Beginning again: updated

The fall semester begins today at Pasadena City College. If you look back through my archives, you’ll see that I usually have a “first day of school” post up on the last Monday in August. This year shall be no exception.

It’s a cooler-than-seasonably normal day here in the San Gabriel Valley; though summer has three weeks left to run, autumn is in the air. It’s a remarkable change from the first day of classes last year, when we were in (literally) blazing heat as the smoke from the Station Fire saturated our campus. Last year, it looked like hell outside — today, things look genuinely lovely. But fine weather belies the general mood of gloom that is pervasive, perhaps more among faculty and staff than among students. California still doesn’t have a budget, our class offerings are woefully inadequate, and the reality is that a great many students who want courses will be unable to get them. If that has been the case before, it is all the more so now.

My mother tells me that my formal education began forty-one autumns ago, in September 1969. I was two when I first went to Santa Barbara’s long-vanished Humpty Dumpty Nursery School. Since that year of Woodstock and moon landings and the amazing Mets, I’ve been in school every fall without fail. I went from nursery school to graduate school without a break, and began teaching full-time at the community college while still finishing Ph.D. work at UCLA. I’m in my fifth decade in the educational system, which astounds me. And I’m beginning my eighteenth year as a professor at PCC; soon, my youngest students will have been born after I started teaching here.

In August 2004, I wrote about still having butterflies in my stomach the first time I met a class. Six years later, things remain very much the same in my innards. I wrote then of the reasons for my nervousness:

The obvious question is this one: why, after all this time, do I still get so nervous about the first day of school? It’s not stagefright — public speaking has never been a fear of mine. It’s not new material, at least not this year — all four courses I am teaching this fall are courses I have taught in the past. It’s not fear that my students won’t like me — though I do struggle with vanity, it’s not at the root of my jumpiness this morning. All three of these might be small factors at different times, but the core reason for this almost-pleasant state of anxiety is more basic: I still believe that I have the best job in the whole dang world, and I can’t believe they pay me to do it.

Even after all these years of full-time teaching (the last six with tenure), I still expect someone to show up, and with an apologetic and yet officious tone, tell me “We’re sorry, Hugo, we made a mistake hiring you. There was this terrible mix-up, you see; we intended to get someone else.” Though I can assure my readers that I did not lie or stretch the truth when I applied for this job, somehow after all this time I still suspect that I “got away with something” when I was hired to teach here.

I’ve talked about this with my parents and other colleagues who teach. My father (who taught philosophy for forty years at Alberta and UCSB) calls this feeling “the suspicion of one’s own fraudulence”. That phrase seems to sum things up nicely. Whenever I share these feelings, I note that it is often my most talented colleagues, students, and friends who say “Really? That’s how I feel too!” (One of the worst teachers I ever worked with, now thankfully retired, claimed never to feel this way.) I wonder if there isn’t some connection between periodic bouts of self-doubt and the drive to prove one’s self. Actually, that’s silly — I don’t wonder that at all, I know it with total certainty!

My office is a cheerful mess, I’m caffeinated and bepinked and readier than ever to begin the grand journey again.

UPDATE: Both in person in the hallways, and on my Facebook page, former and soon-to-be-current students have wished me “good luck” today. This isn’t new; I’m wished good luck each time a new semester begins. It might seem odd to wish it to the tenured professor; I’m not applying for anything, I’m not being evaluated this semester, and I’m not trying to get into a class. But I’m wished luck nonetheless.

I like to think it’s more than just a pleasantry offered when someone begins something new (or in my case, resumes an old and familiar task.) I like to think that it’s because even the very young recognize that there is an element of chance and mystery in teaching; some classes sizzle with chemistry while others, as we all acknowledge, are duds. Perhaps they are wishing me great students, or wishing me success in avoiding spilling on myself or teaching with my fly unzipped. Or perhaps they know that anything really can happen in the classroom, from the marvelous to the heartbreaking, and they are wishing me luck and grace and strength to cope with whatever comes, and to be as present and effective as I can be for all whom I will call my students.

