“I don’t know”

September 12, 2012

Although most of my blogging these days happens on the blog I contribute to for our faculty union local, every once in a while I have to say something higher-ed related that I can’t publish under the auspices of the union. This is one of those…

In the last month-ish, on two occasions high-level managers on my campus have answered questions that seemed extremely important to know details about with rather off-handed “I don’t know.”

The first time, our state-level boss, the Chancellor, encouraged (in some way we don’t exactly know the details of) the Provosts of all 14 schools in the system to sign contracts with a for-profit company called Learning Counts. If you don’t have the time/energy/stomach to click through, Learning Counts invites students to submit portfolios describing “prior learning experiences” (professional, military, etc) that Learning Counts converts into recommendations for college credit. That is, they believe what people do out in the world should earn them course credit at colleges. I’ll set aside my dispute with that claim (for now–it’ll get another post soon), and instead focus on a different problem. In our system, the evaluation of students’ petitions for course credit (via transfer, or a process some departments have called Credit by Exam, or by AP/CLEP) is done by faculty. Not only is it work that we’re better suited to do (because we’re the ones who write and understand our own curricula, not to mention all sorts of things about teaching and learning because we’re [bleeping] professionals), but in our system it’s also work faculty get compensated for. So, the system has asked Provosts to sign an agreement that hands off faculty work to people who may well do worse at it.

At a periodic face-to-face meeting the union local has with management (called Meet and Discuss–I’m not sure how common that term is in other unions), we asked the Provost some questions about this agreement after learning that she’d already signed the contract. Most evocative of the problem here, we asked, “What do you know about Learning Counts’ process for evaluating courses, or their criteria? How does this work?”

“I don’t know.”

WHAT?

Understand that I’m not attacking the Provost personally here. I have no idea what was happening in her head, nor do I know what kinds of demands were made of her and her fellow Provosts, or any of that. But I’m very distressed that she, anybody, would sign onto an agreement that has severe implications on faculty work, curriculum, and the quality of our institution’s degrees and brands, without knowing how that agreement gets executed.

Second (and I did post something about this on our union chapter blog last night–click here for background). I had an email exchange with the WCU VP responsible for answering Right to Know requests about National Educational Services’ use of the term “internal research” as the rationale for their information request. This morning, the VP told me that he doesn’t really know what they mean by the term, but once they have the information they can pretty much do what they want with it.

So. Anybody can make a Right to Know request and offer only the vaguest excuse for wanting the information. Then, once they have it, they can do anything they want with it even though that use has nothing to do with the request for asking.

So why bother vetting those requests at all?

Gee. I don’t know.

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Resistance to change

July 21, 2012

Two seemingly unrelated bits of context/scene-setting here–

1. Way back in 2004, my officemate Juanita Rogers Comfort and I were on a panel with a grad school mentor of mine, Rebecca Moore Howard, at the Rhetoric Society of America conference. Becky’s paper for that panel, which I read for her because she couldn’t make the trip, was called “Balancing Institutional Expectations and Disciplinary Expertise.” In short, Becky contends that as members of institutions, our own disciplinary knowledge about how students learn to write, what “good writing” entails, etc only buy us so much leeway in resisting the demands our colleagues in other disciplines (sometimes even our own) and administrators put on us, even when those demands reflect a clear misunderstanding of students, rhetoric, and writing instruction. She doesn’t recommend caving, either, and the paper ends before she could articulate that balance very fully–and even if she could have, it would have been different for every school and time anyway, so…

2. Over the last couple of years, as the public debate about online education (primarily higher ed, but increasingly K-12 too) has heated up, the refrain “You people who resist online education are just resistant to change” appears quite frequently. The argument, apparently, is that because we’re not willing to leap on a bandwagon (or accept the “new normal” or [insert neo-liberal phrase here]), we’re just too attached to our own bad selves to get with the program (pun intended).

The connection between these two points is, I hope, kind of obvious.

But just in case–

There are, as far as I can tell, 3 versions of the pro on-line education argument.

1. Online courses/programs give college access to students who couldn’t get it otherwise–because of geography, schedules, life issues…  That is, if you can’t get to college any other way, you can do this. I know very few professional educators who have a complaint with this notion.

