Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Yuri in Youngstown Wonders Where the Courage Is.

I know I didn't start well here. I may have been a bit underinformed about the realities of adjunct life. I have already apologized for being short-sighted.

But I want to ask another question of the veterans of this page, who always seem to be in desperate straits.

Are you really unable to punish cheating students? Do you all really have power-crazed Deans who submit you to cruel punishment? Can't you stand up? Where is the courage?

I see it in my own younger colleagues. They are terrified of their own shadows. I hate that. I'm not trying to keep the down or stop them from rising. I'd gnaw off my own hand to see them have ambition and courage and power.

They're always tentative, afraid, mincing about the department like they don't belong. Listen, we don't want to hire anyone else. We just hired you. Show some huevos and be a full member of the department.

We want you to stand up to student inadequacy. I'm sick of sitting in student grievance committees and watching young faculty flail around. Why not just say, "This student cheated. I won't stand for it." I'd slap you on the back and buy you a Caorunn.

I see the value of this blog, but the desperation oozes out of the screen. Don't be so sad. Make the job better by being yourself. Stand up when any shithead tells you to sit down. You can't get along with a chair. Well, figure it out. Don't throw your hands up and come weeping to the rest of the Miserians.

I like to vent. I like to get it off my chest, but that makes me stronger. When someone writes that their students are breaking their spirit, and oh what should I do, I wonder who the adult is?

If they disappoint you, then you're doing it all wrong. It's not about pleasure and disappointment and the feelings you have. Impart the field's study. Hold them to standards. Don't worry about if they like you - they don't. And if they do or don't, how insecure must you be to care?

I like it when a faculty member in the real or online world stands up.

Sure, bitch when it all goes sideways, but then go take control of it, whether it's a classroom, your Dean's office, or an interview room.

Good luck!


  1. It is an interesting pattern, the last couple of days of posts. Some sort of collective nervous breakdown? I've been laying low because I'M HAVING A PRETTY FUCKING GOOD SCHOOL YEAR SO FAR and I'm having a good career moment and it makes me feel out of synch with the academic cosmos or something. I wish I could post more often but I just haven't been sufficiently miserable in the last months. It does make me feel fortunate, well, downright lucky as Hell, that . . . I just wrote some amount more than this but I can't get into it. Perhaps I should write some not-miserable posts?

  2. (and to clarify, I DO know how lucky I am-- I, too, have served hard time in adjunct years and know the feeling, and have had the semesters of not even having an adjunct job in the field and self loathing and WTF was I thinking a PhD in Rodent Material Culture and tens of thousands of dollars, etc etc; I haven't lived CC life so I don't know that particular pain, but I definitely don't want to seem smug--I know I'm lucky. And the veterans in decent jobs miserating about here? Some poetic license.)

  3. Hi, Yuri. Glad you returned. You raise some useful points. As a veteran of this page (I think I can claim that status*) I'll try to answer your question in the same spirit it was posed (in other words, honestly and in good faith, but perhaps also just a bit combatively). The tl;dr version: while I appreciate your encouragement, I fear that you, presumably a fairly senior tenured faculty member, have less power than you think, which means that your encouragement, and your promises of support, mean less than they might have in the days when you were a newbie professor, and senior faculty wielded more power.

    I'm a contingent faculty member, but, despite that status, I feel relatively secure in my job. I can turn in plagiarists without fear of reprisals (and with a few hours' worth of paperwork, and reasonable confidence that the student will receive a penalty that exceeds the consequences for not turning in the paper at all for a first offense, and increasing penalties for repeated offenses). I'm considerably less concerned about student evaluations than I was before my department came up with a set rubric for evaluating contingent faculty that includes student evaluation numbers, but does not rely too much upon them. My only real fear, employment-security-wise, is that at some point the course I teach about 85% of the time will disappear in a budget-driven core curriculum reform.

    And here's the rub: if that were to happen, my tenure-track colleagues would certainly do their best to oppose it, from the first hint to the final implementation. They have almost at much at stake as I do, since our department (and its budget) would be a great deal smaller if it didn't teach those many, many sections of writing classes. Tenured faculty would probably keep their jobs, but untenured faculty might be denied tenure on financial grounds, and it would probably be a long time before the department got to conduct another search. However, they might well be hampered in their efforts by the fact that while the department is large, it's contingent-faculty-heavy (and contingent faculty don't do service, so the department has disproportionately small reputation on university committees). At the university level, too, the rise in both the number and power of administrators and the use of contingent faculty has coincided with diminished power and influence for the remaining tenure-track faculty; for instance, as happened recently at San Jose State University, if one department stands up against something (using a MOOC instead of creating their own course), another, presumably weaker and/or less principled, department may be persuaded to say yes. Or some other, separate, entity -- an institute, or a free-standing distance learning program, whatever -- may be created, with little to no faculty input, to do whatever the administrators want to do, but the tenured faculty have decided is not a good idea. That's just the way things work these days. Administrators have far more power, and faculty members -- even senior tenured faculty members -- have much less. That, I fear, is why slapping your junior colleagues on the back and encouraging them to bold isn't going to have much effect. Not only do they realize they're incredibly lucky to have found any full-time job, and that it would be really to replace, they also realize where the real power lies, and it isn't with you.

