By Karen Alkalay-Gut

 

  FROM SOUP TO NUTS :  A QUICK COURSE ON THE UNIVERSITY STRIKE

 

“Having a good time on your vacation?” a friend asks me, as we’re finishing our consommé on this rare occasion of my having actually cooked. 

“She’s always on vacation,” her husband breaks in. “I read about it in The Marker – teaches six hours a week and comes home with twenty-five thousand shekel!”

“I don’t know what they make, but I’m not a professor,” I say laughing, as I get up to clear the table, “I’m only now publishing my second book of criticism, my 26th book of poetry and my 57th article.  Give me some time to get enough publications to rate professorship at Tel Aviv University. So I teach …” I pause for dramatic effect, “eight hours.” 

“My goodness!”  he blanches.  “I work 40 hours a week and….” 

“I said I teach eight hours.  But I work much more than 40 hours a week preparing my courses…”  He’s still reeling from the time/work comparison but jumps in to contradict me.  “Come on, you’ve probably been teaching the same courses for years! You guys read your lectures from yellowed notes!  You don’t prepare.” 

He’s just teasing me.  He knows I’m meticulous about checking every fact, and wouldn’t be so irresponsible as to give a lecture without checking and updating every fact, even if it’s on the internet. But he doesn’t know that my teaching is based on my research, that I have to be convinced that what I am giving my students is the most reliable and most current information available because I know that they may well base further work on what I’ve taught them, and pass it on to further generations, and I don’t want their basis to be faulty.  

So when I say that I spend many hours preparing, and reading exams and papers, I’m underestimating because I haven’t taken into account this time of preparation is meshed together with time spent on research.  I invest at least 20 hours a week in that, and much more in keeping up a dialogue with colleagues around the world.  Conferences, such as this coming week’s “Poetic Natures: The Environment, Literature and the Arts,” with the participation of former U.S. poet laureate Robert Hass, which I helped organize, offer an opportunity to students and the general community, as well as academics, to learn and to teach. 

My friend is really trying to understand, or maybe he’s not.  He doesn’t even taste the mushroom quiche while he thinks of his next point.  “So you’re on strike and you’re working.  So what do you people want? Isn’t this about money?”  “At the moment it’s all about money.  What we’re ‘striking’ for officially is the erosion of our salary.  10 years ago my public servant husband and I were earning the same.  And now I’m earning over 30% less than him.”But money was never the primary issue with us. The tenured faculty

have been agreeing to postponements of discussions about our salaries for a while, and even loaned Tel Aviv University 5% of our salary voluntarily a few years ago when we thought it would help its dire financial situation.  What we’re most upset about is that we’re simply not given the means to actually do what we’re supposed to do, to fulfill the requirements of our profession.  Antiquated libraries and equipment, insufficient staff, inadequate budgets and a host of other things make it impossible for us to further our research and to give to our students what they need to be professional. 

And our students are most important to all the faculty at the university.  Students who have graduated from the English department at Tel Aviv University have gone on to get higher degrees at Oxford and Cambridge, Columbia, Stanford, Yale, Oregon and NYU, Universities of British Columbia and Western Ontario, and many other universally respectable institutions.  They have become prominent in Israel in the fields of communications and the arts.  They are writers and singers, social workers and editors, lawyers and journalists.  More important to our immediate needs they have gone on to become teachers and transmit the attitude of dedication to education as much as they transmit the knowledge we share with them.  They make me feel that every effort I make is worthwhile, and I’d love to have some of them by my side as colleagues. Unfortunately, we don’t have room for them as teachers at the university because we haven’t had positions for new faculty in years.  When one of us retires, our position disappears. So, many of my brightest students leave the country.

Many of us faculty wouldn’t be here either if we were thinking about convenience or income, rather than our crucial role in furthering the potential, reputation and honor of the citizens here.  And the strike hasn’t even slowed us down in our labors.  During this “strike” I’ve not only worked with colleagues on conferences and programs but have continued to direct graduate students on their dissertations on subjects from Renaissance drama and theories of rhyme to Jewish American poetry and Arab American poetry.  It’s a lot of work because there are only 6 people in my department right now who can direct graduate students at all, compared with 14 qualified faculty a decade ago.  (One of my colleagues who left is now teaching at an American university with triple the salary, half the teaching load, and less than one third of students.)”

“Stop dreaming,” says my friend, seeing a touch of envy in my expression, as I imagine being able to devote my time to scholarship and focus on individual students, “And give me some more of that wonderful quiche.  Where did you get the recipe?”

“Internet,” I respond absentmindedly, still thinking of where I could be academically and economically if I had accepted one of those offers from abroad.

“Internet?” he sneers, “That’s probably where you do all your research these days, since you’re snubbing the library.”

“No, the universities in this country are not subscribed to the online journals I need to keep up.  I have to go abroad to do serious work. And while I’m there I give lectures about Israel and give poetry readings about Israel.”

“That’s just an excuse to go on vacation,” he responds, grinning.

I only hear part of that rib, because I’ve gone into the other room to get my salary chit.

“Here’s a fact,” I hand it over to him.  “A Ph.D 38 years of university teaching, and a monthly take-home pay of NIS 8,923 net.  Dessert?”

“Thanks,” he pushes away from the table, “I’ve lost my appetite.

 

 

Dr. Karen Alkalay-Gut teaches in the Department of English and American Studies in Tel Aviv University and chairs the Israel Association of Writers in English.