2. Online courses/programs are just as good as conventional brick and mortar programs because they offer all kinds of advantages that mitigate the disadvantages. Or, the more disingenuous version I’ve seen occasionally (but not made by any professionals), because you can’t prove that online courses aren’t as good as face-to-face courses, they must be, so there.

3. Online courses/programs are better. The most recent iteration of this argument is about MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses)–that MOOCs feature the very best faculty, using the very best technology, emphasizing the very best content, and offering it for the very best price (free).

Here’s the thing.

I’m actually not at all opposed to putting college content online, or the notion that online material can provide positive learning experiences for college students. I’ve spent the last three years on a team, funded by a National Science Foundation grant, that’s developing interactive science ethics education modules for upper-level undergraduate and graduate science students. The rationale for our project is that we’re able to provide experiential learning opportunities to students anywhere on the planet (as long as they read English, for now), without the expense of having to build, stock, or travel to labs (or the danger of conducting experiments with real machines and chemicals!). Clearly, my work on this project should demonstrate that I’m not opposed, in principle, to making college educational opportunities available on the Internetz.

But.

As Mark Edmundsun argues in Friday’s New York Times, college education is, at its heart, dialogic. That means “interactive” if “dialogic” sounds too pretentious. His version of dialogue, that teachers can’t teach well unless we get direct, immediate, palpable feedback from students doesn’t go far enough even for my taste–I’d argue that true dialogue entails students teaching me as much as I teach them, but that’s a debate he and I should have between the two of us:)–but the point is important. Even the best professor, once he/she has recorded a lecture and posted a series of exercises that he/she never looks at students’ responses to, isn’t engaging with the students. That is, access to information does not equal education in the rich sense of the word that professional educators mean it.

As I’ve been interviewing faculty members (so far, two in the US and one in New Zealand) who have beta-tested the SciEthics Interactive modules we’re developing for NSF, one of the very clear themes emerging from those conversations is that the modules are great, but they don’t do much without the support of a faculty member contextualizing and debriefing the students, and they do even less without the students having an opportunity to debrief and reflect on their experiences together.

That is: even a module that’s designed, from beginning to end, to be interactive and experiential doesn’t work as well as it could if the students just complete it individually and never engage other students or teachers about it.

As online technologies get better at allowing real-time, face-to-face interactions over long distances (Skype, Google+ hangouts, videoconferencing technologies of other kinds), the possibilities for authentically interactive/dialogic education will improve. And I’m fine with that. If I could do what I do anywhere I wanted to be as long as I have internet access, I’d probably like that–at least sometimes. But we’re not there yet.

And for ed-tech advocates to accuse me of refusing to get with the program because my long experience as a teacher and researcher gives me quite solid grounds for resisting is mistaken if not dishonest. Most of the people advocating hightech willy-nilly have either not taught, or have financial attachments to hightech concerns. And pardon me for putting it so bluntly, but I think I know better than the first, and my motives aren’t as corrupt as the second.


Serendipity, or When You Need Evidence for a Really Bad Idea, Sometimes the Internet Provides

December 18, 2011

I really, really don’t have time to be thinking about this right now in the face of our final grade deadline, but this is just too good to pass up.

The juxtaposition between two texts sometimes couldn’t be more serendipitous. This is one of those moments.

1. On December 14, 2011, the Chancellor of the PASSHE system, Dr. John Cavanaugh published an opinion piece in the Views section of Inside Higher Ed in which he contends, as part of a larger argument about the need for universities to rethink the way we measure and credit student learning, that faculty are sticks in the mud who add little, if anything, to the college experience. His contention is that easy access to information means that those damn elitist old fashioned faculty members might have to give up some of the turf we’ve claimed as our own in terms of deciding what students ought to learn and how.

I have a lot to say about his argument (this specific part of it and some others), but I’m going to set those aside for now in favor of juxtaposing it with an entry I just read a few minutes ago on the Politics USA blog.

2. In a rather partisan attack against wacky conservatives who invoke conspiracies for political expediency, Hrafnkell Haraldsson points to a recent example of a rather common phenomenon in blogger circles (I’m guilty of it too to some extent): the failure to check the accuracy of somebody else’s information before you propagate it. In this particular case, a wingnut blogger refers readers to a site that purports to show an Executive Order, signed by Bill Clinton in 1994, that confers to the Federal Government the authority to do pretty much anything it wants to anybody it wants to, anytime it feels like it. This canard has a long history of circulating among conspiratoids and has been discredited quite thoroughly (by simply reading the actual Executive Order, which Haraldsson correctly reports you can find in about 20 seconds).

