Posts Tagged Higher Education

Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #6)

Greetings from Chicago!  It’s cloudy and cold outside today as I sit and write this blog post but unlike the east coast there’s no snow on the ground here.  Perhaps I’m crazy, but I kind of miss the snow cover.  Haven’t had a chance to drag out my cross country skis at all this year.

My last blog post was written before Christmas.  I hope you’ll forgive me for taking the month of December off as I was focused on visiting my family and trying to wrap up a bunch of projects that had collected on my desk over the fall semester.  In that November post I examined the use of electronic texts.  This post will cover the topic of Educational Technology.

I first became aware of the term “Educational Technology” through Twitter, specifically the tweets of Audrey Waters.  Before reading some of her posts on Hack Education, I had never heard of the term but I was well aware of the programs and services the term described.  Most familiar to me is Blackboard, the Course Management System (CMS) used at UIC.  I was also familiar with the various products such as MyWritingLab that Pearson had long been promoting amongst writing faculty on campus.  Apparently they have a version of this My(fill in the blanks here)Lab for every discipline taught on campus.

Most faculty entering the market for Educational Technology are either lost in a field of options made more confusing by technical jargon or are simply content to accept whatever technological tools are provided to them by their employer.  Few of us have the time or inclination to ask what types of technology are cost effective and, more importantly, what tools will actually enhance what we do in the classroom.

I experimented with several different types of educational technology in my First Year Writing classroom during the Fall semester of 2012.  The course I was teaching (ENGL 160) is designed to teach students short genres of writing such as the argumentative essay and proposal writing.  At the time, the course was balanced between academic and non-academic genres.  You can find a link to the syllabus under the Teaching Materials tab of my website.  It’s called “First Year Writing:Genre and Argument.”

I chose the Profile genre as well as that of the Manifesto to help students practice writing in a public context.  Since many of these non-academic genres are published online, I decided to have them work on the text of their assignments in Microsoft Word but then import that content into Google Sites for the Profile and Tumblr for the Manifesto.  Neither of these tools are typically considered educational technology, but that is part of my point.  Marketers have software and services that they claim are designed with your classroom in mind.  But any technology can become educational technology if you provide the proper pedagogical context for it.

In the case of the Profile, Google Sites was chosen as a simple web design tool that would allow students to craft an online Profile for the person they interviewed.  This person was someone on campus at UIC that they felt others should know. My favorite example was the student project that focused on a custodian in her dorm complex.  The hope with this writing assignment was that students would not only learn basic rhetorical techniques associated with the Profile genre since its creation but also would learn how to translate those analog skills into a digital environment.  It worked generally OK.  My one frustration was with my choice of platform.  Google Sites proved easy to me, but not my students who struggled to figure out its design interface.  Tumblr was a different story.  Most of my students had already used Tumblr before and some had profiles on the site.  They also like the photographic emphasis of the platform as opposed to the text heavy set up of Google Sites.  They used Tumblr effectively to create a Fashion Manifesto (based on the popular Sartorialist blog) that was designed to teach UIC students how to be fashion savvy on campus.

This academic year our program has begun shifting to primarily academic forms of short writing.  I haven’t taught this particular course in a while so I’m not sure how that would shift my choice of educational technology.  One thing is for sure, however, I like choosing and shaping the tool I want to use rather than simply taking something given to me by an educational technology designer.  This saves students money but is also gives me flexibility as an instructor to shift from platform to platform as I see fit rather than being locked into a deal with a major publisher or software developer whose staff don’t fully understand the needs of my class. The downside to this approach, as I’m sure you’ve already guessed, is that it does take a bit of time to create your own context.  Perhaps that’s why I’ve stepped back from the process of platform selection in the last few semesters to more traditional pedagogical tools.  I’ve even tried, Lord help me!, to make Blackboard work to my advantage.  No luck on that yet.  It still serves mainly for me as a clunky version of Dropbox.

Faculty on campuses around the world are doing some excellent work with their students creating their own educational technology.  Two that come to mind are Chuck Rybak at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay and Jeff McClurken at the University of Mary Washington.  There are many more.  What these faculty have in common is a desire to learn the logic behind technological tools and create a context for them in the work they do in the classroom.  Again, this takes time.  It also takes money and at the very least a minimal amount of institutional support.  Unfortunately, at my institution security concerns and legal liability issues trump the desire for experimentation.  As I often joke with colleagues, the answer to any question asked of our university computing center is “Blackboard.”

For anyone reading this post who’s interested in delving into the world of educational technology I recommend first finding a partner to work with.  This could be either another faculty member in your department who shares some of your interests, a colleague in a department such as computer science who would be interested in collaborating with a humanities scholar, or a librarian willing to help you create your own educational tool.  Not only will this save you time, but it will address the issue of funding, which is always a concern with new projects.  Free online tools are abundant but not always easy to find.  Adapting these tools might also cost you some money for things like hosting fees and access to advanced editing tools.

What I don’t recommend is simply taking the tools offered by educational companies and using them in your classroom.  Blackboard is useful.  Especially the announcements, file sharing, and grade book.  But using it teaches me nothing.  Nor does it teach my students.  All it does is deliver content.  The point of educational technology should be more than content delivery.  It should be the act of learning how to deliver content through an electronic medium (a.k.a. digital literacy).  

