Friday, September 14, 2007

Poisons and Antidotes, Pleasures and Frustrations

Not my favourite picture of me, but it renews my appreciation for my hairdresser's suggestion of bangs; I like my forehead better softened up a bit. Anyway, I was browsing my file of Paris shots as antidote to a week of negative stress. When I spotted this photo, taken by Paul in Paris, 2005, I realized it perfectly illustrates how I feel about a workplace pesticide application I wasn't warned about. Since unwittingly sitting in the leftover toxins Wednesday morning, I've been going around reflexively sticking out my tongue to try to rid myself of the numb, metallic-tasting sensation. Not nice at all.

It's a long, sad story--I don't blame you if you want to jump to the photo at the bottom and come back another day. But I need to work it out of my system so I'm going to set it down here. Late August, the week before classes started, I let our Facilities people know that my office was full of dead and dying ants. Since the building was treated with pesticide last year (and siding removed, my window frames and all taken out for a supposedly thorough treatment), I assumed these critters were simply a doomed hatch succumbing to the residual effects of last year's poison. But when I came in to work the next day, the building was shut down for 24 hours because spraying had been done. I wish I'd been advised so I hadn't wasted time coming in, but at least I was being kept out of the poisons (yes, I know, naïve to accept that these poisons are gone in 24 hours, but let's bracket that for now). Over the next week, ants kept crawling, half-dead over my desk, creeping out of files, even dropping out of my backpack when I packed up to leave. I kept requesting the janitor come in and waiting 'til my office was back to normal.

Then Monday I picked up my kettle and surprised a swarm of tiny brown ants -- and when I saw swarm, that's what I mean -- hundreds of them erupted from their hiding place and spread out over the desktop, a bubbling mass covering at least a couple of square feet. Facilities was advised again. I left, a bit shaken (understatement alert). By the next day, I'd heard two different versions of the planned response -- someone advised that pest control was coming back, someone said we just had to keep cleaning up and waiting for the inevitable results of the first spraying. But that night, a colleague sent me a copy of an e-mail he'd sent our dean and Facilities. Apparently, he'd walked into the building to smell the telltale fumes of another spraying, grabbed his books, thrown out the sandwich he'd left on his desk, and got out of there with as little breathing as he could manage. By Wednesday morning, though, when I went in, there was no obvious smell and the pest control fellow who came by to investigate after my colleague's complaint assured us the spraying had only been outside and we needn't worry. So I did my pre-class prep for ten minutes or so, 'til I started to notice I was making a face like the friendly door-guards above -- my tongue felt odd and I had an unpleasant, metallic taste in my mouth.

I tried one more visit later that day, working for five or ten minutes before the symptoms intensified again, this time with headache and mild dizziness. I queried our Healthy Workplace people, but heard nothing back. So the next morning I assumed all must be safe (I know -- what is this with my confidence in authority? I tell you it's more than a bit shaken), but this time within less than a minute in my office, the taste in my mouth intensified (it hasn't left since Wednesday) and I had the strongest sensation I've ever had that my body found a substance noxious--an overwhelming sense of nausea, although I didn't vomit. A colleague passing by not only urged me to get out, but begged me to shut my office because the air coming out of it was making her sick. Another colleague, who hadn't heard about the spraying, realized why he'd gone home the day before with "the worst allergy attack of his life."

Through this all, of course, I'm having to teach classes (thankfully, through the mystery of class dynamics and their cycles, this term I have 3 fabulous groups of students), and not being able to comfortably access the resources in my office nor being able to sit and think and prep is really disruptive. I kept knowing that a stronger protest had to be made on my behalf, but couldn't get the clear time or space to do so. Instead, I vented verbally whenever and to whomever I could. Thank goodness our area secretary and another colleague finally took me in hand, made some suggestions about drafting an e-mail and who I should send it to, found me a quiet office to work in, and I sacrificed preptime to do that. Went into class, taught as best I could, and came out to find that the list of cc's on the e-mail (I included our union rep) had an effect. Our dean said that when he accompanied the Health & Safety guy to check out my office, within a minute his lips and the inside of his mouth were tingling and he had to leave. Should I really feel so vindicated, validated, as I did then? Can't help wishing my earlier observations weren't enough to convince of a problem