Although Haraldsson’s article is framed as an accusation against conservatives that they trump up insane fears for political reasons with utter disregard for, y’know, evidence or reality or anything, the substance of his point couldn’t demonstrate more clearly why Chancellor Cavanaugh’s point about faculty’s lack of added value is so silly.

Is there a wealth of fantastic information on the internet, available to anyone with a connection and a machine? You bet there is. But there’s also a wealth of unchecked, unvetted, detached-from-reality madness out there, and if nobody is having an organized, systematic conversation about how to tell the difference, not to mention what to do with that information even once you’ve decided it’s useful, then we’ve all but given up hope of any smarter, better–hell, let’s just say it: more ethical–exchanges of information and ideas, deliberations, calls to action, or anything else that more and better access to information is supposed to produce.


PASSHE Students, Faculty, Staff, Alums, Managers! Please read this!

November 20, 2011

[Updated Fri 11/25 @ 8:07 am: Two things. First, I’ve made two very slight changes to the text of the letter, one of which is extending the deadline of the Chancellor to respond; that’s at the recommendation of WCU’s President Greg Weisenstein. I also added an explicit reference to free expression rights in the second paragraph, to respond to some concern that I was advocating protection for violent protests. While I certainly don’t advocate repressive police violence against anybody, neither do I advocate violent protest. Seemed like a fair way to split the difference. Second, as of now, we’re at 142 signatures and counting. That’s with my amateur canvassing effort and the goodwill of a bunch of folks who are helping spread it. However, I still need help reaching Cheyney and Mansfied (no signatures from either), ESU, Clarion, and Slippery Rock (only one from each), and from staff and managers at all campuses. Thanks!]

Folks: The letter below is adapted from a letter drafted and shared by colleague at Eastern Connecticut State U, calling on her university president to make a statement in support protest rights on their campuses. I’ve made some adaptations to it, with an eye towards making it system-wide and more inclusive for all members of the PASSHE community.

I hope people will sign onto it. If you’re willing to contribute your name, please send me a message with your name, your institution, and a department/unit you work in (or major/majored in). I intend to send the letter sometime Tuesday afternoon, so please respond quickly and share widely.

Thanx.

Dear Chancellor Cavanaugh:We write as faculty, staff, students, alums, and managers–as members of the PASSHE community–to express both our dismay at the repressive use of force against students at the University of California-Davis, and our strong request that you make a public statement expressing your support for campus community members’ right to protest in public spaces.We are saddened and outraged that students in US colleges and universities are being met with pepper spray when they choose, peacefully, to exercise their First Amendment rights, and just as importantly what we have  learned and taught in our classes and elsewhere on our campuses.  Those of us who grew up during or have studied the Sixties protests, or the anti-globalization protests in Seattle and Miami—as well as those who may have participated in them and others since—are reminded very uncomfortably of another time.  And we worry that our students, staff, faculty, and management may be watching the UC-Davis video (which has, by now, gone viral) and be worried about what may happen on our campuses if we choose to speak our minds.We ask, then, that by Monday, December 12, you write an open letter to our system-wide community (and maybe post it on the portal?) assuring us that we will be safe if we choose to protest on our campuses and that, rather than meeting any protests with violence, you will use them as an opportunity to engage in dialogue about our concerns. We trust your fundamental humanity and fairness; please share that with our community, so we know we can be thankful that we attend and work for universities that are places of peace and safety.

Extending you best wishes for a happy holiday season,

[signatures]

Please Share! More info on the Rally for Jobs and Student Loan Forgiveness, Oct 17 in Philly

October 14, 2011

The other day I posted a link to a flyer for this event. This press release, which just showed up in my e-mail a minute ago, has more detailed information.

I can’t be emphatic enough about this: if you’re a student who takes loans; if you’re related to somebody who takes loans; if you’ve graduated and you’re struggling with loans; if you’re angry at a financial system that profits insanely off the cultural pressure put on you to go to college even if you can’t afford it–you need to consider attending this rally.

