Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

510. School’s (Nearly) Out

In Aging, Education, Stories, Teaching, Work on April 9, 2022 at 1:56 am

As retirement looms—why does that sound ominous?—I’ve found myself thinking back over all the jobs I’ve done over the years. Counting them up, I’ve remembered at least twenty-five, from waitress, house-cleaner, and gas-station attendant to teaching assistant, research assistant, college professor; and everything in-between. It has always irked me that people outside the teaching profession think that college professors have a cushy life when, in fact, we’re always on the job, the classroom hours being just the tip of the iceberg. As I prepare to retire I’m still feeling defensive about the work I’ve done because to my mind it will never have been enough. I think the praise I value most came when, at age 21, I’d put in a day of hard labor on a farm and the manager (Pete Hill, our friend Michael’s dear father), said—with some surprise—that I certainly knew how to work. How much I’ve put that knowledge into action since then is one of the things I find nagging at me as the countdown begins.

I’ve already written about the paper round, Godine Press, the Merit gas station and the Blue Parrot, house-cleaning, the Posh Bagel, and Whetstone Press. There were so many more jobs in my early, checquered career: shop assistant at Party Favors in Coolidge Corner, circulation assistant, Widener Library, caterer in Belmont, free-lance laddu-maker, greenhouse worker, technical editor, Environmental Research & Technology, first employee of an (anti-)nuclear information and resource service (NIRS), newspaper editor and board secretary at a food co-op federation (NEFCO), newspaper stringer, The Winchendon Courier, medical receptionist (for a week), substitute teacher (for two whole days). And none of the above counts my unpaid or volunteer work. 

Teaching was a profession I came to late, in my thirties, and have been at for the past 35 years, in different capacities and at five different colleges and universities. Strangely enough, I haven’t written much about it—the so-called life of the mind.

I wonder why not? Something about not telling tales out of school, perhaps. Something to revisit after retirement?  In my current state of exhaustion I think, not bloody likely. For now, here’s a handful of teaching stories—one set in the 1980s and the rest between 2017 and 2020:

Reaganomics 101
teaching in the 80s

Why Should Not Old Women Be Mad?
an end-of-semester rant or, I’m so old that. . .

Scattergram, April 2017
teaching in the age of Trump

Free from Thought
still in the age of Trump

during the pandemic 

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494. Britishisms

In blogs and blogging, Britain, Childhood, culture, Education, Family, history, Stories, Words & phrases on April 2, 2021 at 10:57 pm

This is the second entry in a month-long series, Anachronidioms, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Of course one can’t generalize about a country’s idioms. What figures in one’s speech depends on class background, education, geographical region, and age, and a whole host of other variables. Although I only lived in England for short periods of time when I was very young, I also attended the British Embassy School when we lived in Athens, and my parents insisted on my speaking Standard English (along with Received Pronunciation, or RP) at home. So, ironically, my speech was more “English” than many of my British peers who had never left the country.

In school at age 9 I was learning not only decimals—centimetres, metres, and kilometres, grams and kilograms—and British measures: inches, feet, and yards, ounces and pounds; but also, for good measure, hundredweight (cwt) and tons, pecks and bushels. And, of course, until 1971, there was still the good old LSD (pounds (£), shillings(s), and pence(d)). (By the time I returned to India at age 9½  we already had the decimal system of 100 np (naya, or new, paise) to the rupee, but we still used the old system of 16 annas to the rupee as well, so that four annas were equivalent to 25 np.)

Here’s the kind of problem we might have had to solve in my British maths class:

Find the total cost of 2 ½ cwt. of metal at £2 3s. 6d. per cwt., plus a total charge of 4s. 6d. for cartage.

Cartage, I ask you!

But I’m digressing. I was supposed to be talking about anachronistic Britishisms. I ask you (meaning, Isn’t that ridiculous?) is probably one of them.  

Apropos of archaisms, back in the 1960s we were still saying, Give him a inch and he’ll take an ell, and learning what an ell was, just in case, even though “mile” had replaced “ell” by 1900, more than half a century earlier.

Having come from a working-class background—dire poverty, if truth be told— my mother and her siblings were possessed of an acute class consciousness and a strong sense of working-class pride. As such, they also had a nose for anyone putting on airs. When my imposing Aunty Bette put on her best fur coat and sailed out on the town with her head held high, Mum would call her beautiful elder sister “Lady Dunabunk” (though not to her face; she would never have dared). Apparently the more common expression was Lady Muck, with the scoundrel Lord Dunabunk as her male counterpart. The expression dated from the era of the Great War, which is about right, since Aunty Bette was born in 1919. The matriarch of the family, she died just over a year ago, going on 100, on the eve of the first COVID-19 lockdown.

On a lighter note, but speaking of contagious diseases, a Britishism that became popular in the year of my birth, but whose origin is lost in the mists of time is the dreaded lurgi (or “lurgy”). It refers melodramatically to any disease that’s catching but not fatal. My cousins Jacky and Carol used it and must have learnt it from their father, my Uncle Ted. I had rather assumed that it was a family joke, until I looked it up just recently and found that it had been popularized on The Goon Show, in Series 5, Episode 7 (November 1954), Lurgi Strikes Britain. That zany BBC radio comedy show (1951-1960) with Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, and others inspired Monty Python and a whole generation of British comedians and artists—including John Lennon. The dreaded lurgy is still in circulation in the U.K. (along with a contagious disease that is, sadly, a lot more fatal), but British readers will have to tell me whether you think it’s becoming archaic.