Anyway, he's promised me that he'll find me a space, regardless of what H&S says, so that's reassuring altho' my office has all my books, files, student handouts, etc. Frustrating that I've had to struggle to ensure a safe workplace. But there's also a lack of institutional appreciation of how important a safe, clean, tranquil office is for the student-teacher interaction, especially at the beginning of term. As well, our institution has been pushing more and more to set itself up as a research institution as well as a teaching one. Besides the obvious contradiction of expecting research from instructors with a 4/4 load, there's the failure to recognize that material conditions affect productivity -- I mean, if academe is adopting the business model (why even pretend to the "if" these days?), it should look to best business practices which recognize the importance of treating staff well. The budget constraints of the past decade have resulted in a demoralized set of instructors, and this week's events have brought that home to me.

As I said, though, I still love the actual work I do in the classroom, and I'll write more about that later. Both students and myself were uncomfortable in the hot September classrooms -- not only does our building lack air-conditioning, but it is poorly ventilated. At one point, I interrupted our discussion of a reading to search for a chair to prop the door open, trading off hallway noise for a bit of a breeze. Nevertheless, we've had great discussions in each of my classes and I've already received five unsolicited e-mails from students letting me know how much they were enjoying the class. That's what's going to get me over my funk, through the weekend, and back to the classroom with energy. Well, that and planning the next step of my campaign--I'm doing a bit of research on less toxic methods of ant removal, planning an e-mail to the union, and listing all the supportive colleagues who offered to back me up. Oh, and of course, the other antidote to low morale -- I'll look through my Paris photos again. Here's one more: a shot of an installation in the Jardins du Luxembourg which every spring/summer has a mixture of thoughtful, whimsical, poignant, powerful, and/or surreal art. In case that bit of reflection in the water makes it hard to read, it says "je désire." I love the suggestive tension of the phrase, what does it tug towards? What do you desire as we begin this September weekend?


  1. Sorry to hear about that rather hellish sounding week, Frances. That strikes me as pretty outrageous...and more than a little frustrating. I recall the photo of Paul transporting that little couch in to make the space comfortable... I hope your new office space is permanent or at least available for a good while while the old one off-gases or whatever it's hoping for a nice relaxing weekend of fresh air. Lisa

  2. How incredibly frustrating. A clean, well-lighted space is so necessary to productivity and general mental health. I'm actually rather surprised that you weren't warned; in our fabulously litigious US, one would think the university would be afraid of being hit with a lawsuit of some kind. You seem fortunate, at the very least, to have a dean who would take the time to visit and assess the situation. Small comfort, I'm sure, but there you are.

    Your students sound wonderful: congratulations on a lucky draw in that department!

  3. Lisa, Puttermeister: Thanks for the sympathy. As fellow academics, you know how important that office space is for taking deep breaths in between classes, if nothing else. I've been e-mailing back and forth all day, with both admin types and union reps, and I'm going to let it go once Paul comes in the door with dinner fixings. And some of that perspective-in-a-bottle!

  4. Ugh, that's horrible! Here, a lot of the exterminators now use concoctions make from orange oil or chrysanthemum juice which are allegedly non-toxic to any critters other than bugs. But it's nuts that you have to go to battle for a safe workplace.

    May I also just add that I HATE ants, the silent and sneaky little bastards! This is the time of year we always get infestations; when the weather has hot-and-dry bouts I can always expect to get up in the morning and find them in the kitchen, no matter how well we've cleaned the counters.

  5. Deja, yes, it's been frustrating and I spent much of yesterday e-mailing back and forth. At least now folks are paying attention, and I don't think this will happen again. In fact, the contractor is claiming that the pesticide used was indeed permethrin, one of the chrysanthemum ones, but mine and my colleagues' experience suggests otherwise.
    I actually don't mind ants and actually quite admire their industry and their architectural skills -- but not inside!


I'd love to hear your response to my post. Agree, disagree, even go off on a tangent, I love to know you're out there, readers. Let's chat, shall we? I apologize, though, for the temporary necessity of the Word Verification -- spam comments have been tiresomely numerous lately, and I'm hoping to break that pattern.

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