Lyrical delight in an elegiac moment



I recently happened again upon W. H. Auden’s poem “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.” It’s been a favorite of mine since high school, but somehow it had fallen off my radar. No matter what one thinks of Yeats—I happen to be a fan of his poetry, but not his later politics—Auden’s poem is a tremendous elegy for a poet (any poet). It begins

He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

In its third section, “In Memory” lapses into the distinctive meter Yeats uses in “Under Ben Bulben” (“Irish poets learn your trade/sing whatever well is made”), a poem in which Yeats imagines his own grave. Here are the final three trochaic stanzas of Auden’s work:

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.


Auden’s poem delights me for so many reasons, from the monosyllabic “The day of his death was a dark cold day,” which hearkens back to ancient Anglo Saxon verse with its stressed alliteration, to the smooth, almost conversational rhythms of “the wolves ran on through the evergreen forests.” We move from the chilly, industrial gray concrete of the airport to the wildness of the mossy forest. And then suddenly we’re in Yeats’s own meter and imperative verse, at once dark and uplifting. Plus, we get the thrill of two neologisms, or at the very least unfamiliar words, each of them in the third line of a stanza: unconstraining, unsuccess. We expect the same in the third line of the final stanza, but instead the unconventional un is implied: we’re stuck in the prison of our days, but then—then!—the release in the turn: Teach the free man how to praise.

If the man is free, whom or what is he praising? A god? Or human unsuccess?

I am reminded, in my own reading of this poem, that we are allowed to celebrate failure. Failure means a new beginning.


It’s these little turns—of meter, of phrase, of meaning—that drew me to poetry, my first academic love.

(I apologize in advance for being so canonical in my allusions here, but my brain is fuzzy, and I’m drawing here on what I know well, hoping it will launch me into a new and much-needed period of intellectual playfulness.)

I’ve long looked for these little turns in life as well, moments of unexpected delight of a species that appears so often in poetry:

Elizabeth Bishop’s beautiful, battle-scarred fish, or her moose “on the moonlit macadam.”

The “red wine, / artichokes, and California / politics” Amy Clampitt had for dinner in “Portola Valley.”

Eugenio Montale’s gray city and the peeking beyond “a half-shut gate / among the leafage of a court”—through which “the yellows of the lemon blaze,” opening the heart with “golden trumpets of solarity.”

Garrett Hongo’s Mendocino rose that comes “erupting out of pastureland” and how “the roses seemed everywhere around me then” on a California highway.

These are phenomena that happen all the time, but for each of us perhaps only once. And then there are the sweeping pronouncements that come couched in the specificity of place:

Also within sight of Highway 1 lies Robinson Jeffers’s Carmel Point, where the suburbs run up against “the pristine beauty” that “lives in the very grain of the granite.” Jeffers reminds us to “uncenter our minds from ourselves” and “unhumanize our views a little, and become confident / as the rock and ocean that we were made from.”

Adrienne Rich’s adrenaline-inducing cautions as she goes “picking mushrooms on the edge of dread” at the “ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise” in  “What Kind of Times Are These.”

Robert Penn Warren’s reminder that a drive across the Great Plains is “one way to write the history of America.”

Larkin’s “London spread out in the sun/ Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat.”

Sometimes the lyrical crosses into another realm entirely.

Take, for example, Seamus Heaney meeting the ghost of James Joyce after passing through the stations of the cross. Here’s Joyce’s advice to the poet:

‘You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous.
Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest,

so ready for the sackcloth and the ashes.
Let go, let fly, forget.
You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note.’


I’m trying to read more old-school literary criticism and analysis of poetry. The genre scratches a particular intellectual and artistic itch that cultural studies never could because there’s too much at stake in that interdiscipline’s social justice imperatives. Poetry is important, but the reading of it is rarely urgent. The writing of it? Yes, definitely urgent. But I can read poetry and the literary deconstruction of it and pretend I am an old-school intellectual with plenty of leisure. (Instead of me sitting in a clean but messy kitchen, imagine me sitting in a comfortable chair on the garden patio, my view of the roses half-obscured by vines.)

Meanwhile, each weekday morning I check in with a friend before sitting down to two hours of writing. This past month I’ve been reworking an article that returns from journals with excellent suggestions and even praise from reviewers, but which remains without a home. It falls in the cracks between disciplines. If it had a narrative, it would be charming. Instead, it’s analytical, and it’s trying to balance a big picture of women in science with the minutiae of a tapir’s sticky snout against a woman’s face. It’s history and American studies and feminist theory and science studies, and yes—poetry.

Sitting next to me on the kitchen table—we’ve lived in this house for ten months, but my home office remains largely unassembled, aside from my bookshelves, so I write in the kitchen—is Helen Vendler’s The Ocean, The Bird, and the Scholar: Essays on Poets & Poetry.

Vendler opens chapter 2, an essay on the poetry of Yeats and Jorie Graham, with this insight:

Fin-de-siècle writing suggests seriousness and flamboyance, hyperbole and arbitrariness. The notion of fin de siècle presents itself to reflection as unsuitable for lyric, since it derives from the time span of epic narration, and lyric generally prefers the brief moment to the narrative span. The primary formal problem for the writer of lyric who wishes to invoke the notion of history is how to tuck such a panoramic concept into a short-breathed poem.

Vendler captures my current quandary.


Meanwhile, the brain fog persists. I test my blood pressure several times a day. (153/108.) I’ve been through two medications. Neither worked. I allow myself to be optimistic when the numbers decline after hours of work in the garden. But in such cases the decline in pressure persists for less than an hour.

And so I meet many technicians.

Today, for example, I saw my heart on a screen. I was hoping for some mad, au début du siècle visualization, my heart scanned and spinning on a screen, but instead the ultrasound looked very much like it did when I last saw my heart on a screen, in 1994, when I was nineteen years old.

It was disappointing. There were no answers, revelations, or delightful turns. I had already seen, decades ago, the grainy clapping frog legs of the mitral valve.

Next week I go in for another scan. And then I get a new -ologist.

I’m confident it’s a genetic issue, the longue durée of maternal ancestry running up against cytosine, guanine, adenine, and thymine. The clash of history with a lyrical moment, expressed in a particular pattern of DNA, the iambs of a heartbeat.


I lost an IT coworker yesterday, on my birthday. He had a heart attack upon receiving some bad news about a loved one, and then he lingered in the ICU for a week before dying. He and I weren’t close, but we crossed paths several times a week, and he always had a smile for me. He attended the same Long Beach high schools as my Dad and I did (though years before me and years after my dad) and we reminisced and joked about that. His family—kids and grandkids in a big, blended family—know he loved them, and he knew they loved him.

I have, of course, my own stubborn cardiac issues on my mind. I intend to stick around for a long time, but I want to say I value every one of you in my life. Thanks for being here. You’re a fabulous bunch.

Meanwhile, hold your loved ones tight. Let them feel the patter of your heartbeat.

When the brain skips a beat

I have much to say about this article on being a “slow professor,” but first I want to explain my absence from this blog for four and a half months.