This journey through obscure and anachronistic Britishisms has been scattershot and highly idiosyncratic, but what else could it have been? It’s sad to think that the expressions of our parents’ generation are falling out of use, and yet it’s delightful when they crop up unexpectedly in the strangest places. I miss the expressions that only Mum would use, such as calling someone “slomocky” or a “Slomocky Maureen.” I never asked her to define it but to the best of my understanding it referred to someone who was slatternly, slovenly, unkempt, or uncoordinated. It can be found sporadically in newspapers and books dating from the 1890s to the 1920s, so I think it’s safe to say that it’s well on the way out.  

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481. Ghost Town*

In Education, health, Nature, places, reflections on July 23, 2020 at 2:59 am

This summer I’ve been taking evening walks through UMass, a sprawling 1450-acre campus that I never explored when I was a graduate student there because I was too busy taking classes and teaching, then racing home to my family. At the time I only knew a few buildings besides Bartlett Hall, the decrepit building that housed the English Department. Bartlett was joined by a dank, underground hallway to Herter Hall, where one picked one’s way through puddles and water dripped from moldy ceiling tiles. The 28-story library towers over the valley, once chiefly farmland, before the boom of the 1960s that made “Mass Aggie” (Massachusetts Agricultural College) the flagship campus of the Massachusetts state university system. (Apparently the architect Frederick Holmes Olmstead had advised the founders of the college to build only low structures on the campus, but as UMass grew, the tall buildings proliferated.) In 1994, toward the end of my studies, it was renamed the DuBois library, after Western Mass native W. E. B. Du Bois, whose papers are housed in the library’s archives. But in my day, even that wonderful, well-stocked library was a place I raced in and out of, putting up my coat collar and wrapping my scarf around my head as I entered the wind tunnel that whipped perennially around the tower. I ran up and down those 28 flights of stairs to beat the elevators and vent my excess energy, only registering with my peripheral vision the student murals that graced the stairwells.

Back in my day the Lederle Graduate Research Center was on the northernmost edge of campus, and the polymer research center was under construction. All I knew about polymer science was that English and polymer science graduate students were having parties together, since men were in short supply in the former cohort and women were thin on the ground in the latter. But now the university has spread in all directions, with a proliferation of imposing new buildings (here’s a map). And now, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, they are almost all empty. The UMass campus, usually bustling with more than 30,000 students, is a virtual ghost town.

Now I have the eerie privilege of walking the length and breadth of the campus without encountering a soul. It is at once uplifting and uncanny, seeing the plantings in glorious flower with none but me and the rabbits to enjoy them; the usually manicured lawns and meticulously maintained walkways with weeds rearing up tall between the paving stones; locked buildings and cheerful signs reading “Welcome Students” with nary a student in sight.

While my natural bent is toward the Humanities, I feel unusually strong feelings of awe and a deep sense of loss as I walk among the many soaring, well-funded buildings of this highly respected public research university. With my normal cynicism suspended with regard to the funding sources and research priorities of fields like polymer science, I think of the brilliant young minds taking on the complex challenges thrown at us by our times, normally burning the midnight oil in the campus laboratories, now stuck at home working remotely and alone. I admire for the first time the way new buildings, all metal and glass, have preserved the original brick ones, their modern design features and the surrounding landscaping deliberately incorporating the old into the new.

Walking under an elevated glass-enclosed walkway between two buildings, I am admiring the decals of bird-silhouettes affixed to the glass to deter real birds from flying into it, when something on the ground catches my eye; a dead bird. Sobered, I walk to the main road through the campus, where, even now, construction of a new dining commons continues, with the old one now a demolition site. My eyes are drawn to an old building squeezed between the new construction and the portable toilets on the worksite. In my day it was the Institute for the Advanced Study of the Humanities, directed by Professor Jules Chametzky, where I defended my doctoral dissertation. Now it looks like the little house in Virginia Lee Burton’s picture-book of the same name that I read to Nikhil so many times in his childhood. Squeezed in and being squeezed out, only to accommodate ever-larger dining facilities to please the customers in the new consumer model of higher education.

The Little House

But this fall, far from the usual 14,000 undergraduates living on campus, Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy estimates that only 7,000 will be returning to on-campus housing. Another 8,000-8,500 students usually live off-campus in Amherst and surrounding communities, and it is not yet known how many of them will be returning to the area, since most students will be taking their classes remotely. The chancellor did not give figures on how many of the additional 7,000+ graduate students, many of them international students, will be returning in person for the fall. A deep uncertainty pervades the community and the surrounding town—students, faculty, administrators, year-round residents alike. The  buildings across campus will continue to be maintained, at considerable expense, but many of them will remain empty.

