Thursday, October 3, 2013

Academic Monkey Gives Unsolicited Advice!

This week's selection comes from my very own faculty meeting. The issue didn't affect my classroom in particular and I was not a part of the discussion itself. So I just have to hope that they are actually readers of this blog and will take this unsolicited advice under consideration.
~ Academic Monkey

Problem Posed:

I teach twice a day in the same classroom. It's my first and last class of the day, three days a week. When I go in at 8am, everything is all put together, neat rows and tidy. But when I come back for my late afternoon class, the place is always destroyed. The chairs end up rearranged in some crazy haphazard circle-like horror, if the circle were drawn by the left hand of a right-handed person wearing a blindfold and fighting off a tiger.* Trash and wrappers are everywhere. The board is always filled with a variety of random words. I believe this is the work of an English teacher but I do not know who. Can I just request a university-wide policy that all faculty must leave the room in the condition they found it?

Unsolicited Advice:

We all suffer from the colleague who relies a little too much on group work, or likes to hold class like everyone is sitting around a table in a bar. They scratch the floors moving around their desks. If they put the desks back, and they usually don't, the result is never as nice and neat as it would be if James, our very friendly janitor, were doing it.

(let's pause here and appreciate our more amazing janitorial staff)

So your proposal is a university-wide policy.

Are you freaking kidding me?

You need to handle this yourself. This is no secret mystery. This is not a delicate situation involving sexual harrassment or Christians feeling oppressed. You don't need the reach-around of a Chair, Dean, or BCC-ing the local newspaper.

You need to figure out who teaches between your classes and ask them nicely to re-adjust the room when they are done with it.

This can be done in a variety of ways. You can ask the secretary and administrative staff who teaches in that room all day. They can probably provide you with emails and times and offices.

(let's pause here and appreciate our more amazing administrative staff)

If things are a little too hectic in your place of work to obtain such a list, you could leave a discreet note in your classroom. Short, light, and direct.

"Hi! I teach here twice a day and I've noticed the room getting a bit strewn out by day's end. Could you help me keep it straight all day? I'd really appreciate it!"

But all this passive aggressive secretive policy implementation? This is a huge problem in human interactions at the work place. Stop imagining that you are being hugely wronged. Stop setting this up as an impossible inter-personal tension. Just be direct and polite. Smile a lot and head out.

At the very worst, nothing will change, and you'll just need to deal with it. It's not cancer. It's a messy room. And chances are, a note or an email will do the trick.

* this description about blindfolds and tigers comes verbatim from the meeting. smh


  1. Requesting a university-wide policy is only mildly ambitious. If this proffie really wants to get anywhere, s/he needs to aggressively demand that a new committee be formed to study the best practices for creating a committee to form new university-wide policies.

    1. At a minimum, they will need to revise the university's mission statement to address the problem of messy rooms. In practice, this situation usually calls for a site visit by a regional accreditation board.

    2. I won't be impressed unless the proffie gets the statehouse to nullify and then re-ratify hir school's charter. This is a messy room, after all. Oh, fuck the statehouse... I'm calling Obama right now.

  2. Leaving it in the classroom seems like a good idea. The students might see it too and internalize the message. You could write it on the board a couple times until everybody gets it.

  3. While your colleague appears to be a bit of drama queen/king, I must say (s)he has a nice grasp of simile for someone who apparently isn't an English professor.

    Also, the trash and furniture questions strike me as separate, and best dealt with separately. The trash problem would be solved if students used the trash cans, and a note on the board reminding them to do so, out of courtesy to each other and the janitorial staff, who shouldn't have to fill as well as empty the trash cans, would make sense. Unless your colleague has reason to think that the other professor is also failing to use the trash can, bothering hir about this issue doesn't really make sense; it isn't really hir job to police students' trash can usage, or lack thereof.