I hope you all find the tool that works best for you and don’t get distracted by technology that you don’t need.  If you are a faculty member and have some tools that you particularly like or educational technology projects you’re proud of and would like to share with my readers, feel free to comment on this post.

My next post is going to shift from pedagogy to research.  I’ll be sharing with you some of the themes associated with my next book project.  A work very much “in progress.”

Until next time…

John Casey

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Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #5)

I hope that you all had a Happy Thanksgiving and are on track for a successful end to your fall semester.  After getting back from a visit with my in-laws in Springfield, Illinois, I find myself swimming furiously in a sea of student papers, articles and manuscripts in need of peer review, and revision of my own writing.  There’s also the constant rush of students in and out of my office now that they’ve discovered (belatedly) the location of my office as well as my posted office hours.  Ah, the glamorous life of the academic.  ; )

In my last blog post, I focused on the use of Twitter for academic purposes. This month I’d like to discuss the use of electronic texts in the classroom.  Among my colleagues at UIC, there is a robust debate over whether it is appropriate at all to invite the use of electronic devices in the undergraduate classroom.  Some faculty choose to prohibit phones, tablets, and laptops from their classrooms and require students to purchase hard copies of books and print out articles for discussion in class.  Other faculty on campus only use electronic texts, print sources than have been scanned or coded into an electronic format or sources that only exist electronically.

My approach is a hybrid of these two poles.  Certain books I prefer to have students buy in hard copy or print out.  These are typically sources that we will be reading closely or analyzing multiple times.  Other resources, mostly contextual in nature, I prefer students to access electronically as needed.  The rationale behind this decision does have some research to back it up, but is based largely on my teaching experience as well as feedback I have received from students.  “Close reading,” “Analytical Reading,” “Hermeneutics,” call it what you will, depends upon a form of deep concentration that it is hard for us to achieve when we are scrolling up and down a computer screen.  True (as Franco Moretti points out) readers have been engaged in superficial readings of texts for as long as humans have been writing language down.  However, it is just too easy for me to shift to Facebook, Twitter, or another document when reading an electronic text or skim rapidly across the words on the screen without registering much beyond the “gist” of what I have read.  With a  book or article in hand, I feel pressure to go back over text my eyes have lazily gazed over and highlight/annotate the parts of the text that seem significant.

Students in my courses have generally agreed with this assessment.  Contra Cathy Davidson whose most recent book, Now You See It, champions the benefits of distraction, students on the UIC campus have complained to me about how hard it is to focus with their phones buzzing and pinging with updates and notifications from various apps.  They have also found the technological limits of wifi, software compatibility, and device battery life a challenge.  We joked in my Introduction to Literary Criticism and Theory course several semester’s ago that the main vulnerabilities of the codex as interface are water and fire.  Other than that, as long as you don’t lose the book or print article, you’re good to go.

These significant drawbacks to the electronic text have often left me skeptical about the best way to use them (if at all).  As I mentioned earlier, the main ways in which I have found electronic texts useful have been contextual in nature. This includes bringing historical documents such as newspaper articles, letters, photographs, and maps into the classroom.  These supplementary texts help us better understand the social background of the writings we are analyzing.  Another effective use of electronic texts has been when a work is otherwise unavailable in print for students to read.  Most of the authors I teach and research are now part of the public domain, making their work freely accessible for all to distribute in whatever way they see fit.  What better way to appreciate the literary context that influenced an author’s aesthetic than to read the works of his or her contemporaries for comparison.

Perhaps the greatest source of influence in my decision on whether or not to assign an electronic text, however, has not been pedagogical at all.  Instead it has been driven by the rising cost of student textbooks.  The anthology I used in my Introduction to Literary Criticism and Theory cost students on average $115 to buy.  Renting the book lowered the cost to around $70.  This might not seem like much in comparison to texts in other courses that can cost significantly more or software programs that students are required to buy for majors in the architecture and the sciences.  Yet the cost adds up over time.  Whenever I assign a print book or article, I make sure that we are in fact going to read the text exhaustively.  That it is in ever sense a “required” text for the course.  Anything that might even be vaguely considered supplemental, reference oriented, or “recommended” is assigned in an electronic format to save costs.

Now at this point it is worth acknowledging the hidden and often not so hidden cost of e-texts.  Publishers come by my office on a near constant basis around this time of the year, particularly Pearson.  They are more than eager to sell my students access to proprietary websites that mediate between them and the things they will be reading.  One example is MyReadingLab.  The allure of such technology is that it lessens my workload in and out of the classroom.  But is it worth the cost?  To me, at least, it isn’t.  I would rather find online resources that are either free or more affordable and link students to them via our course management site, Blackboard.  There is also the transfer of costs to students in printing fees, my xerox budget has been cut dramatically by my department, as well as the cost of buying a device to read electronic texts on.  Sure, a sizable number of our students have smartphones today, but who wants to read a novel on a iPhone?  Even youthful eyes are strained reading that tiny print.