I walk on, past the new Life Sciences complex to an older section of campus, past the faculty club, housed in the oldest building in Amherst, past the greenhouse to the permaculture garden, a teaching model of conservation and sustainability, working with nature rather than against it. In its wisdom the university has retained a gardener to cultivate it through the summer, and now, in mid-July, it is a riot of abundance. As dusk falls, two young women come by and encourage me to pick whatever is ripe. I pinch a few springs of peppermint and a scarlet runner bean and breathe deeply as I tread the garden paths in their labyrinthine peace. It is time to head home.

In time, the students will emerge from their enforced retreats and bright young minds, not only in fields like computer science, polymer science, and engineering, but also in agriculture, natural resources conservation, economics, history, labor studies, sociology, anthropology, and yes, literary and cultural studies, will return to tackle the many challenges that human beings have brought upon ourselves.

As for me, I haven’t retired yet. While we may be shut down on the outside, we are digging deep into our inner resources and coming up with rich compost. University campuses may be ghost towns now, but this hiatus has been not only necessary, but sorely needed. It’s time for a radical reboot.

                               *Thanks to The Specials for their 1981 song Ghost Town.


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458. Graduate School

In 1980s, blogs and blogging, culture, Education, Immigration, parenting, postcolonial, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 9, 2020 at 2:01 am

This is the seventh entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Graduate School. 

In 1987, twelve years after having completed my B.A. in English, I found myself in graduate school in an English MA-PhD program. I say “found myself” because never in a million years had I considered going for a doctorate until I was actually doing it. After moving to the farm in the early 1980s and casting about for some worthwhile employment in the surrounding towns, it struck me that since the local schools were failing to teach the children to read, I might usefully get my M.A. in Teaching and become a reading specialist. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but reading had always been my passion. However, the local state college didn’t offer enough courses to enable me to complete the MAT, so they recommended that I apply to the nearest state university, some 30 miles away. With a two-year-old baby a 60-mile roundtrip commute already pushed my limit, so UMass Amherst was the only graduate school to which I applied, and the English department only had an MA-PhD program. Though initially I told myself that I could simply stop at the M.A., it was soon clear that I was going to go all the way. But if my graduate studies came about by accident, then—despite the inevitable, and not inconsiderable, costs to other areas of my life—it was a fortunate accident, because in some very important ways they brought me back to myself.

I have always been told that I talk too much. My primary school report cards said so, and so did my high-school friends’ entries in my autograph book. The move to high school in the U.S. at fifteen didn’t shut me up either, as I felt fully accepted by my small group of friends, all of whom for one reason or another were not part of the myriad cliques that divided the school. But college did silence me. My typical mode as an undergraduate was to slouch in the back with dark glasses on, metaphorically speaking, feeling completely out of place, and routinely tormenting myself at the thought of all my parents’ hard-earned money that I was wasting. I made few friends in my first two years there and spent more time wondering what I was doing there than actually doing something. It was only after taking a year off to study in London that I returned to the States with a sense of purpose, and finally learned a great deal in my final year. But most of the time I felt like an outsider in an alien environment with people who didn’t understand or include me and didn’t have the least interest in doing so. No doubt many fellow-students felt that way too, but my old gregarious self went into eclipse during those years, especially in classroom settings, where I hardly said a word unless called upon.

Merle Hodge

Returning to university for graduate school, I was a few years older than most of my cohort, and had the confidence of the intervening years of life experience. It was also very lucky for me that at the outset I met a group of young international faculty from India and South Africa, barely older than I was, who mentored and introduced me to an emergent field that I seemed to have been waiting for all my life. Looking at the course catalog for my first semester I noticed that a Dr. Ketu Katrak, a professor with an Indian-sounding name, was offering a course called “Commonwealth Literature.” Interesting, I thought, literature of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts? But it turned out to be literature of the British Commonwealth, the name the Britisher gave to an emergent body of writing that, in the late 1980s, was about to rename itself postcolonial literature.

Chinua Achebe

In that first course we read works by Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ousmane Sembène and Ama Ata Aidoo from Africa, by Merle Hodge and George Lamming from the Caribbean, Anita Desai and Mulk Raj Anand from India, and I was hooked. Where had these works been hiding all my life? As an undergraduate I hadn’t been able to read anything other than British and American literature written well before the Second World War. A Passage to India (1924), the most recent British novel on the curriculum there and the only one set in India, had been written by an Englishman, albeit a wonderful writer deeply critical of British colonial rule. With Ketu Katrak graciously consenting to become my dissertation director, I immersed myself in the study of twentieth-century literatures from India, Africa, the Caribbean, and the postcolonial diaspora and the years just flew by, until one day Andrew gently reminded me that perhaps it was time for me to finish up, and at last I did, eight years after I had begun.

I was only taking two courses a semester because I was teaching at the same time and Nikhil was only two years old when I began my studies. Both my guys were nothing if not supportive. Andrew and I barely saw each other during those first years of grad school, because he was with Nikhil in Winchendon while I was away at UMass and I was with Nikhil while he was away at the press in Boston. Dear Andrew would occasionally nod off while reading bedtime stories to Nikhil and I would return to find the baby wide awake, beaming from ear to ear, with his dad fast asleep and snoring. Returning to Winchendon the day of my PhD qualifying exam, little Nikhil told me that he had kept all his fingers crossed for me all day. As a three-year-old he rode to the administration offices on my hip when the unionizing graduate employees were calling for family health insurance and childcare support (both of which we won). And he met many of the postcolonial writers and scholars who passed through the five-college area, including Anita Desai and her teenage daughter Kiran, who babysat for him for a semester while I was taking an African literature class with Chinua Achebe.

