Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Great Lakes Greta Surfaces for Air and Rambles in an Unfocused Way

It's the day before spring and winter has yet to release us from its cruel and apparently steadfast grip.  I would quip about the winter of my discontent except that my discontent is in full bloom.  It's summertime in the darkness of my soul--a fetid, swampy, crawling-with-bugs summertime, one in which there is no relief from things that sting and bite nor that which oppresses with the weight of its rancid heat.  Yes, it's dark where I am.  

Oh, the snowflakes.  Oh, the misery.

Like many jucos, LD3C experiences a significant drop in attendance after midterm break.  Well...two weeks after midterm break and the attendance is as miserable as I am.  Compounding everything else that is making this academic year one for the hellish ages is the number of transient students I have in my classes.  These are students who are in and out of class, whose attendance may be consistent (in an odd way) to themselves each individually, but whose overall patterns overlap and create a jigsaw puzzle of actual students in the classrooms.  Some days this piece of the puzzle is missing; others, this one is gone, and this one, or this one returns but this one is out.

I've experienced this before, but not to the extent I'm seeing it this semester.  I'm not alone.  My colleagues are likewise miserable.   The problem then arises that each of them wants to be caught up or to discuss his or her absences right-the-tea-party now! Now, now, now!  Yesterday while walking from my car to my office, I was stopped no fewer than three times, each by a different student whose inattention to his or her own education has suddenly become my problem.  The last student, Nattering Nick, badgered me into my office, following me in uninvited after I unlocked the door and while I was trying to set down my bags and take off my coat, rambling the entire time about his personal problems without any clue that he was talking to an actual human being who at that moment was attempting to breathe. Seriously Sad Sarah followed me into the bathroom later in the day and would have followed me right into the stall, I'm convinced, had I not shut the stall door in her face.  That's when she realized, momentarily, what she'd done.  That didn't stop her from talking nonstop while I emptied my bladder.  I declined to respond.

On the books, I have 150 students this semester.  I'd say that a third of them are playing this little transient game.  One-third.  Sure, that makes actual assignments easier to grade because I have only 100 to do instead of 150, but of that third nearly half of them are up my craw about trying to pass classes that they will in no way pass.  My response is always the same.  I'm polite, professional, and I tell them to drop.  I do not take late work.  There is no make-up work.  What's done is done.

What's done then is predictable.  They head to the chair.  Or the dean.  Or even the tea-partying vice president.

I cannot imagine doing this for another twenty years, until I can finally afford to retire. My job isn't about teaching anymore.  My job is about explaining to students (endlessly) various things they need to know, like when assignments are due and how I don't accept late or makeup work.  My job is about telling students repeatedly what they refuse to hear and defending myself constantly from their badgering.  My job--according to my college--is about student retention and graduation rates, and pushing them through developmental writing courses for which they are lifelong unprepared, and holding an insane number of office hours in a tiny, cramped, shared space in which no work can be done and to which no students ever visit except to badger me for grades and time.

My job is about a minimum of five to six hours of committee work weekly, either in the form of meeting attendance itself or prep, committees that move at glacial speed when they move at all; they're so ineffectual that I want to pull out my arm hairs one by one when required to be present, just to feel something, anything.

My job is about trying everything new under the sun in the classroom because a vice president thinks that every new approach may be innovative, and I am therefore revising my courses--significantly--every single, tea-partying term and attending seemingly endless professional development to do so.

My job isn't about teaching.  It's mid-March. There are six weeks left in this term.  Left to my own devices--my own teaching devices--I would enjoy the rest of the semester. I'd contextualize the transient students.  I'd teach (effectively) the ones who remain.  Instead, every tea-partying day is spent scrambling to clean up messes, responding to last-minute email directives from those higher up, and exhausting myself trying to do the actual work for which I was hired.

This doesn't feel like any kind of life to me.  And that is my rant for the last day of winter.


  1. Greta, you said what I am also feeling (not that that makes you feel any better). I often feel like I am expected to do 18 million things that have no relevance to education at all, but of course are EXTREMELY important for assessment or retention or PR or other nonsense. I have been so angry for so long and have tried to fight the good fight, but I am also exhausted. I am envious you only have 20 years left on your sentence, I mean tenure. I have 30.

