Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Arthur from Arkadelphia Wonders About Complaining.

Cal, have I made it
blurry enough? - Art
I've happily lurked here for more than a year, and really enjoy the scrimmages.

And I have my own complaints and my own nutty students.

But I wonder if complaining is enough. What else should we be doing besides coming here to commiserate?

Has anyone taken these problems higher up, to the Deans, to the Provosts, to the Presidents? If we have a system that's broken, what's the path?

I don't have tenure yet, but am close, and I would like to think that I'll increase my volatility with that job security.

Who can shed a light on some productive and useful steps you've taken instead of just leaving it all here on this blog?


  1. Arthur! Welcome! If that's your actual photo, be careful about maintaining your anonymity. More blurriness may indeed be useful.

    "I would like to think that I'll increase my volatility with that job security." Great way to put it. I did increase my volatility after getting tenure, but am stymied by bureaucracy.

    The problems that most concern me are student's poor reading skills, a low level of veterans' resources on campus, and minimal accessibility for disabled students and faculty. I serve on relevant committees and do what I can with my classes and with individual students. But the checks and balances on campus among faculty, coupled with the veto power of the highest mucky-mucks, limit my ability to make real changes campus-wide.

    For example, there's a central place on my campus that was recently renovated and proudly showed blue accessibility signs without actually meeting the ADA requirements of having an accessible entrance from all parking lots serving the building. The main thing needed was a curb cut for wheelchairs, and a sidewalk had not been poured yet, so it could have been a quick, fairly low-cost fix. I brought it up in conversation with people who worked in the building, and they said they'd already told Maintenance about the need and been brushed off. They suggested putting something in writing to the Vice President for Facilities, so I sent hir an email. No reply in two weeks. I sent another one, this time with a copy to our office for disabled students. This time the reply was brief, said the sidewalk was too narrow for a curb cut (a 10-foot wide sidewalk? Come on!), and that the building met the letter of the law for accessibility because there were ramps leading to the two entrances that face the center of campus. (Both entrances are more than 100 yards, uphill, from the parking lot.)

    So I spoke in person with the head of the disabled students' office. That person got the same reply as me from the VP.

    I spoke to my dean; they appreciate it when we keep them informed about our involvement with issues on campus, and prefer us not to go over their heads when possible. I was hoping this dean would take the issue higher. S/he agreed with me about the problem and the solution (the curb cut), and said, "Let's hope that common sense prevails." Apparently the dean didn't do anything about it.

    A month (!) later, the advocate for disabled students sent me a copy of a scathing email s/he sent on behalf of a disabled faculty member who was stranded in the rain at that still unrepaired, uncut sidewalk, unable to get to an office in the building to do a work-related task.

    Within a week, the college got the sidewalk poured, but did not cut the curb there. Wheelchair users still have to go around the building from a second parking lot to get up to the sidewalk.

    We do have a system that's broken; I tried to work within it and got nowhere. What's the path? I suppose I could have organized a wheelchair sit-in outside the building or in the president's office. That would mean perhaps jeopardizing professional relationships among many offices that do good quietly for disabled folks on campus. I don't know.

    The other thing I could do is work to get promoted to a position where I could effect more change (within the ever-present budget restraints). But I've seen friends drained and even die (yes) from the stress at those levels.

    Hiram asked us for some resolutions last January similar to your questions. Maybe he has some answers.

    1. Sigh. That should be "students' poor reading skills." Sure wish we could edit our comments.

  2. PG makes a lot of great comments here.

    Even when we want to do good things, there's often a weird labyrinth to get through. I've started projects with one Dean and finished them with a different one, sometimes more than a year later than expected. It's starting, re-starting, re-starting, etc., and each time momentum gets up it gets swatted away just by the pure inertia of a large institution.

    I always try to think about the smallest part of the college I can have an impact in, the department. I know I can have some success there by motivating 3-4 other people. Campuswide things are much much harder.

    But Arthur is right, and welcome. Complaining does feel good, but if we don't move those complaints into the real world, we'll be complaining about the same things next semester too.

  3. I was recently promoted (though not tenured), and find myself thinking along somewhat the same lines (though with some trepidation; see the not-tenured thing, and my awareness that my program is probably staffed almost entirely with contingent faculty for a reason; one of these days, the university just might take advantage of the "flexibility" is claims it needs, and our positions provide). We, too, have avenues for speaking up (all the more so since we're in the middle of a planning process), but I don't really expect to be heard, any more than Proffie G was (in response to far simpler, more doable recommendations than the ones I'm inclined to make).