Shakespeare-Wallah (1965)

I’ll close with an anecdote from graduate school that exemplifies what I’ve been trying to feel my way toward. One semester I was auditing a Shakespeare class with the brilliant Normand Berlin (who at twice our age put us students to shame with his energy). My classmates knew their Shakespeare much better than I did; but of a class full of Shakespeare lovers, the two students who were head-and-shoulders above the rest came from Asia: one woman from Manila, the Philippines, and the other from India, a Bengali woman from Calcutta. My point is that in this particular context in the late 1980s, foreigners and immigrants like us were not outsiders, but at the center of an exciting new literary-cultural movement. We didn’t have to slouch in the back with dark glasses on as I had as an undergraduate. (America’s honeymoon with the Other didn’t last long; but that’s another story.)

The point is that this new field of literary studies gave me permission to delve deeply into literature and history that told my story and the stories of my parents. While the British Empire had invaded countries around the world and grown wealthy at their expense, my father had traveled to study in England, where and my mother had met and fallen in love, returning to India with her after my birth. I had grown up in newly Independent India in English-medium schools reading English children’s books (very good ones, I hasten to add). But it was only after coming to the United States that I started studying the literatures, cultures, and histories of the countries I had left behind. Now it became my mission to help students who might not have been exposed to this wealth of literature from around the world to fall in love with it as I had, and to see that the world was there to learn from rather than to dominate.

I was still talking too much, but now I had a captive audience.

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446. Musings on Multiculturalism

In culture, Education, Food, Inter/Transnational, reflections, Stories on December 7, 2019 at 1:49 pm

Our new house is just a block away from the campus of the University of Massachusetts, the largest public research university in the state. For the past four years in a row its dining program has been ranked the best in the nation, bar none. My family can attest to this; my nephew Tyler completed his four years of undergraduate studies at UMass this year and in his first year, I remember, the often-rocky path from home to dorm life was made smooth by the fabulous food. Better still, family members eat free, so we would regularly be invited to join Tyler for an all-you-can-eat meal with a dizzying array of choices, master chefs and fresh, locally sourced ingredients. Since Tyler graduated we don’t go as often, but it’s a terrific side-benefit of having UMass on our doorstep. Last night Andrew and I walked over to the nearest dining commons for dinner, since we didn’t feel like cooking and on Fridays there’s fried fish on the menu. Among a great many other things.

During the stressful last 12 days of classes, UMass Dining is additionally featuring special treats, comfort foods, and student favorites every day. Yesterday, according to the schedule, the special was the intriguing-sounding Jian Bing crepes, today, sticky rice with mango, and tomorrow, Tonkotsu Ramen bar. But when we entered the main dining hall all we could see were the regular stations—the fish with roasted acorn squash and stuffed red peppers, the gluten-free Jamaican jerk chicken and sesame collard greens, the risotto bar, made to order as you watched, stir fries, also made to order with a choice of ingredients and sauces, the obligatory pasta and pizza sections, burgers of course, including vegetarian black-bean burgers, salads of all descriptions, organic teas, milk from the local dairy farm, fresh fruit and hot chocolate to go, in compostable cups. But ornery as I am, I was disappointed. Where were the advertised specials?

We started with the fish, but even though it was melt-in-the-mouth fresh and flaky, I fretted about what wasn’t there. Still, we enjoyed our first course as I looked around and people-watched. Having endured an undergraduate experience in the early 1970s with a pretty homogeneous group of classmates in terms of race and class, I delight in the international diversity of the UMass student body with so many students from South and East Asia. In my day I had not a single South Asian classmate. But where was the Asian food this evening?

Finally I made inquiries and was directed to an adjacent dining room. There I saw students with promising-looking deep bowls, suggesting the proximity of ramen. But all I could find behind the food counters was the dessert special, freshly made waffle bowls filled with the ice cream and topping of your choice. With ramen on my mind, these failed to tempt. Eventually I was directed to a third room adjoining the second one, and Bingo! There were all the missing specials I’d seen on the online menu. And there, too, were almost all the Asian students.

After racing back to tell Andrew the good news I loaded up a bowl and a plate and came back later for a second plate. After filling the bowl at the ramen station with dumplings and a choice of toppings, I found the Indian food station: pullao rice, naan, chicken, paneer and vegetables, channa (chickpeas), and mini-samosas. Reminding myself that we could make this at home, I took a very modest helping, so as to save space for other choices. It was ridiculous–I was already full, but this food was begging to be enjoyed. The Jian Bing crepes were delicious, made with besan (chickpea flour), egg, and chopped scallions and filled with lettuce, crunchy fried wonton strips, and shredded chicken, and the obliging cook made an all-vegetarian one for Andrew. The station next-door was making sushi to order, but I reluctantly had to give it a miss this time. We ate our fill, followed up with a bowl of sticky rice with mango (delicious) and a gratuitous slice of chocolate mousse pie (too much, I know, but not to be missed) and waddled home clutching cups of hot chocolate (me) and coffee (Andrew). But what I really wanted to talk about was the people.

