“I’m late! I’m late!”

IMG_2072It seems we’re constantly rushing in our stressful world. There’s never enough time: we’re always “running out” of it or it is “getting away” from us or “catching up” with us.

I had a friend in the 1990s who was constantly late for everything. When I asked him why this was, and asked if he didn’t think it was rude, he said he found it very strange to see people rushing everywhere constantly. “Because, you rush rush, rush to get somewhere, only to sit down for hours when you get there,” he said.

He had a point, and I’ve never forgotten it. You rush, rush, rush to get to a restaurant, then sit down for a leisurely meal; you rush, rush, rush to catch the train, then sit down for the journey just filling in time;  you rush, rush, rush to get to a social engagement, then when you get there, you just sit down or stand and chat to people over a drink or a cup of tea. It goes on and on.

While I still think it’s rude to be late to an appointment, in pursuit of a peaceful life it’s worth thinking about how our perceptions of time intrude to heighten our stress levels. The Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270BCE) said the recipe (no pun intended) for a peaceful life included freedom from fear of death. But when we’re constantly measuring time, freedom from this fear doesn’t seem likely for many people today.

In his novella The Time Keeper (2012), Mitch Albom notes that humans are the only beings who mark the passing of time and thereby dread mortality. Here is one of my favourite quotations from the book, one that so clearly expresses the angst at the centre of almost everyone in western society today:

“Try to imagine a life without timekeeping.

“You probably can’t. You know the month, the year, the day of the week. There is a clock on your wall or the dashboard of your car. You have a schedule, a calendar, a time for dinner or a movie.

“Yet all around you, timekeeping is ignored. Birds are not late. A dog does not check its watch. Deer do not fret over passing birthdays.

“Man alone measures time.

“Man alone chimes the hour.

“And, because of this, man alone suffers a paralysing fear that no other creature endures.

“A fear of time running out.”

We humans are so obsessed with counting seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years, and running our lives by the boundaries they impose, that sometimes we forget to stop along the way. Life seems tumultuous and anything but peaceful, because we’re constantly looking at our watches and hurrying along to get to the next place “on time”.

Lewis Carroll  used this idea in the character of the White Rabbit in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!” he cries as he runs down the rabbit hole. In the Disney film, this becomes a song with the lyrics “I’m late! “I’m late! For a very important date!”

So what’s the best way to a peaceful life? I think we need to do less time-keeping and more living.

Another thing to think of is that we’re not the centre of the universe. In fact, we’re rather insignificant, as Sir David Attenborough so cleverly put it in Life on Earth, I think: if you imagine an entire beach, the earth is equivalent to just one grain of sand on it.

In the blogosphere, Goldfish has put life on earth in perspective with her post on finding peace through this insignificant position we hold, in which our petty ticking seconds with which we time our days mean absolutely nothing in the vastness of space. You can read her post here.

Funnily enough, this post is the result of being almost late—for this month’s Bloggers for Peace challenge to write about quotations that bring peace to the world. I’m in today in the nick of time. Whew!

The sad case of Margaret Mary, professor of the working poor

gownWho are the “working poor”? They’re not who you might think.  Well, they are, but in addition to the stereotypical image—a person working in drudgery at a lowly paid and insecure non-skilled job with no hope of dragging themselves out of it—is another, largely forgotten by governments and media alike.

The hidden working poor in western countries such as Australia, New Zealand and the US, include some of our most highly skilled, highly educated professionals. One of those professions is tertiary education. You probably don’t realise that more than 50%—and in some cases up to 75%—of the academic staff at the uni you or your children study at are paid on hourly rates for what is clearly not a casual job, and for little more than half the year.

On paper, the hourly rates look quite good. But not if you factor in actual hours worked, the high amount of extra unpaid work required, the fact that you don’t get paid if you are sick or have to take any other leave, or if your rostered hours fall on a public holiday, that you receive no holiday pay, no security, and that employment is available for only 30 weeks or less a year. I know all about this, because I’m one of them; for six years, my primary employment has been as an academic on sessional or short-term contracts.

This post was inspired by a very sad story this week, posted by my friend Jane on Facebook. “Death of an adjunct”, in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on September 18, told of Margaret Mary Vojtko, who worked as an “adjunct professor” (a “sessional academic” in Australia) of French at Duquesne University in Pennsylvania for 25 years.

