Tuesday, February 15, 2011

What's the point?

I'm an adjunct who was elevated to the rank of lecturer for one year to fill in for a colleague who is on sabbatical. I teach twice as many courses as tenure-track faculty members for less money and get all the undesirable time slots. Such is my fate, and it beats unemployment.

One of my responsibilities is to attend faculty meetings although I'm not supposed to say anything so I don't. At last week's meeting, we discussed retention for the umpteenth time and the need for greater student involvement. Most of our students have grandiose career goals, which they have no hope of achieving so I see their failure to re-enroll as coming into the light. It bugs me no end that we talk endlessly about retention yet no one can be bothered to survey the students who failed to re-enroll. We're probably talking about a hundred people. I'd be willing to call ten or even 20.

Someone suggested that incorporating more small group projects into one of the Intro courses
I teach will foster connections and improve retention. I think it's just as likely to annoy students who find themselves compensating for non-performers. Again, I'm not supposed to say anything because I'm the temporary help but this strikes me as a very amateurish approach to a complex problem. There's no attempt to investigate the reasons people aren't returning--lack of money, poor job prospects, dissatisfaction with classes, change of career direction--or come up with measurable solutions.

My sense is that the faculty doesn't want to address the problem; it wants to be seen as addressing the problem.


  1. What a bunch of jerks. Making you attend meetings is bad enough but not letting you contribute when they talk about your classes? Sheesh.

    In my experience, surveying students who leave or fail is only somewhat useful. Who among them (or anybody) would volunteer that the first reason they failed is themselves? Students say that it was financial issues or distractions because of family crises, or the generic, "Dr. Meanie-Pants is hard!"

    Good luck!

  2. Something I forgot to say in my first post:

    It's not that faculty want to only appear to be fixing this problem. We don't know what to do. Why should we - we weren't even trained to teach, much well understand the personal choices of our students which lead them to fail. Every college is trying to solve this. Some places have a few good ideas but nodoby has solved it yet and there may not be a solution.

  3. If it isn't acceptable at your department for lecturers to speak out during departmental meetings (weird!), maybe you should voice your concerns to some individual members of the department with whom you are friendly. Doing it in a relaxed unofficial setting (over a coffee or drinks) might be a good idea.

  4. I would be skipping those meetings if I were you. It's insulting to be invited or expected to attend, and not given a voice, let alone a vote. And while it would be lovely of you to share your concerns with your tenure-track colleagues in an unofficial setting, why waste your time? Let 'em hang with their own rope. They're not paying you enough to expect you to solve structural problems -- that's the tenure-line faculty's job.

  5. @Ben: I generally agree, with two caveats.

    1) If you polled a sufficient number of dropouts, you might be surprised at some of the honest answers you might get. I was one of them, once upon a time, and I can say with total assurance that I would have blamed myself first.

    2) I'm a little skeptical about the claim that retention is a problem. It didn't used to be a problem, and the fact is that when it wasn't a problem the retention numbers were much worse. At Mrs. Archie's institution they used to routinely wash out 20-25% of every freshman class, and there was no problem. Now they've decided that there is a problem, and they've cut that number to single digits.So the question is, why is it considered a problem now, when retention numbers are much better than they've ever been? I think the answer is that retention is only a problem if your institution is relying more and more on tuition dollars to meet costs. At that point, retention is an economic problem for admin, but a pedagogical problem for faculty. Back when a quarter of the entering class washed out, the average quality of students in upper-division classes was higher. So the financial pressures on admin have the net effect of making our classes much worse.

    So the bottom line for me is that if I'm in that faculty meeting I am contributing nothing precisely because I want retention numbers to get worse, not better.

    And either way, I'm with F&T. Why the hell are you going to those meetings? What are they going to do to you if you don't? Take away your dessert privileges at the faculty dining room? Take a page from the flakes and have a series of doctor and dentist appointments that conveniently fall in the meeting block.

  6. When I had a similar job (one-year replacement hire) I was told not to come to the faculty meetings. They were actually scheduled during my classes.

    Yeaaaah, I might inquire as to what your role is supposed to be, exactly, although in a way that says OOOOOOOH I am a looooowly visiting lecture and far be it for me to ooooooooooo talk at all. (I was unbelievably quiet and stoic as a V.L.)

  7. Lecturer, I mean lecturer. Fuck, I'm taking more drugs and it totally causes typos and random vocal mistakes.

  8. I agree with Archie that the retention issue is pressure from the administration -- I am not sure if due to increasing reliance on tuition money, or to pay for a every year more bloated administration...
    When someone says "retention" I hear "lower your standards so we can keep fleecing them." I feel so much (as someone put it once) as if I were driving the getaway car...