As I was finding my way to the dining hall with all the deliciousness, I noticed that there were more and more students of color sitting at the tables in the room adjacent to ours, and when I found what I had been looking for, I realized why. On the way back with my first bowl of ramen and plate of Indian food, I saw a long table filled with beautiful, happy, animatedly-talking South Asian students and—I kid you not—a row of young men who all looked like twin brothers of Hasan Minhaj. Now you know that I don’t think all South Asians look alike, but this was completely true, even taking into account my penchant for exaggeration. I was happy to see East Asians, South Asians, students with hijabs, students fresh from sports practice and still in their shorts (it was snowing outside, mind you), students with Santa hats, all laughing and chattering and being warmed inside and out with that delicious comfort food.

Back at our table in the “traditional” room, as the empty plates piled up and I slowed down considerably, my eyes strayed to the students at the tables around us. Even in this room there was a diversity of students, some eating alone, some in couples, and some of the small groups were mixed: men and women, Asians and African Americans, jocks and gaming aficionados, all bonding over food. I can’t say for sure if there were any mixed couples, though, and wondered whether the past fifty years had seen much change in this area, one particularly dear to my heart. There were two women across from us, one South Asian and the other East Asian, and the East Asian student had a large, soft, buttery piece of naan which she was trying to eat with chopsticks. I watched her out of the corner of my eyes with a huge smile spreading over my face, as she tried to handle the naan daintily with the chopsticks, nibbling away at the edges and, as it kept lurching dangerously and threatening to escape, she bit off larger chunks to get it to a manageable size. It looked like one of those contests in which people have to try to take bites out of apples on a string with their hands tied behind their back. By the end of it she was a pro, and, undaunted by the rising carb count, began to tuck heartily into a bowl of sticky rice and mango.

I couldn’t help reflecting on U.S. multiculturalism. It was all here—the benefits of diversity showing in the mixed groups, the exposure of meat-and-potatoes Irish American students to stir fries and sushi, of strictly-stir-fries Asian students to pizza and burgers that their mothers might never prepare at home, the options to suit every dietary restriction. Andrew asked a server to put some kale on his plate of beer-battered fish, but they insisted on giving him a separate plate so as not to accidentally mix a gluten-free dish with a gluten-containing one. But on our way home I thought of the table of Hasan Minhaj lookalikes and the dining room filled almost exclusively with students of color. I thought ruefully of my own student days with not a single South Asian student to be seen (and no vegetarian options but cottage cheese and pasta without sauce), but also, with a pang, of the tables of laughing Latino and African American students to which I didn’t belong any more than I did among the prep-school white American students (we had only immigrated to the U.S. the year before). Much of the time I ate hastily alone and then smuggled some of the meager vegetarian options, such as there were, up to my dorm room for Andrew. Here at UMass, there was not only hot sauce, there were choices of hot sauce, from the ubiquitous tabasco, to Mexican salsas, to the glorious Sriracha. What I would have given for even one of those back in college!

But the celebration of multiculturalism has notoriously meant exposing students to a diversity of holidays and foods but not much else in terms of meaningful structural change. For the most part, despite the diversity in the UMass student body, they still sat together in their separate racial and ethnic groups; and the dramatic demographic difference between the two dining halls was sobering. Still I consoled myself that there had been progress. Asian and Caribbean American students had a taste of their own home cooking and people of their own ethnicity and cultural background to bond with. Although UMass Amherst, out in the boondocks of Western Massachusetts, has far fewer African American students than UMass Boston does, it was heart-warming to see a small group of South Asian and African American students together. And the image that stays with me: the delightful hybridity of that young East Asian student working to maneuver that unmanageably large piece of fresh naan bread into her mouth. Even now, in my mind’s eye, it makes me smile. It’s messy, but we’re getting better at it.

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433. No particular place to go

In Education, Family, people, Stories on May 12, 2019 at 2:20 pm

For the first time ever I’m starting a post with nothing particular in mind. It’s a cold, rainy Sunday, and there’s a pile of student papers waiting on my feedback. It wasn’t on my radar that rain was forecast, so when I woke up the cushions on the outdoor furniture were soaking wet and I’ve brought them indoors to dry on a tarp and turned the heat on for the first time in a couple of weeks. There’s laundry to do, and a long To Do list. But the past two days have had more highs and lows packed into them than I can process, so after a Sunday morning lie-in I’ve made a pot of tea, eaten the last Digestive biscuit with my first cup, and am sitting at the dining table looking out at the raindrops dripping off the pine needles and onto the ivy.