I haven’t been well. You wouldn’t know my secret if you saw me on the street or on campus. However, if you talked to me, you might note I sometimes grasp for words and names that should come easily. I’ve also been sleeping poorly, thrashing so badly that poor Fang has to leave the room. I’m wheezing enough that my doctor is ready to prescribe two more asthma medications (on top of the two I already take) once my other symptoms settle. Depression also curled its tendrils around the edges of my life during the winter months.

I tackled the depression directly. I joined an amazingly raw and yet optimistic online fitness group of Grinnell alumni. I took to walking 10,000-12,000 steps each day, doing cardio videos, and even running occasionally. I lost ten pounds and kept them off.

Photo, from the head up, of the blogger, sweaty and smiling. She is wearing a red and white shirt.

Grinnellians don’t mess around. Does your online fitness cult have custom t-shirts?

When these tactics weren’t keeping the darkness at bay, I went to the doctor to ask her what to do. She added a second antidepressant. So far, so good.

And yet the brain fog, which started in the late fall, persisted. I thought I could chalk it up to depression, seasonal affective disorder, and having too much on my plate at work—or maybe it was just another symptom in my premature perimenopausal mélange.

It wasn’t that I wasn’t writing at all. I wrote for work—reports and e-mails galore, an exhaustively updated and (very) long encyclopedia article, and a ton of text for my online course. I reached out to an old friend and enjoyed a long and productive e-mail exchange. I went on a writing retreat a couple weekends ago with several English professors and linguists, and while they helped me find words over hors d’oeuvres, I managed to rethink a long-suffering article.

Such tasks took up most of my brainpower and intellectual energy. I didn’t have anything left over for the evenings and weekends when I used to write extracurricularly.

So I went back to the doctor to ask what might be messing with my brain and my sleep. The nurse took my blood pressure—150/90—and asked if it was typically that high. I explained it had been creeping up, but I couldn’t remember seeing such high readings. A few minutes later, the doctor came in with a worried look on her face, listened to my heart and lungs, said simply, “It’s time,” then sent a prescription to the pharmacy and told me to monitor my blood pressure.

A photo of a blood pressure monitor and the book "Heart Disease for Dummies"

My cholesterol is high, too. I can, at least in part, blame my genes for both of those. (Thanks, Mom!)

It ends up high blood pressure can damage the brain in both the short and long term. As reported in Psychology Today:

It’s becoming increasingly clear that high blood pressure, or hypertension, is at the root of much cognitive decline that has previously been attributed to aging. The more that scientists scrutinize brain function, and especially memory, the more they conclude that we have the ability to keep our memory and spirit strong well into old age. But it depends on how well we nourish our brain throughout life.

While I’ve been remiss in my blogging and have never been much for journaling, I’m creating a new kind of archive:

Image of handwritten blood-pressure readings, all of them high, in a journal

Will my brain fog clear, or is the damage done? Time will tell.

Let me be absolutely clear: as an academic, this sucks. My ability to think critically and creatively, in the moment and in the long term, is everything.

DIY College Metrics

The headline at the NPR site says it all: “Idaho Universities Must Decide Which Programs Matter Most.”  Not surprisingly, then, at this year’s welcome address, Boise State President Bob Kustra emphasized the role of analytics in the process of program prioritization. My college’s dean also emphasized metrics and analytics in the college-wide meeting that week.

My head began to hurt.  I’m a humanist.  I’m not terribly comfortable with numbers, and I don’t like it when things that should be evaluated qualitatively are transformed into numbers.

Still, I felt I needed to educate myself about university metrics, and particularly about my university’s metrics.  I went digging.  I found, once again, that numbers are slippery, particularly when we’re talking about “costs” (what counts toward the cost? what doesn’t?), and not at all easy to interpret. Despite these liabilities, numbers are persuasive, and they can be marshaled to tell stories, factual or not, true or not.  Often they are, to borrow a word from Stephen Colbert, truthy, in that they “cherry pick” numbers that seem to back up our gut feelings.

I know many of my fellow public university faculty are, like me, in an allegedly data-driven boat navigating the waters of a (real or fabricated) budget crisis. I’ve also discovered, locally and elsewhere, that despite a plethora of internal and external sources that provide university data, many faculty and even administrators remain unaware of the actual metrics of their universities; they’re believing spin and myth rather than looking at the data themselves.

I thought, then, I would highlight a few of the places where faculty, staff, students, and other stakeholders can find university metrics.  Chances are your university has a data warehouse for employees, but even if you don’t have access to it, there are plenty of external places to find data.

As a model, I’ll share some metrics and findings from my own university that I think are important, but that may get overlooked in our discussions during program prioritization. I’m sharing these numbers because they emerge from a familiar context for me. While some of them may seem damning, I’m not highlighting them to reveal corruption or the failure of any one individual, office, or program.

That said, taken collectively, as you will see, these data can tell a story about priorities—if you’re open to hearing that kind of narrative.

I encourage you to follow along with my steps and discover some information about the colleges or universities of which you are an employee, student, parent or spouse of a student, donor, or community member.

But first, three caveats:

1. I’m a humanist, not a social scientist or mathematician, so I won’t be doing any fancy statistical analysis—rather, we’ll be relying on some basic arithmetic.

2. I know all institutions and organizations “cherry pick” data to tell a particular story, and I suspect that some universities go through the program prioritization process with an end goal in mind.  They collect only the data that matter to the story they want to tell, manipulate the data, and interpret it in ways that confirm their top administrators’ perspective. I, of course, have my biases and priorities, too.

3. In every case here, I’m working with the latest reported data rather than the raw data or queries from an internal data warehouse.  Some numbers may be slightly out of date, and of course a university’s self-reported data, as one reader reminds me, must be taken with a grain of salt, but I’m unaware of any major shifts locally in the numbers I’m discussing, though I have heard rumors our six-year graduation rate is on the rise.

Undergraduate education

Governing bodies in higher ed, as well as state funding agencies, are, of course, all about graduation rates, retention rates, and career outcomes.  The last of these is perhaps hardest to capture, though student loan default rates can give us a glimpse of success or failure in the workforce. Fortunately, the first two are relatively easy to track, especially if you adhere to a relatively narrow definition of “graduation rate.” Let’s take a look at them.

Graduation rates

One goldmine of student information is the IPEDS Data Center, which anyone can access at the National Center for Education Statistics website. IPEDS allows you to examine individual institutions’ metrics, as well as compare institutions. If you poke around the site for a while, you’ll also find some interesting projections, like this one estimating the numbers of U.S. high school graduates, by race/ethnicity, through 2021, and some useful tables and figures, including this list of tables about financial aid.  If you’re more stats-savvy than I am, you can download data sets and play with them in the software of your choice.  (Prospective students looking for the right college “fit” should access the data via the NCES College Navigator.)

