This is so meta

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Did you ever walk away from something you truly loved and feel a bit disoriented? After nine and a half years I quit my university teaching gig.

It’s a little soon to say if I regret my decision, but I’ll admit to floundering this fall.

I didn’t leave my job because I didn’t like it. The privilege of standing before a roomful of bright, kind, young people looking at me like I had something valuable to teach them, never ever got old.

And I didn’t lose my job. In fact, my evaluations were always strong and my contract was freely renewed each semester. I have an open invitation to return.

What I tired of was continuing to play a part in the nationwide trend in higher education to shift the role of teaching to part-time faculty who, at least at my university, receive no benefits and no more job security than a 15-week contract. One current study found that from 2003 to 2013, the use of adjunct labor increased from 52% to 60% at private universities and from 45 to 62% at public bachelor’s degree-granting institutions.

At the same time, student loan debt has risen to over 1.5 trillion dollars collectively according to a June, 2018 article in Forbes: Student Loan Debt Statistics in 2018: a $1.5 Trillion Crisis.  “At private nonprofit colleges, average debt in 2012 was $32,300 (15% higher than in 2008, when the average was $28,200).” Where does the money go?

It turns out, according to a recent study, savings which come from using adjunct labor are usually funneled into more student services and administrative expenses. Somehow I felt complicit in a cycle that feels usury.

To put an exact number to this trend, my last contract guaranteed me $4,830.00 for teaching one semester’s class. The university limits the number of courses any adjunct can teach: Two. So, I taught two courses for a total semester paycheck of $9,660.00, or $19,320 annually.

I stood in an elite private university classroom before 36 students for six hours a week, prepped and graded 36 students’ writings, and made myself available for office hours adding another 18 – 20 hours of work a week. Add a week of syllabus writing time. Add another week of finals grading. I was making roughly $28 an hour which is significantly more than minimum wage.

Each of the 36 students would pay the university about $5,000 for my class. Yes, you can do the math. The university earned about $180,000 on my labor each semester. No savings are passed to students.

Can I reiterate how much I loved my job?

I did have the opportunity to voice my concerns directly to the university president over a lovely mushroom soup and salmon lunch. He shrugged and said, in effect, it’s the same everywhere and until there are no more adjuncts to take the work – and in the humanities especially there’s an over-saturation – the situation won’t change. And besides he said, students care more about adding a lazy river to the pool than who teaches them.

So I walked away to decrease the adjunct pool by one whopping body.

I’m faced with tremendous amounts of free time. I feel a little fractured, to be honest.

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Finish poetry book:                 Check.
Send book to publishers:         Check times ten.

I’ve targeted 25 publishers for my recently completed manuscript, each with its own open submission timeframe. I’m on the tenth publisher. Four have rejected the book. Six are still pending responses. Fifteen have approaching deadlines.

In the meantime, every writer will say the best thing to do after you finish one big thing is to start a new project.

Since it’s fall, which has meant school begins for as long as I can remember, I’ve decided to take a class. One of my own: Composing Self. It’s a writing class I’ve taught many times, exploring how and why writers compose a specific identity through careful language selection. If I’m any good at this teaching thing, I should learn quite a bit.

Composing Self is a creative nonfiction course. I’ll write about myself, or write about another real human, within the context of the world, much like this blog post which blends the personal with facts and figures for larger context.

We exist in the real world. We have permission to speak.

Do you want to take this course with me?

If you’re intrigued with the prospect of having someone curate a reading list for you, and create regular writing prompts, check out the details on my new website: Catherine Keefe.

What’s the cost?

What do you think I’m worth? Pay me what seems fair when the class is over.
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~Catherine

ps: This passage written by James Martin, SJ in The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everyone: A Spirituality for Real Life inspired me to include real salary numbers in my post, a move I’m certain I would have shied away from before reading the observation.

Individuals show their status through certain social symbols – job titles, possessions, credentials, and so on. One’s personal worth depends on one’s wealth or job.