In loco parentis? On breaking up fights, teaching, and the sacred hallway

For the first time in years, I helped break up a fistfight on campus today. Just before noon, I heard a commotion and screams in the hall outside my office; I emerged to find two young men on the ground, with other students frantically trying to stop them from pummeling each other. I ran over to help, and a number of us managed to separate the two combatants. Three of us grabbed the one who seemed most like the aggressor, and pulled him down the hall until he broke free of our grasp and stormed off. For several seconds I found myself holding on to an incredibly wiry arm with both hands. I would never have been able to restrain him by myself, but others came to help.

The other participant in the fight was more clearly bloodied, and a colleague and I hustled him into our division office for his protection until the police could arrive. He was eventually taken to the campus health center, and I headed off to class after giving an interview to police. I don’t know yet if the other young man has been found, or if charges will be filed.

I do know that my right shoulder is a bit sore. It was already giving me trouble, and I may have made it worse today by wrenching it during the fight.

I’m certainly not heroic. But I am a teacher. And though I might not wade into a fight between young men taller than I and half my age out on the street, I will when it’s taking place in my hallway. I know this is a college, and that nearly all of my students are legal adults. But I feel fiercely protective of those students, and fiercely protective of this building, which ought to be a place of emotional refuge as well as intellectual inquiry. Those boys were beating each other (and injuring others) in that place I am called to help make safe. To not get involved would have been morally irresponsible.

Had the fight taken place on the street, I would have called the police and kept my distance. But not here. I’ve given seventeen years of my life to this campus, to this office, to that hallway. I have no intention of risking that life. I’m a father, after all, to a daughter who needs me alive and well. I never forget that. But I am also in a very real sense in loco parentis for many others, and I will risk at least a bump and a strained shoulder (or, heaven forfend, a lawsuit) in defense of those others — and the sacred safety of the hallway.

Dr. Tiller week and the arrival of Justice For All

They’re back. One week shy of the first anniversary of the murder of Dr. George Tiller by a pro-life activist, the anti-choice outfit known as Justice For All has returned to the Pasadena City College campus, bringing with them their colossal graphic images purporting to show aborted fetuses. JFA, staffed mostly by earnest young students from Christian colleges, spent three days on campus last year. Many of my students were traumatized; on a campus where there are thousands of women who will have chosen abortion, the displays are cruel and misleading.

I urge folks to engage with the protesters only if they feel they must. I’m much more concerned with the emotional well-being of my students, particularly those who have undergone abortions themselves. I make my office available to them for conversation, and ask them to reach out to others, particularly in our strong and growing campus feminist community.

For those who do wish to argue with the pro-lifers, I always recommend asking them the famous question: “How much jail time should a woman do for having an abortion?” I recommend that they videotape the answer they receive. If they get the standard right-wing dodge that says “We don’t support jailing women who have abortions, because we think that they are victims too; we only want to go after doctors”, I suggest my students point out that that stance infantilizes women, calling into question their fitness to parent in the first place.

I am told Justice For All will be on campus for four days this week. In honor of Dr. Tiller, in honor of my own recent birthday and in honor of my wife and daughter and women everywhere, I’m giving $43 to pro-choice organizations for each day that the JFA display disfigures our campus.

Today’s $43.00 goes to the National Network of Abortion Funds.
Tomorrow’s $43.00 will go to Medical Students for Choice.
Wednesday’s $43.00 will go to Planned Parenthood.
Thursday’s $43.00 will go to Advocates for Youth.

I invite my current and former students in particular — and all others — to join me in this campaign for reproductive justice. Other worthy organizations besides those four named above include the National Abortion Federation, Feminist Majority, and Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice.

Like the great Dr. Tiller, I am a father, a husband, a feminist, and I trust women. My contribution to justice has been far less than his, but I want my name associated with his, and ask that those who would curse his name do the same with mine. And I ask that those who support and trust women, who believe that their wives and mothers and sisters and daughters deserve choices and sovereignty, join me in giving this week in his honor.

Here’s my post from last year, written the day Dr. Tiller was shot: ”When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die”: of a doctor, an usher, and the answerer of a call.

