Friday, December 16, 2016

From IHE: My Best/Worst Semester Dropping from full-time to a single course reveals losses and gains.

by John Warner
6. I miss being part of an institution.
Periodically, over the course of the semester, things would crop up where I thought I could be of help, but I had to force myself to not participate in order to not be even more culpable in my own exploitation. As the department begins to discuss possible changes to the first-year writing curriculum I know that I could be a voice in that conversation. As they worry about declining majors and figuring out how to help students bridge their educations to careers, I know that my experience outside of academia allows me to provide a useful perspective.
But I am no longer a member of that team, if I ever was in the first place.
The reality of the contemporary university is that much of the potential of faculty of all stripes to make a positive impact on students is simply wasted. Call it the inefficiency of efficiency.


  1. Oh, my. Amen. Bravo! Huzzah! Almost all of this resonates with me (#s4 and especially 7 a bit less so, though I think a sabbatical might well help a lot with #4. Although I'm not sure that teaching was ever my primary strength, I certainly give it my best, and that's usually pretty good, and is still pretty good, but, after 6 years of teaching fall, spring, *and* summer without a break, on top of another 20 years of teaching in the fall and spring and researching/writing in the summer, I'm increasingly aware of just how tired I am).

    The last paragraph quoted above strikes me as especially true (and is something I've been thinking about, and might even have a post on soon). And #3 is like unto it:

    3. There is no such thing as a contingent “career.”

    I know, duh, but teaching full-time, when my day-to-day looked and felt a lot like a career, it was easy to delude myself that it was a career, but no, that wasn’t the case. I had a job teaching college, but outside the tenure track this is not a career.

    If I could pass one bit of wisdom on to the next generation of academic aspirants, it is this.

    I need to go back and read more of this man's archive, and the links, because his thinking resonates all too much with me (and I wonder whether I should be trying to take his route, or any route, out, because I'm not seeing much likelihood that my present position ever will morph into anything resembling a career, and building increasing expertise while an ever-larger gaggle of administrators, even if some of them are people I like and admire, talk over my head, occasionally pausing to ask for my "input" or "feedback," is frustrating, and dispiriting, and not ultimately good for any of us or for our students).

  2. After I quit full time teaching in 2007, I sort of accepted that if I wanted to teach a bit, I'd just have to stop thinking about the pay and the lack of respect, office space, etc. After 8 years of 1-3 sections a semester, I took a full time gig for one year, 10 comp classes for the year, and $35k. And I'm nearly 60 years old. I couldn't have made it without a working spouse, and the notion that my value is so little only occasionally pops into my head, so carefully I've blinded myself to it.

    I am not valued by the people who have employed me over the past decade. They're glad I show up and don't kill any students or administrators, and that I get my grades in on time, but regardless of my academic career, they'd put a different widget in my place if I left.

    I left this recent full time gig from last year and just taught 2 classes somewhere else this past semester. Worst run college I've ever seen, and I've taught in 12 places now. No interview. Hired on the phone. Met the department chair once, 5th week in the hallway between classes. No evaluation. No "mentor." No visits. Just submit syllabi. Teach. $975 a month. No office. No benefits.

    Still, I had a gas with some of the students. I still like doing it. But when I read the article linked above and thought a bit about where I'm at and what my value is, I just wanted to say "Fuck it."

    But it is December 16th. I'm often saying "Fuck it" this time of the year anyway.

    To those poor young part-timers, still dreaming, putting together these awkward and awful careers, I have such empathy. During my time as an administrator I care for dozens of such folks. I know I valued them and I did everything I could to shake money out of the budget to them, and give them a space to put their shit. I involved them as much as I could in the work of the program.

    But, man, it is brutal. And I don't know if there's an answer. In more than 30 years teaching I keep thinking it can't get any worse.

    And then it does.

    1. Re: thinking it can't get any worse.

      Could be worse.
      Socrates was executed. Peter Abelard was castrated. Herr Professor Wernher von Braun was forced to live in Huntsville, AL.
      Count your blessings.

    2. Kit in Kansas (Or a State Nearby)December 16, 2016 at 4:32 PM

      Cal was my professor at Hopkins back in the early 2000s. He taught me how to teach. I didn't learn anything about teaching in grad school except for what I got from his summer seminars and in countless panic/anxiety sessions in his office.