I’m always surprised that more faculty at my institution are unaware of Boise State’s four-year graduation rate. Here’s Boise State’s graduation rate data from IPEDS:


That’s a screen capture I took when I first conceived of this post a few months ago.  Sadly, the most recent data available shows a 3% decline in the overall graduation rate, and a decline in the 4-year graduation rate:


Blink as much as you must—your eyes don’t deceive you. Boise State’s most recently-reported four-year graduation rate is 7 percent.  Now, administrators everywhere will tell you that graduation rates are calculated unfairly, in particular because transfer students aren’t included—only “full-time, first-time, degree/certificate-seeking undergraduates.” That’s a fair criticism. However, it’s not fair to ignore entirely the 7 percent figure, as it indicates that for every 100 first-time, degree-seeking undergraduates that begin their college careers at Boise State, 93 won’t graduate from that university in four years–and 71 won’t graduate within six. That’s deeply troubling.  (The national 6-year graduation rate is 59 percent, and 57 percent at public institutions—considerably higher than Boise State’s 29 percent.)

Funding undergraduate education

Let’s move on to funding for undergraduate education. I’ve observed some of Boise State’s administrators like to use the term “lean” rather than “underfunded” to describe the university’s programs. “Lean” not only suggests an efficient use of muscle/resources, but it also evokes the “lean start-up” paradigm so beloved by many business schools at the moment. I’m using “underfunded” instead of “lean” because I want to emphasize not how programs are performing with few resources, but rather make clear how little the state and university are investing in our students.

Unfortunately, the only current Boise State budget I was able to find is broken down by major categories; we can’t learn much from it. (Worse, it collapses student loans into the category “Scholarships & Fellowships.” Gah!) Fortunately, we aren’t constrained by the university’s lack of budgetary transparency online.  (Update: a friendly Boise State librarian tells me paper copies of the budget can be checked out for two hours at a time, so check to see if your university’s library keeps a copy of the budget available.)

Thanks to the site College Measures, we can discover, to the dollar, how much the university declares it spends educating each undergraduate student per year: $9,571, which puts it in the 7th percentile overall among all colleges and the 11th percentile among public institutions.  I’m glad to see the university ranks in the 36th percentile in instructional spending per student among all colleges, and 38th in academic support—not great numbers, but far better than its overall ranking.

CM1click image to enlarge

A year’s in-state fees (charged in lieu of tuition) cost each undergraduate $6,292.  (A brochure released yesterday by the university includes an asterisk that explains students are also charged $2,088 in “health insurance fees” (see page 10), but we won’t include those in our analysis.)

Here’s where I’ll refer you to a post about colleges’ discount rates I wrote on my admissions blog.  To sum up: the discount rate is typically calculated as the difference between the full-fare cost of enrollment and what the average student and his or her family actually pay.  The New York Times recently reported that small colleges are trying to get out of the discounting game, but I don’t think any institution will ever escape it, as there will always be a difference between what the student pays and the true cost of educating a student.  I call this the “actual discount rate.” So, as I explain in my post at the admissions blog:

Just how generous is the actual tuition discounting at some colleges?  Here’s a slide from a 2011 presentation Grinnell College made to its alumni and other stakeholders:


 click to enlarge image

 The chart reveals the college’s actual per-student costs varied from $50,600 to more than $58,000 per year, while the comprehensive fee hovered under $40,000.  Even if all students paid the full fee, Grinnell was eating up to $20,000 per year per student!  Even more astonishing, very few students pay the full fare at Grinnell, so the college was “losing” even more revenue per student.  If you look at the blue portion of the bars, you’ll discover that revenue from students and their families covered on average only 36.5 to 38.5 percent of the college’s total cost. (Currently, about 85 percent of Grinnell’s students receive financial aid.)

Of course, $40,000 a year is still a lot of money for most families, but if you click through to that post, you’ll discover that the typical Grinnell student is expected to contribute $7,500 out of her own pocket and racks up only $12,350 in loans, meaning that, not counting student loan interest, she gets a college education worth at least $224,000 for less than $20,000. And that amount includes not only tuition and fees, but also room and board.

Now, you may think it unfair to compare an elite liberal arts college’s real discount rate with a practically open-admissions regional public university, but I’m going to do so anyway, as I’ve made the comparison for some of my students, and they find it enlightening. (They also often regret their choice of institution because they find themselves with a lot of debt.) If an in-state traditional student is one of the lucky ones who graduates from Boise State within six years, and she lives in the cheapest on-campus residence for two of those and uses her parents’ health insurance, according to Boise State’s own cost attendance calculator, her tuition, fees, room and board would look like this (if costs remain stable, which of course they won’t):

  • First year, living on campus: $6,292 tuition/fees + $6064 room and board = $12,356
  • Second year, living on campus: $6,292 tuition/fees + 5000 room and board = $11,292
  • Third year, living off campus: $6,292 tuition/fees + $7,616 room and board = $13,908
  • Fourth year, living off campus: $6,292 tuition/fees + $7,616 room and board = $13,908
  • Fifth year, living off campus: $6,292 tuition/fees + $7,616 room and board = $13,908
  • Sixth year, living off campus: $6,292 tuition/fees + $7,616 room and board = $13,908

The total the student pays, then, is $79,280 for an education that costs the state $57,426.  That means Boise State students don’t actually get a discount rate if we count off-campus room and board.  We’ll no longer be comparing apples to apples, as Grinnell students tend to live on campus for four years, but let’s subtract the off-campus room and board from that figure because the university isn’t seeing any of that money.  Even then, the total the student pays to the university is $48,816, though the student of course still has to pay to live somewhere.  If we remove this amount, then the student does indeed get a discount—$48,816 for a $57,426 education. (Of course, this is a hypothetical ideal; I’ve met Boise State graduates with $100,000 in student loan debt.)

Of course, I’m using a mishmash of Boise State’s and Grinnell’s own data, along with data from College Measures, in these examples.  Let’s compare the cost of an undergraduate education at each institution using only College Measures data.

Here’s Grinnell’s:

Screen shot 2014-01-06 at 9.58.25 PM

And Boise State’s:
Screen shot 2014-01-06 at 10.00.07 PM

Click either image to enlarge it.

But wait–here the Boise State cost-per-degree is lower than I’ve estimated it to be–but that’s because the College Measures site assumes a five-year graduation rate, but as we’ve learned, the typical student, if she’s lucky, will graduate from Boise State in six years, whereas almost all Grinnell students graduate in four.  Yes, Grinnell’s students are significantly different from Boise State’s students, but the question remains: what would happen if the university invested more per year in each student; would the four-year graduation rate increase? Would the six-year? What about the attrition rate, and, post-graduation, the student loan default rate? It’s worth investigating.

And what of retention, attrition, and the cost to the university of losing students? Thanks also to College Measures, we discover that in 2011, 31 percent of first-time, full-time undergraduates did not return to the university for their sophomore year.  The university spent $6.8 million educating students it did not retain.

Again, I want to emphasize that I know it’s not entirely fair to compare an elite private college with a regional public university; doing so, however, allows us to see the kind of choices universities make, or are forced to make, based on their funding models. Everyone, including state legislators who set higher ed budgets, should be aware of the repercussions of these choices.  And remember, once we have a sense the spectrum of choices, we can perhaps better begin to understand the choices being made at “peer institutions”—and we’ll look at those in the next section.

Faculty compensation

Maybe improving faculty morale might help retain faculty and therefore students? Many of my teaching readers have undoubtedly had the experience where a student (for me it’s usually a graduate student) admits she is returning the following year just because you’re there to support her. Few faculty are truly irreplaceable, but often students view individual faculty as essential to their success.

