Posts Tagged ‘Tenured Radical’

Almost as if she had read my post about reifying arbitrary decisions on my syllabi (I’m sure she hasn’t!), Tenured Radical recently posted about her view that syllabi are guides, not contracts. She states:

Most people feel committed to the syllabus they handed out on the first day of class. I understand this. You worked hard on that syllabus and it represents your mastery of a field. It is a symbol of your intellectual authority and autonomy. Finally, even if you want to change it, you may not think that you are allowed to change it. Many faculty and students regard a syllabus as a contract between teacher and student that should not, and cannot, be changed.

But syllabus isn’t a contract: it’s a guide, and a set of appointments you keep every week.  It lays out the scope, logic and promise of the course, offers signposts in the form of topics, requires some readings and suggests other readings that the more ambitious student might wish to pursue. It articulates basic expectations for what students must do (how many papers? How long? Will problem sets be accepted late?), and it spells out as when and how work must be accomplished.

For precisely these reasons, if your syllabus is flawed you must change it. Teaching a syllabus that you have lost confidence in is like choosing to drive a car with a flat tire.

Although I have never substantially altered a syllabus during the semester I agree that flexibility might help a floundering course. To her advice I would add a caution not to remove assignments or change the point distribution in a way that will make it harder for students who have struggled during the first portion of a course to feel like they can bring their grades up. Whether or not they actually will bring their grades up is another issue, but I am always in favor of their ability to feel like they can!

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The other day Tenured Radical posted a story about her undergraduate transformation from an “untogether” to a “together” student. The fact that she got into Yale suggests that her academic potential was different than that of many of my own students, but I think there are some general things that professors can take away from her story.

First is her contention that as a college student she wanted “to be invisible, to be free and to be special.” These three words seem to encapsulate the desires of many students, despite the fact that being invisible and being special seem contradictory. In TR’s case, being singled out as special in one area led to transformations in other areas. I do wonder, though, how a student’s belief that he or she is special before arriving on campus might affect interactions with others. While TR might have thought she was special after getting into Yale, did that belief cause her to wonder why nobody was noticing her in her first years? Some of my own students have done extremely well relative to others in their high schools only to attend college and realize that their academic abilities are not in line with their academic identities.

The second general thing that I think we can take away from her story is the list of things she learned through this process. Some of these things may seem self-evident, but it is easy to forget them when we continually focus on the negative aspects of our students:

  • Be open to new opportunities and new people.
  • If you work hard, someone will notice you.
  • When people notice you, let it lift you up.
  • The student in the room who is really screwing up might just need a small adjustment to excel. Never write a student off.
  • Take opportunities to close the social gaps between student and professor, senior and junior colleague, faculty and administrators.
  • When students fib, don’t blame them, but do them the favor of responding honestly. It is the moral equivalent of an intravenous shot of Red Bull to be held accountable but not judged.
  • Be generous.

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Tenured Radical has a great post about the ways that colleges and universities typically respond to accusations of sexual assault and how those typical responses failed Penn State in the case of Jerry Sandusky.  Largely absent in the media’s coverage of the case is the idea that we need to respond to all reports of sexual assault differently, not just those that involve children.  She states, in part:

Given what we know about all the adults who failed to act at Penn State, and the coarse indifference of a large number of Penn State students to their university throwing children under the bus in exchange for a major Bowl bid, we can speculate that sexual assault of all kinds is way down the list of administrative priorities at many universities. This isn’t just Penn State.  At Yale, women decided that DKE pledges chanting “No means yes, Yes means anal” was the last straw and filed a Title IX discrimination suit.  Only then did Yale close a fraternity that has been notorious on campus for decades. At my very own Zenith, charges of rape filed after an assault at a Beta fraternity last year have been followed up by that fraternity — and Zenith’s DKE chapter — inviting a speaker to campus to raise the topic of why fraternities — not women — are under assault.  And many of us on the faculty were shocked, following the accusations of rape at Beta last fall, as we followed a comments on a campus wiki where numerous students, male and female, assert their entirely unfounded opinions that the accuser was a liar and had filed a police report out of spite; and that the men who ran the frat were “good guys” so clearly no rape could have occurred.

Every time one of these things happens, what it exposes is the way social power is expressed through sexual power, and it requires a feminist response. Let’s move this from the sports page to our classrooms and start connecting the dots.

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Given that I’ve felt extra-busy this semester, a few recent discussions of work habits caught my eye.  First was a post by Female Science Professor describing three types of people she has encountered:

A Type W person would get a lot done whether they were funded by a research assistantship (RA), a teaching assistantship (TA), a fellowship, or whatever.

A Type X1 person would only make decent research progress if funded by an RA or fellowship. A TA would consume all of X1’s time and energy, not because X1 is more devoted to teaching than W, but because X1 can only focus on one thing at a time.