Press Release
Press Contact:  Jamila Wilson 504-251-9036; Berta Joubert-Ceci 267-257-7742
Rally for Jobs & Student Debt Forgiveness: 11am, Monday, October 17, starting on West Side of City Hall
Students and community members to join with P.E.A.C.E (Philadelphia Economic Advancement CollectivE) to march and demand a student loan debt bailout due to the current high unemployment crisis. Student loan debt has increased by over 500% since 1999; the US Dept. of Education expects student loan debt to exceed 1 trillion dollars by next year.
Concerned students and citizens joining the P.E.A.C.E campaign are demanding student loan debt forgiveness. The October 17 march begins at City Hall at 11am and will make specific stops at the Philadelphia’s Stock Exchange, the US Dept. of Education mid-Atlantic regional office, and the Philadelphia Criminal Justice Center.  One of the march organizers, Jamila K Wilson shared, “The intention of this march is to bring awareness to the public on how all these systems feed into the enormous debt students and recent graduates have accumulated and why they are unable to pay due to unemployment and underemployment.”
Unemployment amongst young people, 20-29,  in Philadelphia is at 19.4%, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer article posted on Sept.25, 2011.  National Black teen unemployment is 46.5% and is 35.4% for Latinos.  For Black and Latin youth, the average Black person in this city lives in a neighborhood with a 24.8 percent poverty rate, compared to 8.4 percent for whites. The Latino/a community has an average poverty rate of 25.4 per cent and Asians have a 13.4 per cent poverty rate.
The PEACE Campaign, a special committee of concerned citizens, seeks to bring awareness to these most pressing issues effecting millions and demand that our government does more to protect and bail out the people.
The PEACE Campaign can be contacted via email atPEACE@peoplesmail.net or via Facebook at P.E.A.C.E.

CFP, Deadline Revised: Open Words, special issue on Contingent Labor and Educational Access

June 23, 2011

Amy Lynch-Biniek (Kutztown U), Sharon Henry (U of Akron) and I have decided to extend the deadline for submissions to our special issue of Open Words on Contingent Labor and Educational Access. We got lots of great ideas and concepts, and any number of “I wish I could, but the timing really stinks” notes, and we decided that the material is important enough to warrant the wait. So if you’re somebody who decided not to submit because the June 1 deadline wasn’t convenient, we urge you to reconsider.

The CFP, with dates revised, is below. We look forward to hearing from you.

*********

Call for Papers

Open Words Special Issue on Contingent Labor and Educational Access

Deadline for Submissions: First drafts, August 1, 2011; Second drafts, December 15, 2011

Guest editors Seth Kahn (West Chester University of PA); Amy Lynch-Biniek (Kutztown University of PA); and Sharon Henry (University of Akron)

This special issue of Open Words invites contributors to consider relationships among three issues–contingent labor, educational access, and non-mainstream student populations (by which we mean both non-traditional students, in demographic terms, and populations more likely to be served by colleges recently than they have been historically)–all of which the fields of composition and literacy studies have struggled with for decades. Scholarship and policy statements on contingent labor are replete with calls for equity, variously articulated but vigorous nonetheless—and with occasional exceptions, largely unsuccessful. The intensity with which we’ve written about open-admissions and open-access higher education institutions has waxed and waned over the years, but big questions about the roles of literacy instruction, the micro- and macro-politics of higher education, critical pedagogy, and many more bear on the working, teaching, and learning conditions of open-access campuses as heavily as, if not more than, anywhere else. Finally, we’ve thought and written a great deal about working with non-mainstream students (i.e., students often served by open-admissions institutions, but increasingly at other kinds of schools as well), and again, still face large-scale structural problems with ensuring equitable opportunity and quality learning experiences for them. Individually, the problems facing contingent faculty, those facing open-access institutions, and those facing non-mainstream students are difficult. Taken together, we believe they are exponentially more complicated.

Thus the motivation for this issue: we work and live at a time when the American cultural and economic politics are pushing against labor equity and quality education; when colleges and universities operate according to corporate logics that consistently work to dehumanize faculty and students. While these forces come to bear on contingent faculty, open-admissions campuses, and non-mainstream students in unique ways, we also believe that careful analysis of such conditions presents significant possibilities for positive changes across levels and types of institutions. At the risk of sounding cliché, even managerial, difficult situations really do sometimes present unique opportunities.