Of course, one great way to improve faculty morale (or at least retain some faculty) is to pay faculty fairly. We know about the adjunct crisis, and it needs to be addressed in a huge way, and quickly.  (Although, oddly, Boise State’s pay rate for full-time, non-tenure-line instructors is above average, though  I suspect there may be a few fantastically paid outliers who are messing up that particular curve.  The state salary database shows that one of our local celebrities, for example, gets paid $150,000 per year despite the title “adjunct faculty” and a highest degree of B.A.)  The size of the adjunct issue—76 percent of faculty nationwide are now contingent—can easily obscure the fact that tenure-line faculty income has been stagnating.

In a previous post, I compared my own salary, as well as my take-home pay, to the cost of living in Boise.  You can use the Economic Policy Institute’s Family Budget Calculator to determine the cost of living in your city or town.

This year, our dean announced the college would make one-time salary adjustments, so that full profs would earn 84.5 percent of the median CUPA salaries for their rank—so, they’re still 15.5% below median, but, hey, it’s an improvement.  Still, faculty in our History department make far less than those in, say, the business school.

If you’re not sure what your colleagues make, you can ask them if you’re comfortable doing so (yes, I know most people aren’t, and in higher ed we need to get over this etiquette roadblock for the sake of solidarity), or, if you’re at a public institution, chances are the salaries are already available online; simply search for the name of your state plus “state employee salaries.” Sometimes this information is made available by the state itself; other times, newspapers have made it available. Idaho’s state salary database, for example, is hosted by the Idaho Statesman, and California’s can be found at the Sacramento Bee.  You can, of course, look up the average salaries for your discipline at the CUPA site.

To find out the average faculty salaries from your institution, use the Chronicle’s faculty salary tool.  Here’s where Boise State stands:


The Chronicle tool also allows you to compare data across institutions.  It autofills the comparison fields with “several similar institutions.”


I suggest you take a look at that data, but then also look at your college’s peer institutions. Some colleges post this information on their own websites—here’s Boise State’s list—but if that’s not the case for your institution, you can find the colleges and universities your institution considers its peer using this slick peer institution tool at the Chronicle.  (It also lets you see which schools believe your institution to be their peer; in Boise State’s case, that list includes a variety of public universities around the U.S., as well as one DeVry and three University of Phoenix campuses.)



And here are Boise State’s “aspirational” peers:


The tl;dr version of those tables: Boise State pays its faculty less—in some cases significantly less—than its peer institutions, regardless of whether they’re current or aspirational peers.  Yesterday the governor’s state-of-the-state address for 2014 made clear there won’t be any pay raises for state employees this year, unless someone is being promoted. In my time at Boise State—this is my fourth year—faculty have received one raise of 2 percent.  If this pattern persists, I know many of us will be unable to afford to keep our jobs, as cost of living has already outpaced our salaries. Perhaps you have observed this to be the case at your institution as well.

As the Chronicle explains below the tables, these figures represent only “full-time staff whose primary role is instruction, regardless of whether they have formal ‘faculty status.’ That includes tenured, tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty. Left out are any part-time instructional staff, which can include adjunct faculty.”

To see, then, how many teaching faculty are made invisible by this survey, return to the IPEDS Data Center, find your institution, and then click on “Financial and Human Resources.” Finally, click on the + next to the items “Number of staff by primary function” and “number of full-time instruction/research/public service staff.”  Here’s Boise State’s information:

Screen Shot 2014-01-07 at 10.15.11 AM

Even more information from IPEDS

Note that you can also look at data from previous years by searching for your institution, then clicking on “Reported Data”:

Screen Shot 2014-01-07 at 10.27.05 AM

There’s a lot of relatively fine-grained information in that archived data about various aspects of the university.  I find the student financial aid info particularly interesting.  You can also download any of this reported data as a PDF. For example, here is the PDF I downloaded about 2011-12 financial aid at Boise State. It’s not the easiest thing to decipher, especially because the formatting of the reported data has changed over the years, but if you’re an inquisitive or investigative type, you’ll probably find it’s worth poring over.

Administration and athletics

It’s common for columnists and other armchair accountants outside of higher ed to blame faculty salaries for the quickly rising costs of a college education. Chances are very good that the data you’ve found about your college or university shows faculty salaries aren’t driving increasing costs.

If we aren’t investing a ton of money into student and faculty retention, then where are we spending it?  All over, really. But two places where costs have been rising in the past decade or two are athletics and administration.  In fact, according to a brochure released this week, Boise State employs 260 more full-time “professional staff” than it does full-time faculty.  (That speaks volumes about faculty, or even shared, governance, doesn’t it?) The “professional staff” category, which typically includes salaried, non-academic staff exempt from overtime laws, does not include classified staff; there are an additional 529 full-time classified employees at Boise State.

The university pays its vice presidents between $206,000 and $220,000 per year, and its president roughly $400,000. For comparison, that’s in line with recent salaries for chancellors at the University of California—campuses I’m guessing most faculty would consider far more successful as research and teaching institutions. Some people might point out that university presidents make far less than CEOs of comparably-sized private-sector companies, so the salary is reasonable. I might point out that faculty—yea, even in the arts and humanities—also make less than they would as employees in the private sector.

But what of athletics? What kind of money is your institution spending there? Here you might have to do some digging in your local newspaper’s online archives.

The football coach who left Boise State at the end of this season made $1,898,000 per year and licensed his likeness to the university for a quarter million dollars per year.

Some of you will say I’m comparing apples to oranges with the next comparison, but it’s important to look at these two numbers together, as once again, the difference in the numbers throws institutional priorities into high relief.

The football coach made more than $2 million per year, plus myriad benefits. Discussion leaders for courses in the university’s new general ed/core Foundations program are paid only $1,000 per semester.

But let’s look beyond employees. What does the university say it spends on student athletes?

In 2010, Boise State spent $13,018 in operating expenses per football player.  This is lower than the NCAA Division I average, but it’s also just slightly less than half of my take-home salary each year. It’s also $3,500 higher than the university spends educating an undergraduate for a year. The university spends 27 percent more on outfitting and training its football players than it does supporting students’ education.

You can find a thumbnail of major college athletic teams’ financial information at USA Today.  Here’s what the site shares about Boise State; I encourage you to see if your institution is on this list and take a hard look at its figures as well.




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Be sure to check out the report authors’ methodology and category definitions.  Pay particular attention to the definition of “subsidy”—”the sum of students fees, direct and indirect institutional support and state money”—as in the main list of universities, you can see that Boise State athletics are subsidized by this kind of support—again, these are state appropriations and student fees—at 24.96 percent.

According to the Idaho Statesman, the Boise State athletics budget for this past year was $33.4 million, which represents a $1 million shortfall from its projected revenues.  According to NCAA figures, the university actually spent $43,172,225 on athletics, with $43,440,905  in revenue–nearly $11 million of which was subsidized by the state or student fees.  Despite what is suggested by the “total revenue” vs. “total expenses” numbers in the charts above, athletics are a long, long way from paying for themselves because they are subsidized.

