A Sordid Little Story…

I want to tell a story. It addresses a taboo topic: workplace issues. It is important to make the community aware of these issues, especially for younger teachers going into the two-year college environment, expecially in certain regions. The landscape is changing in some states, and not in good ways. This story could be set anywhere or nowhere at all. The characters could be anyone, even you. Read this post as though it were a short story, or some other fictionalized account, in the narrator’s voice (I hear it in my mind as an episode of Little House on the Prairie narrated by Laura Ingalls Wilder). I encourage you to read the entire story, though, because I think it has a reasonably happy ending. Do not attack me for telling this story; it’s just a story not necessarily based on reality.

Here are the characters in this sordid little story: the first-person narrator (some random physics instructor at a random two-year college in a random state in a random universe), [the Chair], [previous Dean], [new Dean] (aka [the Dean]), [physics colleague]. Here we go.

It all started in March on a quiet Friday morning. I was in my office, and [physics colleague] knocked on my door and I motioned to come on in. [Physics colleague] asked, “So what do you think of [the Chair’s] idea?” I had no idea what [physics colleague] was talking about so I asked. [The Chair] had just asked if [physics colleague] would be willing to take over the calculus-based courses from me this fall. Not one to say no, but [physics colleague] made it clear that it wasn’t desirable but agreed to out of obligation to obey [the Chair’s] request. Note that my colleage is from another country and was an assistant or associate department chair there and firmly believes that one’s department chair is an ultimate authority not to be crossed. [The Chair] had left the hall so I went to [the Dean] (whom I’ve known for years as a fellow faculty member) and asked about this; nope. Quite a number of days passed before [the Chair] approached me, and it was a strange conversation. First, [the Chair] congratulated me on increasing the enrollment in our astronomy course, which susprised me because I haven’t done anything to increase enrollment becuase I have no control over that. Anyway, [the Chair] then coyly smiled and asked if I would be willing to “do the same” for our conceptual physics course in the fall. Of course I asked why, and why NOW? I got a very mixed response. [The Chair] proceeded to explain that [physics colleague’s] approach to conceptual physics wasn’t appropriate as it used too much math. Given that [the Chair] is not a physicist and has no formal background in physics or physics education I didn’t think such an assessment was appropriate from someone in a non-physics discipline and said so. Well, [the chair] then proceded to express discontent with my own methods in calculus-based physics, stating that I am hurting students’ educations by not requiring formal lab reports and emphasizing computation rather than traditional labs. [The Chair] confidently stated that computation isn’t real science and that I shouldn’t be emphasizing it so much. [The Chair] also claimed that a PhD (not in physics) dwarfs my own knowledge and experience. [The Chair] claimed more extensive knowledge of what prospective physic and engineering majors needed as preparation in the introductory courses, and that it must emphasize formal lab reports. I couldn’t believe I was hearing this, and I really didn’t know how to respond.

A quick digression is in order. In the past, [the Chair] had been nothing but supportive of everything I did and everything my colleague did. Something had changed suddenly and drastically, and I still have no idea what it was or when it was. Micromanaging had been instituted several years ago, with [the Chair] demanding usernames and passwords to all third party websites (including resources like WebAssign). I refused, and had to go to [previous Dean] to get this behavior stopped. Seems [the Chair] thought such micro oversight was necessary to keep an eye on grades and such. [Previous Dean] told me, and this is a quote, “It is not reasonable to assume that people will do the right thing.” and therefore needed micromanaging oversight. However, [previous Dean] also agreed that [the Chair] was going overboard and got much of the micromanaging stopped, thankfully. Then last semester, [the Chair] approached me threatening to cancel second semester astronomy unless I signed a form removing ALL math prerequisities from both astronomy courses. I refused, and [the Chair] grabbed the form from my hands, said my signature wasn’t needed anyway, and stormed off. On Friday of that week, I got an email requesting a meeting, to which I replied positively. A few minutes later, I got a followup email saying the location would be in [the Dean’s] office. WOW! I had no idea what this meeting was about either, and naturally assumed the worst. Sure enough, the subject of the meeting was on “removing barriers to enrollment” in second semester astronomy. Apparently, [the Dean] thought that removing the math prerequisites was MY idea to begin with, and was a little surprised to discover that it wasn’t. I was rather forced, under duress, to agree to removing the prerequisites as “an experiment” this semester and that if necessary, they could be added back in the future. All three of us knew the prerequisites were gone for good, and we knew everyone knew it. Then, a few weeks later after the committee that approves textbook and other curricular changes, at least two people from that committee told me that when the changes for the astronomy courses came up, lots of committee members balked and said that it didn’t sound like something I would request, and they were correct because I didn’t request it. Nevertheless, the “experiment” passed with one department chair voting against it because that person knew what happened. Apparently some other colleagues wondered what was going on.

To continue the story, I began by once again, as I have frequently had to do unnecessarily over the years to administrators with no science background but never to a PhD scientist, quoting findings from PER about the introductory calculus-based course, only to be met with snide remarks like, “That’s YOUR opinion.” and “There are always other ways of doing things.” and “I know better than you.” Again, I was stunned becuase this just didn’t sound like [the Chair]. Furthermore, I staunchly took issue with someone from another discipline claiming to know what’s best for our physics students becuase that’s ostensibly what physics faculty are hired to oversee, and being allowed to suddenly get away with it after years of not doing anything like this. I got exactly nowhere. [Physics colleague] and I met with [the Dean] to express our concern over this situation. [Physics colleague] firmly expressed discontent with having to teach this course for the first time, but also said that there would be no push back out of the desire to not be labeled a troublemaker. In other words, I conveniently slid under an oncoming bus. We asked to form our own physics department, but in a subsequent meeting with me [the Dean] said that would be “like forming a calculus department within a mathematics department.” I smiled politely and didn’t bother to point out the egregiously erroneous analogy. [The Dean] also cited a few other reasons so there was at least some other logic behind the decision and I accepted that.

