Impressions on the state of Education in a State University in the U.S.

by ericaeller

book vortex

While this blog states that “literary” commentary is its goal, I’ve decided to post this personal commentary here, since it surrounds the production of literature from an academic perspective from within the domain of the public higher education system in the United States. More specifically, these are my impressions from the experience of having reached the limit of my ability to continue earning degrees at the San Francisco State University. I initially applied to this University as a creative writing Master’s student because I was enduring a relationship with a writer, and I mimicked his trajectory. I was 26 years old, I already lived in San Francisco, it was an affordable option, I was an avid reader, and I needed to fulfill myself in a way that wasn’t being met by my discarded goal of becoming a professional musician or artist (which were the bygone remains of my undergraduate degree and my goal of moving to a city) …nor by my status as an office administrative bookkeeper.  This decision making process sounds ridiculous in retrospect, but I didn’t know much about the status symbol that higher education affords, since neither of my parents graduated from college and they never guided me in any other direction than to find my own way. So, deciding to enter back into a Master’s degree led me in a direction I’m more or less content with. The field of the humanities has made it clear that status is always of utmost importance and I should have prepared further and then applied to Berkeley, or some other school with name-recognition.

However, as it turned out, I decided to stay at SFSU, mostly because I found their English Literature department compelling. I can also afford San Francisco State University, although in the future, people like me might not be able to afford it because of the rising cost of living in SF and the rising cost of tuition. Now that I have a Creative Writing Master’s degree and I’m almost through with an English Master’s degree, and I’ve taken extra language classes, I’m becoming a burden on the system.  One of my classmates who was an undergraduate classmate in my Spanish class last semester called me a “degree collector” as if it were a social-type similar to a bottom-feeder. Partly it was in response to the fact that I took Spanish and German classes “for fun,” as in, not towards a minor or major. It’s true that I’ve been “using” the university system to a. travel abroad using student loans, b. learn languages outside of my English degree, and c. earn more than one Master’s humanities degree, but the language classes were a strategy for preparing to enter into a doctorate program in English or Comparative Literature.  I know many people who would be confused by these decisions because they don’t add up to a “career” in the minds of people who take language, history, and philosophy for granted or consider them arcane forms of impenetrable discourse, which is again symptomatic of the quality of education people receive on the whole in the U.S. So, why am I any different if I’m a product of the public education system? I guess it goes back to that self-made attitude of my family, and I took a serious hobbyist’s interest in critical theory and philosophy, much the same way I was avid about studying the piano as a kid, and the same way I’m interested in environmental issues, although these areas have not been my area of direct focus. In fact, I don’t have an area of direct focus, which might be a detriment from a career perspective, but it is also the result of my critique of a system that only engenders experts in a time when people need to connect the dots between realms of discourse.  Perhaps even now, theory and philosophy are still overshadowed by literature in my intellectual universe.  Nevertheless, they have remained a constant in my lifelong intellectual ‘trajectory’ however piecemeal it may be.

According to my school, I now have “too many credits” and I have to defend my right to receive financial aid next semester. Formal education has a cut-off in the United States public education system. I find this to be a flaw. Work is pitted against learning. Work is also the preferred trajectory for all citizens, regardless of the suffering and strain of time it might put them through. Education provides the inverse scenario: time to think is only afforded by a heavy financial burden of student loan debt. Contrary to the norm, I’ve opted to study for the last few years since I don’t have any faith in the future of social security or retirement savings, that once kept people on their work leashes. These things are being gutted, too.  Meanwhile, everyone else seems to be working so much they haven’t been able to respond to the realization that our constitutional and human RIGHTS are buckling in this system.  Occupy, the most media-friendly protest scheme of late wasn’t even able to face this dilemma head-on, since it clung to the notion that as Americans we deserve tax-breaks, and that we don’t like corporations, but the rhetoric mostly surrounded financial freedom, which the popular book by one of the Occupy leaders, David Graeber, seems to signal by its rhetorical focus on money as a historically significant phenomenon of change. What about CIVIL RIGHTS? I’m of the opinion that work burdens people’s time to the point that they can’t engage in matters such as protecting civil liberties, and it is clear since salaried positions are expected to work roughly 60 hours a week in this country rather than the 40 that we advertise as our threshold. The 8-hour work week is pretty much abolished in both the managerial sector, while paradoxically, the laboring sector of Walmart is often limited at a part-time of 32, to prevent the company from having to grant benefits to the wage-laborers. All of these details portray how the current state of work in the U.S. undermines the efforts of labor unions to establish the 40 hour work week years back. What we have now is a diminished fraction of the rights that were “achieved” in the past. And people are often afraid to stand up to this fact together: managers and wage-laborers, consultants and administrators (I feel a little tongue-in-cheek).