 . . .which is funny, because we’re always hearing about how important it is for academic programs to be self-supporting.

(And even if they once were on a trajectory to increase revenue, football ticket sales are declining.)


One of the liabilities of having researchers and teachers as employees is that we undertake research, investigating the subjects and following the leads that most interest us, and then share our findings with students and the public. That’s what I’ve done in this post. And yes, I’m cherry-picking from the available data in choosing what to share here, but it’s the data that concerns what matters most to me: the undergraduate educational experience and its outcomes.

I’m sure some university officials are going to contest the data I have shared, suggesting I’ve crunched it wrong or used out-of-date information. Perhaps I have. Yet by highlighting this reported data, asking some questions, and encouraging my readers to mine the data themselves, I’m trying to start a broader and deeper conversation among faculty, students, staff, and other stakeholders.

State governments and universities talk a good deal about transparency, and this post is offered in that spirit.

That said, I try to include in all my teaching and public outreach a critical thinking activity, and this post will not be an exception.

Let’s think critically for a moment

To be honest, it’s very difficult for me to look at these figures and not editorialize extensively about campus and state priorities, and I worry more than a little bit that even highlighting the straight numbers for the public will make me unpopular on campus and elsewhere.  I’m going to let you, therefore, construct various narratives around the data I’ve presented.

I can’t, however, finish this post without asking a few pointed, leading questions.

1. Why is a purportedly academic, intellectual institution investing so much money in a sport that does this to its players’ brains? Beyond brand awareness for admissions—the benefit faculty and administrators alike cite to me as the major benefit of the football program—what does the university get from placing students in danger of lifelong brain injury? And, as a faculty member, to what extent am I complicit in the destruction of these students’ futures?


Guess which brain belonged to a football player, aged only 42?

2. What if we invested into student and faculty retention the $11 million of state appropriations and student fees currently going to athletic subsidies, plus some of the inflated salaries of the ever-proliferating associate vice presidents?  Our football players’ graduation rate over six years—67 or 91 percent, depending on how you calculate it (see info below from the NCAA graduation rate tool)—is far better than the overall university’s, so why not offer non-athletes the same kinds of academic support athletes receive?

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3. Why is there only one tenure-line faculty member on the program prioritization committee that will be making important decisions about how the university invests its resources?

We often hear that universities should be run “like businesses,” and indeed, faculty have noted the business-speak (strategic dynamism!) and capitalist imperatives (disguised as an embrace of entrepreneurial thinking and institutional efficiency, e.g., MOOCs) that have seeped into the rhetoric and decision-making at the university in recent decades. I’d argue that universities have been trying for some time to become more like businesses—behavior driven not just by trends, but by declining state revenues—and they’re failing pretty miserably. Perhaps they’re not running the right cost-benefit scenarios or SWOT analyses, so I encourage you to undertake your own for those institutions that matter to you.

Still, let’s play along for a minute, and consider students as the university’s “customers” or its “products”:

4. How might we shift our investment of limited resources so that we can increase both retention and graduation rates for our student “customers”? Should we be investing in instruction, academic support, student life, academic technology, or upper administration to produce better “products” for our communities and economy?

5. How will these metrics be translated into analytics for the purposes of program prioritization, at Boise State or elsewhere? That process has not been as transparent as it might be here. (In case this is all mumbo-jumbo to you, as it was to me, here are metrics vs. analytics, explained.)

These questions have no easy answers, and probably not comfortable or comforting ones, either. The data itself is complicated, and determining cause-and-effect even more so.

Please use this information

My challenge to you: Using the resources to which I’ve linked here, as well as others available to you locally, go through the exercise of finding the data that matters to you, share it publicly, and, if you’re comfortable with it, offer your interpretation of it—or ask questions about how we might use it, as I’ve done.  If you’re a faculty member, this kind of research, driven by you or by students, also might form the base of an activity or assignment  in some undergraduate or graduate courses.

If readers are interested, I’d be happy to create and share a downloadable list of data sources and other resources for this kind of research.  Let me know if you’d find that useful.

Theodosia Burr Shepherd

For Ada Lovelace Day


It’s been ten years since I first visited an archive and flipped through the papers of a woman who practiced science, and since then I’ve had the pleasure of “meeting” many women who inhabited the margins of professional scientific practice, including some who expanded the boundaries of their fields.  One such woman was Theodosia Burr Shepherd.

Shepherd, who lived from 1845 to 1906, was a seedswoman and hybridizer of flowers who was generous with her knowledge and encouraging of other women interested in trying their hand at floriculture.  She may have established the first wholesale seed business in California, and she became known for her many successful experiments with petunias, poppies, and morning glories. The papers of the day called her “the woman Burbank,” and she was an authority on cactus before it was cool.  She was the cultivator of the famous blue morning glory Ipomoea ‘Heavenly Blue,’ which she described in 1892 as a cross of  Ipomoea learii and Mina lobata, and she created the popular California poppy cultivar Eschscholzia Californica ‘Golden West.’)  She and her daughter, Myrtle Shepherd Francis, created many multicolor, double, and ruffled petunias; Francis even published some of their results in the Journal of Heredity.

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Tucked into the Shepherd collection at UCLA, there’s a clipping from a 1905 Pittsburg (Calif.) Dispatch that includes a quote from Shepherd:

I sometimes think that we do not always choose our work, but are chosen, or called to it.  It has always seemed to me that I was called into the field of flowers with a special mission for them: to grow and disseminate them, where they are loved; to write about them; to talk about them, and, most of all, to create new varieties.

And talk about them she did.  Like many of her peers, she lectured to men and women alike about her specialty, but she also wrote more broadly about floriculture and women’s place in it.  A typescript titled “The Woman in Floral Culture” makes clear she was a fan of outdoor recreation for women and an advocate of dress reform, as long skirts got in the way of real gardening work.  She declares the field of horticultural hybridizing wide open to sensibly dressed women, and she encourages them to cultivate hardy flowers whose seeds may be sold to novelty-hungry gardeners on the East Coast.

Her writing was highly accessible; she took pains to bolster her readers’ confidence in their existing botanical knowledge and their potential to learn more through extrapolating from other biological knowledge and hands-on experimentation.  For example, she writes,

“People have been taught so long to depend upon authority to learn things to which they have not given especial attention, that they fail to realize that they have a fund of general knowledge within that will help them out.”

. . .and of floriculture specifically:

I have heard people say, “I love flowers, but do not know anything about them,” or “I love them but I never have any success with them; they will not grow for me.”  Now we all do know something about flowers, and we all may have success with them, if we only apply the knowledge that our experience has given us, regarding other living organisms to plant life.

She romanticizes (in every sense of the word) her experiments to make them comprehensible to others, calling the flowers “lovers” among whom the hybridizer makes felicitous matches.  “Think of the happiness of becoming foster mother to myriads of seed children,” she wrote, christening them, and sending them out into the world to “receive a glad welcome and give happiness wherever they go.”

And they do—at least from me.  Whenever I see a “Golden West” poppy, a ridiculously ruffled double petunia, or “Heavenly Blue” morning glory, I give a little nod of familiarity to Theodosia’s children.

