Thursday, March 19, 2009

Hope and Despair

Spring really is coming. My crocus says so!

News about budget stuff just gets worse and worse. In a nearby state, there's talk about having state employees pay more towards their health insurance benefit. We're looking likely to do furloughs here. One of my colleagues says they should just admit they're making pay cuts. I'm wondering if calling it a pay cut means it never comes back, while calling it a furlough means we go back to the regular pay eventually?

I have a contract letter that says how much I'm supposed to be paid for the year. Can they force me to take a furlough and earn less? How does that work as a contract?

NWU has been doing a big budget study project; the project is supposed to help the administrators decide in a reasonable, informed way, what goes, because some things are going to go. I have no idea what those will be, however.

All the departments and such did comparison studies with data about campuses similar to ours, and by and large we found that we get paid less and teach more students AND produce more research than those schools. In my department, that means we teach way more students in comp classes than our similar campuses do. It doesn't mean we do as good a job teaching as they do, however.

So, with the budget crisis, we're looking at adding more students to each class. Add a couple students to each comp class over the semester, and drop a whole comp section (one taught by an adjuct, of course) and save money on that adjunct's salary. That sucks for the adjunct in major ways, and for instructors across the board, and for our students.

There's the rock.

Educational assessment is always aimed at saying that we're doing a good job; there's never any benefit to saying we aren't. So, we assess writing and say that yes, students are improving, though not as much as we'd like. We have no way to compare how well we're teaching with comparable campuses.

And that's the hard place.

We can't get at how much better we might do if we taught smaller classes, nor is there money to pay for instructors enough to teach smaller classes. Instead, we'll get more students, and then that new number will become the new standard, and that will never go down. Even if I could prove that teaching 16 students instead of 28 meant that each student learned 20% more, it wouldn't matter because no one with real power really cares about our students enough to vote to pay for it.

The dean and chairs are talking about ways to mitigate the added load of additional students in our classes. In some classes, profs will start using bubble tests, but it's hard to imagine how to teach writing without actually having to grade writing, and that goes not only for composition classes specifically, but for philosophy classes, history classes, and so forth, all of which are writing intensive fields.

I'm looking at the rest of my career and figuring things will never get better.

I used to think it might, but the more I hear people complain about paying taxes, the more certain I am that things won't change for the better in public education.

So as I look at the rest of my career, another 15-20 years, I'm wondering if it's worth it? Or what the alternatives are.


  1. The bad news is that some moron (and I use that word deliberately) decided that it was ok for there to be 50 students in our Ethics, Intro to Phil and World Religions classes. The Moron used bubble sheets and taught in an era without the expectation of "active learning" -- so she thought it was ok. She also didn't teach those classes very often, she did teach Logic and Biomedical Ethics -- Logic is still 40 peple and Biomedical Ethics is 30. Yep -- Ethics and Biomedical Ethics have a class size difference of 20 students, with essentially the same material.

    Even when we weren't facing a budget crunch, changing those class sizes was an impossibility.

    My best advice is to fight going above the national standard class size any way you can. If you need to teach extra sections for free -- or otherwise increase the total number of students you teach, then do it. Those load issues can change more easily than class size.

    One alternative might be to discuss new models for comp 1 --- maybe some kind of lecture/lab set-up. Here they do a writing center and require all comp 1 students to spend an hour per week there.

  2. We're struggling with similar issues. Right now there are rumours that graduate teaching funds will be cut so no TAs to run tutorials. And we're not even sure if they're going to let us admit new grad students for next year! (Is that how they'll make up for canceling our limited term appointments? Mothball our grad program and take those teaching resources back to the undergrad? I dunno but I am suspicious.)

    Anyway, you're right that this is really disheartening for writing-intensive courses. I already struggle with my over-stuffed classes, trying to keep current on the marking of weekly tutorial responses or bi-weekly projects. To do this with even more people in the class would end up significantly downgrading the outcome for students!

  3. Anonymous6:15 PM

    Am so sorry to read about this. It's one of the reasons I left Rural Utopia - state schools, or at least a lot of them, really can't survive on state money any more; they need to turn to the kinds of fund-raising strategies that private schools use (but without the infrastructure to support it, of course). It sucks all round.

    (Of course, private institutions have their own problems, even if they actually do have money. Money doesn't buy happiness, as the saying goes - but it sure solves a lot of problems.)

  4. "Can they force me to take a furlough and earn less? How does that work as a contract?"

    Apparently the only contracts that can't be bent in this way are those of AIG executives :-).

    From what I understand, furloughs are better than pay cuts because pay cuts are permanent. It still means less money.

  5. Yes it's worth it. The alternative is foreclosure and living out of your car --- I can tell you that there certainly aren't any adjunct jobs to be had and the k-12 and secretarial jobs sure aren't going to want you either. My Target had hundreds of people lined up trying to get one of their advertised jobs.

    You let the caps rise, fine; it's just going to be a sucky few years there. Then you'll need to take some _collective_ action once (if?) things get a little better economically. Crazy had a series of posts about how her entire department banded together (and the really really had to plan this out good) and fought the admin with a unified front to push to get the class caps lowered. You've gotta be collective, you've gotta be united, you've gotta be pushy. But you can do it. Just don't bother trying it right now.

  6. PS is it florida or florida state that's folding their entire English department (or maybe it was philosophy?) into another department and firing all tt and tenured faculty? It can get worse. It can get much worse.

  7. Anonymous7:03 AM

    IPF sounds right about better to do overload in the short term than up the class sizes---except, upping the class sizes shares the pain, and overload concentrates the pain---what professor is willing to take one for the team like that? But you might even get an IOU for an overload. Failing that, try to get it written down officially that these numbers are a temporary exigency?

    I do a lot of Before and After handouts that could possibly offer the germs of some multiple choice writing teaching---eg, which sentence is preferable, A or B? What general rule applies to justify that choice? Annoying and not real writing, but my students could actually use some practice in making those sorts of editing decisions.

    Best of luck...we're still not sure what's happening here. Having started out sort of poor, we were not especially overextended, so the pain has been deferred a bit, but it's coming. Just started with the president taking a furlough---at least the people in charge are marketing savvy.