Wednesday, October 21, 2020

The Little Stuff

 As instructors, we all have little stuff that needs to get done.  

We have monthly time sheets, which basically ask, did you take sick leave.  If not, you say no.  If you did, you put in the days you were out. It takes about 3 minutes once a month, and one of our administrative assistants sends out a reminder each month with directions how to do it.

And yet: this past week, I've gotten emails from the deanling letting me know that about a quarter of our folks were missing at least one, and of those, most were missing significant numbers.  Some people were missing the whole year's worth.  It's a little thing, right?  Except when we retire, unused sick leave gets converted into payments towards our group health insurance, and for me, at this point, having been here 20 years, I have about 5 years of insurance (unless I get sick and have to take sick leave now).  That means, for a lot of people, retiring before 65 is a real possibility.  And that's incredibly valuable!

So I sent out reminders with specific months that folks had to do.  And still, even now, some people haven't bothered.  (The notes I sent out specified that people would lose x hours of sick leave, because that's what the deanling told me.)

Another piddly thing: we're all supposed to turn in a syllabus for each course to be kept in an electronic file.  This way, if a student needs a copy of the syllabus for a transfer or something, the office staff can help them with that easily.  

So, the same admin assistant sends out requests.  And then reminders.  And at this point in the semester, they're sending individual requests to the people who haven't sent them yet.  

I don't get why.  Seriously, you hit "reply" and then "attach" and go through your computer files, attach the file, and hit send.  Two minutes?  And this is for things you're currently teaching, so you probably have the files somewhere pretty handy, right?

These piddly things come to me, as chair, to send reminders and such, or to try to add my urging to the admin assistant's.  For all the good it does.

And yes, the irony: faculty are FAR worse than students at turning things in, even when reminded repeatedly.  We don't, as it were, read the syllabus.

Except, like most students, most of us do the things we're supposed to do, if not immediately, after one reminder.  It's just the ones who don't cause extra work for other people, and the work adds up.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Reviewing the Review

 This past week, our former chair, several high level administrators, and I had a meeting to review the department review that was done in 2019.  Usually, they said, the reviews of the reviews happen in summer, but as we all know, this summer was something else, and so, it was delayed.

The review was good, as was the initial review.  There are problems, but we all knew that, and we also know that we can't mint money, so we can't easily solve the problem.

Over-reliance on instructors with short term contracts.  They're great, but we're constantly juggling how we're going to pay them (we being the department during planning season), rather than them being paid through the base plan as tenure track folks and more permanent folks are.

We were advised to hire some people on more permanent contracts.  And, of course, we'd put in a request to do so last spring, and the administrators didn't give us the go ahead, because they had a massive budget shortage looming, of course.  So then they said, well, it's a good idea to hire people on more permanent contracts.  And we agreed.  And nothing is likely to come of it because the state is in more and more dire circumstances.

And even when things ease up, we'll never get back to where we once were.  Or we won't unless the voters decide that they really do want to fund public education in a more meaningful way again.  And I hope they do, and I think they should start with K-12 schools first.

And thus, we all performed our little performance for each other, yes, these things would be good, and maybe someday.  But today is not the day.  Nor is next year, in all likelihood.  Nor the year after.  And in the long run, we're all dead.

I can't imagine how disheartening it must be for the administrators at the meeting to have these meetings with chairs of recently reviewed departments, and to know they're just performing, and that they'll never have the money to throw at the problems in a meaningful way.

Our former chair asked a GREAT question during the meeting: What are [the highest administrator's] priorities for us?

Of course, our work had been focused through the last five year plan, but now there's a new one... and it's even more STEM focused than the last.  F the humanities, is the latest word.  But if we just find a way to be more STEM focused!

My favorite was from our Dean, the person most directly responsible for giving us, or denying us, permission to do searches and make hires: catch up on hiring people.  Well... yes... but...


It's been over a month since I posted.  So much keeps happening, and there's constantly something new to learn.

Next up: I have to cobble together the plan for how we're going to pay our short term contract people next year.  That should be fun.  Oh, so very much fun.  Except, yeah, not really.

Saturday, September 12, 2020


 I can't get the poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade" out of my head...