I hope others will join me in recognizing and remembering Theodosia Shepherd for her promiscuous gardening and her generosity in sharing her methods, even with potential competitors.  Have you hugged her morning glory today?  (She would have.)


Morning glory photo by rachelgreenbelt, and used under a Creative Commons license

Catalogue image from the Biodiversity Library


I’ve been experiencing what Fang and I term “bad brain chemicals” lately (and so has he, which sucks, as in the past our serotonin receptors have taken turns being on the fritz). Such chemical blues happen occasionally, and I muddle through, because, as I’ve noted before, I’m a high-functioning depressive–my sense of obligation to others remains stronger than the depression most days.

I’ve also put back on a few pounds–nothing like before, but enough that my clothes were fitting differently.  I’ve been around this block enough to know that depression + weight gain = time to change the diet and exercise regimen (but especially the diet).  I haven’t gone to the gym in, um, forever (note to self: cancel campus rec center membership) because it bores me, and in the summer, when I’m not on campus much, the gym feels very far away.  I do walk, however, and between a longish dog walk yesterday and a 2.5-mile foothills hike with the boy today, I’m already feeling better than I did three days ago.  (Not as fun: chasing a surprisingly fast dog through the neighborhood at a full sprint, for some distance, while still recovering from the latest bronchial plague. Legs = stiff; lungs = seared.)

Also, however, I’m doing the vegan and no-added-sugars-or-sweeteners thing again.  I’ve been mostly vegan since April 2012, excepting the occasional restaurant meal (I’m particularly susceptible to gourmet mac and cheese). While I can’t by any means claim to have kept up my sugar fast, over the past year, I’ve consumed probably one-quarter the sugar I have in previous years.


Goodbye, sweetheart. It’s not you–it’s me.

So, about this go-round: The first 72 hours are always difficult, but I’m in hour 74 now (excepting, I’m remembering now, one sweet non-vegan treat), so things are looking up. A couple more days and I expect the sugar cravings to lessen significantly, and at this point I’m able to resist their siren song because my mood has improved significantly.  Less sugar = less irritation and more energy.

We’ll see if I can make it a month, as I did last time.  In late July and early August, I’ll be in a situation that will make it difficult to stay vegan, but if I can eat vegan and sugar-free and get moderate exercise regularly for 30 days, I’ll be thrilled.

Anyway, I’m putting this post here as a sort of public accountability in case my mood and energy levels take a dive and aren’t sufficient motivation in themselves.  Feel free to use the comments to share your own goals for the same purpose.


Image by Yuichi Sakaraba, and used under a Creative Commons license.

“Big tent” technology

Let’s begin with a few U.S. maps published recently.

Here’s one, built at the National Day of Civic Hacking, of every public library branch (and a few bookmobiles) in the contiguous U.S.:

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And here’s a similar map of every museum in the lower 48:

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Note the dearth of such cultural institutions in large swaths of the western U.S.  Yes, some of that cultural hole can be attributed to less dense population patterns in the West, but it’s not as if there’s no one living in, working in, or visiting those areas.  Perhaps it’s not surprising that less dense, conservative states might not allocate sufficient funding to sustain cultural institutions. Indeed, even where museums do exist in the relatively sparsely populated Intermountain West and Great Basin, they are, with a few notable exceptions, not exactly distinguished institutions.

Even more significant is the giant western hole in the map of cities participating in the National Day of Civic Hacking:

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Now that I’ve spent three years in that region and have become familiar with its technological deficit—in terms of professional development but also of basic connectivity (in parts of Idaho, bears can take down the internet, and as recently as 2011, Idaho had the slowest internet speed in the nation)—I’m not surprised to see a complete lack of participation in the day of civic hacking.  Rather than advocating for public investment in educational and technological infrastructure—which might both make Idaho’s workforce more attractive to high tech companies and inspire individual Idahoans to launch start-ups and tech businesses—political “leaders” in Idaho are focusing on abolishing minimum wage laws and other government regulations that allegedly inhibit the growth of low-paying industries.

Let’s look beyond my current region, however. Imagine overlaying that civic hacking participation onto a map of the results of the last presidential election returns, especially one that represents results by county:

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It’s no wonder the Obama campaign was able to mobilize social media, big data, and related technologies so well in 2008 and 2012.  Republicans have taken notice, and cultural observers like Markos Moulitsas are pointing out that the Republican failure to take advantage of technology and data is less about “a lack of organization” than it is about “a lack of talent.”  Worse, as Moulitsas uses several examples to illustrate, when conservatives do engage with technology, they may be more likely to use it to close down access to information rather than open it up.

Big tent technology

As someone on the left side of the political spectrum, it would be easy for me to sit back, smirk, and enjoy watching conservatives’ lack of technological skill help to drive the Republican party into oblivion. Alas, this technological divide between red states and blue states has repercussions beyond who holds political office.  Of particular concern to me as a professor and a parent are career opportunities, particularly since my current state of residence appears to be putting more stock in attracting arms manufacturers and call centers than in cultivating a generation of civic-minded, technologically savvy workers.

I’ve said it here before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again: being a progressive means “big tent” thinking.  It means seeking justice and fairness and uplift for all people—even those who have political views I find repugnant. And so I’m saying those of us who have any tech savvy at all who live in red states need to help conservatives (and others) get their technological house in order.

Over the past 30 years, conservatives have ridden a wave of fundamentalist Christian indignation over demographic shifts and changing social mores. Accordingly, conservative political operatives have—at least in the public eye—invested more time and energy in developing rhetorical flourishes that manipulate feeling than they have in collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data. I’m not the first progressive to observe that conservatives are not interested in reliable evidence or carefully interpreting data. Both conservatives and liberals participate in social and mainstream media echo chambers that amplify and reinforce our beliefs, but in my experience, liberals are more likely to read widely, learning from a broad spectrum of voices in the humanities, social sciences, sciences, and arts.  That learning, I’ve observed, often includes a depth and breadth of knowledge about technology.

People from all over the political spectrum ought to be interested in hearing all voices, in having more conversations, in increasing the quality and quantity of civic discourse.  In the 21st century, that discourse involves a good deal of digital, networked technology.  We connect and communicate with it, and we wade into its ever-flowing streams of data, news, and information.  Again, in my experience (and as suggested by the maps above), those who identify with the political left are more likely to swim boldly into and try to make sense of—or even shape—these currents.

(It was at this point in my discussing this idea with her that a good friend pointed out I’m setting up a positivist narrative, one in which technological enlightenment leads to intellectual and political enlightenment of a group of people who can cling stubbornly to outdated ideals and dangerous cultural and economic practices. I don’t believe in technology as redemptive in and of itself, but I think in the case of Idaho and other conservative regions, a good dose of training in technological tools and languages–in the digital humanities–couldn’t hurt.)