Let me again digress to say that [the Dean] is only one year into the position and isn’t aware of the history shared by [the Chair] and me. [Previous Dean] promoted micromanagement at the department chair level. When I pushed back, I was called disrespectful, borderline insubordinate, and (my favorite) a “common whistleblower.” I laugh at that now, but I wasn’t laughing when [previous Dean] called me that to my face. Incidentally, because of [previous Dean’s] insistance on promoting micromanaging, two VERY high quality department chairs stepped down to return to regular faculty duties and that was a very unfortunate loss for their respective departments. Fortunately, [previous Dean] retired last May and [new Dean] took the position. Now, I firmly belive [new Dean] supports me and understands my predicament. It took several phone calls and another face to face meeting to fill [the Dean] in on the details, but [the Dean] has openly asserted, in front of both me and [the Chair], that research-based methods are indeed best for our students and the institution overall. [The Dean] has related to me that students have come to her expressing their delight with my classes, and this plays an important role in how this story, or at least this chapter of it, ends. [The Dean] has observed me in my classroom habitat doing my thing, and has heard nothing but positive feedback from students and other persons. Understand that that is not to say that I’m perfect at what I do becuase I am most assuredly not given the imposter syndrome I continually battle and my own internal awareness of every little mistake I make while doing my job.

Now, flash forward to mid to late April. [The Chair] entered my classroom between classes and presented me with two more curriculum change forms to sign. One was to approve my request to remove WebAssign from the astronomy courses (a difficult decision for me to have made, but I had my reasons) and another to approve the textbook changes for the calculus-based courses. Of course I readily signed the former, becuase I had requested that change myself. However, I refused to sign my approval for the latter becuase I had been (intentionally?) kept out of all discussions about text materials for the calculus-based course I had carefully cultivated since the fall semester of 1999. There are places on the form where faculty approving of the changes to sign and those not approving to sign. I refused to sign. [The Chair] demanded several times, “You will sign this now.” I resisted, and then decided to at least have the final word by writing on the form WHY I refused to sign it. As I was writing and explaining again how this is not a good change for students and how I was not included from the deliberations, [the Chair] made comments like “That’s YOUR opinion.” When I said, yes, and as a physicist mine is a more informed opinion in this matter than yours, [the Chair] came back with, “Stop making everything about YOU.” It seemed everything I said was thrown back at me and framed as an expression of arrogance rather than an informed professional position. As I was writing in the latter space that I didn’t approve because I had not been informed or consulted about the proposed changes, [the Chair] grabbed the form from my hands and walked out. Now keep in mind that the ONLY non-discussions about this whole mess that had included me are the ones related in this story. At no time did [the Chair] discuss with with both of the physics faculty. All “discussions” were between [the Chair] and [physics colleague]. I was, I believe, intentionally excluded from these discussions, and it turns out I was right as I would soon discover. Anyway, when [the Dean] distributed the signed curriculum/textbook change forms for the appropriate committee to consider before meeting and holding a final vote, the above mentioned textbook change form was surprisingly missing from the collection. This surprised me, and also surprised another depaertment chair on that committee who was aware of what had happened. I suspect [the Chair] will wait to the very last minute to push the form through, but I know of at least two department heads who know what happened and will probably vote to reject the change, at least on record. It will most likely be approved because it is essentially unheard of for such change to not be approved. At least there will be two voices who know that I had no input into this and one of those will certainly raise that point in the meeting.

Well, I once again related these events to [the Dean], who expressed dismay and borderline incredulity at [the Chair’s] behavior. Then, in one phone conversation with [the Dean], the truth emerged. The TL;DR version is that it’s money. It seems this whole mess began some time ago when [the Dean] and [the Chair] were scheming to find ways to increase enrollments in our conceptual physics course. [The Dean] expressed delight and support for the teaching methods I employ, informed by research findings, contemporary content, use of computation, etc. and suggested that I might do a good job at, for lack of a better word, modernizing our conceptual course. Okay, yeah I can surely take a stab at that, but why didn’t [the Chair] just come out and ask me and [physics colleague] about this plan together rather than talk to us separately, and tell us each a different story for the purpose of the course changes? Why? [The Dean] couldn’t answer that, and seemed troubled by the fact that I’d been kept in the dark. [The Dean] apologized profusely at the way the situation was handled, but I insisted there was no reason to apologize because the responsibility of relaying the information to me lay with [the Chair] and not [the Dean], and the former failed in that responsibility. [The Dean] continued to reassure me that [the Chair] thought highly of my methods, yet in talking with me [the Chair] has made nebulous references to “student complaints” about me, apparently undocumented and therefore unable to be shown to me on paper, that at least partly warranted the changes. Why did [the Chair] tell [physics colleague] that my approach was unsatisfactory and then tell me that [physics colleague’s] approach was unsatisfactory? Why not ask me for textbook suggestions for [physics colleague] to consider in preparing to teach calculus-based physics? Well, I didn’t know the answer at first, but I know now. Read on.