    As both I and others have said here recently, I'm pretty sure the pressure is going to have to come from outside -- mostly from parents and students demanding better value from their money, and to a lesser extent from legislators, employers, etc. unsatisfied with the university's "product" and priorities. The really tricky thing will be to form alliances with those folks as appropriate, without getting sucked into agreeing with the student-as-consumer model, or the technology-as-panacea movement, or the idea that the humanities (and pure math/science, and anything else that doesn't lead directly to a degree) are useless, or that research that doesn't attract outside funding (or have an immediate practical application) is useless, or that we need to go back to basics/classics in some other way that erases multiple decades of intellectual and pedagogical progress. I'm willing to try, but I'm not particularly hopeful.

    1. for "degree" above, read "job." I really hope I'll be able to proofread my class materials better in a few days than I'm proofreading CM posts, because I'm not doing very well here.

  4. The problems at one university are not going to be the problems at another, necessarily. I have come to the conclusion that the biggest problem with students in colleges like mine are problems I cannot solve, but can only learn to cope with.

    1) Where I teach, the required ACT to enter is very low. This is because of a number of things, both particular and general (and legal), but that's not going to change.

    2) The public K-12 schools in this country are crap compared to those in, for example, Finland. This is because in the US the majority of public education majors are mediocre, and ed departments everywhere seem dedicated to rewarding that mediocrity. Add to this NCLB, the disaster of mainstreaming, and you have a recipe for ill-prepared students who don't know what it's like to think for themselves. The smartest ones have never even had a high school teacher smarter than they are. What results is that my students are either smart but think they're smarter than they are, or dumb and think they're smarter than they are. That or they're so lost they wander around, intrinsically incapable of college work, but persuaded that a college degree is somehow possible for them anyway.

    3) The growing perception that education is something you can just "add on" to your busy busy life. Students think they can have a family, a full-time job, and go to school full time as well. Well, you can't. Unless you plan to do your schoolwork on the job, and phone it in at home, you can't.

    4) The creeping rot of consumerism, and the belief that education is something you can "buy," like tickets for a cruise, and that academia is equivalent to a business. For-profits don't help.

    More specifically, the broader steps I have taken in the past to improve things around here have included filing grievances with national organizations, writing letters naming names to the local paper, marching on campus, etc. What's happened as a result? Nil. Nada. What's done will be done. My marching days are over.

    So, I do what I can in my own way with the things that I can control, which in my case is simply to set and uphold standards for college-level learning. And whoever doesn't meet them, gets flushed. There are semesters when only one-third of the students that are sitting in the classroom on the first day are there to take the final. That's routine for me. That's my little way of making things easier on the next teacher who has that kid. Of making the kid themselves more responsible and a better learner. Those that don't want to do that, leave, and I am happy to see them go.

    1. Go Stella! Yes, yes, yes, and yes. These are the biggest issues, and we are powerless about them except for upholding standards in our own classrooms.

  5. I genuinely love the idea of an advice column. Colleague advice, student advice, grading advice, administrative advice.

    My intent is to schedule time for this into my school year, come September, so I can give whatever piddly advice I have but then open the floodgates in the comments so we can all come here, learn a bit, attack each other in good fun, and then get back to the misery.

  6. Glad to meet you, Arthur! But if that really is a picture of you, I think you should blur it more. The poignant thing about anonymity is that one can lose it only once, much like innocence.

    Having done it myself, I suggest that the next time your department needs someone to serve as chair, if you have enough seniority, I say go for it. It can sometimes be very difficult, requiring you to have to make hard decisions, as is being discussed in the thread by Bella ("On being responsible for people being able to feed their children...").

    On the other hand, when I was chair of my department (of physics), I did affect some real, significant change. It was never without a fight, and always required persistence. Still, I did have some victories, and even small ones can turn your head around.

    One of my best was instituting a rule, and getting it printed in our department's section of the university catalog, that all prerequisites for our physics courses had to be passed with a C or better, in order to count as prerequisites. Oh, how the engineering administration and their feckless students kicked and screamed about that! And it dragged on for years! But my wicked little heart giggled with glee, because I made it stick. Every time they'd come to whine at me, it would be music to my ears: I took to bringing a picture of the I-35W bridge collapse to illustrate why this is necessary, and the rule stands to this day, four years later.

    1. P.S. I have even been in Arkadelphia, believe it or not. On a beautiful, dark summer night there, I discovered Caldwell 76, "the False Comet" in the tail of Scorpius. (Oh, all right, Patrick Moore discovered it first, which is why it's called Caldwell 76.) They sure did have lots of mosquitoes, though.