  9. I'm not sure why retention is the problem of the faculty. At my SLAC, we keep being told that the faculty are doing a great job and that students don't leave b/c of their classes, but for OTHER reasons, such as location, cost, crappy dorms, etc. But faculty are told over and over that we need to retain as many as possible (mostly due to budget mismanagement and reliance on tuition $ rather than on endowments or donations that used to support the institution).

    If I were you, I'd quit attending the meetings and would continue to do what you've been doing (then you can claim ignorance; it's ridiculous that you be required to attend but not participate). Why should YOU fix their problem when they don't even respect your position and hard work (unless you're trying to get on full time and need to impress people).

  10. I believe student life is the only way to retain students. It's not that they need a 'better classroom experience.' Some classes/profs are great, others not so much, and that's the same wherever you go. Student life varies widely, though. I.e. clubs, student-run venues like 'coffeehouses' and poetry slams, student entrepreneurship, community service, etc. Students like to feel as if they are doing something on their own, with minimal guidance from the club or event's faculty advisor. I don't know what subject you teach, but if you're really interested in improving retention, I'd suggest reaching out to whatever student clubs correspond to that field and seeing if they can improve student experience for the majors. Or latch onto a young, idealistic full-timer professor who wants to help students organize an event or some sort of iniative, whether it's a guest speaker, a student-run investment club, community service, etc.

    It sounds corny but students are much more likely to remain if they are emotionally invested in being the president of the Artsy Boho club or whatever. However, if you teach at a commuter school or one that only offers graduate degrees, most of those students don't care about student life.

  11. I attend these meetings because my mentor told me I should. I am not forbidden from speaking but it's very clear that I'm not viewed as having anything to contribute because I'm not a real faculty member. I sit in the back and shield my iPad from public view and do my email and play the occasional game of solitaire.

    I appreciate the different perspectives on retention. It does seem that the college should be conducting surveys and providing data on what works and what doesn't. I feel comfortable asking privately why that hasn't happened and why the administration would expect the faculty to do anything without that data. As this really shouldn't be our job, I understand the need to bleat something responsive without really doing anything about it.

    If I had a college-age child, my school is the last place in the world I would want him or her to attend, and I would applaud the decision to transfer to a more rigorous institution. Indeed, our most stimulating students are those who've suffered breakdowns at more demanding schools and are spending a semester or two here to get their confidence back.

  12. @Programming Patty- You pretty much nailed it. When it comes to factors that the school can control (read: influence) student "connectedness" is usually low hanging fruit that all students get to eat.

    What's wrong with that piece of fruit? For starters, it is undergrads who are already retained that report higher "connectedness" satisfaction. Correlation always equals causation, much? My (self)esteemed colleagues' infernal (inferencing) reasoning skills tell them as long as we get students "connected" they'll stick around. However (point two), "connectedness" doesn't mean the same thing to everyone. For some it is peer-social but for others it is classroom-instructor. That's where faculty come in.

  13. If it helps at all, we recently polled our graduate and undergraduate students to find out the #1 thing we could provide for them that they are not already getting. The answer was "mentoring opportunities." So we're once again trying to revive our mentoring program and pair them up with professionals in the field. Thankfully our alumni are exceptionally good sports and are willing to do it, as the 'mentees' tend to abandon the program and are never heard from again by the mentors. But most of the so-called 'engagement' is done through student activities and that's university-wide, so we don't really have to deal with it, except in an advisement capacity.

    Having a really solid career services program seems to help a bit, but again, that's at the university level, not the individual department.

    I really don't see this as a faculty responsibility. They should focus on being the best teachers they can possibly be. It's not a question of changing teaching methodology or providing shiny new formats like collaboration. Just get the students excited about the curriculum and that will go far towards making them feel 'connected.' I certainly remember the dozen clubs in which I was involved as an undergraduate, but what really sticks in my mind is my English professor reading us Middle English or sugar'd sonnets in his beautiful speaking voice. I took four classes with him, and through him I connected to the subject that was most dear to my heart. The question is: do students today have any subject that is dear to their hearts, or is it all just something to plough through on the way to getting a high-paying job?

  14. I'm with Archie on retention. I can remember (though I think the practice was actually a bit before my time) when some large state schools and tech-oriented universities were notorious for the begining-of-the-year address in which the president told the assembled freshmen to look to their right, look to their left, then think about the fact that out of the group made up of them and their two nearest neighbors, only one person was likely to make it through the year. I'm not entirely sure I'd like to work in that environment, either, but I'd take it over a "retention at any cost" one any day.

    @Ihate: much as I hate to say it, I think your approach -- attend and be inconspicuous -- probably is the right one, though I doubt that not attending would hurt much, especially if you're quite sure that you'll be back where you started at the end of this year. If this is a conversation the faculty has already had more than once, inconclusively, in the time you've been attending meetings, it's likely that they've been having it for years, and with the same (lack of) results. Until and unless they start telling you you have to change your syllabus (in which case I'd suggest looking to see if rigorous studies of the sort you envision have been conducted at other, similar schools), it's probably best to think your own thoughts, and not disturb the departmental culture.