That’s why discussing salary is perhaps the biggest taboo in social settings: it’s the quickest way of ranking people and is society’s prime measure of our worth. Finding out someone else’s salary instantly makes you see the person in a certain light…

James Martin, SJ, in summary and comment upon Dean Brackley, S.J.’s concept of “Downward Mobility.”

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This is the same face as the image at the top of the post. Different angle. Different light.

Kalapaki Beach Sand Sculpture 1, 2, and 3
Photos by Catherine Keefe

 

 

 

Dear Ross

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Dear Ross Gay,
I saw you laughing on Saturday. You threw back your head and pierced the cacophony of the giant bookfair at the LA Conventions center with the uninhibited rumble of your joy. I didn’t stop you, and I didn’t introduce myself because there was a small circle around you and I felt like an outsider.

I didn’t even know your name until a few months ago.

I always tell my students, “You’re not born knowing everything, so don’t be ashamed about what you don’t know today. But not knowing isn’t the same as not learning.”

I get so confused about the way I’m learning poems and poets, so slowly it seems to be a drip, and with such wide gaps I feel like an imposter to even call myself a reader of poetry, much less a writer. How do I learn all the good poets in this lifetime?

Who first mentioned your name? I wish I could personally thank that friend, along with you, for writing. You’re hardly an unknown what with that 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. Deep congratulations on those recognitions.

And now, thanks to someone I can’t remember, I have your Lace & Pyrite: Letters from Two Gardens, co-written with Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and your Catalog of Unabashed Gratitudea book I return to often, and gift to friends who are non-poetry readers. I trust they’ll learn to love the form after reading you.

I met your words in 2015, but you’ve said so much before. In conversation with Elizabeth Hoover at the Furious Flower Reading Series, she pointed out that Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude seemed invested in different concerns from your first two books, notably,  “exploring violence and masculinity.” She said your Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude “feels like those investments are very much in the background.”

You agreed and reflected on why that might be:

Simply, I’ve been gardening a lot and working on orchards and working with people in community in a place that is…it’s sort of allowed me to think differently.

You’ve allowed me to think differently about trees, and grief, and plums. I wonder though, do you wish us to excavate your past poems to find this present joy? Can we learn how to be this gracefully grateful without living through your violence and pain?  Am I cheating to sing joy with you if I didn’t first hold your sorrow?

For those who haven’t met your words, I give them a taste of fig from your mouth:

With gratitude,
Catherine

This is part of a series of gratitude letters to poets in celebration of National Poetry Month. You can read more about Ross Gay on his website.

Dear Ellen

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Dear Ellen Bass,
I am the woman who passed you in the hallway this morning at the LA Convention Center, and stopped you mid-stride to say thank you.

Yesterday in your talk, “Embracing a Poetics of Joy,” you said many true things.

The world needs poetry, but I don’t think it needs anyone particular person to write it. So if you don’t love it, do something else.

I do love it, the way you love it; the way all the writers I know and admire love it, the way, if we’re lucky enough and work hard enough, we might tweak the world a tiny bit for another and help unfold more tender awareness of each other.

I know it’s not an obscure poem, yet I still meet people who have never read your Gate C22. It’s poem that changed the way I travel through airports watching people walk, holding hands or not holding hands, kissing or not kissing, leaving or returning with joy or regret.

For them, I share your gift of reading that poem aloud.

Yesterday, you also said:

It’s an honor to put my pebble on the altar of poetry. I’m joyful that I still get to walk up to the altar.

Thank you for doing all the hard work that carrying that pebble entails. I’m joyful too that you walk to the poetry altar.

With gratitude,

Catherine

This is part of a series of gratitude letters to poets in celebration of National Poetry Month.You can read more about Ellen here: Ellen Bass | Award-winning SantaCruz-Based Poet And Educator

 

Dear Prageeta

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Dear Prageeta Sharma,
“Please write your friends poems and write them into poems.”
Do you remember urging us to do that in your your Poetry Foundation blog post, “Dear Reader, There’s a Still Suburb of Friendship, Community, and Poetry & Praise?”