A Type X2 person would get more done if partially funded by an RA or fellowship and partially by something requiring a bit of structured work — for example, perhaps teaching one lab or discussion section, or perhaps doing some grading or other work like that. If funded entirely by an RA or fellowship, X2 wouldn’t be able to deal effectively with the lack of structure and would waste a lot of time, making very slow progress, even if the advisor set specific goals.

Given these descriptions, I would classify myself as an X2 person.  As I’ve mentioned, I don’t do well with large blocks of open time.  I also don’t do well when I have something that can easily take up all of my time (like teaching three courses in a semester).  In order to be productive in more than one area I need to have something to structure my time but not so much of that thing that I can’t focus on anything else.

My ability to fill up time with other things is related to a lack of time in general.  Tenured Radical responds to a reader who asks about a lack of time that is related to constant requests from others:

I don’t have time to go to the gym, or to pack my own lunch — two things I swore I would do this fall to maintain my mental health and not gain back the weight I lost over the summer.  I see talks and events come and go and don’t do any of them because I am already scheduled to do something else or I am so tired all I want to do is go home. Worse, I have so much to do that I am not sleeping well and I forget things constantly.  Keeping up with my writing? Ha! I have deadlines coming due that I can’t even imagine I will keep.

Her response is that the reader, “Marv,” needs to learn to say no to things that are not in line with his goals and interests:

This leads us to a larger problem, Marv, which is that you have set goals for yourself — go to the gym, eat a nice lunch, get some sleep, write, be responsible to your students, take advantages of the intellectual pleasures a university campus offers — without actually acting to privilege your own interests and desires over the interests of other people. You are trying to please all of the people, all of the time.  You are pleasing everyone but yourself.

While I can certainly appreciate the pressures to please others, especially on the tenure track, but this is not my problem.  My problem is that I keep saying yes to opportunities that sound interesting without prioritizing my own goals.  I pressure myself to get involved.  At some point, though, I need to decide what is really important, likely putting research above other interests.  I have a feeling that this time will be soon.

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Reading Tenured Radical’s post today about the fact that she hates teaching on Labor Day reminded me that there has never been a semester I’ve taught when I didn’t teach on Labor Day.  In fact, teaching on Labor Day has become so ingrained that I forget it is a holiday (this, I suppose, is one of TR’s points).  My wife mentioned not having to work on Monday and it took me a minute to figure out why she got a day off and I didn’t (the fact that there are scores of days each year that she has to go to work and I can do whatever I want never prevents me from being jealous of a day off!).

Schedule-wise, I understand the appeal of working on the first or second Monday of the semester.  At my current school we have a two-day fall break and a three-day Thanksgiving break, which means that every day of the week is missed once during the fall semester.  This would be a perfect match for the full-week spring break in the spring semester (working on MLK Day – another tradition) if it weren’t for Easter throwing a wrench into the works like a Luddite.

I have to admit that I enjoy having a fall break much more than I would enjoy not working on Labor Day, but I would enjoy having both even more.  As it stands, laboring on Labor Day may be another sign of the decline of a sense of unity among workers, or even the recognition that faculty members are, in fact, workers.  TR concludes things better than I could, stating:

One unexpected cultural outcome of Labor Day is that, when we take the day off, we all acknowledge for a day that we are “workers,” and that we sell ourselves to an employer for a price.  When faculty agree to work on Labor Day, we reveal something peculiar about ourselves:  that we don’t see ourselves as “workers” at all.  We think we are something else, something called a “professional” who has exchanged the benefits of being part of a collective bargaining system for status.  We think this, even though our labor is increasingly proletarianized, our salaries and benefits are being deliberately suppressed, and it is possible to lose access to a federally mandated holiday by not showing up at a faculty meeting and voting for your right to have it.

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Tenured Radical has a post today exploring the role of college sports on small campuses, particularly in light of the potential for life-altering brain damage in sports like football.  In discussing this, she brings up a point that I’ve often considered in the past year and a half:

Too often, faculty assume that athletics themselves are a waste of resources and are inherently at odds with the intellectual mission of a university.  I disagree emphatically, and I particularly dislike criticisms that single out a particular group of students as undeserving, unaccomplished and unworthy of an excellent college education.  But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look at some sports more closely.  Students who are recruited for football are being brought to college to work for their education at a part-time job that is directly at odds with their ability to profit from their education over the long-term, and perhaps even in the short term.

The fact is that football teams are big, which can make them a large part of a small campus (about 6% of students at my institution are football players).  As a result of this (and the number of football players who take at least a few sociology courses), I have had a lot of football players in my courses.  For some of these students, the ability to play glorified high school football at a Division III school is a double-edged sword.  While they may not be at a liberal arts school if it weren’t for football, football takes up a lot of the time that they could devote to studying if they are to be academically successful.  This is certainly true in other sports as well, but the size of the football team and the academic profile of a typical player make these factors more visible in this case.