  2. THIS. ALL OF THIS. In my community college, this shit is rampant and I am counting down the hours of the semester. It is a constant, "ok, is the good student going to be here today? The one that actually talks? Oh, is it the combative, nasty student's turn to attend and talk shit all class long?" SO OVER IT.

  3. I feel really bad for you. I know the scene all too well. I just try to be as clear and definitive as I can be in saying, "These are the rules and we can't break them. Period. Now let's move on to what we can fix." I do everything in my power to avoid debates/negotiations.

    But still, yes, I know, the wear and tear on the spirit . . . . Based on recent experience and much reflection, I'm convinced that teaching isn't what it used to be. The old presumption in favour of the teacher (respect, authority etc.) is gone, replaced by malignant narcissism. Why stop with an inch when you think you see a mile?

  4. "Do everything in my power to avoid debates/negotiations."

    YES. I want this printed up to hang on my wall in a spot that only I can see it. To remind myself not to engage in said debates/negotiations. It is one of my personal failings and I always end up mad at myself by the time the student leaves.

    Greta, I feel your pain. The transiency has hit my regional university as well. The spring, it seems, it always like this, and reminds me again why I love the fall semester.

    1. My last department head and the assistant didn't like getting involved in disputes. That would have meant that they would have had to do their jobs as administrators. For the head, they were a disruption of his campaign of self-promotion and enhancing his reputation with the institution's administration. For the assistant head, they interrupted his heavy-duty training for retirement, not that anyone would have noticed the difference as he retired on the job soon after he accepted the position.

      They did, however, welcome those disputes as an opportunity to make my life miserable, which they gladly did.

  5. Oh Greta! I hope you find a way out of the darkness! I am there off an on myself, and the way that I cope is to really put it out of my mind once the day is over. But my job has changed and I only teach a half load now, and I am SOOOOOOOO happy with that. Somehow, with have as many students, I am much less obsessed over the negativity and able to concentrate more on the positives.

  6. Hi. A number of "the others" have written in today to send their good wishes to you! One writer says: Courage. My wife has the same rant. Find those you love and spend time with them!

  7. POW!

    Greta, I'm sorry. I hope you have a dog or cat to curl up with.

    Also, Greta, once again your writing has me in awe. Yes to pulling out the arm hairs during committee meetings "just to feel something, anything." Yes to the transiency that creates "a jigsaw puzzle of actual students in the classrooms." YES YES YES to your description of the student "whose inattention to his or her own education has suddenly become my problem."

    I know a staffer who keeps this sign on her desk: "Failure to plan on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part."

    I think I'll make one that says: "Inattention to your own education early in the semester does not become my problem near finals."

    Can any of my esteemed and miserable colleagues word this more eloquently? Please?

    1. on a similar note "there is nothing any teacher can do which will overcome what the student will not do."

  8. O Greta. I hate seeing you too miserable to write in haiku. I'm with you on this, know exactly what you mean. That sucking sound of time being wasted in constant repetition and defense.

  9. Shit, how did you manage to crawl into my life and share my misery so precisely? After another Great Lakes winter I just want to drink myself to death, preferably leaving the carcass to continue my committee responsibilities. Because who would notice if I were dead at these meetings? I *am* dead at these meetings.

  10. The problem is not the students I think - they are always and everywhere the same. The problem is the administration, which varies widely from college to college. And I think that has gotten much worse over the years.

    Time was, if students skipped, well, it was their funeral. They could get the notes from somewhere, or not; catch up somehow, or not. It was your job to show up and teach, and their job to show up and learn, and if they didn't do their job it was not your problem.

    Is there any way you can cut down on the administrative crap? Like, ignore directives to keep changing your teaching? Ignore the 'retention' directives, and 'pass the incompetent' directives, and just teach your classes the best way you know how, to the students who show up for them, and you're done? Do your job and leave it in the office? Or is that impossible where you are?

    1. This. This is what needs to be said more often, especially on this blog. What's new isn't the students--they are, as ever, well-tuned work-minimizing machines. What's new is the rise of career-whore adminiflakes, overpaid mediocre scholars fellating eagerly at the altar of "retention" and "graduation rates", as somebody so aptly put the other day. It means students can basically get away with anything (as they well know), and we're the ones paying the price if we dare stand in their way. It means the enterprise has abandoned even the pretense of integrity (intellectual or otherwise), at least in the USA. We're not only paid to be complicit in the general dishonesty, we risk our jobs (tenured or not) by embracing the higher-ed lies less than enthusiastically.