I’m sorry I don’t know you well enough to call you friend, and I wish I could write poems more quickly than I write prose. But I want to tell you that I sat with you yesterday as you spoke about “Reverberant Silence” to the writers gathered at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Los Angeles.

I imagine that we who heard you speak about the loss of your husband, we who heard you read from the blog post you wrote about that grief, we who listened as read your poems, we don’t know you, but through your words.

Those words made me want to help you hold your pain. I’ll never capture its heft, but maybe I can let you rest for just a moment.

Have you ever seen a wild cucumber? In late winter, its spring green tendrils, kinked as tight as curls, cling to every branch or fence it finds. Its fruit, spring green too, grows quickly into a palm-sized egg shape covered with long sea-urchin like spikes.

Once the growing season is over, the cucumber’s sharpness falls away; the fruit becomes a dry woven cup, often mistaken for a bird nest. Did I tell you the dried wild cucumber looks like lace? A sponge? A wish? If you lift its lightness toward the sun, you can see through the brown husk to sky. This cup looks fragile as a bird egg, but it’s sturdy enough that I use it to hold feathers, anchor a collage or capture hope.

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I want you to know how we who hear you, read you, hold you up even when you need to fall. We are as inadequate and as enough as a husk. I think you were very brave yesterday in your non-silence, reverberant with raw grief.

After meeting you yesterday, I want to read your latest book, Undergloom. And I want to thank you for showing us how to keep living with words.

With gratitude,
Catherine

This is the first in a series of gratitude letters to poets in celebration of National Poetry Month.
You can read more about Prageeta Sharma here: Prageeta Sharma: The Poetry Foundation

 

 

When a door opens…

By Catherine Keefe

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It was a time of slamming and silence and being shut out. It was when a white, solid wood four-panel face was more familiar than two eyes and a smile. It was me in the hall knocking. Waiting. Asking, “may I come in?”

It was a card for a special day I swore I’d never forget, but I have. Valentine’s Day? My birthday? It was a note, written in my teenage son’s hand that I’ll never forget.

My gift to you is my bedroom door. Open. For one month.

When someone says, “I don’t need anything,” when you ask what they want, they probably really do want something. It’s just not for sale at any store. If you ask what someone wants, you might already know the answer.

Open a door for someone today. It’s never too late to start again.
~Catherine

For more “Door” images, check out The August Break, 2015, a community challenge to “Live inside each moment,” by checking out the more than 17,000 #augustbreak2015 posts on Instagram, Facebook, and Flickr.

In the distance

By Catherine Keefe

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“…far to the edge of desolation
suspicious of any poetry
even to exchange a hello…”

from “writing you” by Taufik Ikram Jamil
Translated from Indonesian by John H. McGlynn

In the distance, on the Bell Canyon Trail, are Santiago and Mojeska peaks. In the distance
of one week’s time two classrooms full of students will look up at me as if
I have something to teach them. In the distance of ancient geology I see
where oceans once covered this land, have now receded. In the distance
of imagination lies my chance to reseed hope, to teach how we might learn
to stop and listen to one another’s stories of our time together on this earth,
a blip. In the distance I see all of us working together as if we are not
each other’s enemy, but all the killing is. In the distance I see lands
without borders between
what it means to be human.

Ideas already freely cross borders. One of my favorite carefully curated online sites for international literature in translation is Words Without Borders, where I found the poem that contains the excerpt which opens this post. I’ll close with the last stanza of the poem

excerpt from “writing you” by Taufik Ikram Jamil

my palm resigned to resting
on desire still hopeful

can you only be felt
while taste is the experience of each of us
until you possess a range of understanding
untraceable by any and all senses
with no time limit however brief
then you intentionally slip longing
on each breeze converging
to then pit melancholy ’gainst action
time booked time and time again

Read something in translation today. You can read all of “writing you” by Taufik Ikram Jamil by clicking the hyperlink.