Andrew just texted a Mother’s Day message from a family breakfast in New Jersey. He and my sister-in-law Vera will soon be heading back from the funeral of John, Andrew’s dear cousin Juliana’s lovely husband, who passed away earlier this week. I rode down with them on Friday for the wake, and rode back with Nikhil and Melissa for my nephew Tyler’s graduation from UMass Amherst. It was a fittingly overcast Friday in New Jersey for the wake, and a fittingly glorious early-May Saturday to celebrate our graduate with all the trees on the campus dressed in their Spring finery. So, two days of sharing rites of passage; first with Andrew’s family—all his siblings, Juliana, her beloved and dearly remembered sister Nadia’s two sons, Matt and Phil, who were there to support their aunt every step of the way, Nikhil, who had his car totaled at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel on his way down and had to get it sorted and then drove down with his girlfriend Melissa in her car. Thank goodness no one was hurt. So many memories, since Juliana and John’s wedding 45 years ago was one of the first big occasions I celebrated with Andrew’s family, and Juliana and John had held the family together, always inviting the elders, hosting Easter feasts at their home, and meeting at Mount Olivet cemetery on Cemetery Day (the first Sunday after Orthodox Easter) where we would visit all the graves on both sides of the family. Yesterday Andrew and the family, including John’s two brothers and their families, drove from the funeral home to the church for the funeral, then the church to Mt. Olivet for the burial ceremony, then out for a meal together, and finally back to Juliana’s house. As the Ukrainians say, Memory Eternal!

For our part, Nikhil, Melissa, and I took our leave on Friday night for a long drive back to Amherst in the rain and a few short hours of sleep before heading down to the Mullins Center the big indoor stadium at UMass where justly-proud parents Sally and Kevin had saved us seats, a brass band was playing and everyone was in celebratory mode. We cheered Tyler as he processed in in his robes and accepted his diploma in Environmental Resources Conservation (with a minor in Environmental Science) and then went on to celebrate at a department reception, a last lunch at his dining hall (the food at UMass Dining was deservedly voted #1 in the country), and finally basking in the afternoon sun on our terrace with the Man of the Hour popping a bottle of bubbly for a toast. Mum and Dad would have been so proud and so happy to see us all together.

Now I know why I don’t start my blog posts with no particular place to go (thanks, Chuck Berry). I wrote and posted a piece almost every day throughout the month of April, hoping that it would jump-start my blog again after it had been lying fallow for more than two years, since my parents’ deaths. I’d like to return  to writing a new story every week; but for now, I’m still sitting here at the dining table looking out at the rain and my first cup of tea has gone cold.

It is Mother’s Day, and a day to honor my dear mother, who passed away a little more than a year ago. I spent an hour in bed this morning looking through photographs of Mum to post on my Facebook page, but eventually gave up. Instead, I’ll light a candle for her and remember her sweetness. Her Easter cactus, a gift from Kimberly, is blooming, and on Friday Andrew picked a posy of flowers for me, including some of Mum’s primroses, which come up anew every year.

Now I know why I started writing this morning, although it took me a while to get here.

Love you, Mum.


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431. Y is for Youth

In blogs and blogging, Childhood, Education, Immigration, India, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 30, 2019 at 8:43 pm

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles and today the letter stands for youth.

Youth is an estate from which I would be far removed were it not for my work, which gives me daily contact with undergraduates. As an oldster but a woman, at times I exert less authority than I might like, but most of the time I am grateful for the easy, if somewhat quizzical, familiarity between us.

 first-time voters in Arunachal Pradesh, India’s Easternmost state

But enough of the chit-chat. As I age, along with the world’s population, what role are the youth playing in the current zeitgeist? Where do they stand with respect to immigrants, refugees, and exiles?

It depends, of course, where they stand. Refugees and asylum-seekers are getting younger, with children making up 52% of the world’s refugee population in 2017, according to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). White supremacist groups and ISIS alike woo alienated youth, hoping to recruit impulsive young people seeking a sense of belonging. As instability and economic crisis increases, youth unemployment and despair rises, and the average age of suicide bombers and child soldiers falls, as groups like Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram forcibly recruit younger and younger children. In the United States, aging Baby Boomers, now in their sixties, decry the apathy of the youth, who are much less likely to engage in electoral politics than their elders. But leaders can rise and fall based on the youth turnout. In India’s 2019 general election, now underway, out of 900 million eligible voters, 84.3 million youth are eligible to cast their ballots for the first time, including 15 million who are 18-19 years old.

While it is easy, as one slides into senescence, to bemoan “the youth of today,” in fact many of these youth are showing us the way forward. In the United States, in contrast with the sensational media images of young men joining white nationalist groups in droves, there is the quieter evidence in opinion polls that on the whole, young people are much more liberal and open-minded than their parents and grandparents. In a heartening January 2019 report from the Pew Research Center, a majority of Americans polled said that immigrants strengthened the country, but while only 44% of the “Silent Generation” (born 1928-1945) agreed, a whopping 75% of Millennials (born 1981-1996) weighed in with a Yes. In a Spring 2016 Global Attitudes Survey also conducted by Pew Research, the young were much less likely than the old to say that birthplace was very important to national identity. In the U.S., only 21% of 18-24 year-olds felt that it was important to have been born in the country to truly belong, as against 40% of those 50 and older. The poll revealed an even greater generational difference when the respondents were asked about the importance of observing national customs and traditions to national belonging. Among the Americans, only 28% of the 18-24 age group thought that “sharing such cultural elements was important to being truly American”, in contrast with 55% of those age 50 and older.