“I can’t trust your praise”: the unintended fallout of professor-student affairs

I spoke too soon. I feel compelled to write another post on the teacher-student dating thing, in response to this question below yesterday’s post, from “Pounding Sand”. PS asks:

Correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds as if this question is being couched in the understanding that the professor is both older than the student, and male. There’s also the implication that all other students in the hypothetical class are aware of the affair between student and professor.

So if the affair is a discreet one, and no one else is privvy to the situation, wouldn’t that mitigate the perception of other students that the affair is effecting their interests? In the case of age equivalence is ther any room to consider the relative experiences of the lovers. In other words, the relationship between a thirty eight year old female student and a thirty year old, or thirty eight year old male professor, perhaps draws a somewhat different picture of ‘imbalance’ than the relationship between a forty year old male professor and his twenty year old female student, or an older female professor and younger male student. Put another way, who’s zooming who?

I’m not advocating either/or, but I’m interested in the both the perceived inequality vs the actual.

During what — for lack of a better term — I call my “acting out years” (from 1995-1998, when I was having affairs with students), I dated one woman who was older than me. I was 29; she was 32.

“Claire” was a returning student, coming back to college more than a dozen years after dropping out. She was very bright, but like many of those who return to college after years away from academia, anxious about her abilities. Her story was a familiar one: she’d been a clever but underachieving high school student, more interested in social activities than intellectual ones. Claire had gone off to a Cal State campus for one year, and partied her way onto academic probation and into eventual dismissal. She had married at twenty, had a baby, and stayed home with her daughter for several years. By the time she came to Pasadena City College, she had been divorced for two years and her daughter was in fifth grade.

In her thirties, much to her surprise, Claire had discovered she loved learning: she loved books, writing, ideas. What had bored her to tears at 17 fascinated her at 32. Her passion was matched by her ability. (It is not always so.) She earned top grades on every test she took and every paper she wrote. And she was funny; lovely; she sat in the front row. Our affair started during the second semester Claire was my student, in early spring of 1997.

Claire and I were discreet. Of course, she wasn’t the only person (or, for that matter, the only student) I was dating. Neither of us wanted a serious relationship. None of her classmates knew; even as word spread across campus of my reckless and sordid indiscretions with others, no one discovered what was happening with Claire.

Claire eventually transferred to a nearby liberal arts college renowned for recruiting promising non-traditional students; I wrote her a glowing letter of recommendation. And it was when I handed her a copy of the letter of recommendation that I realized yet another damaging aspect of teacher-student affairs, something that goes to the heart of the question Pounding Sand poses.

Claire looked at the letter and smiled. Her smile faded, though, and I asked her what was wrong. I’d praised her exceptional abilities (particularly her writing skills) to the heavens; I’d meant every word I’d written. Claire said: “I wish I could believe that all of this was true.”

“Of course it’s true!”, I exclaimed.

“Is it? Don’t you feel as if you have to say these things after everything that’s happened? How can I know that you mean this?”

I was horrified, and, I confess, indignant. “Christ, Claire, you earned your A in the classroom. I can’t believe you’d doubt that. I wouldn’t say it if it weren’t true.”

Claire remarked, calmly but with an edge in her voice, something to the effect that a professor who was so cavalier about sleeping with his students could hardly be self-righteous when his integrity was questioned. I could tell she wanted to believe that the words I’d written about her intellectual promise were true. I knew damn well that they were true. If I’d never come within ten feet of her, her dazzling, witty prose; her work ethic; and her insights would have earned her the highest grade in the course. In my mind, our sexual relationship had nothing to do with her academic ability, save that that unusual ability was one of many things that had made her exceptionally attractive to me.

Claire transferred, graduated, remarried, and moved away. She ended up in law school, and is now an attorney. I made amends to her in 2001. Our conversation was civil but brisk. She told me that while she had enjoyed my classes, and not been unhappy with our relationship outside of class, she was angry that our affair had made it impossible for her to turn to me as a mentor. Claire hadn’t seen me as a “younger man” (we were less than three years apart, after all), but as her professor. I had something she wanted, and what she had wanted most was intellectual validation. I gave her that, but it came wrapped up in a sexual relationship. As a result, she had had a very difficult and painful time trying to decide whether her As were earned, and whether my consistently laudatory feedback was truly deserved.

