Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Losing Touch

There's a recent article by Deborah K. Fitzgerald in The Chronicle of Higher Ed about how "Our Hallways Are Too Quiet."  In the article, Fitzgerald laments that after a ten year absence (deaning), she returned to the faculty area to find it feeling empty.  She notes that faculty are busy working elsewhere, especially at home, something made possible by changing policies (allowing folks to work at home as a way to make things better for families, for example), and technology (networked computers enable us to work away from specific offices in ways we couldn't earlier; though to be honest, I've had networked computer capabilities for about 18 years now, and I'm guessing my campus isn't as tech quick as MIT, nor am I as tech savvy, in all likelihood, as she is).

Fitzgerald suggests that it's hard to get "work" done in campus offices, and that tenure demands for publication fuels faculty needs to work off campus.   (At NWU, requirements for tenure and promotion subtly shift up all the time, at least partly the faculty's fault, but also in response to administrative pressures.)

While that seems likely, I'd also suggest that faculty may be in their offices with doors closed, doing the additional paperwork sorts of work that seems to keep getting added to our loads in various ways.

Even basic stuff, such as writing syllabi, seems more complicated.  A while back, I found a syllabus I got in college.  It's one side of one page, and basically gives the readings for the semester and test dates.  We're now expected to give information about how we're evaluating students, what plagiarism is and how we'll deal with it, absence policies, various sorts of help available on campus, and on and on.  Some of it's cut and paste from previous terms, but sometimes we add new stuff; I have a colleague who wrote up a civility policy after dealing with a particularly rude student last semester.

And then there's "delivery," how we try to teach students whatever we're tying to teach.  How much time do people spend on powerpoints so that they can make them available to students?  I'm guessing a lot more than my art history prof used to spend picking out slides for a lecture.  In addition, we probably all spend time setting up course management sites, putting up assignments, arranging whatever.  (Does this take longer or less long than the copies of readings that were stapled into folder  for check out at my undergrad library for readings not in the textbook?  I don't know.  I think I probably assign more out of text readings than I was assigned, but I wasn't an English major.)

Don't forget about advising and student services: we're all asked to send notes to the Dean of Students if we have students "of concern," students who aren't coming to class enough, students who seem depressed, students who come to class hungover.  We're supposed to track these students' emotional states and notify whatever offices on campus seem appropriate.  (And in order to do that, we're asked to take special computer modules about student depression or whatever.)

Finally, there's the endless assessment game, and all the meetings we have to attend to decide what and how we're going to assess whatever it is, and then the additional time to fill out the forms that the assessment folks demand, with ever changing goals and targets.

And all the committee work that needed to be done ten years ago still needs to be done, but here in my department, we're down about 20% of faculty from 10 years ago, so we have fewer people doing the work, and more work (assessment, especially) is required all the time.

So here's what bothered me about the article.  Fitzgerald seems surprised by these changes.  But here at NWU, at least, people write bigger syllabi in response to administrative requirements (read: the dean's office sends a mandate).  People make up powerpoints and study guides because administration pressures them to in some fields.  And by golly, administrative pressures are behind every single bit of endless assessment work we do.

Did she not notice as dean that the administration was making continually increasing demands on faculty?  (Was she not making those demands or seeing them made somehow?)

Fitzgerald comes up with a typically deanly remedy: she praises the creation of
events such as regular colloquia, lunches, teas, and happy hours to give people a chance to interact. Some may view those social opportunities as a huge time-waster. I would argue that, on the contrary, collegiality and collaboration are part of what we are paid for.
I'm not the best happy hour person (I have a low enough alcohol capacity to not drink anything alcoholic if I have to drive), but these sound pretty nightmarish to me. 