Increasingly, as ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and the Border Patrol (CBP) are ramping up detentions and deportations of children and more aggressively separating children and their parents, as the current administration is attempting to do away with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) making it harder and harder for undocumented immigrant youth to get access to an education or a decent job, the youth are mobilizing to fight back. As evidence and inspiration, I give you SIM, Student Immigrant Movement, the dynamic Massachusetts-based immigrant youth-led organization. Go to their website: it is a happening place.

SIM’s mission: We fight for the liberation of the undocumented community through the development of a network of immigrant youth organizers in high-density immigrant communities. We organize youth, ages 13-30, and provide political education, leadership training, protection, guidance, mentorship, and safe healing spaces.

SIM’s vision: Our vision is that all immigrant students have equal access to higher education, are not discriminated against based on their immigration status, collectively realize their full potential, define their own identity and become fully engaged in every aspect of society that affects their lives.

Join SIM today as a youth (ages 13-26), an ally/supporter, an immigrant or refugee (temporary or permanent, documented or undocumented). You can also become a monthly DREAM sustainer to help immigrant youth protect their communities. Just looking at a group of SIM youth gets my mojo and my metabolism working. When youth are at the leading edge of positive change, the only thing to do is to work with them.

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400. Why Pay those Union Dues?

In Education, history, Music, Politics, Stories, United States, Work on June 30, 2017 at 4:18 am

I do like Roger Miller’s 1965 country hit, King of the Road, a song in the American hobo tradition of the lone drifter, continually movin’ on. But in the second verse, one line never fails to infuriate me. The verse begins:

Third boxcar, midnight train
Destination, Bangor, Maine.
Old worn out clothes and shoes,
I don’t pay no union dues. . .

So retrograde! I can’t stand it. Instead I sing out defiantly, no doubt to the irritation of anyone in earshot, I pay my union dues!

Why pay your union dues? I’ll tell you why. Pay them because a union negotiates a contract for the benefit of all the employees. The dues allow the union to function, to organize, to advocate on behalf of the workers. If an employee proudly refuses to pay his dues, like Roger Miller’s self-styled “man of means by no means,” then he is just getting a free ride on the backs of his fellow-workers. That’s shameful in my book.

This pride in refusing to stand with one’s fellow-workers is ornery American individualism, and although I have lived nearly fifty years in this country, it still sticks in my throat. It’s the same individualism that says, Because my children are no longer in school, I will vote against funding the public schools; or Because I’m young and healthy at the moment, I don’t need to pay into the Medicaid or health insurance systems. This flouts the basic principle that makes a national insurance system work: it can provide coverage for all because everyone helps to support it. If only the elderly, the sick, and the disabled paid into the system, it would sink under the weight of the expenses; but if healthy people pay in as well, healthy people who do not draw upon it as much, then the system stays afloat. What the young, healthy, able-bodied people fail to recognize is that they will be old and sick and vulnerable one day, and then the system will support them.

What don’t people get about this principle? Damn it, you don’t have to be a dirty Commie to understand it. It’s the same principle that life insurance companies bank on: actuarial tables demonstrate that young people will pay into a policy for many years and are unlikely to draw on it before it has made a tidy sum of money for the company. If only old people bought life insurance, the premiums would have to be prohibitively high in order to make the company viable.

What makes a seemingly simple and self-explanatory principle so difficult for people to grasp? What makes it not just difficult, but downright un-American? For one, there’s that strong streak of ornery individualism I mentioned earlier, that makes Americans say, How dare they make laws that require me to wear a seatbelt in my own personal car? I’ll ride without a seatbelt if I damn well please, because I’m a free man. A free man, yes; sadly, all-too-often a dead man as well. But hell, they say, if I wanna kill myself, ain’t no government gonna stop me.

cartoon by Evelyn Atwood

Also responsible for this confounding anti-union sentiment in the United States are the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act and the so-called Right-to-Work laws. Although Taft-Hartley allowed for the setting up of union shops (which require all new workers to become members of the union), it also allowed individual states to pass laws prohibiting union shops, laws that required workers who refused to pay union dues to receive the same benefits as those who paid their fair share of the union’s operating expenses. These states, which now number 28, are known, in a fine example of Orwellian Doublespeak, as Right-to-Work states. No wonder labor activists referred to Taft-Hartley as the slave-labor bill.

Someone, please write us a new verse for King of the Road that makes it crystal clear how idiotic it is to wear the refusal to pay union dues as a badge of pride. If you don’t want to pay dues, that is your prerogative, I suppose, though you should realize that you thereby weaken the bargaining power of the workers as a whole; but then, American hustler, be principled enough to recognize that you don’t deserve the union’s benefits either. (As an example and a healthy corrective, here’s Peggy Seeger adding some new words to Woody Guthrie’s 1940 favorite, Union Maid.)

King of the Road was that quintessential American loner, a figure that many American men see as attractive, and many American women as downright sexy; I don’t. I suppose I just can’t see the glamor of going it alone when it hurts others as well as oneself.

Note: I got the idea for this post from the June 26th, 2017 edition of The Resistance Report by Robert Reich, a programme broadcast live from Professor Reich’s office most weekdays, and one I watch avidly. In it, Reich, formerly a Secretary of Labor, explains the basic principle on which universal health insurance works and makes it clear how self-defeating it is for working people to oppose it.