A woman who had grown up being told she was “pretty” but “not very bright”, Claire was a late bloomer as a scholar. And by having a sexual relationship with her, I robbed her of the chance to bask in the uncompromised praise she had so indisputably earned. At her four year school, Claire had found other mentors with whom she didn’t have affairs; she had come to trust that her talents were genuine. She hadn’t been able to get that from me. Whatever fleeting pleasure she had derived from our affair had left a lingering hurt in the form of self-doubt. And the fact that she was three years my senior in no way mitigated my responsibility for causing her that hurt.

It’s been a dozen years since I slept with a student who was in my classes. And of all the people whom I hurt by my selfish, narcissistic behavior during my acting out years, Claire was one of those the memory of whom has haunted me the longest. The amends I made to her may have been sufficient; it was the best I could offer. But she is one of those who has spurred me not only to change my life, and change it radically, but to be such a public and vehement advocate for banning “consensual” sexual relationships between profs and students.

So, PS, when it comes to the ethics of teachers dating students, it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference what the ages of the parties involved are. When the person with whom you are getting naked is also the person evaluating your work and your intellectual ability, the potential for crippling self-doubt will always be there.

Not putting the skeleton back in the closet: a quick note and some links on professor-student sexual relationships

Richard Jeffrey Newman (whose poetry I recommend to all) has been blogging at Alas for a while now, and last week offered this piece on student-professor sexual relationships. It’s not much of Newman and a lot of extended excerpts from this a Tony Judt post at the New York Review’s blog site. The comments are interesting. (True confession: I only found the post when I checked the stats on my own blog, and found a number of hits to this post of mine, linked by Amp in the thread. Let me offer this post as well for the discussion, as well as the entire “student crushes” category archive here.

The subject of my past came up again recently. Two of my students were in my office on Monday. One of them, a regular reader of this blog, remarked that based on what she heard from her classmates, I still had a reputation as a professor who had slept with his students. The other student remarked that he had heard much the same thing. Both were quick to say that their classmates generally seemed to know that this behavior was in the past, but that some had their “suspicions” that I might still be up to no good, as it were. We all laughed together, and I gently assured the students that what I had once been I was no longer.

I certainly don’t advertise that I was wont to sleep with my students, but I don’t hide it from it either, for the reasons I’ve made clear time and time again. Sexual and romantic relationships between professors and students currently under their supervision are invariably unethical, regardless of the age of either the student or the professor. Relationships between professors and their former students need to be entered into with caution, particularly if the student involved is likely to be in need of a letter of recommendation or is still on the campus. And my general caution about age-disparate love affairs applies here as well. As I have said and will continue to say, for a three-year period in the mid-to-late 1990s, until I got sober in the summer of 1998, I had a series of unethical relationships with students. I deeply regret my behavior. As part of my amends to those whom I hurt, I helped write the campus consensual relations policy . And I have continued to speak out on this issue.

It has been a dozen years since I last crossed that line I ought not to have crossed. In that time, I’ve worked damn hard on good boundaries. And I’ve been a public and forceful (and, unfortunately, insufficiently humble) advocate for safe, non-sexual mentoring. I have little sympathy for those who continue to defend the indefensible exploitation of the teacher-student relationship. I was wrong, deeply so, when I slept with my students. And though it might seem wise to not mention these Clinton-era transgressions of mine again, I think there is value in pointing out the deeply problematic nature of these relationships to new generations of faculty and students, even at the risk of my own mild embarrassment.

One more link to a post I’ve written: A follow-up on student crushes — what not to do

Yves Magloe, 1967-2010

I returned to campus this week and to the very sad news of the death of Yves Magloe, my colleague in the English department. Yves was a local cause celebré in 2006, when he was briefly fired by the Pasadena City College administration after a nervous breakdown. I blogged about it here and here, and was privileged to play a small part in the campaign for his reinstatement. That campaign received national coverage in the mental health and higher education communities.