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
   Someone had blundered.
   Theirs not to make reply,
   Theirs not to reason why,
   Theirs but to do and die.
   Into the valley of Death
   Rode the six hundred.
I'm not in a war zone, and not in nearly as much danger as your average roofer, I'm sure.  Still, I'm worried.
I did my first class observation as chair the other day.  The class was super, as I'd expected, but I couldn't help feeling a bit on edge.  As chair, I'm going to be doing a fair number of class observations this semester, most in person, sitting in an empty chair amongst the students, all of us masked, all of us socially distanced, and still.
The administrators tell us that the public health people assure them that the masks and social distance works really well to make the risk of transmission really low.  But sitting there for over an hour the other day, I was still worried.
I'd be a bit reassured, I supposed, if the administrators were making their presence on campus felt, walking between classes with folks.  But I see on effbee that some are working from home, and others are hunkered in their offices, staying far from the rest of us plebians.
Most of our students are being reasonably careful in classes, but what of the weekends?  The bars?  I doubt they're empty these days.
And the dorms are already a concern.
Several of my students have decided not to come to class, but to attend virtually, and since I organized my class so that they could do that, thinking that there'd be some quarantined at some point, it's fine by me.  I did a check in with the class on Friday, and most were feeling anxious, overwhelmed, and worried, pretty much like everyone I know.
I'm hearing from colleagues that they're hearing from students who want to attend virtually, too.  And some are able to accommodate that, and willing, and some aren't.
One colleague resents that students feel that they should get to stay safely at home when my colleague doesn't get to do that.  But officially, none of us is supposed to be so worried that we feel staying home is imperative.  

It feels like we instructors are caught in the middle between administrators tucked in their offices insisting that we all have to teach face to face, and students who don't want to be face to face, and the administrative pressure to help those students who are quarantined keep up, but not caring about the students who are anxious...


I went to a training session by our teaching center folks, the ones who act like they know so much more about teaching than anyone else, even though most of them have never stood in front of a real class to teach it.  Anyway, they said we could take attendance through our streaming system.  That sounded good.  But I couldn't find my notes, so I went to their site to try to find the ppt they'd used, which is supposed to be available.  (They're not.)  So I asked in a 9 am Q&A session.  And the person showed me.  So I went to do it, and it lists students by first name and then last name, and some with middle names.  Unlike EVERY other thing done by any large organization ever...  So I went back to the Q&A session, and the facilitator sounded like she'd never even thought of how to move from the list to the official attendance record.  So she decided to show me on her fake class of five... and started taking out the middle names, one at a time.  I stopped her and said she couldn't do that because it wasn't practical for a large class (where about 20% of my students show middle names).  And she was befuddled.  I wanted to say: put 150 students in there, and then come back to me and show me how to do this without a massive work around.

There's no way to do it without a massive work around, apparently.  So I suggested she needed to contact the provider and let them know this would be a good feature.  And she said no, she couldn't do that, that they weren't going to change things.  

But here's the thing: I bet thousands of instructors would find that useful across the country, and if the company doesn't get told, doesn't have customers INSISTING, then they're going blithely on with crap.


I dropped by some friends' house yesterday afternoon to drop some stuff off, and they invited me to dinner, so we had lovely hot soup in the back yard, socially distanced and all.  But it was chilly.  And soon it will be far to chilly for dinner outside to be pleasant.  I'm so going to miss that.


Saturday, August 29, 2020

The Weirdest Change So Far

 The weirdest thing about being chair so far is that people seem to think I know stuff.  Not special, secret information, but stuff no one would have asked me about six months ago.

I've had a long conversation about balancing demands on a colleague's time.  Six months ago, I pretty much knew what I know now, but no one would have bothered to ask me.

And then there was a conversation about how to deal with a split class (we have to put fewer students in a room, due to social distancing, so classes with say, 30 students, meeting on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, might have to be split into three groups, one meeting Monday, one Wednesday, and one Friday.  I've thought a lot about how to do this during the summer, but I assume everyone around here has.  I don't have any brilliant insight, but I still got asked.


I had a problem doing the split class thing myself, it just became physically impossible to do because of an accommodation a student needed.  So I asked another chair, and was told that since there are a lot of classes on line now, there are sometimes extra larger rooms, so we might be able to move to a larger room at the same time and not have to do a split class.

