The Best Defense

Life during the government shutdown (I): Empty classrooms and a busy football team show what the USNA is really about

By Bruce Fleming
Best Defense guest columnist

The halls of the English department at the U.S. Naval Academy, where I am in my 27th year as a civilian professor, were almost free of midshipmen students on Tuesday, Oct. l, when I had to go in to sign my official furlough letter, the one informing me that I was out of work until and unless the government shutdown ends. The students weren't there because most of their classes had been cancelled for the foreseeable future. Civilian faculty were paid until noon, four hours for an "orderly shutdown." Though grim (no pay with little chance of restitution if the government ever gets going again), it seemed a bit like a party as well, all of us in weekend shorts and bright shirts rather than our usual suits and professional attire. But as non-essential civilian DOD employees, we professors were sent home, while our students, military and hence unaffected by the shutdown, killed time. We were told not to assign them other work during the shutdown, not to volunteer to come in to teach for free, and not to use military instructors to cover for us.

So classes were suspended in mid-stream. In my plebe Rhetoric and Introduction to Literature class, we'd reached Act II of Othello. It's a play I find essential for a military academy, about Othello's inability to switch from his "guy" world of the military, where he has served "in the tented field" since the age of seven(!), to the new world of Venice, city manners, and women that, hired by the Venetian senators as a mercenary admiral, he is suddenly thrust into. Now he's gone and married Desdemona, but his trusted warrior subordinate Iago tells him she's unfaithful. Othello is insecure (he's old and dark-skinned) and he believes in the band of brothers rather than his wife. The result is tragedy for all. Females and too great a reliance on the bros -- what can be more timely for USNA, racked by sexual assault scandals and toxic SAPR training?

But, hey, Congress thought otherwise. Students can't do much with only two acts out of five. Worse, all plebes go next week to see a performance of this play funded by outside sources, the Brady family, that every year pays to have an event meant to spark discussion of leadership issues. This funding is non-appropriated, so the show will go on.  Only the audience won't have read it or discussed it. Too, as part of the deal funded by the Brady family, the London actors of the production were supposed to go into our classrooms during the week before to discuss and hold workshops. Now there are few classes for them to go into.

To be sure, not all of our classrooms are dark. The English Department, like almost all other USNA departments, is overwhelmingly (more than two-thirds) civilian; these are furloughed. And the few officers we have, with the exception of the Ph.D. permanent military professor, are junior officers who typically do not teach upper level courses: However, whatever they teach goes on. History is about the same proportion of military instructors to permanent civilians, while mathematics as another example is only about one-fifth military. Though the academy currently claims that military make up 44 percent of the faculty, this includes the temporary ensigns awaiting flight school dates and assigned as helpers to various departments, frequently physical education. Only the Leadership, Ethics and Law Department, with loads of professional courses, is overwhelmingly military, officers who come a few years and move on.

So Annapolis as a college has all but ground to a halt. In some departments, the military instructors are gathering lecture halls full of sections without professors and somehow filling the time. Civilians outside the classroom have been furloughed, too: You can't check books out of the library or get reference help, the registrar isn't there, the Academic Center isn't there, and the writing center (take your paper for help) isn't there -- except for a lone LT once in a while.  Almost no professors, a non-functional library, and no academic support. Yet the weekend football game with Air Force will go on -- that too is non-appropriated funds, as is the coach's $1.5 million salary: That's what Annapolis is really about, after all.

Bruce Fleming has been an English Professor at the U.S. Naval Academy since 1987. He is the author of numerous books and articles on subjects ranging from literary Modernism and dance to political theory and military strategy, which are listed at www.brucefleming.net .

Got a tale of life during the federal shutdown that you'd like to share? Send it along to Best Defense by e-mail. The address is over on the right near the postage stamp-sized photo of Tom. 

U.S. Naval Academy

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