Monday, August 03, 2020

Getting Someone Started

To continue my story about the not real reed prep person:  they started on Monday.

And because they'd come from a sister school's program, HR here at NWU couldn't bring them fully on board until the actual start date.  (You evidently can't work two full time jobs in the same system.)

That meant they couldn't establish an email for the person, let's call them Reed, and without an email, the chair of Underwater Basketweaving couldn't start getting permissions in place for all the different computer systems.

Here's a sample of permissions, most of which are established using an electronic form:

keys.  yes, Reed needs to be able to get into the building, the reed prep rooms, the growing areas, etc.
purchasing.  Reed needs to be able to initiate purchases of equipment and such
payroll.  Reed will be in charge of some student payroll stuff
course scheduling.  Reed will be in charge of scheduling some of the Reed classes, even though not teaching them.
budgeting.  Reed has some reed materials budget responsibilities
and so forth

On Monday, the Underwater Basketweaving Chair, Ona Stool, met Reed (because, of course, Reed couldn't get into the building or reed prep areas otherwise) to get them started.  They checked, and there was no email for Reed.  Uh Oh.

Ona signed Reed in on her account, so Reed could at least see some basics, and went to make a call.  HR said that for sure, there'd be an email on Tuesday, since it couldn't get started, and would have to go through a "batch" that happens over night.  (It seems like all the updates are put through in one big go overnight rather than piecemeal.)

And after a bit, they went on a walk around the area and campus, to get Reed acquainted with things, and stopped into the centralized Employee Corral, where the folks who help employees with everything and anything are now centralized.  The idea is that you call in or walk in, and the person at the front desk can answer any and all questions and help with whatever.  Got a question about changing your 403b contribution, go to the Corral, and they'll help!

(In reality, the people who can actually do anything aren't the ones at the front desk, so when you call or go in, you inevitably get told that the front desk person will ask someone else and get back to you.  And then you just hope you aren't forgotten or put on a back burner because they're incredibly understaffed and overworked, and things get put aside while more important stuff gets taken care of first.)

At the Employee Corral, they met Sierra, and had a short hello chat, asked about the email, and once again received assurances that it would be up and running once the overnight batch  went through.  And then Ona could do all the electronic forms, and they'd go through an overnight batch, and so forth.

Fortunately, Reed could do some preliminary reed prep back in the department, and that was a nice, low stress activity.

Tuesday morning, no email.  So Ona called Sierra and asked, and Sierra said they'd check into it.

And about 3pm, someone from the Corral, one of the people who is usually super knowledgeable and on top of things, and definitely overworked, emailed a short apology for not getting the email done earlier, and said they'd get one made.  And by 4pm, it was made!

But while Ona could use the email, and Reed could log in with it, the system wouldn't recognize it until, yes, you guessed it, the overnight batch.

And so it was Wednesday before Ona was able to begin putting the electronic forms through to get Reed going, and Thursday before things started working.

Still, Ona reports that they're happy at the way Reed's handled things!

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Uncomfortable Question

Imagine, a fable:

Underwater Basketweaving hired a new non-teaching person recently to do reed and materials work and preparation. 

There were a surprising number of candidates, and some from our campus with similar jobs; someone in the regular basketweaving department, someone in underwater studies, another from agriculture and turf studies.  They'd surely be able to do the job.  Other campus candidates were less qualified.

UB hired someone from off campus, from another underwater basketweaving field, with good experience, a great attitude, and super references.

So, the search chair sent out an email to the candidates who didn't get the job, the usual regrets, many fine candidates, and so forth.  All of it true.

And then one of the on campus people, one of the less-qualified on campus people, someone who'd worked in raising frogs for the biology department, emailed to ask who'd gotten the job.

What do you do with that?  It seems wrong to ask, doesn't it?  And yet, once the person starts, it's not like it's going to be a secret who they are.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Throwing Spaghetti at a Wall . . .

You know the saying, probably, when you're just trying everything you can think of to see if something, anything, works: Throwing spaghetti at a wall to see what sticks.  (Yes, I've heard it with a different word other than "spaghetti.")

That's sometimes what our (collective) Covid responses feel like.

A couple weeks ago, I was asked if I wanted to participate in a Q&A session with newly enrolled English students, on line, synchronously.  I said sure.

And today was the day, so I logged in (early, as requested), navigated a bit of difficulty with the student worker who's trying to make this all happen, and waited.  I asked her how many students have been showing up for these programs, and she said anywhere from zero to ten.  I waited around for the hour, and had zero.  Alas.