In local practice

Let’s look at an example of this thinking in action.  Already my minor infusion of digital humanities practice into my classroom has revolutionized many students’ relationships with technology.  They write in their end-of-course reflections about how they had seen themselves as technophobic or technologically inept, and now they’re curious about digital tools and willing to experiment.  Of course, learning to use most apps doesn’t involve manipulating and visualizing data or writing code that can change the functionality of an app or website.  But my students’ growing confidence in their technical savvy has led them to  imagine developing apps–and in one assignment I had them write grant proposals to do so.  For some students, this app development plan took the form of investigating software development firms, but other students researched the ways they might build apps themselves.

And yes, at least half of my students from this past year consider themselves to be conservative, many of them profoundly.

How can we grow this kind of energy and curiosity, and teach these kind of tech skills more broadly?  Digital storytelling is a natural fit.  But I think we need to take the next step, too, and engage people who inhabit the vast unhacked spaces on the map in civic hacking, in the languages—rhetorical and computational—of the digital era.

If you have ideas on how to make this happen, especially face-to-face, and how to fund it, leave them in the comments.

(This post was inspired by a session I attended at AdaCamp San Francisco on resources for women new to coding.)

On living with (mostly) mild disabilities

Look out–this one’s going to be especially rambly.

Back at this blog’s former home, I blogged more frequently about depression than I have lately–so much so that for a while, The Clutter Museum was ranked #1 in Google for the phrase “depression in academia.”

Fortunately, I’m not dealing with those demons at the moment, but in the past couple of years, it’s become clear that another (usually very mild) disability is ascendant in me: asthma, bronchitis, and pneumonia.

I’m one of those people who tends to ignore my disabilities until they become visible to others.  Learning self-care (prevention and remediation) has been a long, hard road.

I began ignoring illness when I was young. I don’t think I’ve ever blogged about the thyroidy years, but when I was 11 years old and just starting horseback riding lessons, I began to feel really shaky and dizzy and just generally weak about midway through my lessons.  One riding instructor thought it was low blood sugar.  My pediatrician thought I might be allergic to horses (perish the thought!). Eventually, though, the pale, liver-spotted Dr. C turned his turkey-waddled head toward my father and noticed a pale scar extending across my dad’s throat. “Is there,” he asked, “a history of thyroid disease in your family?”

Why, yes, it ends up there is.

Thus began a long, long journey through several primary-care physicians and assorted specialists until I found a wild-haired little endocrinologist who wore a tweedy three-piece suit to his office in what was, to put it mildly, not the best part of Long Beach. Dr. B wrestled with my thyroid for years, trying everything—at one point having me take eight pills a day, spaced as evenly across the day as possible (a perfect prescription for a busy high school student, yes?)—before becoming exasperated by a series of inexplicable blood tests (“Were you hit by a truck?”).  He explained there were two doors ahead of me: Door number 1, he said, was surgery.  Door number 2, radiation.  He detailed the risks of each procedure.

I looked at the giant scar on my dad’s neck and opted for radiation.  We had recently had the talk I imagine all parents eventually have with chronically ill teenagers who still believe in their own invincibility, symptoms be damned.  Dad pointed out, rather bluntly, “You could die.”


Furthermore, my parents made clear I couldn’t go to college until I was healthy.  I was seventeen.  Tick tock.

So soon I found myself greeted in a local hospital by a balding man in suspenders, bow tie, and lab coat, who announced, “Hi! I’m Dr. M.  I’ll be your nuclear radiologist for the day.”  I sat in a chair; an intern shielded me with a lead apron and wheeled a tray before me.  He picked up a lead vessel, unscrewed the lid, and placed a plastic bendy straw in it.  Everyone retreated to the doorway.  “I’m told,” Dr. M said, “it tastes like bad tap water.”

I drank.  It did.

Dr. M told me not to “sweat, spit, or pee on anyone for three days.”  I was to use only plasticware at meals, stay 6 feet away from anyone under age 45 (3 feet from anyone over age 45), and flush twice.

Because the radioactive iodine I had just swallowed would, he explained, basically shoot all my thyroid hormones into my system at once, I could expect an elevated heart rate for a while.  He prescribed Inderal in anticipation.  Inderal gave me night terrors and hallucinations, neither of which I had experienced before.  (The night terrors continue to this day.)

Shortly after I drank the radioactive cocktail, my hair started falling out. My vision was already crappy, but I didn’t think it was bad enough that I needed to wear glasses all the time, so my first indication of the hair loss was a change in the carpet color in front of the mirror where I brushed my hair.  Fortunately, my I didn’t lose all my hair, though I could perform the fun parlor trick of grabbing a fingerful and yanking it out painlessly.  (Surprise: I didn’t date in high school.)

After blood tests every week for a year, we found the correct dose of synthetic hormone, and now I test annually.  Yes, my weight fluctuates—after all, I have no thyroid function to speak of—but eventually we found a maintenance dose that at least makes me feel human.

A hypothyroid, however, also can bring with it extra depression.  Wheeee!  Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I began to read about depression and realized, hey, maybe I should get that checked out, too.  By that point (age 25) I was dating Fang, and he made sure I saw a therapist.  She, in turn, made sure I saw a doctor who could prescribe some antidepressants.

Problem (sort of) solved.  My depression waxes and wanes, as dysthymia is wont to do.  I’m an exceptionally high-functioning depressive, and I’ve never missed a day of work because of it. Only once did I get so miserably behind on my responsibilities that I had to confess to a colleague I was struggling with depression.  Fortunately, our work together addressed UC Davis’s accommodation of students, faculty, and staff with disabilities, and she both studied disability and lived with one; her level of understanding and compassion was high, for which I am grateful.

So, the tally:

  • Hyperthyroidism: eradicated.
  • Depression: manageable.

That leaves the lungs.  Many of us who grew up in the Los Angeles basin in the 1970s and 1980s breathed in a wretched stew of exhaust and other chemicals, and—who knew?!—it ends up there are long-lasting effects.  I had chalked up my earlier failures to run ever faster (I topped out at a 6:58 mile in eighth grade) to my thryoid issues, but in eleventh grade, when I began playing French horn in three music ensembles at school, the chest pains began.  At first, because I hadn’t yet solved the hyperthyroidism (that would come the following summer), I thought the pain was related to the general fatigue the thyroid curse engendered.  The usual cardio tests ensued until during one exam, my physician lightly tapped my chest and I recoiled in pain.  “Ah,” he said, “asthma!”

Going to college in Iowa didn’t help; forty percent of Iowans smoked, there weren’t a whole lot of smoke-free indoor spaces, and windows remained closed much of the year due to the cold or heat.  My lungs were not pleased.  That said, one summer there I took up running and regularly ran for 45 minutes to an hour, the longest I’d ever been able to run until that point.  I went home to Long Beach and followed my sister on an eight-mile run, but lost interest in running when winter set in (cold air is another asthma trigger).  Since leaving Iowa, there have been times I’ve tried to take up running, and I’ve followed many different plans along the lines of Couch to 5K, but I find I have to stop running just shy of one mile.

One mile!

I’ve talked to my physician about this, and her advice is to use the inhaler before I exercise.  So I do.  It makes very little difference.

Fortunately, I’m not looking to become a long-distance runner, but I admit I look at my friends’ marathon and half-marathon and 5K and 10K photos on Facebook, as well as their Runkeeper updates there, and I get a bit wistful.