If we really want to make departments more sociable (and I'm not sure we do, for a variety of reasons), then reduce workloads, and give people opportunities to chat over whatever relaxing beverages they like.  But it has to come with a workload reduction that means my friend with a two year old isn't worried about making the pickup from daycare on time, and so the TT colleague who's desperately working on an article can take a breath away.  And the atmosphere has to be actually welcoming.  (My department's social functions pretty much always feel like straight, married folks sit in pairs and talk about being straight married folks in the most gender-normed ways you can imagine.  Maybe that feels welcoming to some straight married folks, but it doesn't to me.)

We also need to recognize that if the sociability fantasy is based on everyone "back in the day" having had a stay at home spouse, having been all white, all ivy-educated or whatever, then we need to rethink whether we want that sociability.  If we've done anything right in the past 20 years (and the closed door thing has certainly been a problem for more than 10 years), then we've increased the diversity of our faculty in many ways: we have more people of color, more LGBTQ folks, more women with children, more folks from different social classes.  Not everyone may want "tea" if it means pretending we're all upper crust British wannabe aristocrats.


  1. I just want to endorse all of this, 110%.

  2. Anonymous6:52 PM

    Dear Surprised Dean: You/president/board gutted the hallways years before the profs disappeared: first there was no longer anyone to summon for a broken light or fritzing computer (we can't call our staff colleagues anymore but must submit a *ticket* for each tiny need); then the secretaries/administrative assistants were gradually given more and more departments and fewer and fewer duties; and the cleaning staff I used to know by name and greet are now on managed teams and rotated through in predawn hours, and then you decided we didn't need much in the library since it can all be gotten through interlibrary loan. You reduced our courses by one and added more magical advising, gobs of assessment, third center activities, higher research expectations, more reporting, learning and teaching centers, workshops, more and more mandatory deanly retreats, etc. Every entity produces a newsletter, and email, and some serve lunch. You are trying, expensively, to legislate magic...without noticing that the magic is what you did away with. It was magic when a secretary processed my visa bill, and I could meet with students and talk about their futures. Now I've got to spend an hour logging into a system and entering budget numbers and submitting for review, and training for that new system, and getting the email for the deadlines, and reading the newsletter from the business office (which, instead of having employees who do this stuff, has employees who train us to do it). Magic happened when we had secretarial support and time for one another and fell into curricular discussions because we were all in the hallway. Happened to me this morning, but is less and less a feature of the workplace where I feel increasingly alienated.

  3. Agree with you, Bardiac, and also with Anonymous. I'd add this if talking to Fitzgerald: "Collegiality is fine, as is being on campus/in the hallways, going to social events, and so on. But that's what you SAY you value. What you DO value is productivity as measured by articles, grants, numbers of students, conferences, and student evaluations. It's no wonder that article after article tells new faculty to CLOSE their doors, avoid unnecessary hanging out, and anything else that would distract them from writing and publishing."

  4. I agree with you, and with Bardiac, and Undine. And my addition is to pooh-pooh the technology excuse, because I worked at home as many days a week as I could, long before computers were networked. Books (physical, hard-copy, printed, bound paper objects) have been available since there were US universities, as have paper, pencils, pens and ink. Colloquia etc only bring people together if people have the leisure to go to them, which is where tasks like picking up kids come in, and the do-it-yourself "timesavers" Anonymous mentions (which means paying professorial salaries for doing all this form-filling, rather than paying a secretarial wage), which both cost our time and make us grumpy so we don't feel like hanging out. I could go on, but I have to go to class.

  5. Another complicating factor at my U? Someone is always teaching, from 8:30 in the morning until 10! at night. We're spread all over the map. This term I'm only teaching four days a week, but you'll find me at farflung parts of the university on different days. I have office hours twice a week and that's about the only time I get to be in or near my office for more than ten or fifteen minutes, here or there.

    Our department colloquium timeslot is supposed to be the one time a week when no one is teaching but the registrar's office tweaked that and so one faculty member can never come this term. It's a little frustrating that we don't see each other in the hallways or in the colloquia, but at least we all still have our jobs, we say!