We usually know our fall schedules before the end of the spring semester, mostly because things don’t usually change very much. Well, it wasn’t until last Thursday (the day before final grades were due), that I got an email telling me my fall schedule. Not only was the course change still going through without my input or approval (neither of which was deemed necessary apparently), I was not given an opportunity to consider any textbook changes for the conceptual course which I was assigned whereas [physics colleague] was given free reign to choose new materials for the calculus-based courses and I stronly suspect [the Chair] had a hand in guiding my learned colleague away from the existing textbook but I cannot prove that. Anyway, in responding to this email, which contained a rather minor question about an optional book for my sections, I copied [the Dean] saying that I’d not been given any input into either the course changes or the schedule (which was HIGHLY unusual given procedures from previous years) that I didn’t know whether or not my input on this one minor question was worth my time to give as it would probably be ignored. [The Dean] took the clue and asked for a meeting with me, [the Chair], and [the Dean] to discuss the issues. Incidentally, [the Dean] and I also spoke by phone and [the Dean] assured me that I could indeed request any textbook and ancillary materials I wanted despite [the Chair’s] assumption to the contrary. At that meeting, which took place Friday of last week, [the Dean] once again reaffirmed her support for me and once again declared that the whole plan was intended for me to take what I’ve done in calculus-based physics and do it for conceptual physics with the intent of making it a course all students would want to take, and indeed should take, as a science elective. It seems [the Dean] is concerned that more students take biology and chemistry than physics and wants to change that, and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad idea. However, as many physics faculty know, this is a cultural phenomenon not easily changed. I’m flattered that [the Dean] has such confidence in me, and I firmly believe [the Dean] is sincere in her confidence because on at least one occasion, there were tears involved from both of us as we both expressed our vision for what physics education could become here, and it turns out we have a shared vision. That’s reassuring, and is part of the happy ending I alluded to earlier. However, in this most recent meeting, [the Chair] adamantly denined having made any of the remarks I had documented. I now wish that I had had a recorder with me at the appropriate times, but you see I never dreamed that such tactics would be necesssary in an academic workplace. I won’t make that mistake again. Oh, and when I asked [the Chair] why I had not been included directly in the discussions, the response was “You’re very difficult to talk to.” I couldn’t help but laugh. Oh, and this definitely confirmed my suspicion that I had indeed been intentionally excluded from discussion about all this. A department chair who is afraid to talk with direct reports probably shouldn’t be a department chair in the first place. The reality is that [the Chair] probably doesn’t like the fact that I push back against bullying and ill-informed policy changes, but I would think that’s expected of informed, educated academics. It particularly saddens me that such assertion of informed opinion is too frequently equated to “you don’t like change.” I love change! I’ve changed so much since I entered this career, and I change every year. Change for the sake of change is almost never good, and uninformed change can be disastrous for everyone involved, especially students. I don’t like bullying from supposed professionals, and I don’t like divisive decision making that excludes affected parties. Furthermore, I resent the implications that students’ concerns must come (and please read the next phrase carefully) AT THE EXPENSE OF FACULTY CONCERNS. We ALL have concerns that must be considered in making decisions and to assert that faculty concerns don’t matter, EVER, is fallacious reasoning and diminishes our earned professional status. We can’t meet students’ needs unless our professional needs are also met. Yet, I get a distinct sensation of being psychologically manipulated into neglecting our own informed concerns in deference to the concerns of others and that this is a newly expected workplace norm. Oh, and it was also during this meeting that [the Chair] proclaimed that the research findings and recommendations by AAPT can’t possibly be “best practices” (I really hate that term by the way) becuase if they were, then everyone would be employing them and the fact that that is not the case is evidence that they must not really be “best practices.” I’ve had high school students who would see through that fallacy and shred it, but I was really too stunned that someone who had, in the past, been open to such findings now dismissed them.

As I mentioned above, all this is ultimately motivated by money. Many public institutions are funded based on enrollment, and if the latter drops then so does the former. The game now is to increase enrollment regardless of student preparation. The preparation issue is important because many two-year colleges now host charter high schools and provide instruction in surrounding high schools either by sending faculty out into the high schools and/or by providing a cohort experience for high school students in which they simultaneously earn a high school diploma and an associate’s degree. As a consequence, a greater percentage of students are not ready for college level work and that presents burdens that I’m afraid we can’t remedy. Fill every classroom to capacity so budgets will be increased in future funding cycles. Okay, but at least be honest about it. In the past,  [the Chair] has ultimately defended every single administrative policy directive by fallacious argumentum ad baculum (appeal to fear) by saying that if we don’t implement this policy (regardless of how badly informed it may be) jobs will be lost due to loss of funding. While that may be a practical reality, I don’t think it’s a particularly good motivator for academics trained to see through propagandistic scare tactics. I also don’t think that it’s good leadership to rely on fear to get something done. I know if I were a department chair I would never do that. I would ensure that I reflected the department’s concerns to administration without dictating to the department what their concerns must or must not be.

