Rain poured down, filling ditches and flooding the concrete quad with about an inch of water. I sat in the portable that was designated as faculty offices. It was Friday morning, one of my favorite times to teach a college class. Colleges and universities are about half empty on Friday mornings. It feels like the edge of Spring Break every week. I half-listened to the rain and half-read through my class notes and tried to remind myself that I would be a college professor for the next three hours and I should act like one. That’s when I heard the crash.
I couldn’t place it. It sounded like a wrecking ball smacking into the side of a building, but where would a wrecking ball come from on this rainy Friday morning? I raced outside the faculty offices and had a look around. My portable was one of eight that surrounded this flooded concrete quad. The rain padded against the inch-deep pond, jetted out of rain gutters, formed little streams in the ditches. No one was around to race out of any of the other portables and look at me so I could look back at them and shrug my shoulders and at least acknowledge that I too had heard a crash and we hadn’t been imagining things. Alone there on the west end of campus, I did what I could. I grabbed my umbrella, walked over to the portable where I’d be teaching, unlocked it, and had a look around. Everything seemed in order. I left, leaving the door unlocked so that my students wouldn’t have to wait out in the rain.
I went back to sitting on my broken office chair, half-listening to the rain, half-reading my class notes.
At break time, I went back to my desk in the faculty portable and ate an orange. Another professor was there by this time. He said, “Did you hear about the air conditioner?”
I couldn’t make sense of this. Air conditioner? It was February in Los Angeles. Who talked about air conditioners? I shook my head.
He said, “An air conditioner fell through the roof of #6 this morning.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I guess the gutter got clogged, the roof filled up with rain, and everything came crashing down. Crazy, huh?”
“Crazy,” I said, knowing that I’d have to spend the next hour and a half in portable #5, right next door. I left the faculty offices and stood in the quad in front of #5, trying to see where the rain gutters were and if they were clogged, trying to find the air conditioner on the flat roof, seeing nothing but the rain and the same dusky brown portable I’d been teaching in for a semester and a half. The umbrella kept my head dry. My Doc Martens kept my feet more or less dry. The rain smacked the back of my legs, though, sticking my jeans to the skin on my calves.
For about a minute, I thought about canceling the second half of class and waiting until the next Friday to see if the roof would hold on this forty-year-old portable. But I didn’t. I decided, all of this may come crashing down someday, and I’ll be under it or I won’t. In the meantime, all I could do was all I could do, which, on this morning, was teach composition to the youth of East L.A. who were trying to claw their way into the middle class.
I taught the second half of the class on the move, walking back and forth in front of the classroom, breaking the students off into small groups and wandering around them, trying to make myself a moving target for the air conditioner and the flooded roof. Since I didn’t know where on the roof the air conditioner was, any spot in the room could’ve been as safe or dangerous as any other. I knew this. Still, I kept moving.
The roof in #5 held for the rest of class and the rest of the semester. At the beginning of that summer, the roof repairs and my job were added to the long list of things that the college didn’t have the money to pay for. I found another job.
Seven years have passed since I’ve been to that campus. For all I know, #5 is still there, still defying gravity through another February’s rains.
I don’t talk about teaching much here in the pages of Razorcake, but I’ve been teaching since the first days. When I decided to move from Florida to California to help found this magazine, I quit my job teaching at a community college there. Quitting to start a punk rock magazine wasn’t as big of a deal as it may sound like. Teaching in Florida pays so poorly, it can hardly be classified as a job. It’s more like volunteer work with a monthly stipend.
With the exception of 2001, when I lived off of savings and worked full-time on Razorcake, I’ve been teaching from the time when I first started doing Flipside reviews until later today, when I’ll go to campus an hour early so that I can let my mind switch over from punk rock columnist to university professor. And, though I don’t mix the university and punk rock much, I teach there for reasons that are very similar to the ones that keep me tethered to Razorcake. It mostly has to do with my belief in democracy.