You know, it's a good idea, but this time, for our students, it wasn't appealing.  I don't know why, but I know folks are trying to find just whatever ways they can to make new students feel welcome.  Since we're worried about first year student enrollments (as are a lot of schools), it's especially important right now.  But, we're also in a totally new mode of interaction, and not quite sure what's going to work, and what's not, and why, and for whom.  If another department got ten students, then that was probably really valuable for those students.


In other news, I had a student sort of disappear into depression during the Covid closure.  And then he sort of reappeared, and asked for an incomplete.  I said yes, and not only because he'd been a really stellar student up to that point.  I also asked him for a schedule for turning stuff in, and the first things on that schedule were due last week.  And nothing.  I've emailed him, with a warning that once the faculty are back under contract, I simply won't have time, and he must turn things in before that.  Fingers crossed!


Between our administrative assistant retiring, hiring a new one, and doing this on line Q&A (which I did some prep for), I'm suddenly feeling a bit freer and more relaxed.

Or maybe it's that I reserved a camping place for a couple nights in the middle of next week at a county park I've heard is great (but haven't been to).  I'm really looking forward to it!

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Fingers Crossed

So much depends, sometimes.

When I first came to NWU, the Underwater Basketweaving department had a administrative assistant who was less than friendly and less than efficient.  I had to wait for my travel reimbursement forever, because they hadn't sent it in for a long time.  The also took the office furniture and arranged it as a sort of fort so that they were sort of hidden from students.

Then that person retired, and we got the most wonderful person; they were friendly and efficient, helpful, kind, just great. 

And the feel of the department changed totally.  People wanted to drop by the office, to say hello, to get a smile in return.  Things got done and done well, and if you asked for help, you got it, and it was done kindly.

So, one of my first acts as chair is hiring a new administrative assistant.  I had help, thank goodness, from a couple of really smart, good colleagues.  And we've hired someone, and are waiting on paperwork to finish things up.

In the meanwhile, I'm hopeful and worried.  I have good reason to believe the new person is both friendly and effective as a worker.  But if they aren't, then it's on me, and the whole department's going to have a hard time of it.

I've never really been the final say on hiring anyone before.  I've served on plenty of committees, but there's always been a lot of input from others, and I wasn't the final say.  But this time, I am.  And it's scary.

I hope I quit being scared about my job.

Thursday, July 09, 2020

So Many Acronyms!

I've been spending an inordinate amount of time filling in forms lately.  Each form has it's own acronym, which is what everyone calls it, but isn't what it's always called in the form-filling-out thingy.  And, as I've now learned after having problems twice, the forms you need to fill out only work well using Internet Explorer.  Not Edge, Firefox, Chrome... just the old Explorer.  So now I need to remember that.

A few years ago, I prepared a "cheat sheet" or acronyms for our new faculty folks, but this is a whole new level of obfuscation!

And then, of course, a new administrator comes in and renames committees and such, and gives them all new acronyms, to put his mark on things.  (It's always a he doing that here.  In part because our administrators are almost always he.)

I'm breathing a big sigh of relief now because I just submitted a thing I needed to do, and I'm happy with the result.  I hope I'm still happy in six months time.

Can I say, some of the admin assistants over in the main building are saving me so much heartbreak and frustration!  They're just so smart and helpful!

Friday, July 03, 2020


Mine has taken a hit with the new chair stuff.  Working on it.

Early last week, I got a desperate email from a transfer student's core advisor telling me that the student needs Underwater Basketweaving 101 (the intro to UWBW) for an early ed program.  At this point, any UWBW 101 course slots are reserved for new first year students.  But I relented, because it seems to me more important not to hold back this transfer student's progress than for a first year student to get that specific course.

And then I got an email from the Deanling about it.  And I explained, and it was okay, but obviously not something that made him happy.

And then I got another request from a core advisor about a different student with the same problem.  So this time I emailed the Deanling.  And he requested a meeting (on line), and so we met.  I was prepared to get chewed out for wasting his time when I should have known what to do.  And that expectation says something about my confidence issues right now.

But nope.  We talked about other possible courses, and the Deanling emailed another Deanling over in the early ed program, and that Deanling said yes about that student, but not the sort of general yes we were looking for (to let transfer students with a lot of credits already take a different course).

And so it worked out okay, and I wasn't chewed out, which is very good.

I've picked up the balls I dropped before, and was pretty successful at not dropping any this week.

My workspace is filled with notepads with notes of various levels of urgency.  Some can be recycled once a specific problem is taken care of.  Some need to be kept.  It would be a lot easier if I were mostly in my school office, where there are good places to put such notes.  Here, I'm not as organized.