So, the whole story, as I currently understand it, is that [the Dean] specifically wants me to channel my informed classroom methods, devotion, and passion for teaching into an effort to try to attract more students to take conceptual physics, with the happy side effect of boosting enrollment and therefore future funding and MOST IMPORTANTLY getting more students into a physics classroom. That makes me feel appreciated and indeed rather proud! It does something else though. [The Dean’s] sincere support and confidence in me makes me WANT to work with [the Dean] to make our shared goal happen. That support motivates me, and there’s something else that really endears me to [the Dean]. In one of our recent face to face conversations, I casually mentioned that after over two decades of teaching, I was tired in every conceivable way and that a sabbatical would be appreciated. [The Dean] took a serious tone and asked what I would do on an ideal (e.g. fully funded, semester long) sabbatical. My honest response was that I would devote it entirely to professional development by traveling around the country to meet with, observe, and hopefully learn from, my fellow physics colleagues who, with permission of course, would allow me to do so. That’s what I would really do. [The Dean] cautiously said something to the effect of “Let me see what I can do.” I appreciated this response, but really didn’t expect anything to come of it. Well, I was shocked when, in the most recent meeting with [the Chair], [the Dean], and me that [the Dean] indicated to me and [the Chair] (who wasn’t aware of the sabbatical discussion) that in lieu of a sabbatical I could have a schedule in which all my classes are M-Th and I could devote all Fridays (in both semesters if I wish) to professional development of my choice! I was floored! I honestly didn’t know how to respond because my previous request for a sabbatical was soundly rejected on the grounds that writing a book for one of my classes was of more value to me personally than to my students and they wouldn’t benefit from my efforts (that really hurt and I considered it a very unprofessional response from an institution that supposedly valued professional development). As always though, everything comes down to “funding” and its lack is used as an excuse, I suspect, even when “funding” is available. I have come to realize that [the Chair] simply doesn’t know, or chooses to not know, how to effectively motivate faculty and for some reason unknown to me has become a workplace bully. On the other hand, [the Dean] clearly does it through sincere appreciation and creating a sense of being valued and by hearing my concerns and responding with something tangible. I respect that, and I want to cultivate a relationship with [the Dean] and be the next department chair. In fact, I have already told [the Dean] that I’m willing to be the next chair and I plan to point that out from time to time as we discuss physics instruction.

I don’t understand why [the Chair] decided unilaterally to take such a ham-handed approach in implementing this strategy and in communicating the strategy to me. I don’t respond well to dictatorial tactics and I don’t think any other reasonable colleague would either and I don’t understand why some people expect me to respond unquestionably and blindly to such behavior. We try to teach our students to be aware of being manipulated like this and yet we’re discouraged from using the very critical thinking that prevents this in the workplace. What an unfortunate dichotomy! I respond quite well to informed decision making and to full disclosure of the underlying reasoning. I stil have some concerns, though, about being “used” like I’m a corporate worker being reassigned to do something new on the spur of the moment with no regard for the lurch in which calculus-based students who have come to expect a certain environment will be left, and will indeed be at a great disadvantage, NOT because [physics colleague] is incompetent (FAR from it!) but becuase the carefully cultivated culture (note the alliteration) of the course will change drastically and the preparation students have heard about from former students and the institutions to which our student transfer will not be gained now. I also don’t understand [the Chair’s] sudden and dramatic dismissal of researched-based methods when in the past [the Chair] has certainly encouraged their use.

[The Chair’s] behavior has changed noticeably over the past few years, and I have not been the only one to notice this. The behavior has become more dictatorial, more unilateral in decision making across the disciplines in the department, more dismissive of the input of colleagues, more bullying in nature, and more assertive of the superiority of [the Chair’s] own discipline as being the paragon of pedagogical excellence. I cannot, and will not, speculate on why [the Chair’s] behavior has changed, but I and one other person can trace at least most of the changes back to the death of a department member a few years ago after a rather long period of declining health.

This is Joe again. Well that’s about it I guess; I hope you enjoyed it. The ending is not as conclusive as I would like it to be, but I plan to develop the characters more and continue the story as necessary. It could very well turn into a series of its own. Remember, this little story is probably fiction, but even in fiction there’s usually a grain of truth. I promise that the next post will return us to vectors and related things I’ve neglected recently.

As always, feedback is welcome.

Matter & Interactions II, Week 9

This week was a very short week consisting of only two days. We met as usual on Monday, but Tuesday was a “flip day” and ran as a Friday. This class doesn’t meet on Fridays so we only had one day this week, and we devoted it to tying up loose ends from chapter 17.

Next week, barring losing days to winter weather as I sit here and watch the forecast deteriorate, we will hit circuits the M&I way!

In an interesting development, I was informed by my coworker (a PhD physicist) that our department chair had approached him Tuesday morning to ask if he would like to take my calculus-based physics courses from me next year on the grounds that I’m not rigorous enough. Needless to say, I was shocked becuase the chair had not mentioned this to me and indeed has not spoken to me about it at all. Had my coworker not told me I would not have known.

My chair, a PhD chemist, seems to think that because M&I emphasizes computation over traditional labs, and that what labs we do are not as rigorous as chemistry labs, either M&I or I or perhaps both are not appropriate for our students and indeed may be causing them to be ill prepared for transfer to universities. Of course this is all nonsense, but my chair actually said to my face that she knows more about computation, theory, and experiment than I do and that labs must be done the “chemistry way” or they’re not valid. If this weren’t so disgustingly true, it would be mildly funny. It’s not funny. It’s true.

I don’t know what I’m going to do, but it’s clear both M&I and I are probably on our way out at my current instituion. My colleague (who by the way has no interest in teaching calculus-based physics) and I are both exploring numerous options, including leaving for another instiution.


Are we making teaching mills?

Warning! Many people will not like this post. It strays from my usual fare so unless you are interested in faculty work environments, please don’t read any further and just move on.

I am sure you have heard of diploma mills. Basically, a diploma mill is an entity disguised as an institution of higher learning whose real purpose is to sell an academic credential in exchange for money with only a thin, if any at all, veil of legitimacy. The credential may or may not be recognized by credible agencies.

I am questioning whether or not we have now created a new thing that I will call a teaching mill. I define a teaching mill as an otherwise legitimate academic institution that claims to value teaching over everything else, but operates with such heavy intrusion into teaching in the the forms of micromanagement of faculty, businesslike mentality, and general administrative incompetence that effective teaching cannot be carried out.

Here is a (not necessarily comprehensive, not necessarily in any particular order) list of (not necessarily hypothetical) properties I would consider associated with operationally defining a teaching list.