    The furniture issue is more fraught, the tip of an iceberg of made up of much larger questions about how college-level pedagogy does and should work. The best solution would be classrooms dedicated to, and set up for, seminar-style classes. Such classrooms would probably require more square footage per student than row-style classrooms, and they, and the classes they hold, could only be so big (which, even with adjunct wages, would be the big continuing expense associated with such classes). Unless you have an extraordinarily gifted teacher, the effectiveness of seminar/discussion classes declines significantly as the student count creeps into the low twenties, and is probably highest in the mid-teens (just do the math calculating how long each student has to speak in a standard class). Even 8-10 engaged people can have a great discussion, in which everybody contributes fully. 25-30 really can't, which is one of many reasons that many department meetings, as well as larger discussion-attempting classes, are deadly (either because too many people try to speak too long, or because too many have given up), and that group work/subcommittees make sense. The too-big discussion "circle" crammed into too little space is a symptom of a much larger problem: a lack of investment in teaching in modes that work best for particular kinds of classes (e.g. discussion/analysis of literature, or other writing).

    I'm not so sure that attempting a circle in a space that doesn't really allow for one (or in a group that's really too large to sit in a single circle) makes all that much sense; leaving the students in rows, turning this way and that (or not) to face the current speaker, probably works just about as well as far as actual discussion goes. On the other hand, the attempted circle (or the room with a much-too-big seminar table) does at least communicate an expectation about how college learning should work that rows of chairs (an invitation to passivity and focus on the teacher/board/screen) do not. Asking students to return the chairs to the row format after class reinforces the idea that there is a standard or appropriate way to conduct college classes, and that teachers who insist on discussions, group work, and other forms of active learning are somehow violating that norm. That, I'm pretty sure, is why many English proffies (and others who use the discussion/group work format) are reluctant to ask students to re-rearrange the furniture (or to do so themselves) after their classes. There's actually an unspoken (and more than slightly passive-aggressive) pedagogical conversation going on in the furniture arrangements/rearrangements, and opinions on both sides can be quite vehement/self-righteous (the association of the messiness of trash and the messiness of the discussion circle strikes me as symptomatic here).

    1. Of course, we'd almost certainly be better off if we had actual, verbal conversations about physical classroom arrangements, and why we prefer them, across disciplines, rather than conducting proxy wars with the furniture (or trying to work things out via notes on the board). My institution is experimenting with larger classroom formats that encourage group work/active learning/collaboration, mostly by clustering students around tables/screens and eliminating a clear front/focus to the classroom (there are projection screens/large monitors on multiple walls). The results so far seem to be mixed, but promising: some students like the arrangement; a vocal few passionately hate it (or anything that doesn't allow them the passivity of the traditional lecture format); faculty who choose to teach in such classrooms (a small and self-selected group) generally like them, but suggest that the current maximum size (c. 60, I believe) may already be too large (while administrators trying to save money may already feel it's too small. Also, such setups require multiple instructors, and TAs, if used, need to be trained and supervised, which really should count as a course in itself, and so on. Any way you slice it, active learning is effective, but it ain't cheap).

      Full disclosure: I'm not much of a circle-maker myself (well, unless I'm going to be observed that semester in a room where such rearrangement is possible I think there's an obscure MLA regulation somewhere that says that no English proffie can visit another's theoretically circleable but presently uncircled classroom and not suggest that change, even if it would mean climbing over occupied desks to get into or out of the classroom. A fire marshal's visit would undoubtedly yield very different suggestions.) I also teach most often these days in classrooms where the furniture either holds, or is designed to allow the possibility of holding, computers, so less mobility is possible due to wires, cables etc. The tradeoff is that chairs in such situations are generally very mobile (they're usually task chairs with wheels). That solves part of the problem (the chairs may end up clustered in odd ways during group work, but the desks stay still, and everybody tends to pull an individual chair up to an individual computer while settling in and/or signing off). That said, I strongly prefer U-shaped computer classrooms where students can more easily/naturally face more of each other to those arranged in rows that parallel the front/projection screen end of the room)

    2. I appreciate your thoughts on the matter, but part of me is thinking of all the administrative things that would have to happen if we had spaces dedicated to specific styles of teaching (seminar versus larger discussion room versus lecture hall). Sure, some places have that kind of building money, but most institutions are in such crisis mode that even having a room is an achievement!

