Liquid Ink

The official website of Gint Aras, Finalist 2016 CWA Book Award


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We are all members of our culture

I’m depressed today because I know I’m complicit. Separating myself from the culture—indeed, the cultures—to which I belong is impossible.

I am an American at a terribly low point in our history, and I can’t separate myself from the embarrassing maelstrom in our daily rhetoric, the “leaders” we believe reflect our values, at least in part. I refuse to use their names in this post. Using their names has for a long time been part of the problem, a way of using attention junkies to gain attention.

I’m an educator at a time when education is far less effective than it should be, both yielding and reflecting the maelstrom. I’m in higher education at a time when the whole system—the system that compensates me so that I might pay my student loans—looks at students as streams of revenue, at courses as products, and thinks of itself the way an empire might, at its teachers the way Pharaoh saw captured troops. A contemporary college’s greatest partner is a bank. Its greatest enemies are artists and philosophers.

I’m a man of letters at a time when people argue in comments about clickbait headlines. Despite the headline’s purpose, so many don’t bother to click, yet freely unload their frustrations, ignorance, hatred, fear and anxiety. I have written such headlines in attempts to profit. My refusal to monetize this blog is a cheap and pathetic attempt at integrity, one whose sincerity is questionable. It’s embarrassing to receive a “paycheck” for your “writing” in the amount of $6.00, the result of 12,000 “clicks”. We’ll say, “Hey, better $6.00 than 0!” We justify so many vile acts this way.

I could go on. I think I’ve summarized the situation well enough. No…I’ll go on.

I am a child of migrant refugees who now fear and loathe migrants and refugees, who blame refugees for failing to contain a war that banished them from their homes, migrants for working jobs that, if performed by others, would raise prices. Among us are sons and daughters of those displaced because tyrannical demagogues decided to send their armies into battle, slaughter citizens en masse. These children of the displaced today support a demagogue and tyrant. I am complicit in this irrational fear, in this simultaneous hatred and denial of one’s back story. I have paid money to companies that financed movements and politicians who profit by inflaming the maelstrom. Some of these politicians hold shares of the company that sends me a bill each month.

That bill buys a product that’s bad for me. The company knows, all of its employees know the product is bad for me. How many of us pay our bills from the sales of products we know are bad for the people consuming them, and how many of our bills represent purchases we know are bad for us, bad for our kids, bad for people not yet born? The maelstrom swirls, gaining speed. We all know what we’re doing, and we go about it as if there’s no alternative.

Our national rhetoric is about to achieve a level of profanity we may not be able to imagine. I think it’s important, right now and right here, for all of us to stop using this sentence: “Look at what they’re doing over there.” That’s a dangerous delusion, part and parcel of the problem. The correct sentence is this one: “Look at what we’re doing over here.” If we could wake up to ourselves, to our actual predicament, which is that our conditions are the result of our actions and ideas, we’d see the alternative path.

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Three important differences between teaching in America and in the Netherlands

This past May, I participated in a teacher exchange between the USA and The Netherlands. It focussed on visits to “vocational schools”, the European equivalent of Community Colleges. I’ve been on all sorts of exchanges and cross-cultural academic ventures before, including participation in literary seminars, and a brief teaching stint in Cuba. This trip to the Netherlands was amazing by any measure.

I recently gave a “presentation” at my college regarding this trip. I said about as much as I stated in the previous paragraph, adding only that colleagues should take advantage of the opportunity. In all, I spoke for about three minutes, and did nothing but drop the kind of platitudes work expects from us these days.

“They have very good tea.”

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As expected, colleagues, particularly upper-level administrators looking to gauge the usefulness of spending an extra $1,500 on a faculty member, had questions in private. The big one, “What’s it like to work out there? How’s it different? What do you learn?”

I’ve never answered it honestly.

So…here it is, if you want to know. Three important differences:

1.) Generally speaking, Dutch educators do not imagine getting shot at work.

I have imagined getting shot at work countless times. It happens almost every day. At work, I have thought about escape strategies, and I look at every room as a place where I might either have to hide or try to escape from an active shooter.

Sure…I have a fiction writer’s imagination, so that plays a role. But I do not imagine getting executed on a guillotine in the college courtyard. Our college has no guillotine that I’m aware of. Yet getting shot or witnessing a slaughter is a real occupational hazard. We were even briefed and shown a film. What to do if you are about to be killed at work.” Three steps: Run! Hide! Fight! It’s rare for me not to imagine, if only in a flash, a shooting taking place on campus as I sit in my office chair.

In fact, I did some calculations with a friend from the math department, and we have surmised that the chances of us both getting shot at work are substantially higher than the chances some powerful person in our community might come out and say, “Raises for faculty across the board. We really appreciate you.”

2.) Dutch educators are paid a living wage

This means they can, even when they work part time, afford either to live off their salaries or to supplement their lives while in some temporary condition or as part of a second career, usually right in the town where they are working. In the meantime they don’t have to fuss about looking for health insurance, managing how they’ll pay off their student loans, etc. etc.

I know some reader is going to throw eggs at me: you are handsomely compensated as a full time instructor. Indeed, I’m one of the lucky ones. But a minority of college classes are taught by full time instructors. Most courses are taught by adjuncts so mistreated that it’s embarrassing to begin the narrative.

It’s part of the game. American colleges, taking a tip from the government, look at students as sources of revenue first, potential graduates second, and human beings only somewhere down the line. Most colleges will happily take the coin from student loans but never bother to orient the young people to the nature of that game, one unique to America.

If students are revenue, colleges look at faculty primarily as cost. You are a walking chunk of change which could go elsewhere, preferably to the friend of a board member, one who’ll handle some concocted administrative need. It’s dehumanizing to be seen as an obstacle disturbing the distribution of revenue in the “way the powers see fit”.

3.) Corruption

I’m sure there’s some desk jockey working in the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science who has managed to secure his best friend’s son a job. That lad is now jockeying a similar desk in a similar office somewhere in a Hague basement. Or maybe there’s the college director who approved a purchase of Kapsalon for every visiting teacher, and he sent the kids to get the yummy snack from his friend’s kebab stand. The Turk charged an extra 10% and the director got a cut. The scandal! An outrage!

This is chump change compared to the corruption in American education. No Child Left Behind? Well, they couldn’t call it No Test Publisher Left Without Lube. And here in Illinois…ha ha ha…ha ha ha! Oh, shit. Oh…let me. Let me button my pants. Where are my latex gloves? Yes, I left them under the desk. My God, they’re filthy.

The CEO of Chicago Public Schools gets busted for accepting bribes

*gulp*

I’ve just been informed that my chances of getting shot at work have substantially increased. No…I’ve just been told…yes, I’ll comply…they remain the same. Exactly the same! There’s no corruption in Illinois. No. We treat even the birds and squirrels as human beings. We are loved as employees. We love teaching and learning, and we all teach just as we all learn, either the hard way or the easy way. We are all good here. We’ve been blessed.