I emailed the staff person in charge of that, who is an absolute gem of a staff person, and they said, yes, and were able to change my room.  Then I asked about our first year writing courses, a couple of which were scheduled on a split option.  And they fixed those (I gave the instructor a choice).  Then I asked about lower division courses, and a few could be changed, so I asked the instructors, and most said yes with great enthusiasm.  And then we moved to other upper division courses, and so far, a couple good options.  Overall, I'd say we went from having all but one (non-first year writing) course split, to having about 8 not split, so maybe one fifth?  That's a pretty good change.

The semester begins next week. 

Tuesday, August 04, 2020


I got this idea from Dame Eleanor, here, where she looked back over her decades.

Six decades ago, my parents brought me home from the hospital in a large city, to their suburban house on Hamilton Lane.  My Mom purposefully chose to go up to the City to give birth, so that I could tell people where I was from, and everyone would know what that meant.  I don't remember the house on Hamilton Lane, since we moved from there before I was three, though I've driven by it as an adult.  I'm told it looks very different now, with a second story added on.

Five decades ago, I was having summer between my grammar school and my middle school, and rather dreading being with "big kids" in the middle school.  Middle school was a more miserable school experience than grammar school, for sure, but I was eager to start learning oboe, which I'd wanted to learn earlier, but they'd made me start on clarinet.  (This turned out to be a problem, since I basically had to try to teach myself oboe in middle band standing outside the band room until I could play a bit, with none of the basic help that everyone got in the fifth grade beginning band classes, while all the other kids who'd played for a year worked on stuff together.  I didn't know, for example, that you were supposed to start in the middle of the instrument's range, and tried to start with the lowest note on the fingering chart.  That's the B-flat below the staff, on oboe, and not an easy note to play.)  I lived in the house I still think of as home even though no one I know lives there now.

Four decades ago, I was an undergraduate, studying Zoology, and trying to figure out where my life would go.  I spent way more time than I should have playing D&D with friends, but those friends are still friends.  I was lots less "outdoorsy" than most zoology students, though I desperately wanted to be.  It just wasn't something that really interested anyone else in my family.

Three decades ago, I had recently started a PhD program moving from one part of my home state to another.  I was thoroughly intimidated by the educational backgrounds and brilliance of my fellow grad students and working desperately hard to catch up despite having studied already in an MA program at a regional university.  But I was very lucky to have connected with a wonderful mentor and some kind and friendly other graduate students.  I was living in a really big city (instead of a suburb or quite small city) for the first time, and taking a while to figure it out. 

Two decades ago, I had recently moved to the great North Woods, into my very first house, a two bedroom GI Bill starter house in a neighborhood of GI Bill starter houses.  I used to call it the neighborhood of dead presidents and heroes of WWII.  I lived with a big, lovely Lab who took me on walks every day, and would have been happy to take me on two or three walks a day.  My Dad had died about a year before, just before I moved to the great North Woods, and that, with the move to a new place and my Mom needing to talk for a long time pretty much every day made for a hard couple of years.  I was a fairly new assistant professor, at a fairly new job, trying to figure all the things out at my still fairly new job.  I'd moved from my first tenure track job, and was very happy to have moved.

One decade ago, I was living where I live, having earned tenure where I still work.  I was in better shape than I am now, physically, though maybe not emotionally.  My dog had died and I'd started biking and doing a little bit of camping, and gotten back into birding a bit (which I'd learned a bit in college as an undergrad).  I'd started making biking friends, and that has been wonderful.

And now: I like to say I'm one cat away from "crazy cat lady."  (No, I don't have a cat.)  I'm much happier now, and would have to say that since high school, my life has gotten mostly happier with each passing year and experience.  I'm the brand new chair of my department, experiencing a steep learning curve, and looking forward to trying to do a good job and then retiring.  I like my friends, and feel valued and supported in my community.  The Covid and "safer at home stuff" has made my Mom once again much more needy, and she wants to talk pretty much every day.  I still need to work on my patience.  My house is a home, and fixed up and painted in ways that made me happy.  I enjoy the spaces and like being here.

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!