Yves and I hadn’t met before his dismissal, battle with the board, and eventual rehiring. We did have a few nice chats after his return, and spoke of what it was like to serve as a faculty member while battling mental illness. Yves and I were, to the best of my knowledge, the only two full-time faculty members at the college to have spoken publicly about our struggles. And now Yves is gone, due to causes that I am told were related to his battle against his illness. I know few other details. There is a simple memorial to him here.

I note that both Yves and I were born in May of 1967, two days apart and on opposite sides of the world. Our paths led both of us to Pasadena City College; our battles against our inner demons both became known to our campus community. And Yves didn’t make it.

I grieve his loss.

Reprint: Giving Thanks for the CC

This post originally appeared in August 2005. As we start yet another semester today, I thought it appropriate to reprint.

Jonathan Dresner sends me this link to a Jay Mathews piece in the Washington Post in praise of community colleges:  The Workhorse of Higher Education.

It’s hard for me to believe that it’s been over eleven years since I was hired for a full-time position here at Pasadena City College.   I still remember the date of my first-level interview, April 8, 1994.  It was a Friday afternoon, and it was the day that Kurt Cobain’s death was announced; I was listening to KROQ (LA’s alternative-rock station) and heard the news just as I was pulling into the parking lot here at the school.  I was a moderate Nirvana fan, but couldn’t help but consider this tragic news to be a "bad omen".  I have no idea what I ended up saying during the interview, but within days I was called back for a "second-level" meeting with the committee, and on April 20, was offered the job.

I’ll never forget the reaction of my dissertation chair when I told him I was accepting a tenure-track post here at PCC.  "You’re a fool if you take it, Hugo", he said.  By ’94, I was about half-way through my dissertation.  I was giving papers at medieval history conferences, and was enjoying the feeling of being "groomed" by my distinguished adviser.   In that same spring of 1994, my adviser told me I was "one or two years away" from successfully competing on the academic job market for a position at a four-year research institution.  He was very upset that I wasn’t willing to wait for a chance at a university job.  Frankly, our relationship was never quite the same after I came to teach at the community college.  He was very helpful as I finished my dissertation (with my teaching load at PCC, it took me until early 1999), and gave me a warm handshake at my doctoral hooding ceremony.  But he was clearly disappointed that I wasn’t willing to put research first.

Unlike many of my colleagues, I’ve never taken a class at a community college.  I knew plenty about community colleges growing up; my mother taught for three decades at Monterey Peninsula College (MPC). But even as I saw how much she loved her work there, I also had a bit of prejudice against the system.  My high school teachers made it clear that the best and the brightest did not go to community colleges, and there was no question that there was (and I think still is) an unfortunate stigma in some circles related to "JCs."  I’m afraid I internalized that stigma even as I was proud of my mother’s work.   The summer after my junior year, I’m sorry to admit I even paid the much higher fees to take summer classes at UC rather than enroll in a community college. 

In graduate school, however, my goals shifted.  Though I liked research well enough, I loved my time as a teaching assistant.  (I still remember my first section, in the spring quarter of 1991; I was not quite 24, and so terrified I threw up before meeting my first class.)  I quickly realized that it was teaching that turned me on, not research.  I didn’t like musty old archives, and I sure as hell didn’t like working on long papers.  I enjoyed discussing ideas in seminars, but nothing was as "fun" as interacting with students in the classroom.  I began to think more and more about what my mother did for a living, and began to wonder if I wouldn’t be better off teaching somewhere where I could "just teach".