  1. Administrators lay off non-faculty support employees, citing budget shortages, and then unilaterally reassign those duties to faculty under the guise of “pitching in to help.” Faculty are not qualified to perform those duties because they require close familiarity with state and federal laws and are outside the purview of the classroom and the academic nature of faculty hiring.
  2. Administrators unilaterally rewrite faculty job descriptions, with no input from faculty, when necessary to justify the addition of inappropriate non-faculty responsibilities to their positions.
  3. Administrators make funding availble to select faculty to promote pet projects and bad policy under the guise of professional development.
  4. Administrators cite “state laws” or “systemwide regulations” to justify otherwise arbitrary policies that impose on faculty’s true responsibilities when the same laws or policies cited are unknown to, or sometimes interpreted differently by, colleagues at other instituions within the same system. Of course, ignorance of the law doesn’t exempt anyone from upholding said law, but when that law is interpreted differently by the vast majority of other institutions, I tend to think exceptions are in the wrong.
  5. Administrators willfully violate internal policies that faculty are not permitted to violate. For example, suppose internal policy says that students must initiate all academic concerns and complaint with faculty. Further suppose that a student ignores this policy and goes to, say, a department chair or dean to complain about a faculty member for one reason or another. The written and duly approved and published policy says that the department chair or dean cannot do anything unless the student has first discussed the matter with the faculty member. However, the faculty member is unexpectedly called into conference with the chair or dean to discuss the matter, which has never even been previously brought to his/her attention before now. Administrators justify this by saying that they are ALWAYS obligated to hear student concerns and complaints, and threaten the faculty member with insubordination when the published policy is displayed.
  6. Faculty are evaluated by persons with no background in evaluating academic faculty and thus apply inappropriate metrics, usually from the business world.
  7. Faculty are required to microdocument (is that a word?) their professional development efforts despite a heavy teaching load, with no such requirement for administrators.
  8. Faculty are required to participate in professional development that is not discipline specific and is of otherwise dubious value (e.g. learning to use Microsoft Office, which is not appropriate professional development for college faculty) except for documentation required by accrediting agencies.
  9. Faculty are required to participate in professional development despite having no institutional funding for true, discipline-specific, off campus professional development.
  10. Faculty are threatened with insubordination when they question any aspect of poor administrative policy (including policy that is in questionable legal territory) or anything related to imposing upon faculty’s true institutional purpose, teaching.
  11. Faculty are punished for being the subject of unsubstantiated damaging rumors propagated by students while the students propagating the rumors are in no way held responsible.
  12. Faculty are quietly told to keep high school students in mind when selecting textbooks in order to keep costs to them as low as possible. In theory, this sounds fine, but being told to cater to an audience that should not be our audience but is now our audience merely in order to raise FTE count is inappropriate. Meanwhile publicly, administrators tell us that no special accommodations are made to our growing ranks of high school juniors and seniors.
  13. All, and I do indeed literally mean ALL, resistance to any new or established policy is ALWAYS ultimately tied to the threat of losing faculty jobs…NEVER administrative jobs…ALWAYS faculty jobs.
  14. In short, faculty are treated as just another expendable resource much as the way front line workers (e.g. bank tellers) are treated in a corporate environment.

I could, and probably will, add to this list over time. I have great concerns that here in North Carolina, this is the environment in which many, if not most, community college faculty must try to do what they are actually hired to do (deliver high quality classroom instruction). We are not here to advance an administrator’s political agenda. We are not here to do administrative work. We are not here to take up the slack created by administrators’ failures to secure adequate institutional funding (which, by the way, administrators proudly crow about being THEIR main responsibilty and yet they’re never actually held accountable for THEIR failure to follow through…always blaming state legislatures and politicians…). We are not here to be surrogate parents to unprepared students. We are not here to do the work of public high school teachers. We are not here to be cheerleaders for an institution (although that is usually a welcome consequence of having high quality students). We are not here to be office workers. We are not here, I assert, for anything other than what we are qualified to do, and that is not up for negotiation.

Faculty must start asserting more authority and power against incompetent administration in order to prevent our institutions from becoming teaching mills.


I’m not crazy. I’m just crazy.

It has come to my attention that some colleagues have asked other colleagues about my “mental stability” whatever that may mean. I’m not offended, because feigning offense is a deliberate strategy for shutting down discussion in the absence of evidence and reason. By that definition, I can’t be offended. Nevertheless, yesterday I started thinking about just what these people questioning my “mental stability” might mean by “mental stability” in the first place. Am I really crazy? Let’s investigate.

As I tweeted earlier, I am merely a product of all my past experiences. I am what I am because of what I have experienced. I don’t intend that to mean that every aspect of my personality was determined that way, because it wasn’t. I still have aspects (I initially called these traints, but I don’t think that’s the correct term) that I remember having as a child. I have aspects I never had until I began teaching. I have aspects that I never had until I had been teaching for two decades. I have more aspects that I developed becuase of all the ways people find to undermine education and teaching (I distinguish between the two…I want no part of the former) and thus keep me from doing what I’m ostensibly hired to do. I’m going to list some (and probably not all) of the things I do that may make people question my sanity or “mental stability” or reason for existing.