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397. Why Should Not Old Women Be Mad?

In Education, Stories, Teaching, Words & phrases, Work on April 28, 2017 at 10:21 pm

St. Trinians girls (Ronald Searle)

I’m so old that when I was in secondary school in England, the teachers still addressed the boys by their last names, as if, anachronistically, we were in some sort of Monty Python sketch. (I’m so old that I was in secondary school before the advent of Monty Python.)

I’m so old that I become enraged by fundraising emails that address me by my first name.

I’m so old that students sending me their late essays via cell phone infuriate me, not by their lateness, or by the fact that I am forced to print them out, but by their failure to include a cover note.

I’m so old that when a student sends me an email message without a cover note, I reply with a cold (and to them, bewildering), “Were you addressing me?” or “Excuse me, but did you intend to send that message to me?”

I am so impossibly old that when, in their essays, students call eminent scholars like Edward Said “Edward,” or Martin Luther King, Jr. “Martin,” I say, with withering sarcasm, “Oh, I didn’t know you were on a first-name basis with him.” (It goes right over their heads.)

It’s contradictory, I know, that in email messages to my students I sign off with my first name, but have the urge to (cyber)slap them if they dare to address me as such. Although to tell you the truth, I am grateful when they address me at all. Nowadays one is lucky if a message from a student starts with a “Hey!”

By the way, while I’m giving vent to righteous indignation, Woe Betide any student who makes any of the following cardinal slip-ups, whether orally or in writing:

Pakistan is in the Middle East;
India is in Southeast Asia; or
the Mahatma’s name is spelled G-h-a-n-d-i.

I’m not done yet: on the subject of names, if you are giving an oral presentation on an eminent writer or scholar from Elsewhere, you are responsible for finding out how to pronounce his or her name beforehand. S-a-i-d is pronounced with two syllables; it emphatically does not rhyme with ‘head’. Why is it that you can do Dostoevsky without hesitation, but—like the British—balk at Bandopadhyay? Stay after class and repeat “Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak” as many times as it takes to get it right.

By the way, I’m so old that in my day they still sent the boys to the Headmaster to be caned. Just sayin’.

Mr. Quelch and Billy Bunter

All right; I’m done now.

With apologies to William Butler Yeats: Why Should Not Old Men Be Mad?

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375. Unions

In blogs and blogging, Education, history, Inter/Transnational, Stories, United States, Work on April 26, 2016 at 2:40 am


Blogging from A to Z
  Theme: Bringing Me Joy

UI’ve just returned from a 25th anniversary celebration of the Graduate Employee Organization (GEO), UAW 2322, a union of graduate students that organized and went on strike to gain recognition while I was in graduate school. We went from abjection to dignity through standing up and demanding that our work be recognized as the work it patently was, and not merely as part of our graduate education. We also won year-round family health insurance, fee waivers, a decreased workload, and a substantially increased rate of pay per course.

I am extremely thankful for the trade union movement, for the struggles of workers in the past to secure rights, benefits, and working conditions that I take for granted today. Andrew’s grandfather was a union man, and I have written before about how, when his union won a half-day on Saturday, he began taking his son—Andrew’s father—on a special outing on that half-day. My mother has always been a strong supporter of unions, and it was a great disappointment to her that by the time her workplace finally got around to unionizing, she had technically been promoted to management. As for me, I have been a member of three different unions over the years, the IWW in the 1980s, GEO in the 1990s, and the MSCA over the past 10 years. Without them, I would be insecure, lonely, alienated, and broke.

UnknownWhetstone Press was organized as a three-person worker’s cooperative. We collectively owned and operated the business and gave ourselves excellent health insurance but very little else; we couldn’t afford it. A significant portion of our business involved printing for non-profit organizations who would only use a union shop, so it was imperative that we unionized, but at a grand total of three, we were too small for just about any union to accept us.

Except for the Wobblies. Their slogan was One Big Union, and no one was too small for them. We paid a pittance in dues and became proud members of the Industrial Workers of the World. I used to enjoy reciting the preamble to the IWW Constitution, which begins:

The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.

Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.

imagesThe funny thing was, of course, that in our case we were the workers as well as the employers! The irony wasn’t lost on us; it just gave us all the more delight in declaiming the “revolutionary watchword, ‘abolition of the wage system.’” That worked, since we didn’t make any wages to speak of and had few prospects of doing so in the future.

I tease gently, but make no mistake, I do not mock, for the Wobblies, the union of Joe Hill, have a noble history and I’m proud to have been a tiny part of it for a short while.

Now I’m thankful to be teaching at a public university whose faculty is unionized as the MSCA, under the umbrella of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. It’s strange indeed that we are forbidden to strike; everyone knows that the strike has historically been the principal weapon and ultimate recourse of a union. Then, too, not all professors think of themselves as workers. But we are workers nonetheless, and I’m glad of the solidarity across disciplines in a system that can be stratified and competitive.

Unions bring me joy. Sing it!

Solidarity Forever

Solidarity forever
Solidarity forever
Solidarity forever
For the union makes us strong

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