My state school’s Humanities department actually provides very little resources from a structural standpoint to promote or train its students enough to compete in the doctoral application degree process, which would land its students at the rational end, or final destination of their studies. Instead, it recommends a diverse set of ‘related’ careers including adjunct teaching, publishing, copy-editing, etc. These are all trades and careers that could be established through more effective degree program means in other departments. Furthermore, because it offers very little support from the foreign language departments to aid students in preparing for the foreign language requirements of doctoral programs, its students are not prepared to compete. I have tried to use the system in order to prepare myself for doctoral applications, and as a result, I have earned too many credits. The English Master’s Literature program is therefore basically designed to meet the needs of the growing adjunct teacher pool in the U.S., which is another ridiculous way that the neo-liberal education system has undermined the career of teachers. In the past, the career of a professor was a respected career as it still is in other countries that consider the high quality of their education systems as a social and even ‘capitalistic’ asset, rather than a financial burden.  They invest in the people of their countries as a resource, while this country outsources for its pool of educated people.  We attract the brightest of other countries by veritably importing top students from around the globe, while discouraging all but the privileged upper-middle class of our own country to pursue academic degree tracks. This prevents our humanities departments from developing the critical edge they need to face structural change in a locally/domestically, and engaged manner from a perspective of class-consciousness, in my opinion.

Anyway, as students at SFSU, we are encouraged and  NOT to apply for doctorate programs because of the lack of job “security” at the University level due to the diminishing number of tenure track positions that will be available in the future. They tell us this advice is only practical. I see it differently. Teachers have succumbed to their overburden of work to the extent that they have little time to organize to defend their own interests. Tenure track positions should not go away, even if they should be revised to ensure engaged commitment to educational quality.  One way that Australia has tried to deal with complacency of people who have held positions for a long time is by including skill development and renewal as a periodic requirement in a wide-range of professions. The complaint that educational quality diminishes because of the tenured position system for me is a false perception based on a few examples of teachers who lost passion to teach in a time of structurally defined loss. This combination of a lack of passion to teach paired with tenure is the inevitable symptom of slightly advantaged teachers watching the system that once supported them become gutted out from underneath of them. It is dispassionate to find yourself among the privileged, and in this privileged condition, realize that you don’t even have much to cling onto, yourself.  I would be jaded, too, and not very motivated to reinvest in the new-wave of political activism, lingering to receive what little benefits remain. Sadly, tenured teachers are often on their way out at the time of structural loss and degeneration.

Now that I’m back to working part-time as a bookkeeper and admin while I finish my last semester at school, I don’t need to rely on financial aid very much to finish my degree. It probably won’t be hard to defend my right to receive financial aid. The more troubling aspect of this situation for me is that this semester the school did not offer the grant I once received for free education, which sets a precedent going forward. The constitution of California states that it supports the right to free education, which has continuously been undermined in higher education by subtle and not so subtle degrees over the last 20-30 years.

CALIFORNIA CONSTITUTION
ARTICLE 9  EDUCATION

SEC. 5.  The Legislature shall provide for a system of common
schools by which a free school shall be kept up and supported 
in each district at least six months in every year, 
after the first year in which a school has been established.

Furthermore, the interest rates on student loans has increased rapidly over the past few years in spite of a. rising cost of tuition, b. stagnant economy, and c. an almost 0% rate of inflation. The debt “crisis” is real for most Americans and they will then enter into careers that demand they work more than 40 hours a week, leaving them no time to engage in connecting the dots of political corruption. The notion of a “budget crisis” of education is also a sham, in my opinion. To put it more accurately, it should be rephrased as “distribution of wealth case of corruption, marketed as a crisis, that has over-burdened the public’s right to education.” This is due to the ridiculously high incidence of tax-breaks for the rich through lobbyism, and tax subsidies for corporate interests and military interests, etc.

I plan to use my award to buffer my transition out of school by attempting to travel abroad to teach and work, attempt expatriotism fueled by political discontent, while continuing to write and study on the side. This is the patchwork form of independent or “freelance” scholarship that my degree has earned for me.  I fully recognize the uphill battle of the independent scholars who have gone before such as the author whose poetry is the topic of my thesis: Susan Howe.  I will also apply to doctorate programs, with the mindset that future career opportunities in other countries, or possibly an engaged approach to teaching opportunities in this country, will meet the needs of my personal and professional aspirations of integrating a balance of knowledge, sharing of knowledge, and civic action, which is for me a higher quality of ‘work week’ than a mere measurement of hours.

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