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The Ice Storm: A Few Observations About The Workings Of The University

February 2, 2011, 8:28 pm

From the upper deck of Tenured Radical.

Last week the snow day was great, a gift of 24 hours that (depending on your teaching schedule) created the equivalent of a Thanksgiving break.  Now the weather is increasingly a drag.  Despite the dangers and inconveniences of coming up to Zenith, one canceled day seems to be all the educational enterprise can sustain, and we receive messages saying that it is “our choice” whether to come to campus or not.  This often puts one in the untenable position of deciding how much of one’s personal safety is worth risking to not fall any further behind than one already is, given the difficulties of travel (or even walking down the street) in the last ten days.

In 1997, Ang Lee made a film called The Ice Storm about the emotional perils of suburban living in the 1970s.  Based on a 1994 novel by Rick Moody, the movie shows one evening in the life of two New Canaan families.  The ice storm stands in as a metaphor for the ways that they are all emotionally “frozen;” and the effects of the weather force a series of unexpected events that, not surprisingly, “freeze” the dynamics between people and make it possible to see them in new ways.

Similarly, this spate of bad weather causes one to see things differently.  Whether my observations are right or not — well, I am not sure.  But here goes.

Giving academics choices might be a way of administrations not making decisions about what authority they wish to have over the institutions they govern.  Under circumstances in which law enforcement is asking people who live in this state not to drive, under what conditions does it make sense to tell your faculty that it is their choice whether to teach their classes or not?  Looking at it the administrator’s way, one might say:

  • Zenith is a residential campus, and 99.9% of students live on it.  Therefore, why shouldn’t they go to school?
  • Some faculty might be more nervous about falling further behind in their work than they are about driving to work;
  • Conditions might improve by afternoon, so that whereas morning classes might be impossible, afternoon classes might be more manageable;
  • Faculty hate to be told what to do.

The elite residential college still presumes that the default position for faculty is to live in the college community, preferable on the borders of campus.  I have not infrequently heard reports that our trustees and long-time faculty and administrators are appalled that some faculty live elsewhere, and I have heard all kinds of casual criticism of those of us who “live in New Haven and New York.”  These cities are mentioned in the same breath, despite the fact that one is  25 minutes from Zenith and the other 2 hours and 15 minutes from Zenith (and that’s if you are flying.)

The Radical back yard:  maple tree and bamboo.

Now, I do think that everyone on the faculty ought to be doing the same work regardless of where they live, and that this mandates equal attendance under normal conditions. I have always done my best to adhere to this, whether I lived in Zenith, New York or New Haven. But I also think that the casual disregard for the safety of those of us who have to drive to work (whether it is from the outskirts of Zenith or from another city) is rather stunning.  The assumption is that those who can get to work easily set the norm; the rest of us are deviant to a greater or lesser degree, and in danger of revealing ourselves as slackers.  This norm was set back in the 1940s and lasted until the mid-1970s or so. It was set prior to the emergence of two career couples, the employment of people of color at Zenith, working mothers, parenting fathers and the ability of GLBT people to find, and live openly in, heterogeneous, progressive communities.  Zenith has many virtues, but it doesn’t accommodate any of these things well, either as a school or as part of the small city that it inhabits.

People who have tenure might feel more free to exercise the choice to cancel class than people who do not.  You would think this would be perfectly obvious, wouldn’t you?  And yet, universities maintain the weirdly benevolent fiction that, despite the inequalities of rank that they treasure, we all have equality of choice despite our rank.

Suggesting that some people will not come to work because they are frightened or cautious is demeaning.  I say this, perhaps, because I am now of an age where the idea of falling and hurting myself does frighten me, and I sometimes wish for that reason and others that I was still young.  But I am not sure whether my caution originates from a place of being more fearful, or whether I have more garden-variety common sense than when I was young.  Once, when I lived in Zenith, I went to school in an ice storm: I lived up a hill about a half mile from campus.  As I began to descend the hill, which was covered in sheet ice slicked with rain, my car began to shimmy around, and I slid down the length of the hill sideways, towards a blind turn from which, fortunately, no one emerged to take me to Jesus.

Like every other entity, universities are trying to carry on as if they have not cut services drastically and this does not have an effect on our work.  I did meet my students yesterday, so loath was I to lose contact with a class I had only begun to teach.  They are a group of first and second year students who are reading really hard stuff, and if we don’t spend some concentrated time together they would feel justified in being utterly confused.  But going to school wasn’t what you would call a “good choice.” It was a bad choice.  The roads were incredibly dangerous, but not half as dangerous as navigating a campus that was unshoveled, unsalted and unsanded.

It was also clear to me, by the way, that Zenith is entirely unprepared to feed lunch or dinner to large numbers of people who might come to campus in such weather and find themselves trapped there; nor were there any arrangements made with a local inn to get a special rate for those of us who might come to school today and be unable to get home.

Ah well.  Out to scrape and salt the end of the driveway as we seem to have no city services in New Haven either this year.  My street has not been plowed, salted or sanded once since it started to snow two weeks ago, and I am sorry to say to the libertarians in the audience, this has not resulted in citizens banding together to do it themselves.  Kiss my a$$, Ayn Rand.

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