Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Scarcity. Letter #74

Dear Governor Ducey,

            In a study about squirrels eating and caching habits, Mikel Delgado published an article in the Open Access forum PLOS. This article, “Fox Squirrels Match Food Assessment and Cache Effort to Value and Scarcity” sought to discover how squirrels make the decision rather to cache or eat food. The study asked, do squirrels make decisions based on scarcity and abundance? Do squirrels evaluate whether certain foods should be cached depending on the likely abundance of nuts. Can squirrels predict the ephemeral nature of the seasons? When food is scarce, do the squirrels invest more time in caching their food?
            Apparently they do. In the summer, when the trees produce fewer nuts, squirrels are much more sensitive to the food value (peanuts provide more nutrition than hazelnuts). They are more aware and observant of other squirrels around them, making sure other squirrels don’t see where they hide their nuts. Paranoid and stingy, the squirrels become. In the fall, when the seeds are more abundant, squirrels eat more freely. They don’t keep checking over their shoulders to see if someone is eyeing their cache.

            Universities are supposed to be collaborative places. Researchers are meant to bring their work into the classroom where they share their students what they do. They’re supposed to perform their research so then the students can imitate them. They’re supposed to be this place of a free exchange of ideas between surprising groups of people, places where scientists see art that inspires them and writers discover squirrel research and write about it. It’s supposed to be this place filled with music that inspires music theorists and musicians theorizing about resonance that inspires physicists to study resonance.
            Since the budget cuts last year, scarcity is the prevailing mood. Everyone is keeping their heads down, doing their work.  We are teaching and researching but when you’re not sure what’s going to come next, if you’re colleagues will still have jobs, if there will be more centralization, if there will be more “do more with less,” you teach your heart out and write your own research to make sure that at least maybe you will survive this scarce season. I remember when I first moved here. Before the 2008 crash. Before the 2015 decimation of Higher Ed budgets. Then, I began to work with Colorado Plateau researchers, forestry scholars, mushroom scientists. I co-taught a printmaking class. It’s been harder lately to collaborate. It’s expensive to have two professors from different disciplines teach one class. It’s hard to make it to lectures across campus when most of your time, you need to find ways to fund your graduate students and fund your program or have emergency meetings about how the latest budget cuts will affect your plans.
            The past two days, I have been reminded of the season of abundance. The graduate students hosted the Peak Conference—The English Department’s annual conference for NAU students and other graduate students across the country. One of the panels I chaired had two students from our graduate program but also a grad student from San Jose and one of our undergrads. Bringing together people from different places and different cohorts reminded me of the times of the university where ideas to scaffold the next big thing began. A professor from NAU whose work on the resilience of the Glen Canyon after Lake Powell’s water receded could lead to a new chapter in a book I’m working on called Resistance and Resilience. It could lead to a new movement to let Glen Canyon recover. It could lead to scientists being allowed into this National Recreation area to study the idea of resistance and resilience. Later, Ana Teresa Fernandez, an artist from San Francisco, brought images of the border wall in Tijuana she painted to match the ocean and the sky. A section of the wall disappeared. She inspired some of us to paint. She inspired some of us to think about what it means to erase borders which is supposedly what the university is meant to do: erase the walls of thinking in our minds.   As one of my colleagues said about Fernandez’s paintings: it’s one thing to talk about erasing borders. It’s another to physically see them erased. This conference reminded me of what the university is supposed: an abundance of ideas and ideals of the students and the professors. What I would give for that feeling of abundance to prevail.

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