Friday, October 14, 2016

When is it time to give in?

I'm a long-time lurker of College Misery, and I enjoy this blog tremendously. I'm looking for advice right now about teaching; I've been teaching writing and literature courses at my current university for 7 years, and during this time, I have taught 21 courses. This is a private university that is one of the most expensive schools in the country. The students have a strong sense of entitlement, and the faculty act as if they are scared of them. My department cares a lot about course evaluations and keeping students happy and satisfied.

The problem I'm having is trying to maintain rigorous academic standards while teaching in a department that lets students do whatever they want. 

My course evaluations are lower than the department average. On a scale of 1-5 (5 being excellent, 1 being poor), the department average is 4.3. I usually average around 3.7 or 3.8; however, my median is 4.0 (there's usually 1 or 2 students who give me all 1's without even reading the questions, which brings my average down). In the comments, students complain about how my standards are too high, my grading is too harsh, and my policies are too strict. They've even compared me to other professors, noting that I grade more harshly than my colleagues. Students have also written offensive comments about my appearance, which I attribute to the freedom they feel to say these things because I'm a young woman of color. 

Each semester, a student complains to the department chair about me, and he always sides with them. He indirectly threatened to not renew my contract if my evaluations didn't improve (I'm an adjunct). Mind you, he's never visited my class before, so he doesn't even know if their complaints are warranted. I am always open to classroom visitors. Since I've been teaching here, I've had five visitors, and they've all praised my teaching methods. My colleagues even come to me for advice about assignments, grading, and other teaching concerns.  

However, after talking with my colleagues, I can see why students are baffled that I expect them to show up on time, pay attention, and participate in class. One colleague admitted that she couldn't remember the last time she gave a student lower than a B+ on an assignment. Another said that he isn't strict about deadlines and allows students to submit assignments up until the last day of class. The most popular professor in the department shows movies during most of his classes and gives easy assignments that students can complete in five or ten minutes (his evaluations are high but I doubt students are learning anything). I observed another colleague's class, and most of her students were playing on their laptops and not paying attention to her. One student even came to class fifteen minutes late, told my colleague that he slept in, and asked if she could tell him what he missed. She actually stopped lecturing to catch him up. 

I am completely troubled that my colleagues have thrown academic standards out the window. On student evaluation day, the department kitchen is filled with leftover snacks from professors. Because this is so common, it seems as if students expect us to bring treats on that day (I still don't - it's a gendered expectation that I don't support). And because my department places so much emphasis on course evaluations, my colleagues jump through hoops in order to placate students. 

My dilemma is two-fold: do I join my colleagues in lowering expectations or do I stick to my principles? Do I give up and let students win, or do I maintain standards, even if I'm the last professor in this school to do so (I'm reminded of the inspiring "Not in My Classroom" post from Rate Your Students). Maintaining standards may compromise my employment, but I do not want to contribute to the bastardization of the American education system. 

I love teaching, but not in these conditions. 

-Frustrated in Forville


  1. It is past time for me. I should have given in a few years ago when all of you what you describe was clearly in place in my department.

    I try to think of the handful of students I help, and try NOT to think of the students passing others' classes (and mine, sometimes) who do not deserve it.

    But college is broken, and I see it mostly in the early undergraduate courses where it matters the most.

    I don't know how I'd feel if I were in my 3rd year or 5th year of teaching. Maybe I'd be young enough to start again, OR to fight and fix what's broken.

    But as a veteran, I'm just praying to get out with my sanity, and that is not always a sure bet.

    1. Frustrated in ForvilleOctober 14, 2016 at 8:44 PM

      I understand where you're coming from. I teach upper-level undergraduate courses, and by the time they get to my class, the damage has already been done.

      I feel powerless and hopeless. I want change, but the system is so broken beyond repair that it's only going to get worse. Pretty soon, tuition will cost over $100,000/semester and tenure-track positions won't exist anymore.

    2. I teach both upper level and introductory courses. I can't stiffen the lower level work enough to make them ready for the upper level course I want to teach because their secondary preparation is insufficient: it is neither broad, deep, nor rigorous enough for them to handle the all-ahead-full version.

      So I am left trying to give them a strong foundation atop uncertain soil and hoping that it will be enough even though we never get around to more than framing up the structure.

      And apparently the scuttlebutt has it that I am the merciless and uber-demaning meanie of the department. My merciless and uber-demaning teachers would scoff at the half-baked, white-bread treatments I settle for.

  2. OTOH, you're a long-term adjunct. The department has not offered you a tenure-track job. Your teaching style differs greatly from that of your tenured colleagues. Do you wonder if you are in the right position?

    1. Frustrated in ForvilleOctober 14, 2016 at 8:36 PM

      You're right. I should probably leave this place since it's clear that I don't fit in. I also forgot to mention that I'm teaching at the same place where I received my PhD, so I've definitely been here way too long.

      I stick around hoping that academia will change but that ship has sailed. It is time for me to move on.

    2. This was my first thought, too: unless you have family, geographical, etc., constraints, it's time to ask the authors of the most glowing of those observation reports if they're willing to write letters of recommendation, and hit the job market. The letters probably won't be quite as powerful coming from your Ph.D.-granting institution as they would from somewhere else that has kept you on as an adjunct for 7 years, but the fact that they have kept you on for 7 years says something.