Like a lot of places, NWU is planning to be mostly face to face in fall, but also planning to accommodate those with health issues so they can work from home.  That, according to our HR will be processed under the ADA, except people feel uncomfortable because they don't really have disabilities, just need accommodation during Covid times.  Anyway, I knew of three colleagues who asked for and got accommodations and I'm very happy.

We also have a few colleagues who are asking for accommodations for other reasons, a spouse's health, a child's, or something similar.  Those are being handled separately, and I haven't heard about any of them.  I have a bit of a plan, though, that I'm willing to use but hope I don't have to.


I'd be willing to make a small bet (the only bet I could afford) that we'll actually be pretty much all on line in the all, because the pandemic seems to be getting so much worse in the US. 

Either way, it's scary.  I don't want my colleagues or students to get exposed if we can possibly help it.  So I'm hoping we'll be on line.

On the other hand, a lot of administrative folks are very worried that first year students (especially) will decide to take a gap year if they learn that we're going to be on line, and if another 5-10% do, then we'll be devastated.  We're already down about 5% on first year admissions, and it's scary; and we're WAY down on budget allocation from the state because it's expecting FAR less tax revenue AND paying out WAY more in unemployment.


The upshot is that I'm pretty much planning to put my one course (an upper level Shakespeare course) on line, and then if we're meeting in person, will use that time for discussions and projects.

Monday, June 29, 2020

So Many Dropped Balls

Right now, this chair thing feels like juggling, only there's sharp knives mixed in with porcelain cups and rubber balls of varying sizes and weights.

I just realized I dropped a ball.  Not a knife, and not a porcelain cup.  But still...

Sometimes, the balls just bounce once and I get them, but this one rolled to a corner and I didn't notice it for far too long.  But I'll get it sorted.

In other matters: I got a desperate email from the deanling asking me to overload 1-2 students into each of several first year courses.  It reminded me of when this use to always happen.  (And yes, that was before the bad downturn of 2008.)  But we had an assistant headmaster (now a provost elsewhere) at one point who seemed to have stopped the practice for a while.  Now, my colleague, the previous chair, says she's been getting these emails every year, and when i consulted with a couple of other chairs, they, too, say they regularly get them.  And all of them warned me that there would probably be a further request for more seats later in the summer.

So I emailed the deanling that I would look into it, but that it seemed like they were asking for almost a full section of a first year course (like, a humanities general ed).  And they got a bit defensive, and claimed it wasn't like the old days.  I get that there are budget issues, but we all work hard around here, and spending a couple thousand for an extra intro history or lit course would be a much better solution.  (It costs, say $3800 in salary to hire an adjunct to teach one 3 credit course here.  Add half again that for benefits.  $5900 for a course.  I bet we have an adjunct on campus who doesn't have a full load and would like another course...)

Another ball that's almost been dropped is training for the IACUC (Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee).  It's basically like the IRB is for humans, intended to make sure that any vertebrate animals used in teaching and research are properly cared for and not caused pain or harm if possible.  Mostly, NWU uses zebra fish so students can watch embryo development and mice/rats they can train with clickers and such.  But I still need to do the training (again) by the first of July.

Speaking of the first of July, I got a fabulous weekly planner that I just love.  It's an 18 month planner from Moleskin, orange, and really good.  Each week is on the verso, and then the facing page (recto) is lined for notes.  So when I need to remember to do something in September, it goes into the notes section for the first of that month.  I got it in May, and I've been filling it in and looking forward to using it for real soon!

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

People Change

In the past, I've heard department chairs lament that once they became chair, people (specifically, the people in their departments) changed the way they treated them.

In my short time, I've noticed that I've changed.  I'm even more careful in my communication.  I mean, I always tried to be reasonably careful, to not hurt people unnecessarily, to not use unkind language, and so forth.

That's not to say I was perfect, but I tried.  (I still regret the student who was deeply hurt that I'd marked on a very short paper, very bad paper that she should spell the title of the play [King Lear] correctly.  Having dyslexia, she took that as a personal attack, and presumed I knew.  Though, of course, I didn't know, since the paperwork a college instructor gets to provide accommodation just tells us the appropriate accommodation, and not the reason.  And even if I were told, with 50 or 60 students at a time, I might not have remembered.  Still, I regret hurting her.)

But now?  I'm WAY more careful.  It's like I have no confidence in my ability to communicate clearly.  I can barely bring myself to post on facebook, though I'm happy to comment on my relative's posts, and feel at east doing so.

When I email someone now, I stop and wonder how what I've written can be misconstrued or misunderstood.  I'm not nearly as worried that I'll look stupid as I am that I'll mess things up badly.