She was being treated for cancer and had huge medical bills. She was penniless and mortified about being in such reduced circumstances that protective services authorities had threatened to take her into care. She died on September 1 at the age of 83, after a heart attack.

She had recently been fired from her job, and when she was contacted by Adult Protective Services demanding she meet them to discuss her dire situation, she called Daniel Kovalik to intervene. He is the senior associate general counsel for the United Steelworkers union (more about that below).  Kovalik wrote her story for the Post Gazette, and I’ll let him continue here:

“I called Adult Protective Services right after talking to Margaret Mary, and I explained the situation. I said that she had just been let go from her job as a professor at Duquesne, that she was given no severance or retirement benefits, and that the reason she was having trouble taking care of herself was because she was living in extreme poverty. The caseworker paused and asked with incredulity, ‘She was a professor?’ I said yes. The caseworker was shocked; this was not the usual type of person for whom she was called in to help.

“Of course, what the caseworker didn’t understand was that Margaret Mary was an adjunct professor, meaning that, unlike a well-paid tenured professor, Margaret Mary worked on a contract basis from semester to semester, with no job security, no benefits and with a salary of between $3,000 and just over $3,500 per three-credit course. Adjuncts now make up well over 50 per cent of the faculty at colleges and universities…”

Kovalik says the most she could earn, when teaching three classes a semester and two over summer, earned her less than $25,000 a year net, with no health care benefits. Then she became ill and had to cut back on classes, earning less than $10,000 a year. She could no longer afford electricity. Kovalik continues:

“She therefore took to working at an Eat’n Park at night and then trying to catch some sleep during the day at her office at Duquesne. When this was discovered by the university, the police were called in to eject her from her office. Still, despite her cancer and her poverty, she never missed a day of class.

“Finally, in the spring, she was let go by the university, which told her she was no longer effective as an instructor — despite many glowing evaluations from students.”

If you want to read more about Margaret Mary, there’s a link to Kovalik’s story here.

Now, Duquesne University is the largest Catholic University in Pennsylvania and has 10,000 students. On its website, Duquesne says its staff “are the catalyst behind the University’s growth and prosperity. The University’s remarkable advances in higher education, technology and research are a testament to their hard work and drive.”

I think of Margaret Mary and know there is something wrong with those website claims. A line from Orwell’s Animal Farm comes to mind: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”. Her story went viral this week, and a follow-up on Inside Higher Ed explains that when Duquesne adjuncts voted to join the United Steelworkers Union last year, they were blocked by legal action taken by the university on the grounds it should be exempt from labour laws because it was a religious organisation.

In Australia, there are many people in the same situation as Margaret Mary. Every year in November, tens of thousands of academics across Australia brace themselves for the long, lean times ahead with no pay at all until the semester starts again at the end of February or beginning of March—and that’s if they get a job at all. They often don’t know until a couple of weeks or even days before the semester starts. Mid-year, it’s the same, though not as long a break.

Some find casual jobs working at supermarkets or homeware superstores, waiting tables, or perhaps the very lucky ones might get some shifts at a book shop. Many just hunker down for the lean summer months—at least they won’t have to pay for heating—and wish away their well-deserved break.

Of course, academia is not the only area of mass casualisation. I use it as a case study to point out this growing problem of “working poor”. It is short sighted in the extreme: it means so many more people in the future will be reliant on welfare to survive. Or, they will just work until they die.

This is particularly so of single people who don’t have any other person’s income to help with expenses or to cover the lean times. Over the last few weeks, I have been talking to several of my friends, women in their 40s and 50s, who are terrified of what their financial future holds because they can’t find a permanent job.

The New Zealand Listener magazine this year focused on this mass casualisation in a story about “the rise of the precariat class and the end of the golden era of work” (by Karl du Fresne, May 18-24, 2013). The term “precariat”, a portmanteau of “precarious proletariat”, was coined by the British economist Guy Standing in his book, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (2011). Initially, it referred to people in unskilled casual jobs, with little education and no prospects. The article, which you can read here, said that in New Zealand—and I’m widening that to Australia as well—the term had morphed to include many well educated people in skilled jobs and professions.

Those in the precariat, according to the article, include accountants, air crew, government employees, and educators at all levels from pre-school teachers to university lecturers.

We will probably never go back to the era when a job meant full-time employment and entitlements. But as a society, we need to think more deeply about sustainable patterns of work and employment.  What we have at the moment is just not good enough.

