Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Unpaid thinking work while on furlough

More than a fortnight into the summer, I have been tossing around the word furlough a lot, whenever strangers and friends alike ask me about my "summer off."

"So, how do you spend your time then," asked a neighbor who is a year away from reaching sixty.  Perhaps he is contemplating retirement and, therefore, how to spend time post-work.  I suppose not everybody can goof away in a prematurely retired life like how this guy does! ;)

There is a paper that I am writing for a journal--it is almost done.  I need to wrap it soon because the deadline is nearing.  There are other things related to my professional life that I am able to address only during the uninterrupted summer days.

Meanwhile, student emails keep coming.  Like this one, from "A":
I hope you're having a good summer break so far and was wondering if you could send me more articles on economic geography or really anything interesting that you would like to share with me.
Thank you for your time,
How can I not engage with this student, right?

Life in the academy is not really about what happens in the classroom.  It is about what I do outside the classroom preparing for those minutes in the classroom.  Those minutes require days and days of reading, thinking, discussing, and writing.  Else, as Kalidasa wrote more than 1,700 years ago:
He's but a petty tradesman at the best,
Selling retail the work of other men
Perhaps even back then there were people who wondered what teachers did in their easy lives!

Almost always, everybody has comments on teaching and teachers, on what has to be taught and how anything has to be taught.  I am glad that there is such an interest in teaching and learning.  But, as one can imagine, this level  of outside commentary on teaching can easily slide into judging what is "correct" and what is not.  And if something about the teacher is not "correct," then off with her head.  Or, at least, fire the teacher.

Academic freedom, which is something that very few teachers around the world have, is, therefore, precious.  And tenure plays an important role in academic freedom:
Tenure for professors protects the right to pursue unpopular research and take unpopular positions. It is one of the counter-majoritarian bulwarks of a free society, like a free press or an independent judiciary. 
Trump America and opportunistic populism has started going after tenure and academic freedom.
Aversion to “expertise” and rejection of “establishment” authorities is a central element in the politics of populism. The honest, practical, plain-speaking majority is pitted against the complacent, condescending, and entitled mandarins.
The truth, however, is that populism is a politics of bad faith. Our societies would stop functioning without the expertise that comes from academic knowledge. Populist political leaders who win votes by disparaging experts – we can all choose our favorite examples – are bound to find themselves fumbling for the light switch when they come to power. Expertise remains essential to any decent governance whatsoever.  
Here in the US, while conditions in higher education are getting dark, it is nothing compared to many other countries, like in Turkey or Russia.  In Hungary, Central European University (CEU) "is fighting to remain a free institution in Budapest, Hungary’s capital, following the passage of new legislation that would, in essence, require the university to close."
Ultimately, academic freedom depends on the health of democratic institutions. When democracies are weak, when majoritarian populists erode checks and balances, press freedom, and judicial independence, universities are especially vulnerable. That is what has happened in Hungary. 
Populists and authoritarians always go after artists and professors--these are groups that always question the status quo.  I cannot understand how within a matter of months the political environment has become so toxic.  At least for now, I have the furlough months to think about all these, and more.

PS: If you are interested, I sent the student,"A," this reply:
I will start you with these two, both from the NY Times: One and Two.
Read them preferably in that order.
They are on completely different topics, but you will see that they will wonderfully enrich your understanding of the world, and will make you think about quite a few things.

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