Friday, August 28, 2015

An Open Letter from Sabian in St. Paul To His Bosses. "You Don't Care."

Because of a fairly severe medical crisis, I left the profession for nearly 3 years, so when I came back to it, I had a gap in my vita. It took me another 2 years to find a teaching position, and when I did, it was a 5 section per semester slot at a teaching institution.

I was nervous about it, but needed the work. I attended some "new" faculty orientation, and was told time and again about time management and caring for the students, etc. I kept asking, "How many hours does it take to grade that many exams? (For there are no TAs.) I was told by my chair, "Oh, use holistic grading. Don't worry about 90s or 80s, just give pluses and minuses, or grade on a 3 point scale."

"What about essays?" I asked. "I'd like my students to do one at midterm on a major concept, but can that work with more than 200 students?" "Oh, yes," my bosses said. But don't worry about comments; that can take too long. Grade based on a simplified rubric. 2 for excellent. 1 for good."

"How useful is that?" I asked. "VERY useful," one of my Deans said. "It really shows you're more interested in the content than simply the score!"

No it doesn't, I thought, but didn't say.

I'm spending a great deal of time on campus, and I've not even gotten a single quiz, test, or assignment scheduled yet. The sheer hours of lectures, discussions, office hours, etc. takes up a substantial amount of each day.

I can't learn my students' names, maybe a couple up front who raise their hands. I can barely see people in the gloaming of the last row. And the rooms are tiny, too tiny for their capacity. The time between class is 10 minutes, not enough for me to make it through the crush of students, the oppressive humidity, the parking lots and walkways between buildings.

By 5 pm I am exhausted. I've taught the same lesson to 200 people, and it's all a blur in my head. The only thing that is in my favor is that I leave each day with nothing to grade - yet.

How I will take 200 tests to my office or home, I simply do not know. I could give them multiple choice tests, but I prefer short answer. I want them to have to voice their responses. I want to see their minds working, not just bubbling in circles.

I have very real fears I won't be able to do it. That I will crack under the pressure.

I talked briefly with one of my bosses yesterday as I left campus.

"How goes it?"


"What's wrong?"


"Well, that's too bad. Schedule some time next week and come and see me. We really want you to do a good job."

And the chair was gone.

They don't really want me to do a good job. They wouldn't cap these classes at 40, or make people teach 5 of them if they really cared. The "better" university at town has 25 student classes and professors teach 3 sections total, and no more than 2 sections of the type of course I have 5 of.

I'd have taken a different job if I could, if I could have found one. I am going to do what I can to make my classes as good as they can be, but there are only so many hours in a day, and only so many minutes I can read and write and grade. I need the money. I need the job. The school needs to fill those tiny rooms with as many students as possible, and I believe they're hoping those of us who teach the heaviest loads won't crack.

I cannot guarantee that.


  1. Maybe "never work harder than your students" should be amended to "never work harder than your admins", but then I guess we wouldn't do anything at all.

  2. "They wouldn't cap these classes at 40, or make people teach 5 of them if they really cared."

    Exactly. You know how we tell each other, "don't care more than they do?" For your own health and sanity, you might have to go to multiple choice tests. They're not all bad.

  3. It's a ridiculous load, absolutely.

    I guess I'd say be thankful you got a job when you wanted one, but reconcile that this is NOT the kind of job anyone should have to do. You will have to find a way to offer classes that won't kill you, and I'm only hyperbolizing a bit. I know how desperate the job can feel at times, especially when you know you're doing something that is wrong on its face.

  4. Yep. Five 40-student sections per semester. Been there. For 19 years. That's 38 semesters, last time I checked. Welcome to community college teaching, except you didn't add the service requirements.

    BTW, if you taught high school, it would be 6 classes of 35 students, plus club or team supervision. You'd have your own classroom, but not enough time to pee and no clean, private place to pump milk if you were nursing a baby. And the pay would suck.

    We do learn most of our students' names, with effort. And we grade anywhere and everywhere, including family events and (especially) department meetings.

    I'm sorry for your medical crisis and hope it's all in the past. I also hope you're getting enough pay and benefits to not have to worry, and to be able to not teach during the semester breaks.

    Grading 200 tests or papers is a grind. No question. What helps me is designing the questions and assignments with efficient grading in mind. For me, that means 50% multiple choice and 50% written items. Make forms on the test (instead of using blue books) so that the short answers are all in the same position on the pages. For essay questions, assign points to each aspect, e.g., 2 for definitions, 3 for correct conclusion or analysis, 5 for relevant, detailed examples. The Jossey-Bass books on teaching have lots of other tips from veteran teachers.