      In any case, it sounds like it's time to make one last push on the job market (if you want to do that) *and* explore other options (like the excellent one Frankie mentions below). If you decide you want to keep adjuncting for the immediate future so as to be able to claim recent teaching experience, I'd suggest seeking experience with a different student population (which will probably prove to be both easier and harder to teach -- less attitude, but also possibly less preparation). The only real reason to adjunct is for experience/currency, and it sounds like you've gotten all the experience you can get at your current institution. The downside is that you may find the pay for adjuncting elsewhere is significantly lower than at your alma mater (the most I ever made as an adjunct was at my own expensive, selective grad alma mater -- but they stopped offering me work after a year. I think I could have held on a bit longer if I'd defended before that year was out.)

      Theoretically, you should be a hot commodity on the job market because everyone wants to increase the diversity of their faculty. In practice, schools seem to be pretty good at passing up promising candidates of color, which leaves you in the same position as all the other underemployed Ph.D.s out there: deciding when to let go of Plan A -- being a professor -- and create (if necessary) and more actively pursue Plan B.

      Speaking of which, since you love teaching, one option you might pursue is independent school teaching. It, too, has its ups and downs (and you certainly risk encountering entitled and, yes, racist students again), but the salary, benefits, and security are better than adjuncting, autonomy in your own classroom is high compared to public school, and both Ph.D.s and instructors of color are increasingly in demand in that sector.

  3. FiF, have you thought of freelancing as a book editor? Your long-term teaching experience at Pricey Valley College would be an asset, as would your exacting standards. (Do you have any RMP ratings complaining about how "picky" you are? If not, go write some!) And editing one or two books can bring in as much as teaching a semester-long comp class.

    1. Frustrated in ForvilleOctober 14, 2016 at 8:33 PM

      I would love book editing. I always enjoyed reviewing other people's work. Thank you for the suggestion.

    2. There's some benefit to the apparent declining average ability to write: editors will be increasingly in demand.

  4. FIF, we could have played BINGO with your post. I'll try to elaborate.

    It's bad enough that even one of those shitty things would happen in even one place.

    It's bad enough that the same one of those shitty things would happen in several places.

    It's bad enough that several places would each suffer from a different one of those shitty things.

    But YOUR place has them ALL: a panoply of the most corrupting influences that we've complained about here for years. BINGO.

    I'm left thinking that the ship has sailed, the horse is out of the barn, the bell cannot be unrung, etc. for us all. Higher ed is both driver of and driven by society. Even together, we can resist the inevitable for only so long. We can stand up for what is right, but it gets so lonely, so futile, when we are standing alone.

    1. That's why I love this site. It reminds me I'm not alone.

  5. from Old School, much beloved

    Frustrated, I am frustrated, too. For the first time ever, I didn't check email last night because I simply couldn't face more bizarre and endless excuses as to why what ought to have been done was not done. I maintain my standards, but I do have tenure, which makes a world of difference. When I was an adjunct, I was somewhat generous on the mid-term (prior to course surveys) but more demanding on the final (after course surveys). Always fairly. My way of balancing professional obligation and self-preservation as a precarious worker.

  6. I totally feel your pain and think you're in the right.

    That said, not everything you describe is "low standards". Here's a suggestion: what one thing could you allow to happen that would least bother your sense of justice? Perhaps allowing late submissions? Perhaps not caring when students arrive at class? Perhaps giving an occasional 'light' assignment? None of those things are actually slippages of "high standards" in academia: students are still doing real work, and held to the same level of grading.

    One thing I've discovered is that the students are really dumb about knowing that you're on their side (which you are, even when you're giving them failing grades). Finding some way of telling them can make a huge difference in attitude.

  7. It definitely sounds like a poor fit between you and the institution, although I find it hard to believe, as Cassandra said, that you couldn't find a home for your rigorous approach elsewhere, at another university or an independent high school.

    In a perfect world, everyone in a department would hold equally high standards. In our less than perfect world, how about the white, cis, male proffies make that their job, leaving the cookies and boondoggles to the rest of us whose status is more vulnerable to bias in student evaluations? A girl can dream.

  8. I have felt your pain. Why, it's almost as if I were writing the post rather than this reply. My evals were no where near as good as yours . . . I typically hovered in the 2.2 to 2.6 range. However, one thing I did each term was to write my own "quality improvement plan." In it, I pointed out that while my mean scores were low, the standard deviation was so broad, that it easily encompassed the departmental, college, and university means. Also, since I typically taught 25-student classes and only a handful of students would even bother filling out the evaluations, it was almost always a statistically insignificant sample size. Whenever my low evals came up with the program director or department chair, I would reiterate these issues, and even their limited knowledge of statistics would usually shut them up.

    On another note, my academic mentor advised me to set high, but achievable standards, and to stick to them. If you, like myself, find yourself in a situation where work is not fun, then it's time to leave. I did. And life has gotten so much better. I'm still an alcoholic, sure, but my booze bill has definitely plummeted.

    1. The blog has a rule about requiring users to identify themselves with a pseudonym. It's been long discussed and it something I've been asked consistently to maintain. I ask you to pick a pseudonym and use it. Thank you.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.