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“Why is everyone hugging here?” More on hugs, teaching, and boundaries

We’ve recently hired a number of wonderful new faculty members in my department, and we’re excited to have them. (All the more so because with the state budget cuts, it may be eons before we make any additional hires.) One new professor, who has had some teaching experience elsewhere, asked me yesterday: “I’ve noticed that quite a few students here want to hug me. Is that normal at PCC? It hasn’t been at the other places where I’ve taught.” I smiled and told her that yes, it was something I’d noticed early on in my own career here: students at community colleges (or at least this one) tend to have much greater expectations of being “nurtured”, which can include hugs, than do students at four-year institutions. It’s more common for students to hug their female professors, and most of those seeking hugs are women. And while it’s far from being a universal practice, my new colleague is not the first professor to point out that students here are, as a group, more affectionate than at many other other academic institutions.

My new colleague, who is untenured, wanted some tips on how to handle the “hugging thing.” I assured her that there were no rules against hugging students, though common sense and a respect for boundaries suggests that it is best to wait for the student to initiate a friendly embrace. I reminded her of what I know she already knows, that — particularly for the untenured — perception matters as well as intent, and that it is helpful to remain aware of how one’s physical actions might be perceived by witnesses. Students are, as we all know, very attentive to the mannerisms, quirks, and personas of their professors. While fear of arousing suspicion shouldn’t cause us to be defensive or distant, we need to balance the responsibility to connect with our students with an awareness of how that connection (particularly when it includes a physical gesture like a hug) might be perceived.

This is all the more true in gender studies, the field in which I (and my new colleague) work. We’re not just teaching a subject, we’re leading classes that touch (sorry) on issues of sexuality, boundaries, power. We stir up strong emotions; we invite our students to consider their private lives and how their attitudes towards some fairly intimate subjects are shaped by history and culture. As I’ve written before in my student crushes archive, some students are prone to confusing excitement about the subject with excitement towards the professor who’s teaching the class.

None of this means we shouldn’t hug our students. Though I never foist hugs on the unwilling, and I am attentive to good boundaries, I am resolute in my commitment to practice physical affection as part of my mentoring and teaching. I do it because we live in a world where far too many men in positions of authority are fundamentally unsafe. Far too many adult men, including professors, are sexually predatory. Touch from them is unsafe and violating. Other men live in a not entirely unreasonable fear of having their actions misinterpreted. Anxious not to be labelled as harassers, they maintain scrupulous boundaries with their students and subordinates. That’s obviously preferable to groping lechery, but it sends the message that men are cold, remote, distant, and unavailable. It reinforces the message that touch can’t be safe.

I certainly don’t hug all my students. I don’t just hug women, or just men. I recognize that personality and cultural expectations about affection differ; foisting unwanted affection on someone for whom I am responsible would be profoundly unethical and violating. At the same time, if I didn’t embrace with exuberant non-sexual enthusiasm those students who would like to be hugged, I fall short of another mark. Touch can violate, but touch can heal. Touch can be unsafe, touch can be more affirming than a thousand verbal reassurances. We cannot allow our fears about touching blind us to the good, as well as the harm, that it can do. Just as gender studies, as an academic discipline, has broken down the convention that said that sexuality was not suitable for intellectual analysis, so too some of us may be called to dismantle the convention that says that touch has no place in teaching.

Five years ago, in another post, I wrote:

I have come to believe that the key thing that those of us who work with young people need to do is commit ourselves to being deliberately counter-cultural when it comes to touch. This doesn’t mean ignoring the power of sexuality. It means not allowing our fear of sexuality to hold us back from reaching out to those who need it. We have to find non-exploitative ways to hold each other — and hold each other across lines of sex, age, and status.

I repeated something like that to my colleague in our conversation yesterday. And, with the reminder that discernment and intuition are vital here, I stand by that advice publicly. I don’t expect hugs from everyone: I don’t hug everyone. But with the commitment to be “safe” foremost in my mind, and with deep reverence for tremendous variety in other people’s personal boundaries and comfort levels, I’m as committed as ever to an affectionate hug, a reassuring squeeze of the hand, or other good and right forms of affirming touch.