    *By the way, I like "veteran" much better than "insider" or "outsider." "Regulars" might be an even better way to refer to those of us who signal our presence in the community, in one way or another, pretty often.

  4. Yuri, I like what you say but there are a couple of factors that you might not be considering.

    We* only come here when we have a complaint. Those days that I'm not bitching about students are probably OK days. I'm not going to write a post about the decently civil meeting I had with my department head. That's like a facebook post saying that you ate a hotdog with mustard. Nobody cares.

    When we complain here, it does sound desperate. That might be how we are feeling at that moment. After getting it off our chests, we do something constructive. Maybe we push back and set things right. We can complain and change things.

    Finally, yes, sometimes my dean will "suggest" that I let a student rewrite his lab report for no good God damned reason other than the student asked the Dean very politely. Could I refuse? Sure, sometimes I do but mostly it's not worth the effort and the loss of political capital that I've built up with him. I can easily imagine another faculty member having less job security and giving in more easily to such demands.

    * "We" meaning me and anybody who agrees with me.

  5. Yuri, have you ever been told that the class you teach has an expected average grade? Have you ever been told that plagiarism is the result of poor teaching or that student email must be responded to within 24 hours? Have you ever walked into your department to find fewer people in the adjunct offices because budget cuts meant not enough work was available.

    Courage is very nice when you have tenure. Given that more cutbacks are on the way, I'm going to keep my mouth shut and smile. If that makes me a coward, fine. At least I'm a coward with a job.

  6. Webs of oppression, Yuri. The same reason why abused spouses stay with their abusers. The same reason why abused children don't run to a police officer and report their abusive parents. The same reason victims of date rape do not always report the crime. The same reason why people who are bullied sometimes end up killing themselves just to escape the bullying.

    Some colleges and universities are such abusive places to work that we don't even realize how horrible the conditions are until we are deeply entrenched in them. I have been in long, LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOONG faculty meetings where the department chair preached a fight against grade inflation that was promptly ignored by a grievance committee who forced me to inflate 2 flakes' grade just cuz I was a big meanypants for enforcing the clearly written and explained instructions on a very simple assignment. Once that happens (and it's added to a few more similar incidents), and you endure a few more long, LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOONG meetings wherein other faculty berate and deride you and your pedagogy (and reveal that they have none themselves! hah!), one gets a clue that standing up will do nothing but bring more pain and disappointment. And the depression, misery, and psychic fatigue set in. If you had the capacity for even an ounce of empathy, you'd probably have figured this out by now.

  7. I don't know how to feel about you, Yuri. There is a part of me that thinks you're exactly right, given the exact right circumstances. What I've learned from being a part of this page is how many amazing teachers are in terrible spots, circumstances. They could courage out the ass and it wouldn't make their lives any easier.

    I'm lucky to have a great job and a lot of power to do what I need, but I know it's not like that everywhere.

    Of course, courage. I get it. I would tell young faculty the same thing. But you have to know, even if you've read a little bit here, that courage doesn't trump the shitheads who abuse part-time faculty in a college con game.

  8. While I like the spirit of this post (quit yer whining and do something about it), it also doesn't seem to belong on a blog called College MISERY. And I don't think it's that simple. As with your original post, it's easy to point fingers at others and say, "I have it good; why can't you have the same if you do what I did?" Ask yourself: are the only ones behaving courageously at your institution the ones with tenure? That seems to be the case where I teach.

    I actually do follow through and punish cheaters and I'm also known for not caving and giving a grade where one isn't warranted (i.e. I don't accept late work and I don't allow plagiarists to rewrite). I don't view it as a matter of being brave to do my job and stick to policy. I do view it in terms of what I have time to waste on. Sometimes it's just a waste of time to push for an outcome when I know the Academic Dean is going to overrule my decision if the student whines enough. Would it be brave to stick my neck out and call the Dean on hir decisions? More foolhardy than brave, I fear.

    1. I find it interesting that at many institutions folks with tenure behave courageously. Many of the LEAST courageous people I know have tenure. I have a colleague who in ten years has never made so much as a ripple. has refused to be on committees of any importance. has never had a single student complaint and in over hundreds of hours of meetings together rarely says ANYTHING, and certainly nothing that is controversial or courageous.

      I was courageous with and without tenure. And I agree with the idea of wasting time. I've learned (the hard way) what isn't worth a fight.

