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The Point: Optimism of the Will


Greetings, Colleagues:

It was so good to see so many of you at the workload forum that the FSU co-sponsored this past Friday with the Department Chairs Union: more than 60 of us gathered, on a Friday afternoon, when so many of us are feeling remarkably depleted by the increased pressure that was the subject of the event.  (I ended up worried that the 2 p.m. start time might have made it difficult for parents of young children to attend; the absence on screen of the smallest and cutest members of our extended community was striking in comparison to what I see at most meetings I go to!)

The main thing I want to report is something you probably already know: UMass Boston is an institution poor in resources but rich in dedicated, smart, and caring people.  What a treat it was to gather and exchange testimony, analysis, and provocation, and hear two separate references to the Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci, whose axiomatic “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” inspires the title of this week’s Point. The need for this critical pessimism came especially clear to me when I listened to Professor Tara Parker of CEHD who reminded us that we won’t be able to achieve any of our central goals—notably the work of becoming an anti-racist and health promoting institution—if we pretend that we have already completed the necessary work.  The frameworks are aspirational, Professor Parker made clear, and will remain so, as long as we continue to be compelled to do so much with so little. 

I also appreciated having my consciousness raised by Professor Suha Ballout, who explained that our colleagues in CNHS have been facing some very particular practical and existential challenges in this pandemic year; it was truly inspiring to hear Professor Ballout talk directly about how our colleagues in nursing have struggled to figure out how to be active players in the unprecedented developments of our time.  The threat of burnout is real and will not be solved, no matter how often and emphatically mainstream media insists on it, by positive thinking.  We cannot meditate our ways out of these challenges and we will need, among other things, to resist the corporate and administrative blandishments of what Ron Purser has dubbed McMindfulness.

The issues we face, as captured by my ExCom colleague Professor Joe Ramsey in his notes from the event, are multiple and complex.  Larger class size, zoom fatigue, cuts in staff leading to additional faculty workload, devastating loneliness, lack of quiet space and research time (particularly injurious to female colleagues with family responsibilities), increased need to support our most vulnerable students, heightened expectation of constant availability: over 100 years ago working people agitated successfully for an 8 hour day, culminating in the passage of the Adamson Act. (As a scholar of American popular music I must note that Nora Bayes slyly parodied this movement with  a song  that went “I work eight hours, I sleep eight hours, that leaves eight hours for love”). When I listened to Professor Kibibi Mack-Shelton and other colleagues at the forum, it became clear that an eight-hour day would be a real improvement for many of us.

One really obvious takeaway from the event was that we need to talk to each other more if we are going to resist the encroaching logics of austerity, privatization, and casualization: our disciplinary and institutional boundaries too often encourage us to toil away in our silos (to use a word Professor Tony Van Der Meer put in the mix during the forum, even if he acknowledged that he—like so many of us—hates it!) without making regular contact with each other.  It is possible now to imagine a post-quarantine life for all of us in which a central task will be literally to rebuild various crucial “publics”: public research universities like ours will have to be at the center of this political, economic, and cultural revival. 

As communications director for the FSU Executive Committee I want, with your help, to think about how we can create more opportunities to share our experiences with each other; one small, but possibly quite useful platform will be the updated website ExCom has been working on this year.  I am hoping that there might be an interactive space on where we can talk, share resources and encouragements, ask for support and give each other guidance. 

And I want us all to think about how to document—without creating too much more work for ourselves—how our workload has increased in the past year.  This study of TT faculty, issued last year by a center for leadership at Purdue, offers one good model for how we might do this work—and why it is necessary. (NTT colleagues: be on the lookout in the next few weeks for a new FSU survey which hopes to document the service and research work you do.)

This is your union: please let us know at if you are facing urgent workload issues.  And please continue to think with us about how to study and address the issues raised in the recent forum.


Jeffrey Melnick

American Studies Department

Communications Director, Faculty Staff Union Executive Committee

For information on the FSU, links to our contract and bargaining updates, and a calendar of events, see the FSU webpage