    3. I absolutely agree; I don't think anything is going to change anytime soon. I'm simply pointing out that architecture and furniture reflect institutional assumptions and priorities, and that the style of rooms most of our universities have available for "small" (actually medium-size) classes are not really good for discussion (and perhaps for any style of teaching). It would be better for faculty to notice and discuss such things than to send each other "you're doing it wrong" messages via furniture (re)arrangement and/or messages on the board -- which, of course, would argue for actually getting in touch with the other instructors using the room, as you suggested,and having a discussion about how to make the room work for everyone. Such a discussion would, I suspect, go better if no one came into it assuming that there was one "correct" arrangement for classroom furniture during class hours (rows may, indeed, make sense for cleaning, though I imagine that requires some moving around of desks, too).

      Maybe somebody needs to put in for a grant evaluating learning outcomes for various kinds of classes in classrooms arranged/furnished in various ways? Administrators like outside grants, and numbers-- well, unless/until the numbers suggest that student learning would be best enhanced by teaching in a more expensive way. One *could* switch a single room fairly easily to different modes each semester, by swapping out small connected chair-desks with larger tables and separate chairs, but the fact remains that the sort of seminar-style room that forces all students to sit in the "front row," facing each other as well as the teacher, holds fewer students than the same room fitted with rows of desks. We don't really need such rooms because relatively few institutions are willing/able to afford classes in the teens, even as spending on high-tech classrooms, and the people to maintain them (and fancy gyms, dorms, and dining halls) continues. That leaves us spending a lot of energy trying to figure out how to make medium-size classes, which may well be the worst of all worlds, work (and fighting over the tea-partying furniture).

    4. So for awhile now, I've been thinking that online forums are an ideal platform for faculty meetings. So much of faculty meetings is listening to someone go on and on, or observing a debate between just two faculty members. With an online platform, everyone can see the conversation, but only those really interested have to engage.

      This sort of thing could streamline collaborate policy-making, team-teaching, adjusting classroom use, etc. We just need to find an institution willing to convert faculty meetings to an online platform.

      (good luck with that, eh?)

    5. @Cassandra: Those are beautiful comments. Thank you.

  4. While the character of Walter White in Breaking Bad did have his own moral failings, he was adept at solving problems. I would consult those DVDs for inspiration and examples. Mercury fulminate or dissolving in hydrofluoric acid may be your first idea - such approaches are not without their own pleasures - but I'd try something more simple first, like running him over with your car.

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  6. I don't know why this is a big deal. You could always just make your students put the room back together before you get started. That's what twenty-year-old students are for--moving heavy objects around.

  7. Teaching rooms that fit different styles of teaching don't solve a thing if there is no method by which an instructor can get into the room that fits the course. I've been given a room with a tv but no computer/ projector for an art history course. The rooms that most faculty on my campus love--the ones in the newest, eco-friendly buildings--are awful for showing images, since it is hard to block out light (and, if the shades are set automatically, it's impossible). I typically end up in a giant, spacious room for a discussion course, while my larger lectures get crammed into a converted closet that I doubt passes fire codes.

    I agree with other commenters that this situation with the desks is not that big a deal, but what IS a big deal is that some of our colleagues aren't good at treating our rooms as shared spaces. I wouldn't care about rearranged desks, but I would be irritated by having to erase a board everyday. At least the messy room is empty of students and there's no waiting for the person who thinks that the entire 15 mins between classes is theirs.

  8. I share a classroom space with three other proffies. We have different sized classes and teaching methods. Proffie One has hir students arrange the furniture at the end of class for the next proffie. Proffie Two has hir students do the same for Proffie Three, and Proffie Three does it for Proffie One. It works well. Just have to actually talk to each other.

  9. I'd write a note on the blackboard. "Only douchebags leave their classroom a fucking mess for their colleague to clean up." Make sure to use handwriting that is different from your usual style. If someone takes umbrage, feign ignorance. Repeat this every day.

  10. 1) It's nice to erase the blackboard for your colleagues, so I do it. 2) It's civilized to pick up after yourself, so I only let my students eat/drink if they do that. 3) What is the big deal with arranging desks the way you want them, yourself? The person who teaches before me does rows. I rearrange them into two concentric semi-circles. The next person in can do whatever it is they want. The end.

  11. All good suggestions.

    We've become less self-reliant over the years. Now, if something's wrong, THERE OUGHTA BE A LAW!