  11. Greta, you captured something many of us feel. Somehow this just seems like it has been a hard semester for a lot of people. Something about this winter, these students, the latest vicissitudes of the admin. Look after yourself to keep the bastards from grinding you right down.

    As no less a light than Red Green said, remember: I'm pullin for ya - we're all in this together.

  12. Probably the most immediate thing you can do to alleviate your angst is next time stop at the bathroom door and very clearly say "EXCUSE ME, DO. YOU. MIND????" or something to that effect.

    That really leapt out for me. Well, and the fact we have separate bathrooms for faculty/staff here.

    I've also trained my students to not enter my office without specific invitation. It can be done without shock collars, I promise.

    Do you enforce any personal or professional boundaries? Students can sense weaknesses in your "shields" and exploit them.

  13. Much empathy, Greta.

    I recently attended a seminar which explained the course development process which produces uniform curriculum for our program.

    Afterwards, I probably canned my own arrogantly adjunct ass by asking the facilitator how could the process sound so tea-partying inspirational but my centrally supplied syllabi seemed more appropriate for remedial high schoolers than graduate students?

    But one can take only so many "Define the following utterly basic terms" questions considered as a graduate level inquiry which are then responded to with cut-and-paste quoted definitions from dictionaries.

    You are so right about this not being about teaching anymore.
    At best it is "content delivery."
    At worst, it is a diploma mill with classrooms.

  14. Thank you, all, for the outpouring of moral support. I confess I needed it. Your kind words and camaraderie also unblocked my creative juices and I regained my sense of humor. Your reward, sadly, is today's long, rambling haiku--another rant I really, really needed to release.

    I don't know what I'd do without CM. Seriously.

  15. Hi, Greta -- I, too, am delighted to see you back, though sorry to hear about all the misery. From my perspective, you sound like a potential Ghost of Semesters Yet To Come. It's not this bad in my neck of the woods (state R2, teaching students who made it through freshman and sophomore years either at our fine institution, an equivalent, or the local, good juco), but there are signs and portents: lots of long-winded explanations (in person, usually when I'm trying to get the class started on something else, and via email), and the general feeling, among a small but noticeable minority of students, that they should be able to write the paper they want to write (which is usually the one they've written already), rather than the one I have assigned (which is deliberately different -- because, y'know, I think they ought to learn something new in the last two years of college).

    Hang in there! I'm glad to see a new haiku, too. I was missing those.

  16. On the books, I have 150 students this semester. I'd say that a third of them are playing this little transient game. One-third... of that third nearly half of them are up my craw about trying to pass classes that they will in no way pass. My response is always the same. I'm polite, professional, and I tell them to drop.

    It probably won't make you feel any better, but it's no different in the state U "land grant" world. That's what happens when I teach lower-div required classes for the "unfiltered" student population. About a third are transients, about half of those think they can pass without coming to class or doing homework (the other half is too wasted to know which side is up.)

    I am held responsible for each W and F, regardless of reason. If my "success rates" for these courses are on the order of 60% (the U's 6-yr graduation rate) I am given a very hard time, and eventually will put my job at risk. ("Eventually" has arrived.)

    If I had known twenty years ago where we'd be now, I would have changed jobs, or at least countries. I reckon I have about 15 years to save for retirement, so it is too late now to do anything that radical. Luckily my professional identity is bound up with something I enjoy doing, which has nothing to do with teaching; otherwise I'd have to look for something real.

    Awesome rant, BTW.

  17. I see CC world is the same all over. I'm working with an outside consultant who's helping my system overhaul some major processes. We were talking about faculty responsibilities and what advising means. He was aghast when I told him advising means not just helping students decide what classes to take but also advising them about how to learn--things most of us already knew going into school like doing the homework, not writing just one draft of an essay, taking notes while reading and during lectures and discussions, and attending class. He remarked, "That seems like it's really inefficient. You actually expect your professors to be proficient in teaching their subjects AND study skills coaches?" Sadly, I had to tell him yes, and the administrators at the meeting backed me up.