Sunday, March 14, 2010

Memo from the Office of Compulsory Volunteerism

Or, Better Living Through Pay Cuts!

[Written for and cross-posted at Kritik, the blog hosted by the Unit of Criticism and Interpretive Theory at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Kritik is running a series of posts called "15 Ways to Take Your Furlough/Voluntary Pay Cut" in response to a first round of faculty and staff furloughs at Illinois this semester. Roxie's World was invited to weigh in with advice on how to make do with less while maintaining one's dignity and good humor. Our sincere thanks to Lauren Goodlad for letting an old -- oops, dead! -- dog run loose in Kritik's well-maintained yard for awhile. Click on over there and read the whole series. You'll be glad you did.]

Esteemed Comrades of Shampoo-Banana,

You know you’re in a pickle when a dead dog is called in to give you advice on how to negotiate the political and economic challenges of your work life. Never fear, kids – Roxie is here, and the furloughed shall not succumb to furloughisme, though succumb they must to something, eventually. Alas.

Permit me to introduce myself. I am Roxie, a wire-haired fox terrier late of the People’s Republic of Takoma Park, a hippie-turned-yuppie enclave on the outskirts of Washington, DC. For nearly sixteen years, until my untimely demise on the penultimate day of 2009, I kept company with a couple of cranky English profs at a big state university we like to call Queer the Turtle U. For the past four years, I have held forth regularly in the blogosphere on the subjects of politics, pop culture, and basketball, with occasional forays into the vicissitudes of higher ed. Why? Well, as my typist is fond of saying, because tenure means never having to say you’re sorry.

The moms, as I call the human companions of my embodied years, are experienced in the ways of the furlough, because QTU was on the leading edge of this damaging wave of short-term cost-cutting maneuvers. They endured a first round of “temporary” salary reductions in the spring semester of 2009 and are going through a second right now. The possibility of a third round looms for next year, because Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a fauxgressive Democrat whom we call “You, Sir, Are No Jack Kennedy,” plans to campaign for re-election by bragging about the “tough” decisions he made in order to balance the budget, which he opted to do on the backs of 70,000 state employees rather than advocating for the more equitable solution of, you know, tax increases.

The preceding paragraph offers an important lesson in furlough-ness for you who are having your first exposure to this particular pedagogy of the oppressor: Furloughs are habit-forming. If furloughs were a drug, they would come with warnings about how highly addictive they are and a long list of extremely pernicious side effects. Listening to the ads for them on TV, you would wisely say to yourself, “No, thanks, but the supposed cure sounds worse than the disease.” Feeling sad? Take furloughs! They may or may not make you happier, and taking them may cause vomiting, diarrhea, jaundice, impotence, flatulence, and suicidal ideation! Not to mention a significant depression in your bank account.

We have followed with interest the stories of how you Urbane-Champaignians have adjusted to the crazy catastrophe-a-day dynamic that seems to have taken hold out there – scandals, resignations, strikes, a fiscally derelict state government, the shame of a politically incorrect mascot. And now furloughs! We think teach-ins and long, thoughtful blog posts that historicize and contextualize and problematize the whole furlough phenomenon are all well and good, but Roxie’s World firmly believes that serious times also call for unserious responses. We think at least one of the “Fifteen Ways to Take Your Furlough/Voluntary Pay Cut” should involve high degrees of snark and smart-a$$ humor, so we thought we’d weigh in with some helpful hints on matters you might not have paused to consider what with all the rabble-rousing you’ve been involved with recently.

For example, Challenge #1: How to dress for your furlough. Academics tend to be fashion-challenged to begin with, but the double whammy of reduced income and lowered self-esteem is a recipe for sartorial disaster. Over at the left, you see a kicky pink number guaranteed to brighten up those dreary mid-winter furlough days spent at home. Slip into this slinky getup, and you won’t be the least bit tempted to engage in any illicit work or work-like activities. That’s right – No sneaking off to the computer to check e-mail or write a letter of recommendation. No curling up with the latest Žižek hidden inside your copy of Entertainment Weekly.

Alternatively, you could take a page out of this guy’s fashion book and continue to dress the part of a fully employed and compensated professional as you while away your furlough days. Nothing says success like a crisp white shirt and a carefully brushed head of Elvis hair! It’s true that not being under indictment might diminish your chances of proving your testicular virility by going out and lecturing on the ethics in business circuit, but, hey, perhaps you could pick up a bit of extra income holding forth on the vital importance of the semicolon to the future of Western civilization. That’s what folks expect from English profs, so stand and deliver, grammar geeks.