      When I graduated I felt a bit that I was overqualified for a "regular" teaching job, and I was a bit offended that the only offer I got was at a podunk state university in the middle of nowhere. (Sue me; I lived in Manhattan until I was 21.)

      But once I started teaching I got the bug. I got the hard parts and the good parts and even after I was gone I'd call Cal or email him for extended office hours.

      To think of him making $975 a month - his choice or not - makes me ashamed for our profession.

      I read this page once a month or so and have been shocked at how the adjunct and contingent faculty crisis now seems like it's all too big to be solved.

      I'm so grateful I got a job when I did, and tenure, and really a situation in a bucolic setting that couldn't be more different than Manhattan, and yet couldn't be much neater.

  3. Involving part timers is such a win/win. Our dept does okay with that but not pay.

  4. Cal: When I read this I almost choked: "10 comp classes for the year, and $35k." Where did you teach, ISIS State? That's effing insane. I don't suppose you get a free house and car allowance, too, to go with that? Twenty years ago at my Cali CC, I started at about $36k for six to eight comp classes per year. I'm glad you're still alive. I'll probably be doing some part-time work after I retire, so we'll see how that goes, but it will be in a very small, remote rural CC. I don't expect the kind of nightmare scenarios so common at College Miz.

    Hang in there, folks!

    1. There were about a dozen faculty in the department with that schedule and that pay. We were told how lucky we were to have full time positions, and for the instructors who were 30 years old and younger, it was a job they absolutely were ecstatic to have. They were not trained for it and the mentoring was VERY light. It's a 30,000 student school and the freshmen classes had long since been ceded to the least well trained among us.

      But after about 8 years of part-time stuff I sort of had the hankering for a full time gig and that's the one I took. I knew the load and the class size (28-30) was insane, and I had regrets instantly once the semester started. But I signed a contract and I did the whole year.

      As I was leaving I was asked by the chair what I thought of how they ran things. I said honestly, "It's a long ways from ideal. You've got untrained instructors, too many students, too many sections, and you actively suggest we teach fewer and shorter essays in order to meet the time constraints. It's all insane, and not the right way to teach such an important class."

      He didn't think that was a helpful answer and said, "As a former director I thought you'd be able to give some advice."

      "Sure," I said. "Cut class sizes. Teach your untrained instructors how to teach. Reduce the number of sections of comp new instructors much teach, and act as if the class was important instead of just treating it like a math problem: budget = number of classes X number of instructors."

      That was the wrong answer as well.

      But the whole enterprise was just so much a part of what's gone wrong in academe.

      Just because you CAN get people to teach 300 comp students in one semester for $17k doesn't mean it's a good idea.

      PS: Big state uni in the south.

    2. Oh, my. That *is* insane. Unions do help (and "right to work" laws hurt), but even my non-union full-time gig, though nowhere up to ADE/once-upon-a-time CCCC standards for an all-writing-intensive load (2-3 sections; 15-20 students/section; 2 preps at most -- no, I've never had that, either, except when I adjuncted at my very well-endowed grad institution; I'm not sure whether that was officially a full-time gig, but I got health and even retirement, and more money than I saw for some time after that), is nowhere near that nuts (I'm currently at just over 90 students in 4 sections, usually 1-2 preps, a salary which isn't completely inadequate in the context of the local cost of living -- and would look pretty decent in many part of the country-- and health and retirement benefits. Of course it's taken a while to get there, and there isn't a lot let over to save against the possibility of unplanned early retirement if the bean-counters decide that someone younger and cheaper would be a better deal).

      Good for you for telling the chair the truth, Cal. If even the suggestion of more training/mentoring is unwelcome (before one gets into the question of whether instructors would/could attend without additional compensation; it doesn't sound like he'd gotten that far), then what in the world did he expect you to say? And why did he even ask? If you discovered the secret to teaching comp cheaply and well, you'd presumably be either (1) selling it (almost any price would be cheap if it actually worked) or (2) giving it away (quite possibly set to music). As long as it remains elusive, more training/mentoring, at least for those willing to take advantage of it without additional financial remuneration for participating, seems like the one thing many departments have it in their power to offer (and they can at least offer strong letters of recommendation in return, though whether those are much use is yet another question).