And it’s difficult to establish a regular exercise routine when every head cold inevitably goes to my lungs and becomes bronchitis or—in a disappointing turn since I moved to Boise—pneumonia.  I can establish a good groove at the gym, and then bam! no workouts for months because: recuperation.  (I very rarely miss work due to these illnesses because I have an overdeveloped sense of commitment to my students and colleagues, but working out is out of the question.)

Now I’m sick again, and it’s going into my chest.  Today was a beautiful spring day, and I would have loved to spend it gardening, bicycling with Lucas, or hiking in the foothills before the rattlesnakes emerge.

Fang is, of course, frustrated beyond words.  Dealing with a regularly ill spouse is no fun, and he does a great job of gracefully taking over my share of housework and childcare.

But I’m realizing I’m falling into an old pattern of living with something (thyroid, depression, asthma) without sufficiently addressing it until I’ve suffered quite a bit.  I see reduced circumstances as normal, as inevitable.  In this case, however, I’ve talked to my doctors, and all the tests say my immune system is fine.  The doctors just say to rest.  And so I sit still.  And I get flabby. (Even lifting weights is tiring.) And it’s maddening.

In the past year, I’ve begun to really feel the effects of aging: the stiffness, the pull of gravity, the graying hair.  (I’m 37.)  I want to move, to get fit—I want to keep up with Lucas—but every effort meets with failure.  I need to find a new way of thinking about my physical abilities going forward, one that encompasses a different kind of health and fitness than I see in my Facebook feed and in every damn mainstream media outlet.

Comment zen: I’m not looking for medical or fitness advice right now; please don’t give me any.  If you know of resources that address how to deal psychologically with changing physical circumstances, however, I’m all ears.


Image source

Just when I thought I was out of the pneumoniac woods, it ends up it’s antibiotic-resistant pneumonia.

I’m now on a new antibiotic, one that the physician’s assistant assures me will “kill anything inside” me.*  Yay?


*Just looked up the antibiotic–it’s also used to treat meningitis, anthrax, tuberculosis, and plague. Fun times.

Blog, interrupted

 Image source

I had the best intentions of exploring gun violence in the U.S. in a series of posts here–and I still will.

However, the day after finals ended, I came down with bacterial pneumonia.  I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.  As soon as I have fully recovered, I’m getting the damn vaccine, as this is case o’ pneumonia #2 since moving to Boise–after never having had it previously, and having had the flu shot religiously, which is supposed to dramatically reduce the changes of contracting the ol’ lung fever.

I’ve come out of this incident with a key bit of knowledge (which you’d think an asthmatic would have absorbed long ago): Normal blood oxygen levels = VERY GOOD.  Blood oxygen levels in the mid-80s = BAD.  (In fact, so bad that, combined with the other symptoms, the doctor said drily, “A chest x-ray is not indicated.”)

I hope everyone’s holidays have been excellent.   Here’s to better health in 2013!

Have a celebratory drink for me, eh? I’m on antibiotics.


Guppies: A Cautionary Tale

The guppies and I had an understanding, and it involved cannibalizing their young.

Let’s rewind a couple of months:

As a reward for earning his yellow belt in Taekwondo, Fang promised Lucas a fish tank.  Not just goldfish, Fang emphasized—real fish.

I think Lucas may have had visions of a 50-gallon saltwater tank filled with yellow tangs and angelfish, live coral and maybe a small eel.  Something you’d see in a doctor’s office waiting room.  Maybe Fang did, too, not realizing the cost and maintenance involved in such a set-up.

In the end, it fell to me to set up the fish tank.  My parents kicked in a gift card to a chain pet store as a birthday gift to Lucas so we could get the tank, and they sent along as well some aquarium decorations. Fang and I purchased all the other little things that come with setting up a new tank: dechlorinator, living plants, gravel, pump filters, water test kits, freshwater aquarium salt, siphon, starter bacteria, and more.  I printed out a fish compatibility chart and explained to Lucas that the 10-gallon tank could hold only five or six fish, and that most of the fish for beginners liked to school, so it’s likely we’d be able to get only one or two types of fish.

We set up the tank and let it settle for a few days, knowing that we were going to cycle the tank with fish.  The water’s pH was very high, so we opted for guppies, which apparently can thrive in high-pH water.  I read more than I ever dreamed I might about Poecilia reticulata. At this point  in our adventure I was confident I could write a damn good literature review, entitled “Advice to New Freshwater Home Aquarists, with Special Attention to Rising Ammonia Concentrations.”

Guppy enthusiasts remain divided as to the ideal female: male ratio.  The textbook answer is two females to each male, but vast anecdotal evidence on the interwebs suggests that it really all comes down to the temperaments of the individual guppies.  Still, patterns emerged: If you have only females, one will likely become an alpha and abuse the others. If you go the male route, and one male guppy is a total asshole, then he’s going to harass any guppy, regardless of sex.  My ever-vaster reading made clear to me that guppy tending falls somewhere, though I wasn’t sure exactly where, on the spectrum of “Great Introduction to the Aquarium Hobby” and “Total Crapshoot, Kids.”

Need I point out that I wasn’t interested in getting into the business of fancy guppy breeding?  And that I didn’t want to have to console a seven-year-old when the adult guppies devoured the babies? I explained to Lucas that it would get Darwinian pretty damn quickly in the tank—meaning I enthused, “Guppies make their own food!” Lucas said, with far too much sangfroid for my taste, that he was “okay with blood.”

In the end, we went with the fish store employee’s advice to get two females and one male, though she confessed she herself had three males and one female that apparently never became pregnant.  We brought the fish home and while at home, I did little but fret about guppies.  (Alas, I inherited, through nature and nurture, a visceral aversion to animal suffering, no matter how small-brained or short-lived the creature.)

My Facebook updates quickly descended into guppy management angst. I had committed to twice-daily partial water changes and lots and lots of water testing.

The guppies, meanwhile, had committed to procreation.  I’m pretty sure one of the females was pregnant before we reached home.

Soon it became evident that, promised guppy cannibalism aside, Lucas expected to keep some of the baby fish.  I procured a second, smaller tank.

A few weeks later, Lucas was excited to see the teeny tiny guppy fry in the tank, and encouraged me to scoop them out.  This process has repeated itself several times, so that we now have about 20 tiny fish in the nursery tank–waaaaaaay too many for an aquarium that size.

From my reading, female guppies birth between two and 200 fish at a time.  Wikipedia reports, “Guppies have the ability to store sperm up to a year, so the females can give birth many times without depending on the presence of a male.”  We have two females. You do the math.

We could be talking about a lot of guppies.  Yet we have seen fry swimming around in the tank, then suddenly they were gone. In fact, Lucas has had the pleasure of seeing one of the females eat a newborn guppy.

I figured, then, that once we had found homes for, oh, 18 of the fry in the secondary tank, we would have reached guppy detente: Guppies are born.  Guppies get eaten.

Why, then, did this week the guppies break our social contract?  There are four fry swimming around the tank, and they’ve been there for about 48 hours.

Anyone want some guppies?

UPDATE: I just went into the kitchen and discovered THIRTY guppy fry.