A Protest

Robert Boswell

Friday, April 5, 2013:

I’m parked in the University of Houston’s chancellor’s office, on the red-and-gold carpeted floor, participating in a sit-in organized by the graduate students. I’ve been here less than two hours, and yet I have no sensation whatsoever below my navel. Occasionally there’s a tingling in the toes of one foot—I’m not sure which one. I will need a forklift to get out of here. The students have good reason to protest. They are creative writing graduate students in one of the best programs in the country, but those who teach are among the hardest worked (2 classes per semester, 27 students per class) and they are absolutely the poorest paid teaching fellows anywhere.

For being fully responsible for the teaching of four classes of composition per year, the MFA students take home roughly $7800 per year (salary minus $1600 in fees charged by the U and taken out of their paychecks). The creative writing PhD students make a couple thousand more than that, which still puts them in the cellar nationally. TF salaries have not been raised at the University of Houston in twenty years. They make less than I did in the early 80’s when I was getting my MFA at the University of Arizona.

If this sit-in is a fair example, then protests have become a lot more hygienic and polite than my days as an undergraduate protesting the Vietnam War. And the participants are a lot better dressed. I definitely remember the smell of sweaty bodies, along with many rude, crude, and unkind comments voiced loudly. Well-dressed was not an issue, though fully dressed might have been.

Here, students and faculty line the walls but leave plenty of room for people to walk by comfortably. They have freshman essays with them to grade, and they have their laptops open (as do I) writing their lit papers and maybe their stories (presumably about revolt and revolution) for workshop. The administration is none too happy about these campers, but they seem especially worried about the social media sites that are covering the sit-in, including the grad students’ Facebook page: UH English TFs Unite. The page hasn’t been up long and the number of “Likes” is multiplying daily.

The protests back in the day were long before Facebook or email or cellphones. Communication, in fact, was often the most difficult issue in organizing and maintaining the desired tone—poor communication led to nonviolent protests turning violent, for example, and for a focused protest becoming unfocused and chaotic.

Those days are over.

Everyone involved in the sit-in signs up online. Protesters are advised to wear dress attire appropriate for teaching, to leave in time to teach their classes, and to take work along to permit quiet, friendly cohabitation with the president’s staff—a wonderfully friendly group. “I worry about y’all sitting there all day,” one said during my first day of the sit-in. She was concerned for our physical comfort. “Do you need anything?”

Q: How successful is this mannerly sit-in?

A: The faculty has tried all semester to get a meeting with the provost over this matter without any success; the students parked themselves on the president’s carpet and got a meeting with the provost in 90 minutes. Now the provost wants to meet with the
faculty today.

Power to the cordial, brothers and sisters.

To support the sit-in, like the following Facebook page: UH English TFs Unite.

Robert Boswell is the author of eleven books, most recently The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards and The Half-Known World: On Writing Fiction. His novels include Century’s Son, American Owned Love, and Mystery Ride. His stories have appeared in the New Yorker, Best American Short Stories, Best Stories from the South, Esquire, Ploughshares, and many other magazines. He shares the Cullen Chair in Creative Writing at the University of Houston with his wife, Antonya Nelson