I, Robot or, “Danger, Will Robinson! (“Exterminate! EXTERMINATE!)

The Space-Robo, made in Japan by Tomy, 1969.

The Space Robo, made in Japan by Tomy, 1969, and bought for my brother.

When I was a kid, robots were all the rage. Before the digital age, before the time of personal computers, they had a kind of mystique about them.

This was encouraged by the romanticisation of robots on screen as either heroes or villains. The loyal bodyguard-type robot in the 1960s series Lost in Space, which I saw in endless repeats in the 1970s, was endearing and long-suffering, as Dr Smith referred to him variously as a “Neanderthal ninny”, a “blithering booby”,  a “nickel-plated Nincompoop”, a “tintinnabulating tin can” and many more sensational insults (you can see more of them here).

On the other hand, the robot-like daleks in Dr Who were just about the scariest things ever to me as a child. This is one of the earliest TV series I remember—and I didn’t even watch it. In fact, I refused to watch it with Dad, so horrified was I by it and everything about it—even the opening music. In the middle of the night, I sometimes awoke, imagining a dalek was coming to get me, screaming “Exterminate! EXTERMINATE!” as it came inescapably closer. Interestingly, although the daleks appeared to be robots, they were actually supposed to be cyborgs, that is a biological entity enclosed by a protective metal shell. Whatever—to me, they were robots.

Then there was the demonic H.A.L. 9000 in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey (“Dave, this conversation can serve no purpose any more. Goodbye”), which I didn’t see until the 1980s. Today in 2013, H.A.L.’s most chilling lines are featured on a phone app I have.

We imagined, in the 1970s, that by the year 2000, real robots would be attending to our every need. Robot servants would be cooking and cleaning for us, so we were free to go off to school or work in our personal flying car. Blame The Jetsons for that one!

I was reminded of “the robot age” of the mid-to-late 20th century yesterday, when I visited my mother. I happened to go into her spare room, where she stores toys from her three children’s youths. I spotted the robot pictured above, and it brought back memories of long ago. This one belonged to my late brother Phillip, and came complete with flashing lights and battery-powered action.

While researching this story, I came across The Old Robots Web Site, dedicated to the first wave of robotics. It includes an impressive array of “educational and personal robots” from the 1940s-90s, which you can see here. On this website, I discovered that the robot at my mum’s house is a Space Robo from 1969, made in Japan by Tomy, and part of the “Lighted Magic Dial” series.

We were living in England then, but Dad had been on a business trip to New York, and I think it was probably there that he bought the Space Robo, which is now, apparently, a rare collector’s item. I wish we had kept the box!

The evolution of music (in just a couple of minutes)

When my friend Bryan posted this on his inspirational blog, I just had to reblog it. This young a cappella group manages to sing the history of music in four minutes. (Coincidentally, I’m doing a History of Rock course through coursera.org at the moment). This is brilliant!

Bryan Patterson's Faithworks

A musical history lesson from the fabulous Pentatonix

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Taboo? The topic young men won’t talk about

ImageIn one of the university tutorial classes I teach, we had the best discussion this week of the unit so far: the students were engaged, presented different viewpoints, and listened to what others had to say.
Yet, it was, in some ways, the most disappointing tutorial I have ever taught.
Why? Well, of the five men in the class, only one attended. Yet, 9 out of 10 of the women attended.

The topic was gender in the media. It was a look at both historical progression and current challenges.

It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the men in the class were absent: they have had excellent attendance rates every week until now.

Students must attend 75% of tutorials, thus some choose which ones they will miss. Eighty per cent of the  young men in the class chose this one.

I don’t know for sure if they were absent because of the topic, but if that is the case, I suspect it could be for one or a combination of these reasons:
a) They think gender equality is women’s business;
b) The topic bores them;
c) They believe the media is already equal, or that, in fact, women have it better;
d) They don’t care;
e) They find talk about feminism intimidating.
I don’t blame them: at the beginning of adulthood, young people are largely a product of what they have observed and learned through childhood.

This made me think about the reason we have so far to go in the media to give men and women an equal voice, to give female journalists the same opportunities to take leading roles as male journalists, and to achieve equal pay across the genders.

It will take both sexes to achieve gender equality, and we desperately need to engage young men in conversations about it, particularly in learning environments such as at university . But how can  we do that? How can we encourage young men to take an interest and to become advocates of equality instead of the status quo?