sunday. Zoe has survived the night. No one else has as much as a sniffle. I thought this thing was the contagion to end all contagions. Apparently not, as we go to the brew pub for dinner and then return to drink wine and watch Madmen.
On Monday, the fever returns. Her grandmother leaves and she is bereft. So bereft that she sleeps for two days. By Tuesday night, she’s all cough and shivers. A relapse. Is this lethargy? Is it my lethargy that lets her sleep and can’t bring myself to panic. Perhaps this is how the flu kills. After seven days of worrying about it, you find you can’t any more. Tuesday night, I finally sleep. In the morning, Zoe is coughing but no more than with a usual cold. We have albuterol and a nebulizer. A cough I’m used to. Thursday night, she has an ear ache. She’s never had an ear ache in her life. Maybe this is how the flu kills. By confounding me.
By Friday, she’s back to her normal, ear ache free cough. By Saturday, she’s dressed for Halloween. I want to dress up as the swine flu but I don’t want to tempt the fates. Instead, I go as a Volkswagen bug since I’m big as a car. “Bug” is as close as I want to get to “germ.” Erik wears his tux and takes Zoe’s floaty tube with him to go as a Titanic survivor. Swine flu survivor to boot. So far. I knock on wood. Although we didn’t win the Emmy, the tux gets double use. And Zoe goes as a witch—perhaps it was some kind of Wiccan magic that kept the flu from taking her down. Or maybe we’re just waiting for relapse number three. Apparently, the vaccine can manage only so much protection. At night, I still turn, drain one nostril, turn, drain the other but in between the turning, I sleep.