I hope I gain a bit more confidence in the job before the new semester starts because this hesitation, this uncertainty, adds a lot of time to things that should be relatively uncomplicated.

So far, my colleagues are treating me pretty much the same as ever.  If anything, they're exhibiting more patience in teaching me what I need to know to take care of departmental stuff.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Meetings with Chairs

There's much uncertainty these days!  The other day, I was in a meeting with chairs and the Dean, and several deanlings, all on line.

You get a sense of who is dealing with real issues (some departments just don't work as well on line, nor do some activities), and of who likes to talk, and of who is really uncomfortable with uncertainty and just wants things nailed down.

Some people say a few words, a single question, a response to a question.  Other people say a lot.  And some people say absolutely nothing.

Apparently, our plan right now is to be face to face for most classes on campus.  There's planning to figure out how to accommodate instructors who have health risks, but it's not clear how HR is going to do that.  (This is a massively busy time of year for HR anyway, with new faculty and adjuncts, some retirements, hiring permissions, etc.  And our HR was really cut a few years ago and hasn't recovered.)  So HR is figuring that out, and it has to be done legally, with regard to the Americans with Disabilities Act and so forth, and that's important.

I get that.  I've assured the colleagues who've contacted me that we're going to have a way to accommodate their health needs.  I'm pretty sure that part will happen.  (Though I'm also attentive to folks who tell me that the university hasn't been very accommodating of previous health or disability issues.)

I don't think we'll be much accommodating, at least officially, to preferences.

And I'm not sure how we'll handle students' health issues.  It's a nightmare to think that faculty would have to teach in person and also have basically an on line independent study with one person.  But, we need to make sure we're not putting anyone with health needs at unnecessary risk.

A lot will depend on chairs.  If an instructor says, "the best way to teach X in this circumstance is to go on line," then is the chair going to try to override that and say, no, you aren't the expert at teaching your thing?

There will be administrative pressure to do that at the top.  But chairs can resist pressure if they want to and so can Deans.

What about students?  If an instructor meets the first day of classes and says, "this is how it's going to be for this class," will students complain way up the line?  If not, then who's to know?

If they complain to the chair, then the chair can say that they respect the instructor's expertise as a teacher and academic freedom to teach in the best way possible, and leave it at that.  But the student could contact the headmaster (ours is very visible), and then the headmaster may set things in motion that aren't so easy to control.

I think a lot will depend on how many instructors want to move on line.  If 10-20 percent want to, we'll probably be pretty relaxed about it.  If 80 percent want to, I think the administration won't be relaxed at all.

Sunday, June 07, 2020

A Big Assessment Question

Like a lot of people, I'm in a couple of facebook groups, including several aimed at academics.  There are a couple feminist groups, and pandemic response groups and so forth.  They're interesting, especially the one with most members in another country.  Today I was reading, and saw an acronym I didn't recognize, and asked.  And the person responded partially, which sort of helped, and then I asked for the rest, and I think they thought I am especially dense.

It was one of those assessment acronyms, the ones we all use at our different schools, some of which mean the same things even though we use different words, and others. . .  well, they don't.  And it really made me think about how thoroughly the language of assessment has taken over academics.  For me, it started right after grad school; I don't think I ever heard anything about assessment in grad school, but right after, BOOM!

A whole lot of academics (at all levels) have been working very hard on assessment stuff for a LONG time now.  And here's the question:

Have students gotten better educations as a result?

The one program around here that clearly points to a change is Introductory Underwater Basketweaving.  Where, before, we all used a hodgepodge of strategies and techniques to teach students the basics, the field has sort of redefined the basics to focus on a lot of terms to do with weave patterns and such.  And our entrance exams all focus on students recognizing weave patterns.  And, by golly, at the end of our course, when they're assessed, they all recognize and can name various weave patterns better than ever before.

But, you know, the baskets they weave don't look much different than they did 20 or so years ago when I first got here.  Some students learned good weaving strategies in high school, and they still use them with great success.  Some students need help preparing the reeds for weaving, and don't really get it, so they're baskets are a mess, but they can name the weave patterns. 

If the point really is that students can name weave patterns, then we've done a good job.  But if the point is that they can weave baskets underwater better, than we haven't.

That's how assessment feels: where we've defined something and focused on that, yes, students can often do that thing better.  But if what we really want students to learn is hard to measure, then are we actually doing a better job educating students?  Seriously, because every school I know of has poured tons of money and time and effort into doing massive assessment.  But by and large, students earning degrees seem no more or less educated than in previous years.  They learn different things, as they should, but overall, are they better critical thinkers?  Better able to understand the world?  Better able to communicate? 

Further: are they more humane?  better citizens?