    3. In the original article linked above, I found this line the most germane to my own situation: "While the $2850/course wage is not causing me financial hardship because of other privileges I possess, at some point I will no longer be able to stomach being complicit in a system that puts so little economic value on something I believe to be so important."

      I have let my work be devalued a couple of times now simply because I like the classroom so much. I've known I was being taken advantage of, but I did it anyway.

      I talked a lot last year with people teaching comp for the FIRST TIME EVER, having suddenly 5 sections a semester with more than 125 papers coming in 3-4 times a semester. They would sit in my office and just say, "How am I supposed to do it?"

      And, I was wondering myself. Now I've done it for more than 30 years and I've trained scores of young faculty, but it was still a major chore for me to get through my load of papers. So I can only imagine what these first timers (all making the same amount of money - very democratic) thought when they had so little help around them.

      Sometimes one of the veteran tenure-track folks would steer someone glassy-eyed into my office. "Here, Cal's been doing this forever. He'll help you."

      And I did, and only a few times a day did I curse the system that I let take advantage of me. Because I didn't have to do it, and I didn't have to mentor people I wasn't being paid to mentor.

      But the point is, the system is broken. I heard enough horror stories about ways in which these overwhelmed first time teachers were getting 130 students through a freshman comp class to curl my hair - if I had any.

      And when I quit after one year, there was a line out the door of new folks dying for my office, my stable employment, and decent enough salary for the town.

    4. Re: "the system is broken."

      But is the system really broken? It effectively (enough) sends signals to the capitalists to let them know which people to hire or not hire for this or that job. And the students somehow learn regardless. I know, this whole "teaching" thing feels important, I feel this stuff Cal describes. But do we have as much effect as we think we do?

      Of course, I'm drunk, and it's painful to ever disagree with Cal. He makes me swoon.

    5. I hear you, Bubba. I think we're going to learn more about what has happened in the past ten years or so, but just not yet.

      I've watched colleagues pass fundamentally illiterate students through freshman writing courses, mostly because they a) didn't want the hassle of a mad students; b) didn't want to worry about a grade dispute or having their work called in to question; and c) in order to not be that one part-timer who can't seem to get students through.

      Surely, don't call me Shirley, these students are going to filter into the work force somewhere, get passed along and through and into jobs someplace where their actual illiteracy or innumeracy will make a difference somehow. I'm not even talking about building bridges and tunnels.

      I'm just saying idiots running the stores and the PTA and the dog shelter.

    6. And voting. And by saying that, I am *not* saying that everyone who voted for a particular candidate was an idiot (or everyone who voted for another was not), or that idiocy was the only or even the main explanation for the electoral results this fall, but the ability to distinguish facts from non-facts (or the tendency to value the former over the latter) seems to have played a role, and (correlation not causation, but one can hope) education level does seem to have had an effect. Students do need to come out of college with some basic skills, including information literacy and just plain old reading comprehension, and, more and more, introductory composition is about reading as much as writing skills.

      I, too, even with my comparatively-decent load, have more than occasional "does what I do matter?" moments (see my recent post). My answer (at least one answer, at the moment) is that while it may not seem like my feedback matters as much as I'd like, it does matter that students work their way through a series of activities from which they'll learn, and, to get them to do those activities, I have to be able to provide some sort of timely feedback (at least enough to ensure that they've actually done the work rather than doing whatever they'd like/the minimum/what their last teacher wanted and that they haven't produced complete gobbledygook in the process -- and in English 101, the chances of gobbledygook are pretty high). And as Cal points out, providing even that sort of minimal feedback, let alone the higher level that students starting out really need, takes time, a lot of time.

      I don't know whether we'll see the effects. At least in my (high cost of living) area, I have the impression that our local community colleges, especially, are still very dependent on an older, mostly-female adjunct workforce that may well not be replaced as the current teachers retire or die. I'm not sure quite what happens then. There are certainly plenty of people entering grad school, and a reasonable number entering the adjunct workforce after that, but I wonder if they'll stay, or be able to stay, even if they really love teaching? At least in my area, it takes two professional (non-adjunct) salaries to run anything resembling a normal adult household (i.e. one that might support a dog in addition to two humans, let alone a small human or two), and there *is* work for people who can write and do research (and train people to do things).