  • Yes, I assume administrators, and probably coworkers too, put childish negative labels (e.g. not a team player, a “hothead”, disrespectful, or full of negativity…the list goes on and on) on faculty to justify future retalitory actions in the workplace. I have had many colleagues express this sentiment too, and such tactics are well documented across the country.
  • No, contrary to rumor, I don’t randomly fly off the handle. I choose every word quite carefully and just because it reflects sometimes brutal honestly doesn’t make it wrong or bad. I assure you I am quite tactful when I want to be but sometimes the direct approach is required. I’m not afraid to use it, though, because people who practice intimidation and obstruction tend to cease that behavior when called out. I’m also not bothered by having it used on me mainly because I don’t do those things and if I did, being exmpt from being called out makes me a hypocrite.
  • Yes, I reserve the right to call out lies when I see and hear them, especially when perpetrated by administrators, and I frequently do this. I expect and demand to not be lied to when it comes to my job.
  • Yes, I think most administrators (here) either don’t understand accreditation or just outright lie about it to faculty just to placate us. I know what our regional accreditor is and is not authorized to do as documented online and as communicated to me by its current president. I will take her word over that of any administrator any time. I will continue to call these discrepancies out.
  • No, I do not think any physics course should be designed solely around a specific textbook, especially since there are so many inadequate textbooks.
  • No, I do not think I must always use a textbook in a traditional, linear fashion. It’s okay to present chapters in different orders. I think it is silly to assume that doing so harms students in any way.
  • No, I do not think that physics is learned solely by “working problems” as the traditional dogma goes. Anyone can learn to work problems. Physics is more than working problems. It’s a reasoning process, and a process of organizing what we know into systematic themes. It’s really more than that, but my point is that the ability to work problems is a very careless way to assess one’s knowledge of physics. I’ve routinely stumped master problem solvers on the simplest of questions. And let’s face the reality that at a certain level, we tend to want to weed out students rather than have them join our ranks. The “working problems” nonsense is just a way to justify doing that.
  • No, I don’t think much of myself. I’m quite average at best, and probably a lot below average given the perceived superiority of those who have told me so in the past. I’m happy with that though because we need more average people in science. I would argue that if we accept basic statistics, there must be more average scientists than either above or below average ones.
  • Yes, I think it is necessary to always look for ways to increase rigor and to raise the bar for students, particularly in the introductory courses.
  • Yes, I frequently make up new word that more clearly convey important meaning to students (e.g. “flowiness through a surface” for flux or “spinniness” for angular momentum). Sometimes there isn’t an adequate existing word. Sometimes there is, but it isn’t quite conceptually elegant enough. In no way do I wish to impose any of y creativity onto the community. I’ll happily continue to let other students (not mine) wade through the incoherence.
  • No, I do not accept that the universities to which my students transfer have the right, authority, or knowledge to dictate to me what is best for MY students, especially when large universities are notorious for poor teaching. How hypocritical! Everyone knows I, a non-tenured community college instructor without a doctorate, would be firmly silenced for thinking I could dictate what is best for someone else’s students, especially someone’s university students. So why do it to me? I know the answers, and I think we all probably do.
  • Yes, as a teacher, I reserve the right to decide what is best for my students. Anyone who doesn’t like that can provide evidence that I have harmed any student’s progress in any way. I don’t just make stuff up. I make every effort to do what is in my students’ best interests. I firmly believe in the Hippocratic oath to do no harm, and that weights heavily in everything I do.
  • Yes, I refuse to be pigeonholed into doing things the way everyone else does them just because they demand I do so. If we all do this, then by definition there can be no innovation or improvements and the corporate minded ones among us demand “room for improvement,” at least for everyone but themselves of course.
  • No, I neither claim nor assert any superiority in anything I do or say. I think any logical person can see that.
  • Yes, every claim I make is subject to change given new evidence. That’s the nature of the discipline I try to teach.
  • Yes, when someone starts badmouthing community college, I will defend community college. There are indeed some that don’t measure up, but there are many others that do.
  • Yes, many, many people describe me as “passionate” but I have come to realize that is a label that some (and most surely not all) people who don’t know me use as a polite way of saying “crazy.” It neither bothers nor offends me to be called passionate becuase I see myself as precisely that.

So if my doing any of these things makes me crazy or mentally unstable then I’ll take it. I would argue that many people need to become crazy like me to keep us from being walked on, manipulated, and lied to. If you let that happen to you without pushing back, then I’m not the one with the problem. Finally, I was smiling the whole time I wrote this so please don’t put the “angry” label on me. I’m not angry and I apologize for the “rantiness”  (there I go again) of this post. But in my defense, I’m just crazy right?


My Attendance Woes and How I Brought Them on Myself

I’m writing this to explain the details of some recent tweets about my attendance woes not to complain, but to explain what those of us in the North Carolina Community College System are required to do and the problems that result if you try to innovate. It’s not meant as a rant and I don’t intent to frame it as such. It’s a rather long story, but the background is important.