    That sounds pretty cynical, I know, but, like BlackDog, I've been what Froderick (I think) calls an "accursed visiting lecturer," and invisibility seems to be the best approach to surviving such appointments.

    P.S. I don't know if your mentor is at the school at which you're teaching, or elsewhere; if elsewhere, my experience is that advisors sometimes have "foot in the door" fantasies about such positions that may have borne some relation to reality at some time somewhere, but rarely if ever do in the current climate. Someone from the department in which you're working who encourages you to attend may well have your best interests at heart, or may be hoping to pull you into departmental politics in some way. I said I was cynical above, right? Yep.

  15. They want to say their adjuncts are involved in departmental matters.

  16. Oh, geez. At my institution, every single damn meeting must include a lengthy hand-wringing discussion of retention. I feel for you, IHML.

    The problem with discussing retention is that there is very little that an institution can do to improve it. There are some things that an institution can do that will actively harm retention, but as long as we've eliminated those, we've done about all we can do. Further discussion doesn't help.

    Consider the other side of the retention coin: student persistence. Students must persist in their education to earn a degree. The motivation to persist must come from within. Other than to encourage persistence, there is absolutely nothing we can do to manufacture it within our students. Either they've got the motivation to carry on or they don't.

    So, let's try to get our institutions to change the discussion from "retention" to "persistence" and maybe we can all get out of this pit.

  17. In CC Universe, I'm starting to think retention is going to become part of the name of every school. We talk about it endlessly. Faculty constantly hear from admins about how retention and graduation are our responsibility. And we are required to address retention in our departments as part of our annual department plan as well as our individual evaluations. I think most of us recognize a significant segment of our population is not going to be retained even if we all give As and start handing out $20 bills in each class session as an attendance bonus. There is just too much real life that gets in the way sometimes, and thus we get people who don't really want to be in college but don't know what else to do.

    As for the lecturer thing, I can relate. When I got my first job as a VAP, one of the questions I asked in my interview was how I would be regarded in terms of departmental status. I was assured I'd be treated the same as someone on the tenure track for voting purposes, committee work, and contributing ideas. The main differences would be in pay and not being expected to publish. That turned out to be a huge joke.

    The college in question had a "three years max and out" VAP policy. I watched silverbacks humiliate third-year colleagues in faculty meetings by saying things like "No one cares what you think. You'll be gone after this year anyway." When the chair who hired me ended up quitting mid-semester in disgust, some of the silverbacks came to the sudden realization that they'd hired so many VAPs that we were within three votes of being able to outvote them, so they quickly adopted a policy that allowed each of our votes for chair to count only as 1/3 a vote. Some of them never even bothered to learn our names.

    I was embarrassed beyond belief when the new chair had to go out of town for a training session (he was a good guy) and left a silverback in charge. I was interviewing for TT positions and had put down my chair as a reference. As luck would have it, I was a finalist for a position, so the search committee chair called my employer to talk with the chair about my work. The idiot acting as chair said he couldn't even pick me out of a crowd and knew nothing about whether I was any good. You'd think the department was enormous from reading that statement. There were 9 full-time faculty and 6 VAPs. I had attended every faculty meeting (as had he) and served on three department committees. I'd even given a departmental seminar.

  18. "No one cares what you think. You'll be gone after this year anyway."

    When a supposed colleague says that, what stops one from saying, "Excuse me, then," getting up, and walking straight out of that meeting?

  19. She was very dedicated to her job and just a nice person, so she let it roll off her back in the meeting. The tears came later. What was even ballsier about that comment was the person to whom it was directed was the wife of a dean in another division!

  20. My sympathies, IHML--in my Term position, I wasn't even on the email list to be notified of faculty meetings for my first 3 years, which actually suited me just fine. Now the department is trying to make its term faculty more secure, as we are teaching loads of classes nobody else wants, and we are not only invited to faculty meetings but have voting rights on most matters (except where excluded by the bylaws.)

    Since nobody's commented on this, I just have to pick up one thread from your post: "incorporating more small group projects ... this strikes me as a very amateurish approach to a complex problem." It may indeed be that this wouldn't affect overall retention, but properly structured, collaborative learning exercises are a terrific (and not "amateurish" but in fact very professional) way to get students to learn more, especially in intro courses. This doesn't mean just handing out a worksheet or assigning a topic and saying "go to it," but there are very effective ways to use this model without the stronger students "compensating for nonperformers." If we can retain students by helping them learn how to be better, rather than by lowering our standards, isn't that win/win?

    Or it could just be the paint fumes talkin'...I'm up way too early this morning trying to finish an interminable home improvement project so I can have my living room back...


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