  5. I hate to be a fangirl about this, but on MY BLOG, Bubba and Cal are chatting to each other. I mean, talk about swooning. The Cowboy and the Songwriter? Who to choose?

    If the "Chemist" comes by, well, I'll just die!


  6. I teach at two different schools, one of which is University of Nearby Major Metro Area, a recent “Tier One” inductee currently pouring millions upon millions of dollars into their football program and their failed bid to join the Dirty Dozen Sports League.

    While there’s lots of money for football, there’s not so much for actual academic instruction, and the new program coordinator for Institutional Supervision and Leadership in the College of Technocracy (for which I teach a writing in the disciplines class) recently sent round an email telling faculty that section student capacities have been increased for most courses.

    Caps at UNMMA Main and online sections were raised to 60 Students and caps at the Northwest Suburban campus where I teach have been raised to 48 Students.

    Mercifully, as far as I can tell, my writing intensive classes, are still capped at 24 students. The idea of being asked to teach twice as many students for the same pay is beyond-the-pale exploitative; if my caps really do double, I will not return for the fall semester, though I would suck it up for the Spring—I have two kids at (different) universities I have to help support.

    Contingent faculty have also now been limited to two sections a semester, even though in the past, some of us regularly taught 3-5 sections a semester as demand required. The new dean doesn’t want to pay any benefits: with 3 sections, the school has to pay into the state retirement program; at 4 sections they have to offer you insurance, which you are expected to decline. It was so nice to be asked at the end of the last spring semester to help them locate new faculty to teach the sections I otherwise would have been teaching (and paid for).

    The new program coordinator who sent out the recent news in an overly cheery email is termed an “Instructional Assistant Professor” but his credential is a rather recent MBA from UNMMA after a 20-year career in restaurant management. The new department chair, also an “Instructional Assistant Professor,” has an MA in Educational Administration from a Midwestern religious college and a BS in marketing, plus a past career in trucking. Somehow the adjective “instructional” in their position titles just feels like an extra twist of the knife to someone like me who, you know, does actual instruction.

    1. The only good news: I'm betting that, in this case, "instructional" means "non-tenure-track" (because when you've made it to R1 -- and are trying to make it into the big (college) leagues -- nothing to do with teaching is worth investing in).

      Otherwise, ugh. Since when does an MBA qualify you to be a member of, let alone an administrator in, any department other than business? And since when do chairs hold M.A.s?

      Of course, if someone cracked down on that issue (and an accrediting agency might, but maybe not if they're not actually instructors of record), they'd just go find higher ed administration Ph.D.s. As I've said before, though I know people with that degree whom I respect, I really think it needs to be replaced with a certificate that can be earned by people getting a Ph.D. in a traditional field (sociology, statistics, economics, etc.), and that all administrators (especially those with "instructional" in their titles) should teach intro/core courses in traditional disciplines on a regular basis (and should be well-qualified, through extensive experience, to do so, and to mentor, as well as supervise, others doing the same).

  7. Wow, there's some genuine miz on this post. Cal said something that I've seen at my institution as well:

    "I've watched colleagues pass fundamentally illiterate students through freshman writing courses, mostly because they a) didn't want the hassle of a mad students; b) didn't want to worry about a grade dispute or having their work called in to question; and c) in order to not be that one part-timer who can't seem to get students through."

    I've definitely got some colleagues who, frankly, are too chickenshit to do the job. I regularly exhort my colleagues to hold the line on standards, that we're not here to be the students' besties or moms or dads. Sometimes we have to tell people we like, even some who worked really hard: You aren't good enough--yet. Of course, some will never be good enough, and that they end up in our classes is a sad tale indeed. I don't enjoy being the one to say, in effect: You suck! But that's the job, at least sometimes.

  8. Good for him on standing firm on service. They decided they didn't need his service badly enough to hire him, so he is right to make them get along without it.

    But I'll bet it's a hard decision to stick to.


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