The story begins in August, 1992 when I was hired. At that time, all NCCCS campuses were on quarter systems (I seem to remember a few on trimesters). Every campus had its own course catalog. Every campus has its own course numbering system. Every campus was its own academic entity. This resulted in a great many campuses becoming hubs for certain curriculum areas. My own institution, for example, was known the world over for its furniture technology, furniture production, and furniture production management programs with visitors from as far away as Denmark. Not every campus had a “college transfer” curriculum, but mine did as it was one of the larger medium sized schools (enrollment of around 3000-4000). The problem with this system was that students could not guarantee that a given course at one campus would transfer to another campus or, more importantly, to four year schools in our state or anywhere else. In 1997, it was announced that the NCCCS would begin using a semester system as of, as I recall, 1999. NCCCS and UNC (when I refer to UNC, I mean the UNC System of universities, not any one particular campus) would hash out a Comprehensive Articulation Agreement specifying in great detail which courses would and would not transfer to UNC campuses. Private schools could decide for themselves which courses they would accept, but UNC campuses would be required by state law to accept all courses included in the CAA. A companion Common Course Library (CCL) was also developed for NCCCS campuses containing every course offered by every community college in the state. Campuses could select course offerings only from the CCL. This meant that campuses had to negotiate among themselves to solve problems of curriculum duplication (e.g. no two schools within X miles of each other could offer the same specialty programs like culinary certifications or law enforcement training, etc.). This also meant that community colleges had to negotiate with UNC campuses over which courses would be accepted by all (ALL) UNC campuses for either general degree graduation requirements or for elective credits. This new system also established a host of pre-majors (e.g. pre-engineering, pre-chemistry, pre-mathematics, pre-education, etc.) for students to take and easily transfer into those majors at the UNC campus of their choice (or to any other non-UNC college, public or private, that voluntarily chose to honor the CAA). UNC campuses had no choice and were mandated by state law to honor the CAA. That’s an important detail to remember. Of course along with all this came a transition to semester hours from quarter hours, but we weathered that change fairly well. One of the earliest problems was that the UNC campuses didn’t want to accept community college courses in the sciences and a few other disciplines because they perceived community college faculty as unqualified, which by their definition meant non-PhD. Some UNC people proclaimed that community college faculty were only required to hold Bachelor degrees and were thus not qualified to teach college or university courses. Well, that’s not the case for college transfer courses; the Southern Association of College and Schools, our regional accreditation agency, recommends (note that accreditation agencies cannot mandate this) the exact same criteria for all college level instructors in our region. The pre-education major wasn’t implemented for over a year after the transition because two prominent Schools of Education (Chapel Hill and East Carolina as I recall) couldn’t agree whose program was the best to use as a model for the poor little community colleges (…that sounded ranty didn’t it…).  The net result was that in the sciences, the university system basically dictated our course titles, ostensible content coverage, credit hours, lab hours, lecture hours, and pretty much everything else to us to compensate for having this legislatively shoved down their throats (…their sentiment, not mine…). So after the transition to semesters and the CCL, there were several tiers of college transfer physics (I won’t discuss the astronomy situation here…it was and still is a mess.). We were granted a conceptual physics course PHY110 and an accompanying lab PHY110A. We were granted a two semester introductory algebra-based sequence PHY151/152 and accompanying lab, but the lab wasn’t separated out as a separate course as it was for PHY110. To this day, I have never been told why. We were also granted a two semester introductory calculus-based sequence PHY251/252, again with accompanying, but not separate, lab. Their Highnesses (…there goes the ranty thing again…) also allowed us to offer a modern physics course PHY253 but most campuses refused to accept it for students majoring in physics despite that it was far more rigorous than any of their own similarly named courses; I taught it every time it was offered, usually during summers. To further get their point across, the UNC system also dictated that lecture sections would all carry three semester hours of credit and labs would carry. PHY110A got two contact hours per week for one semester hour of credit. Similarly, the lab component of PHY151 and PHY152 was dictated to be two contact hours per week for one semester hour of credit. Collectively, PHY110/110A, PHY151, and PHY152 each carried four semester hours of credit. However, PHY251 and PHY252 were dictated to have lab components of three contact hours per week, each for one semester hour of credit. So every course/lab combo was dictated to have a total of four semester hours of credit. Great. Fantastic. No problem, right? Wrong. Read on.

The problem came when we began scheduling our courses. NCCCS mandated that courses must be scheduled chunks according to how the contact hours were divided up between lecture and lab, even if the course had no separate lab listed in the CCL. So for PHY110 and PHY110A the former must be scheduled for a total of three lecture hours and two lab hours per week with no deviations permitted. This means the course could easily be scheduled traditionally as MWF lecture and either a Tu or Th lab. As I recall, we also did things like MWF lecture and M afternoon lab or W afternoon lab. Also permissible was MTuW lecture with lab on Th. The point is that the three lecture contact hours were considered one chunk of time as were the two lab contact hours. The physics courses that were eventually assigned primarily to me, PHY251 and PHY252, could be schedule as MWF lecture with either Tu or Th lab, which was how we did it. However, in fall 1999, I switched to Matter & Interactions and I quickly discovered that the traditional scheduling approach wasn’t working. Students’ contact time in class was too chopped up and I wanted a more evenly distributed numbers of hours per day. I needed to blur the lines between formal lecture and formal lab and begin the transition to a more studio-type environment. My then chair was fine with this, but warned me that the scheduling could get complicated because of the imposed restrictions. We explored things like two contact hours each on MWF, but were required to schedule three of those hours as lab hours and three as lecture hours even though that distinction no longer formally existed. This meant that for each day, I would have to mark each attendance roster twice each day, once for the lecture designated hours and once for the lab designated hours. The split with lecture on MWF and lab on either Tu or Th was easier because each day required only one marking of attendance. Because the labs for PHY251 and PHY252 were built in, my attendance rosters would have two, yes two, entries for each date, one for lecture and one for lab. Pause here to think about that for a minute. Do a think/pair/share if you wish.

Now, I must digress to explain something else. You see, the NCCCS funds its campuses almost entirely based on attendance. Attendance determines FTEs and FTEs determine hiring capability and is the first thing the NC General Assembly (NCGA) in Raleigh looks at every summer in pretending to formulate a budget for the coming fiscal year (…which always rolls over before the budget is ready…that sounded ranty too didn’t it…) . NCCCS mandated that attendance must be taken at every class meeting. Our attendance sheets were subject to onsite auditing by auditors sent at random from Raleigh. In my tewnty-one (just began number twenty-two) years, I have only seen one of these auditors ones. They’re rather like Bigfoot in that I’ve heard of sightings, and even though I think I saw one I can’t be sure. There are many apocryphal stories of community colleges registering fake students for fake courses, but honestly, I think these stories are propagated to instill fear. None of my colleagues at other community colleges knows anything about this every happening. It’s a lot like voter fraud (..that sounded ranty too…). Anyway, there must be three designated lecture hours per week and three designated lab hours per week, even if a given calendar day contains some of each. Make sense? Oh, and yes, all attendance tracking was done with pens on official computer printouts. Rosters were turned in on each semester’s census date (the date on which the State counted heads for funding purposes) and again at each semester’s end.