Challenge #2: What to eat on your furlough. We’ll keep this one simple for you by suggesting that it comes down to a choice between bonbons and brown rice. Go with bonbons if sweets are your idea of comfort food and if you feel moved to affirm the perception that the profession of English is a leisure-class pursuit that seldom involves anything remotely resembling “work.” Chase your bonbons with a glass of fine port, while watching a selection from your box set of the films of Akiro Kurosawa, and you’ll win a gold medal for the perpetuation of damaging yet hilarious stereotypes. If, on the other hand, you are not a trust-fund baby and will actually miss the income lost through furloughs, pull your battered copy of the Moosewood Cookbook down off the shelf and whip up a batch of that Vericheesey Casserole (main ingredients: two cups brown rice, two cups soybeans, roughly half a ton of cheese) that enabled you to get through grad school on less than $7000 a year. Warning to the middle-aged: Cheese is a lot more fattening than it was back in the days when you burned 2500 calories just by getting out of bed in the morning. Better plan to spend part of your furlough days at the gym if you go with this dietary option.

Challenge #3: What music to march to in your next furlough day parade. We have long maintained that the soundtrack for higher ed administrators committed to pretending that you can cut costs without sacrificing quality was the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic from South Pacific, “Happy Talk.” Clearly, we need a different musical accompaniment for the new age of activism that has dawned on campuses this year in response to devastating cuts, fee increases, and administrative failures of various kinds. Fortunately, the age of the iPod means we can have a theme song for every mood and moment of the “Screw You and the Neoliberal Horse You Rode In On” revolution. “The Internationale” has history in its favor, but the sad truth is it’s not much fun to dance to. For that, we would definitely go in a disco direction, most likely opting for Ms. Gloria Gaynor’s righteous “I Will Survive.” For the tenured rockers among you, we might recommend the Pretenders’ gritty “Back on the Chain Gang,” but, hey, whatever floats your boat, kids. The musical world is all before you. Clench your fists, tap your toes, blend the voices of students, staff, and faculty into one loud perfectly harmonized chorus, and you cannot lose. That’s all I’m sayin’.

Finally, we come to Challenge #4: How to represent your furlough -- graphically, we mean. Image is everything, right? (Doubt a dead dog? Then, um, check with Chief Illiniwek, if you can find him.) Fortunately, Roxie’s World has taken care of this problem for you. In tandem with our blog pal, Historiann, we’ve designed a catchy slogan and a fake yet fabulous seal that elegantly conveys the weird combination of desperation and cynicism that we think characterizes furloughisme. Yes, Excellence Without Money is what the people and their elected representatives seem to expect in this surreal, prolonged period of declining levels of support for public higher education. Nobel Prize winners? Oh, yeah, we want those on the faculty. Small classes? Well, of course! World-class venues for the arts and athletics? Gosh, yes, gotta have those on our campuses! OK, but we might need to raise your taxes to help fund some of those worthy objectives. Hell, no! Then I guess we’ll have to raise tuition again. No way, buster! You campus fat-cats had better just tighten your belts. Cut the fat! Get rid of those wasteful programs that suck up resources and fill kids’ heads with a bunch of useless ideas about “diversity” and “critical thinking.” They don’t need thinking skills, darn it! They need JOBS!

Around and around and around it goes, my sweet misunderstood and under-compensated friends. Take heart, darlings. We’ll let you use the slogan and seal for nothing as a way of welcoming you in to the fellowship of the furloughed. You can even modify the color scheme to match your institution’s unfortunate commitment to blue and orange if you like, but, please, people, no feathers, OK?

Keep up the good fight. Roxie’s World is here for you and with you every step of the way. Peace out and a hearty PAWS UP for your dogged pursuit of the resources and institutional values that make true excellence possible.


  1. Just wanted to thank you here as well as over on Kritik for sharing your insights with us in Shampoo, IL. Fabulous four indeed!

  2. Our pleasure. We the furloughed gotta stick together. Sorry to hear that our warning about the whole habit-forming thing may prove prescient for you all.

  3. Well, with any luck the 12 step program we are trying to mobilize will be worth our bout with this particular malady.


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