    And take heart: by Halloween, many will have dropped.

  5. First, listen to Proffie G. She knows whereof she speaks. Frankie also makes a good point: it's possible to write multiple-choice questions that actually test something useful, though it can take some practice to do so; assuming you're in this for the long haul (and it sounds like you may/want to be), that practice will be time well spent. Rubrics and simplified point-based-grading also aren't all bad; sometimes they allow you to provide just enough feedback (and just enough grade-based incentive for completion) to keep students doing the kind of hands-on work through which they actually learn. You can always provide more detailed generalized feedback to the whole class (because a lot of them will make the same mistakes).

    Speaking from my own experience of moving from teaching two 12-15-student sections of comp to very well-prepared students (a pretty much ideal situation, even for a beginning teacher; Rosemary's post below made me a bit nostalgic) to teaching five assorted sections of writing intensive lit/humanities and/or comp as an adjunct at three different schools, to teaching 4 sections (with slight variations/exceptions) of the same junior-level writing-in-the-disciplines class a semester, plus two in the summer, for the past 15 years (!) in my present full-time gig:

    --Recognize that you're teaching in a new-to-you context, and that you'll need to adjust your approach, and perhaps even some of your assumptions about good teaching, accordingly. Treat this year as a chance to figure out what you can realistically do with the time and energy you have now, in the context in which you're presently teaching. Also, figure out how your colleagues (not the gung-ho idealistic ones who will burn out in a few more years, and/or who just have three times as much energy as the average human being, and somehow manage to feed that energy by/while dealing with hordes of students under difficult conditions, or the most cynical ones who are just going through the motions and know it, but the ones who both care and are realistic, and seem to be perking along doing a decent job and still conducting lives outside of school) manage it, and consider emulating at least some of their tactics, even if you're convinced those tactics are not good teaching. You may have to adjust your idea of good teaching a bit, or at least figure out how to deploy tactics you wouldn't consider under ideal circumstances, to produce good-enough teaching, which is probably what you need to aim for, at least for the moment.

    --Take advantage of colleagues' offers of support, advice, etc., and also get in touch with your Center for Pedagogical Excellence (or similar; we've all got them, and they've nearly all got "excellence" in their names, though some more modest ones might go with "support"), and seriously consider their advice and suggestions for how to make the kinds of classes you find yourself teaching work. Here, too, you'll probably get some advice you consider ridiculously idealistic/unrealistic (perhaps especially from people who get course reductions for telling other people how to teach), and some you'll consider cynical, but try not to dismiss any of it out of hand (and certainly not out loud). Instead, think about how you could make use of at least some of it to teach in a way that fits both the realities of the situation and your values. At the very least, seeking out advice, and appearing to take it seriously (up and to the point of actually trying some of the things suggested) is a good CYA move.

    1. --Remember that you hope this will be a marathon, not a sprint, and that it will take some time to adjust to the new context. Do what you need to do to get through this semester, and this year, without exhausting yourself. If that means all multiple-choice tests all the time, so be it. Take the opportunity to figure out how to write good multiple-choice questions (and/or figure out which test-bank-producers you trust), how to deal with student questions and protests about multiple-choice questions, etc., etc. When you've mastered that, try adding in a short-answer question or two, maybe graded with some sort of points and/or rubric-based approach, and see how that goes, and so on. If you keep the job, you've got time to experiment (and if the great majority of your colleagues are doing all multiple choice all the time, then today's students are no worse off if you follow suit, and manage to keep the job, and tomorrow's students might eventually be better off if you find ways to incorporate more rigorous assignments/tests into your teaching, even if it takes some time to get there).

      --Think about ways you can get them writing *outside* of tests. How about think/pair/share exercises that require them to write down a response on an index card, then turn it in on the way out the door, and earn a few participation points for any reasonably-thorough response? Or a similar system for homework/prep questions? Credit/no credit (or check plus, check, check minus) grading can be your friend, and you may feel more comfortable with it if it's not part of an official test. Students should be thinking critically before the test, anyway, and breaking up lectures with some sort of active-learning exercise is generally a good idea.

      --Finally, take care of yourself. Eat, sleep, exercise, take a break, even if seems like you're stealing time from your teaching. Obviously, bad medical things can and do happen to people who take good care of themselves, but, given the difficulties of the situation, it makes sense to take what measures you can to preserve your stamina, concentration, and general equanimity, and all of the above are proven to help.

  6. Cassandra, as usual, has written more thoughtfully then I did, and with less snark. Excellent suggestions well worth following. I do many of them.