I continue this not-so-brief digression to state categorically that I don’t mind tracking student attendance. I think it’s a good thing. The vase majority of students we get do not yet understand the importance of class attendance. One of the reasons is that they’ve not had any very good reasons to appreciate the importance of going to class. Honestly, who wants to sit through boring lectures and obtuse and disconnected labs? In a way, I can’t blame them. Nevertheless, we’re funded based on attendance and we must document our numbers. I’m totally, completely, fantastically in favor of this. Honest. I make coming to class worth my students’ time. We now rejoin our previous non-rant, already in progress.

Now, innovative teaching almost certainly requires innovative scheduling Several years ago, I decided a good schedule for PHY251 or PHY252 was to meet for one contact hour on each of MW and two contact hours each on TuTh. This obviously requires TuTh to have both lecture and lab designated hours. Here’s how it breaks down into what the State calls meeting patterns (there’s a new term…): MW are considered two hours of lecture and are thus treated as one meeting pattern, Tu 8:00-8:50 is treated as one meeting pattern consisting of one hour of lecture, Th 8:00-8:50 is treated as one meeting pattern consisting of one hour of lab, and TuTh 9:00-9:50 is treated as one meeting pattern consisting of two hours of lab. This gives a total of three lecture hours and three lab hours, six contact hours, per week as prescribed. Okay? Well, yeah in the days of paper attendance rosters because each day I would only mark attendance once for all meeting patterns that particular day.

Then, beginning this past summer (2014), NCCCS came into the 20th century with online attendance tracking, finally! I thought this would be made very simple. Nope, I was wrong. It turns out that each meeting pattern (remember that term from above?) has its own workflow and must be marked online separately from all other attendance patterns. We use E to indicate a student’s entry into a course, ostensibly on the first class day. However, my innovative scheduling means that this week (our first week of classes), I had to mark students’ entries for the MW meeting pattern, entries for the Tu 8:00-8:50 meeting pattern, entries for the Th 8:00-8:50 meeting pattern, entries for the TuTh 9:00-9:50 meeting patterns. That’s a total of four separate attendance workflows for one course! The web-based software is smart enough to know that you can’t enter attendance for the 9:00-9:50 hour until after 9:00, so on TuTh I must enter attendance twice on each of those days. Are you beginning to get a sense for the utter nonsense community college faculty are subjected to if we want to make class schedules another other than the traditional (and largely ineffective) way? It’s very frustrating. Unfortunately, my former and current chairs react by telling me it’s my fault for insisting on non-traditional scheduling and throw it back in my lap (…not ranting…only relating…), except when we get together to do the schedules basically a year in advance. Then we’re urged to continue the innovating. Sheesh!

I have a similar situation with my astronomy courses, AST151/151A and AST152/152A. Note that the UNC system dictated that astronomy labs be separated out because THEY, the UNC campuses, don’t always require a lab for their astronomy courses but the little community colleges must have a required lab (…that sounded a bit ranty too…).

So, I want to look at a way of scheduling my PHY251 and PHY252 courses that hopefully minimized the number of attendance patterns I have to deal with. I’m strongly considering doing it as two hours each on MWF, with the first hour being designated as lecture and the second hour being designated as lab. This will give two meeting patterns, MWF at some hour and MWF at an adjacent hour, and it will also give larger chunks of time at each class meeting, which I think is a good fit for classes using Matter & Interactions.

Among my scheduling constraints are the calculus sequence (three courses) and, in the spring, differential equations. The same student take these courses and my physics courses and we are always mindful of other department’s schedules. We want our students to be as close as possible to cohorts. Another constraint is that I have a MW evening astronomy class in the fall that meets until 8:20 pm. 8:00 morning classes are tough after that, but that’s the way it’s worked out for years. I could just make MW thirteen hours days, which they usually are anyway so why stop now, right?

This semester, I have a total of twelve (12) separate attendance meeting patterns among three sections of AST151/151A and one section of PHY251. Ridiculous maybe? Yes, definitely.

Oh, and before I leave, I’ll also add that our faculty are also responsible for first line prevention of financial fraud. Yep. See, some students game the system by taking classes, waiting till after the census date, then stop attending and pocketing their financial aid money. The school audited at the federal level every year and is penalized financially (four and five figures) for each such incident that occurs. Ia has fallen on faculty to be the first to detect this by noting suspicious strings of absences and promptly withdrawing those students from courses. If we miss one, we are singled out by administration for costing the institution money and are calmly warned that if we lose our privilege of offering federal financial aid, we must close our doors and everyone will be unemployed. Exaggeration? Probably so, but that’s what we’re told. I’m also told that somewhere on campus, there’s a list of such incidents for each faculty member. I’m not convinced it exists, but gosh who knows? I don’t mind tracking attendance, but I’m not at all comfortable being responsible for financial aid infractions. It’s not what I’m trained to do and certainly not what I was hired to do. Then again, “…other duties as assigned…” is right there in our faces. Honestly, I don’t think about it much because I warn my students that I enforce our attendance policy mercilessly. BTW, the policy is that if students miss 10% of the course’s contact hours, they’re withdrawn…no exceptions…except when attendance is down, resulting in slashed budgets, causing us to “have compassion” for students’ situations. Well, I’ve always done that. As long as students stay in touch with me and let me know what’s going on, I don’t drop them. See, I really am a sweetie. I feel better now.

So, any other community college brethren out there have to deal with all this? Four year colleagues? I think I already know the answers, but I’d kinda like to be surprised.