Empty reservoirs, empty coffers, more men on campus

Since I came to Pasadena City College in 1993, I’ve never seen such a bleak start to a new academic year as I’ve witnessed this week. This lovely foothill city remains shrouded in smoke, as the Station Fire continues to smolder, threatening the gorgeous canyons, cliffs and fauna of the nearby San Gabriels. On campus, it’s difficult to breathe and the stench of burnt material wafts through air conditioning vents and offices. After getting into the low 100s Monday and Tuesday, we might only see mid-90s today. The toxicity of the atmosphere matches the frustration and anxiety here at school.

Public community colleges, dependent on plunging state revenues, cut their course offerings and delay hiring new faculty in a recession. At precisely the same time, as unemployment rises, demand for classes grows as more and folks seek retraining. In a booming economy, our enrollment always drops (this actually became a bit of a problem around 1999-2000); in a slowing economy, the opposite effect happens. It’s not just unemployed folks, either. Many high school graduates who might have chosen to enter a healthy job market have decided to focus on their education for the time being, with plans to drop out or take a break as soon as hiring prospects improve. This means that invariably, increased demand coincides with falling resources. (Much, I suppose, like food banks.)

We don’t have the updated demographics from our admissions office, but here’s something many of my colleagues and I have noticed: we have far more men in our classes than usual. PCC is majority female, and my survey classes average about a 60-40 woman-to-man ratio in a normal year; my gender studies classes tend to have a much lower percentage of lads than that. But looking at my rosters, all four sections of my Western Civ survey courses have more male than female students — something that hasn’t happened before in all the years I’ve been here. The percentage of guys in the hallways seems higher as well, and the colleagues I’ve chatted with say they’ve noticed a similar shift.

Most evidence suggests that more men than women have lost jobs in the current economic slowdown. While this doesn’t mean that we’ve come close to achieving the vital feminist goal of pay equity, it does mean that layoffis in traditionally female-dominated fields (like health care and education) have been less draconian than in male-dominated fields such as manufacturing, construction, and sales. This may well-explain why after years of a slow but steady rise in the ratio of women to men, the situation may well be reversing itself. One wonders if that’s true at more selective institutions.

In any case, I have never had to say “no” to as many students who wish to add my classes; my wait lists, which usually average 10-20 aspirants, now average twice that number. Everyone seems to have a real, desperation-tinged tale to tell about why they need the class; I’m familiar with the appeals, but sense a different level of urgency — and in some, a heartbreaking sense of despair — that I’ve never seen before.

Five generations of my family have graduated from California public colleges and universities. Three generations have taught at one level or another in the post-secondary education system. But not in living memory has the situation been this dire, not in living memory have the barriers to achievement been this high. The rungs are being sawed off the ladder into the middle class. It’s heartbreaking.

But I’ll teach with my customary over-caffeinated energy, crowding as many students as I safely can into the rooms, and to the best of my most imperfect ability, offer inspiration and encouragment.

My prayers this week have a hydrological theme; rain for our mountains and hillsides and depleted reservoirs, and mighty streams of revenue for our depleted state coffers.

Smoke-filled first day of school

Today, I begin my 17th year as a faculty member at Pasadena City College. When I arrived on campus at 8:15 this morning, the temperature was already well into the 80s and the smoke from the nearby Station Fire was so heavy that my eyes burned and my lungs ached as I walked from the parking lot to my office. My air-conditioned office reeks of smoke, as do the hallways and the classrooms. Perhaps we ought to have cancelled classes today, but perhaps this is the safest place for many San Gabriel Valley and foothill folks to be. On the other hand, with the air nearby officially labelled hazardous, a mass evacuation to the beach might be even more appropriate.

But it is not my job to prescribe remedies, it is my job to teach and comfort. I have found that in times of crisis, some students don’t want — or can’t — come to campus. They need to be accomodated with make-ups and excused absences. But many find reassurance in the routines of school; young people often see educational institutions as safe havens. Come what come may, the familar rhythms of syllabi being distributed, roll being taken, introductory lectures given and so on offers comfort and a sense of normalcy when things seem anything but. I was here for my students on 9/11, keeping my office open and meeting with my classes to talk. In this far more local crisis, where there is no escaping the discomfort, the best I can do is carry on, providing calm.

But perhaps an air filter mask would be helpful.