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?