I know it sounds like a strange thing to say. But I’ll explain. At the core of this is the belief that most of us, individually, tend to make intelligent decisions most of the time. Of course we slip up now and then and do stupid things. Grown men decide to get naked on an escalator in a crowded Hollywood shopping center when they’re supposed to be headlining a show. Fresh-faced punk rockers read Maximum Rocknroll. None of us are perfect. Regardless, if we examine our lives in the big picture, it’s probably safe to say that, when we were left to our own devices, we did what we needed to do to get by, helping the people around us when we could and avoiding hurting anyone too badly. So, it follows logically that most of us can govern ourselves. And, if we can govern ourselves, we should. This is what I mean by democracy.
So where does Razorcake fit into all of this? Well, democracy is predicated on a free exchange of ideas. In order for individuals to make intelligent decisions, they need to receive and consider a wide variety of information. None of that information has to be objective. It just has to come from a bunch of different perspectives. One of the biggest threats to democracy in America is the narrow perspective of information that we receive. A handful of large corporations control almost all of the media, meaning they control most of our perceptions of the world that exists beyond what we experience firsthand. Fresh perspectives need to come from somewhere. Razorcake provides one of these. The ten thousand or so readers of this magazine are able to experience one of the few subcultures in America that still grows organically. It’s an American culture that exists beyond Wal-Mart and McDonalds, beyond Fox and Disney. It’s a culture that we’ve created rather than one that’s been sold to us. It’s liberating.
Universities work in a similar fashion. They’re the largest and most powerful places in society where a free exchange of ideas still exists. University professors have a tremendous amount of freedom with regards to what they study and what they teach. And, unlike most people who are given a pulpit in our society, professors actually have to research their topics extensively and demonstrate an advanced knowledge in their field before they can express their views. They can’t pretend to be an authority on a different topic every night like Bill O’Reilly and Jon Stewart and most bloggers do. They have to actually know what they’re talking about.
Most discussion about universities these days focuses around money and jobs. I’m not as interested in that, mostly because people ignore the facts in that discussion. The fact is, universities are a good investment. A typical California State University graduate, regardless what his major is, will make about a million dollars more in his lifetime than if he hadn’t gone to college. This means he’ll pay about $300,000 more in state and federal taxes. 90,000 students graduated from the CSU last year. Do the math. The CSU made the federal government and the State of California about $27 billion last year. The state invested about $3 billion. That’s a pretty good profit.
But, again, I’m not as interested in that. I’m more interested in the democracy element of it. Because we all eventually get jobs and make some money. And those are important things. But they’re far from the most important things in our lives. What almost everyone wants are things like autonomy, free time that’s genuinely free of work and stress, deep friendships and loving relationships. Money and jobs don’t go very far in granting us those things. What we need instead is a to find a way to create these meaningful things in our own lives without relying on money or jobs or consumables. We need to think critically and be imaginative. And some of the last places that exist where we have the time and freedom and freshness of perspective to do these things are Razorcake and higher education.
Recently, higher education in California has taken a huge hit. Mostly, that hit has come from a few members of the state legislature and from the action hero we elected governor. The CSU—the university I work for—had a half billion dollars cut from our three billion-dollar budget this year. All the economic forecasts show that, regardless of how bad the economy is, taking money from higher education makes things worse. Taking it from the CSU further ensures that people from poor or working class families get booted from higher education while most rich kids do fine. It also means that, as a society, our freedoms become fewer, our chances for meaningful lives become slimmer, and our democracy suffers.
I’m not sure what to do to change this right now. I’m working on it. I know a Razorcake column isn’t going to solve this problem. It’s not intended to. I’m just bummed out. Lately, every time I go to work, I feel like I’m back in that rain-soaked portable, waiting for the roof to cave in on me and my students.
I hope the crash isn’t inevitable.
Author’s note: This is the tenth chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote. It originally ran in Razorcake #54. For more information about the collection, read this post.