When considering this in the past I have typically wondered about the academic benefits vs. academic liabilities of playing football, but factoring potential brain damage into the equation does change the situation somewhat.  As TR concludes, “At the very least, we on college faculties should press for information and forums that acknowledge the reality of an alternative point of view about the place of this sport in higher education.”

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Based on the posts last week, Tenured Radical has created a cartoon.  While it is no “So you want to get a Ph.D. in the humanities,” it is still enjoyable.  I’m starting to think that more bloggers should make regular video clips – like Ph.D. Comics but with more movement (and likely, less humor).

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Continuing the theme of faculty compensation, Tenured Radical has posted Part III of the conversation she started earlier in the week.  In Part III she gives an overview of the wide range of responses to her question of faculty salary and notes that only one commenter, the difficult to pronounce Squadratomagico, was not worried by the current state of affairs.  Squadratomagico (it is difficult to type, too) details her reasons for this at her own blog, including the argument that this is part of the deal we accept when entering the nonprofit world.  Along these lines, I thought that academics largely accept the fact that they are not going to get rich in academia and that if they wanted doctors’ and lawyers’ salaries they should go to school to be doctors and lawyers.  I remember hearing this several times, though not quite so bluntly as this or this.

Given the wide range of salaries in response to TR’s original post, it is clear that many academics are struggling in low-wage conditions.  There are others, however, bringing home comfortable salaries despite recent stagnation.  As one professor told me in grad school, no matter how much he made, he never seemed to have any extra money (he mentioned the more expensive houses, vacations, etc. that tend to come with higher incomes, but he may as well have said this).  Beyond the fact that we should have known what we were getting into before becoming academics, I have a hard time finding sympathy for an individual making more than twice the median income of U.S. households as we slowly make our way out of an economic crisis (even controlling for the higher cost of living in certain areas).

The larger question, though, is whether the salary freezes that have frustrated even well-paid academics are temporary or part of a new world order of higher education.  Given rising costs and decreasing budgets, academic pay is likely a double-edged sword.  As Squadratomagico notes, “The larger the gap between what it costs institutions to sustain a full-time line with benefits, and hiring an adjunct, the more adjunctified the university becomes, pure and simple.”  Ultimately, it seems that the solution may need to come from larger public investments in education, which is a double-edged sword in itself.  For the foreseeable future, it appears that we’ll need to revel in the non-monetary benefits of academia if we have a desire to consider ourselves rich.


*This post has a soundtrack, which has reentered my consciousness thanks to its excellent use in The Social Network

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A post at Tenured Radical yesterday brought up the issue of increasing faculty responsibilities and decreasing salaries (in constant, and sometimes absolute, dollars).  The comments on yesterday’s post are particularly interesting given the wide range of salaries at various institution types.  This is something that most people are aware of in the abstract but is still sobering when contextualized.  A post today continues this discussion and responds to Historiann’s discussion of TR’s changing opinion on salary freezes over the past few years (thankfully, academics are able to change their minds based on new information, unlike politicians).

The issues of salary and workloads are connected to current discussions of work-life balance.  At one such discussion on my own campus at which the administration reiterated its support for the health and well-being of the faculty one brave soul brought up the fact that despite these messages, the only way for faculty members to increase their salaries is to increase their workload.  He then asked whether the administration had ever considered rewarding faculty for leading balanced lives rather than simply working more.  The answer, unsurprisingly, was no.

Faculty members, then, appear to be faced with a choice between working less for less money or working more for less money.

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I was recently reminded of my reflections on academic behavior by Tenured Radical’s recent admission that:

As it turned out, I was unable to sit through a meeting that bored me without fidgeting, texting, whispering to my neighbor, and going on Facebook repeatedly to update all my “friends” (many of whom were in the room) about my status. Status as what? Status as a middle-aged person who has utterly lost patience with meetings? Status as someone who has utterly lost hir manners?

I have to admit that there have been times in the past year where I sent text messages during faculty meetings – usually to let my wife know that I was not going to be home anywhere near the expected time.  I find it interesting, though, that Tenured Radical blames Facebook for her behavior:

If it were not for the mileage I get for this blog from being on Facebook, I would definitely punish myself by canceling my account, since my behavior yesterday seems like de facto proof of cerebral and personality changes that have been wrought by this particular form of new media. I wasn’t even able to sit there quietly reading The Atlantic on my iPhone, which is the kind of non-disruptive behavior that many fifth graders with ADD have mastered.

As I’ve said before, I strongly believe that the bad use of technology is a symptom, not the disease.

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