Say hello to someone you don’t know.
In the distance I see us together. What do you see?
~Catherine

For more “In the distance” images, check out The August Break, 2015, a community challenge to “Live inside each moment,” by checking out the more than 16,000 #augustbreak2015 posts on Instagram, Facebook, and Flickr.

 

Behind the curve

By Catherine Keefe.

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I traveled to St. Louis in June to marry two long-time friends. I arrived in a tempestous thunder and lightning storm so severe the airplane baggage workers weren’t allowed to offload luggage for more than an hour. The next day happened to be when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Same-Sex Marriage was a constitutional right. Rainbow lighting shone upon City Hall and rainbow flags flew and rainbow t-shirts adorned same-sex couples who held hands and popped champagne bottles thronging the downtown area, celebrating this landmark on a day which happened to coincide with the beginning of Pride St. Louis weekend.

Visiting the Gateway Arch is a more or less obligatory tourist thing to do, so I passed the Pride parade prelude with a smile and light heart and wandered under the arch’s great stainless steel expanse soaring 630 feet above ground with my husband, daughter and grandson. Gateway Arch is the tallest man-made national monument in the country, the tallest monument in all the Western Hemisphere, and the tallest arch in the world. That’s a lot of superlatives for a curved symbol right smack dab in the middle of our country.

Walking the grounds of Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, which is the nationally funded and protected park where the arch’s feet are planted, we got to marveling at the momentous day we were experiencing for gay rights, and we began to guess what issue might next get national attention and change. Gun control, we hoped. Wealth distribution, we prayed. Racial equality. We shook our heads. We really couldn’t believe we were so far from something so fundamental, something that had started and been fought for and tried and denied for so long.  When?

It’s eight miles between downtown St. Louis to Ferguson, Missouri, eight miles from where Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by a white policeman last August. Eight miles between Ferguson, Missouri and the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial grounds which include the Gateway Arch and the courthouse where the early trials of the Dred Scott case were held.

The Gateway Arch reflects St. Louis’ role in the Westward Expansion of the United States during the nineteenth century. The park is a memorial to Thomas Jefferson’s role in opening the West, to the pioneers who helped shape its history, and to Dred Scott who sued for his freedom in the Old Courthouse.

The Dred Scott Case, in case your US History memory is fuzzy, was opened by slave Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet, who petitioned in Missouri for their freedom in 1846 on the grounds that they’d lived in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory, where slavery had been prohibited by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The case was lost in Missouri but was appealed to the Supreme Court.

Although many slaves were freed under these grounds, according to Washington University’s Dred Scott archives, “Seven of the nine judges of the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that not only was Dred Scott a slave, but that as a slave, Scott had no right to bring suit in the federal courts on any matter. The court ruled that the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which prohibited slavery in northern territories, was unconstitutional. Therefore, although Scott had lived in northern territories, he had never earned his freedom.”

You can read the original documents and the court’s ruling on the Our Documents historical archive here.

The ruling was one of the key events leading to Civil War.

The Old Courthouse where the early trials of that pivotal long drawn out Dred Scott case were held, are a national monument sharing space with Gateway Arch as a symbol of our pioneering spirit and expansion. Do you see the possibility here? Do you see how we might strive to rise and even when we fall, keep getting up again until we make a gate for all? Can we imagine the day this tallest arch in the world, which already stands in the middle of our country, can also stand for the end of our struggle over race?

I can imagine that day. I want to work toward that. I have to admit I have no idea how to be effective. But doubt isn’t reason enough not to try.

I wrote this post.
I’m reading Claudia Rankine’s, Citizen.
I ordered Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson and I already like this smart author’s website because he offers ways to get involved in helping bring about equality for all.

Are you doing something, anything, to get ahead of this curve?
~Catherine

For more “Curve” images, check out The August Break, 2015, a community challenge to “Live inside each moment,” by checking out the more than 14,000 #augustbreak2015 posts on Instagram, Facebook, and Flickr.