I owe regular readers an explanation for the lengthy hiatus on this blog.
As I had predicted would happen back in the summer, this semester turned into an extremely busy one for me.
Directing the Environmental Studies program at the University of Vermont is a large part of that busyness: it’s a large, interdisciplinary and cross-college program of nearly 500 undergraduate majors, which has seen its student numbers climb consistently over several years while faculty and staff numbers have actually declined. This has led to a barely sustainable staffing situation, though we are far from unique in that respect. Directing it involves a lot of advising (those 500 students) and overseeing of a somewhat complicated and highly individualized curriculum, reading and signing off on paperwork, organizing, leading and/or attending various kinds of meetings (in three different Schools and Colleges), overseeing the teaching of courses including our Students-Teaching-Students courses, putting out little fires as these arise on a somewhat regular basis, and so on.
That understaffing situation is closely connected (in my life) to a second realm of activities, which is the faculty union, which I’ve been Secretary of for the last year and a half. Our union, United Academics, has been in negotiations with the administration since last January. Negotiations were difficult and eventually hit a wall, but mediation has finally gotten both sides to a tentative agreement — just last week — which will be ratified by a vote of union members in early December. The main sticking point, for the longest time, was that the administration seemed intent on eliminating post-retirement health benefits for new faculty hires. This is something that faculty might be able to live with but that staff and part-timers, who make significantly less money, would not bear quite as well, and the administration had made clear to us that the full-time faculty contract was going to determine the terms of the other contracts. (Two other bargaining units are currently without an active contract.) The compromise we eventually found came in the form of a VEBA, which I won’t get into here, but will note that it is controversial and many faculty aren’t convinced it’s a good idea.
Add to all of that the usual mix of academic activities plus some writing and grant proposal deadlines (one of which, a large-ish partnership grant, I finally sent off yesterday), a job search I’m chairing, a book I’m so close to finishing it gives me a headache to think about it (I’ve been within a dozen pages of finishing for a couple of months now, which for a 300-or-so-page book is very, very close), all topped off by life with an infant getting to know the world in the first year of his life. (He’s extremely cute and a real joy to be with, but he is a lot of work.)
And then there’s the broader context: a national crisis that we all know about, the Occupy Wall Street movement — the local version of which consisted, up until recently, of a couple of dozen tents pitched in a park behind City Hall Park, and so on. That local movement had converged in many ways with the faculty and staff campaigns for better contracts. And the national, and indeed global, crisis seems to have played itself out in microcosm at our medium-sized public university. Specifically, the university has been struggling with a reputation sullied in recent years by administrative decisions that (frugal and small-is-beautiful) Vermonters have felt to be out of place — which rightfully attract complaints about “administrative bloat,” “golden parachutes” (for descending administrators), and so on. That’s not to mention the expensive administrative overkill of managerial software like Peoplesoft and cost-cutting measures that seem designed to make faculty members’ lives — and research — much more difficult while providing little more than the appearance of efficiency.
Given our economic times, that sullied reputation has understandably bred resentment. When the top 1% are perceived as handing themselves too many perks and allowing too little to trickle down, many of the 99% will be rightfully angry.
Those are some of the things I’ve been dealing with. And while this blog has occasionally featured guest writers and entertained ambitions of becoming a larger venue for work in eco-cultural theory (and related areas), it remains dependent on my time, energy, and enthusiasm. The presence of the latter (enthusiasm) cannot make up for a dearth of the former two.
In lieu of action, here are some things I would have been featuring on this blog over the last couple of months if I had the time:
- More about the Occupy movement. Probably much more…
- More about the way that our academic powers-that-be have been responding to the economic crisis. At our campus it’s now taking the shape of “strategic initiatives” aimed at reining in spending inefficiencies (with a conspicuous absence of attention to administrative spending) and developing new ways of attracting money from undertapped sources such as international students and, of course, wealthy donors. The dependence of American academe on the latter source is something I’ve always felt awkward about — and, frankly, a little embarrassed about, since moving here from Canada’s more socialist (i.e., in theory more publicly controlled and democratically accountable) educational environment. My very level-headed colleague Saleem Ali has just written a nice piece about the philanthropy game here.
- Something about Living Books About Life, especially the volumes edited by Steven Shaviro on cognition and decision, Wendy Wheeler on biosemiotics, Jussi Parikka on medianatures, Janneke Adema and Pete Woodbridge on symbiosis, and Clare Birchall on the in/visible. And about the continuing percolation of ideas from the speculative realists (a label I don’t particularly like, though I belong to it somewhat) and the “new ontology” (which I think is a little better) into a range of academic fields.
- Something about the ArtsWork conference at Goddard College, which I spoke at a few weekends ago (commenting on a high-powered collection of eco-artists who came in from around the world; the video of our talks was aired live and may be up on the web site again at some point). And about the burgeoning growth of interesting work happening at the intersection of the art world and eco-activism.
- A little more about integral theory and especially integral ecology, since the reading group from the summer fizzled out (for a variety of reasons) without the sort of concluding overview it deserved. I’ve been impressed with some work I’ve seen coming out of the integral fold since then (about which Bonnitta Roy has been very helpfully posting).
- Something about James Hillman, who died last month, and who has done for the image what Graham Harman and others would like to be able to do for the object (and was at it for a good half-century longer). If Bergson is right and images are everything — a kind of half-way interface between the material object and the ideal subject — then Hillman is the poet and psychological resuscitator of that way of thinking, inheritor of Neoplatonism for post-Freudian (and Jungian) times.
- Stuff about the anthropology conference I just attended, and especially about the growth of what we might call the “new ontological” theorizing, which is partly what this blog engages in, and which seems to be growing quickly across a range of fields.
I could keep going, but all of that is more than enough to feel bad about having not done… The fact that I’ve been able to write this post is an indicator that I’ve hit rock bottom and am bouncing up.
And, yes, the image above is one of the covers for Robert Wyatt’s brilliant album of that name. By the way, make sure you listen through to the harmonium (R. Wyatt) – viola (Fred Frith) – voice (Ivor Cutler) trio that closes this song…