  9. Suppose the young faculty member tells the grievance committee, "This student cheated. I won't stand for it." Too often, an administrator will reply, "Too bad. We're giving the student a second chance." And the administrator will say it in the presence of the student and the new faculty member. That destroys the faculty member's authority.

    But if the young faculty member is spineless from the outset, then s/he won't be made a fool.

    That's how bad it's gotten.

  10. How about maybe not shitting on people who are already down? That's a thought, especially if you are tenured. There's another word for brave: privileged.

    1. We almost made it through the day. Oh well.

    2. Well, at least we're predictable. And technically, Yuri is a community member, so knows how we roll.

    3. What do we say then about the smackdown of poor fucking Denny?

    4. I missed Denny's smackdown... I thought I was nice to everyone.

  11. @Yuri: How about because, even if you have tenure, it's so FUTILE? EVERY time I turn in a cheater to our Incompetent Dean of Students, he does Nothing (with a capital N). It's like dropping a rose petal into the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.

    I therefore take matters into my own hands. I give all cheaters grades of F for the entire course on their first instance of cheating for which they give me clear evidence, just like it says in my syllabus. This may be against the rules in my state university system, but I do it anyway and I will continue to do it until someone STOPS me. And yes, I do present an image of someone who may not be imminently about to rip a cheater's arm out of the socket and beat him to death with it, but in the back of my mind, it isn't a bad idea.

    Another reason is that I'm too used to using my rational mind. Disturbingly often, the shit that university administrators come up with simply blindsides me. One example of this is the idea that plagiarism by students is somehow MY fault. I am often stunned by crap like this: my brain simply cannot help but hesitate as it screams, "Does not computer?!" Anyone saying something like this is clearly an idiot, and I have lost all respect. This means that I will need to figure out quickly how deal with this fool, too.

    Also: be kind to your junior colleagues. They'll be the ones who pay for your pension, out of their payroll taxes.

  12. Yuri, it's a bit of a temerity to suggest most people who post here "lack courage"; that we just whine in a group blog, but behave timidly in our real academic lives. You also seem to be assuming that administrators are generally competent people who serve their institution's mission with integrity. Administrators come to believe there's something special about themselves, as a class; that somehow they have a deeper understanding of the enterprise than the random faculty member, or above-average administrative abilities. All bullshit, in my observation.

    Have you ever worked in the South? Everything in the South is strictly old-boy and smoke-filled rooms (even the women are "old-boy".) Coming from out West (and even further, previously), I was slow to catch on to the local mores, and was a very outspoken assistant professor. I got tenure somehow (the research was strong enough), but made lots of enemies, and one by one my friends left. The enemies have not forgotten, and though they have by and large retired, the message "this guy is a troublemaker" somehow was passed on to new people, and new department heads. My colleagues would say the stuff we talk about here is like complaining about the weather--it can't be changed, and complaining about it amounts to attracting negative attention from adminiflakes. So they keep to themselves, and let me play that role ("see, we're serious about teaching".)

    OK, let's keep the personal sob story short. (I realize that anyone reading this who knows part of it will identify me immediately, but I truly don't care.) Last year, in spite of "exceeds expectations" ratings for research three years in a row, my dept head sent me to "cumulative performance review" (for below-average student evals in intro service classes over the years, ostensibly). I appealed, and won the appeal (but the Provost overruled the Faculty Senate). The CPR committee also ruled in my favor. But as a result of all this, a sabbatical and merit raises were canceled. And in spite of my research success, I will never be promoted here. So, the "courage" thing: it carries a steep lifelong professional cost.

    Just to continue for a little bit: at my performance review interview last month, my dept head made an unethical proposal (I related this story here). I had recorded the interview, and informed the deans about it, with details from the transcript. Nothing happened; nothing will happen. As long as no laws were broken, they don't have to react. Now, in the meantime the head got my department to change the bylaws solely to address my "problem". I was the only one to speak against it at the faculty meeting; it was clearly a "popularity contest" between the two of us, and he (a bona-fide son of the South) won with the needed two-thirds majority. Not a single colleague said a word publicly in support of my position (so I'm real popular.)

    Anyway, I'm here not to whine unproductively (though it may seem that way), but because stories like mine should be known more broadly in academia. Maybe someone is going through a similar process somewhere; that would be useful information. Or maybe it's unique for the kind of place I'm at (land-grant R1), and that's useful info as well. Anyway, just telling the story is fun. Now tell us a story in which you showed some courage.

    1. Thanks for this perspective. I have not had this level of censure, but just this alone shows that it's not as simple as Yuri makes it out to be. Both of his posts lack insight beyond his own experience (whether that's a privileged view or not, I cannot say), and your post shows why it's important to view things from multiple perspectives before calling others names.

  13. Sorry Fab. But sometimes you just have to call it.