With that frame in mind, we invite contributions for our Spring 2012 issue addressing relations of contingent labor, open access, and non-mainstream students; manuscripts (generally 15-25 pp., although we will review longer submissions) might consider these questions, or use them as provocations to ask and answer others:

  • How does the increasing reliance on adjunct faculty on open-admissions campuses (and/or campuses serving largely non-mainstream student populations) impact students’ learning conditions? Faculty’s working conditions? Academic freedom? Curricular control? And how are these situations complicated at institutions employing graduate teaching assistants?
  • Why is the casualization of academic labor happening more quickly, or to greater degree, on open-admissions campuses and campuses serving non-mainstream students? What strategies do faculty, both contingent and permanent, and students have at our disposal to respond to the inequitable conditions facing us?
  • How do the interests of open-admission, community, vocational/technical, and branch university campus faculty coincide/overlap with the interests of students and administrators? How do these interests differ?
  • How is the trend toward hiring non-tenure track faculty affecting the teaching of writing? As PhDs in literature, for example, are pushed out of tenure lines into these non-tenure lines, how do their (probable) lack of familiarity with composition scholarship and theory, and differing professional commitments to teaching writing, impact students, programs, and other faculty on our campuses? And, how is this trend affecting literature programs and the degrees to which they can address the interests and concerns of their ‘non-mainstream’ students?
  • To what extent are contingent faculty involved in curricular and/or professional development, and to what extent can/should they be? How might departments/units balance the desire to involve contingent faculty in curriculum development, or placement (for example), with the minimal (if any) compensation most units offer for the work? How does this problem become more complex on campuses serving large populations of non-mainstream students with large numbers of contingent faculty?

Please submit manuscripts electronically, in MS Word (.doc or .docx) or Rich Text Format (.rtf), to Seth Kahn (skahn@wcupa.edu) by August 1, 2011.


Eating Our Young

May 10, 2011

[This is the title of a proposal I just submitted as part of the Rhetoricians for Peace/Labor Caucus special event proposal for 2012 CCCC.  I’m starting this series of posts in order to get ideas someplace I can find them, and if any discussion ensues, yay for that too.]

I just got an email from the lead advisor for my department that she needs to over-enroll one of my gen-ed composition courses (which are already capped at 25, which is too high, but they’ve been that way for decades…).  A student late in his career needs the second course and wanted the course I’m teaching in the fall (we have 6 different Comp 2 courses that all fulfill the requirement).  We’ll set aside the conceptual problem of a student who waited so long to take a required course, and of a student who under those circumstances feels entitled to ask for my course instead of any of the other 5 that fulfill the same requirement.

When I first read the email, I kind of balked, and almost wrote back to whine about being the person whose section is over-enrolled. Fortunately I waited, because I’m pretty sure I know what would have happened had I complained.  There’s a pretty high likelihood that the student would have wound up in a section taught by one of our adjunct faculty members.  As I say that, I need to be clear that I’m not accusing the department of intentionally exploiting our adjunct faculty.  But it sure is easier to make those kinds of requests of faculty who aren’t likely to argue back, isn’t it?

This has happened to me before, by the way; seven or eight years ago, I taught a Business Writing course (yes, really) capped at 25 students.  It always fills as many sections as we can offer, and somebody in the Dean’s Office wanted to put 7 extra students in an adjunct’s section.  I flipped out and insisted that all of them be added to my section, which turned out OK in spite of its recklessness. Anyway, I remembered that as I was wondering whether to write back complaining about my course cap being overridden by dictate instead of by request.

And I will say, for the record, that had the department simply asked me whether I’m willing to take an extra student, I would have without even a second’s hesitation, as long as there wasn’t an opening in any other qualifying course the student could fit into his schedule.

Certainly there’s an issue with class size and protecting course caps here, and at some point I’ll have to think about the connections between that issue and the point I’m about to get to here.  They’re more intricate than they might seem at first glance. Anyway, the issue here is the extent to which full-time faculty, especially those of us with nothing to lose (in terms of teaching evaluations or what-have-you), are willing to take on extra students in our courses so junior faculty, adjunct faculty, and grad students don’t have to. How many of us would be willing to make that commitment?  How many of us would be willing to pledge, or vote on a department policy saying, that adjunct faculty/grad students are the LAST option for course over-enrollments?

I wish I felt more confident in the answer to that question, but I just don’t.