The only honest way to conclude a discussion of electronic texts in the classroom is to admit that the data is mixed.  Their are numerous disadvantages to moving away from print texts but there are also many benefits.  I hope to have a fruitful discussion on both during my round table presentation in Hartford on “required texts” and “authoritative” editions of literary works.  In the meantime, if you have been using electronic texts successfully or unsuccessfully in the literature classroom, let me know.  If you haven’t tried using them at all, experiment with a few this spring.  Teaching and scholarship after all are a great adventure.  Why else would we keep slogging along through the seemingly endless writings by students and colleagues that call for our attention on an almost daily basis?

In my next blog post, I intend to revisit my comments on Pearson and other educational resource providers (including Blackboard).  What should scholars know when they enter the market for educational technology?  How can we choose the tools that make sense for our pedagogy when we are limited by lack of knowledge, money, and sometimes institutional bureaucracy?

Until next time….

John Casey

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A College By Any Other Name

Mid-terms have come and gone at the University where I teach and work as an administrator.  With their passing, students are left to ponder just what it will take to get them through the rest of the semester.  Some will take advantage of the services available to assist them as they try not to buckle under the growing burdens of their blended school work, jobs, and social life.  An even larger number, however, will fall by the wayside and drop out of their classes.

This is especially true of the First Year students I teach.  ACT statistics from 2012 show a first to second year retention rate at all of the United States’s colleges and universities they surveyed of approximately 67%.  Even if the financial burden of going to college were not as bad as it is today, this rate is still alarming.  It is indicative of an educational system that is good at persuading students to enroll, but not as good at ushering them towards the completion of their degree.

Part of the problem is the message that parents, educators, and public figures such as President Obama send to prospective students.  First they tell them that college is a surefire ticket to a better life.  And then they convince prospective students that any college and degree program will do.  All the would be students need concern themselves with is that they hurry up and get a BA before its too late.

A major problem with this message is that the first assertion is a selective interpretation of the truth.  Statistics show that “on average” college graduates have greater earning power than those with only a high school degree.  The reality, however, is much cloudier.  Earning power depends largely on the degree earned and the school granting the degree.  As more Americans have Bachelor’s degrees, employers can be more selective.  This makes the subject studied and the network of potential recommenders that a well-known school can provide more important than ever.  Also, it is worth noting that the only reason college earnings have remained higher than the take home pay of non-college graduates is that the average wage of high school educated employees has plummeted since the 1980s.

Armed with this faulty information, students are then fed the equally faulty perspective that all institutions of higher education are essentially alike.  How many students do you know of who are savvy enough to parse the distinction between a college and a university?  How many faculty can do this for that matter?  What does a community college really offer?  How about for profits?  Students are left with the impression that college is vital to their future, but then are left essentially adrift to figure out where they should go on their own.  Is it any wonder that undergraduates are often better at comparison shopping for a smartphone than they are at picking out a college?

One way to alleviate this problem is to be honest with would be students.  Don’t discourage them from going to college, but explain that, depending on what career path they are intent on pursuing, a college degree might not be necessary.  There are numerous certificate programs and high school vocational programs that can place students in satisfying careers that pay a living wage.  Additionally, there are two-year colleges that can either serve as a place for would be students to discover what they are interested in studying or provide them a skill that is immediately applicable to the workforce.

Making these career track options more visible and more viable will then enable colleges and universities in the United States to stop marketing themselves as job training centers.  Four year institutions of higher learning should busy themselves imagining the jobs of tomorrow rather than placing its students in the popular fields of today.

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Revisiting the Digital Divide

Much of the research on the “digital divide” focuses on individual users and demographic groups that have traditionally had limited access to technology. A recent study by the Pew Research Center continues this trend. Their findings indicate that thanks to mobile technology, specifically the smart phone, internet use among all social groups is increasing. Fear of technology is also fading as once excluded groups learn digital literacy.

Although these studies are heartening to read, indicating gradual progress towards greater access to technology for all citizens, they fail to take into account the digital divide that exists within educational institutions. While television, radio, and internet news providers have been busy bashing the teacher’s unions and tearing apart the educational policies of “No Child Left Behind,” precious little has been said about the uneven technological infrastructure of our nation’s schools.

For every school with access to i Pads and state of the art computer labs, there are hundreds with only a handful of aging computers (usually in the library) that are available on a first come first served basis for internet research and word processing. This problem is endemic throughout the current educational system, reaching as far as the ranks of higher education.

Right now I am writing this blog post at home on my personal laptop. Partially this decision was made voluntarily, as I wanted to write during the evening in the comfort of my home and not use work resources for non-work related activities. Even if I had wanted to write this post earlier at work, however, I could not.

I share an office at my institution with four other Non-Tenure Track Faculty (NTT as we’re calling them these days). At one point, we had a desktop computer that was five years old. Not surprisingly given the CPU intensive nature of WEB 2.0, this machine died during the summer semester.

In its place, next to the CRT monitor (i.e. the kind that looks like an old TV), mouse, and keyboard of the old computer, sits a seven-year old laptop–a PowerBook G4. This machine was wrangled from the department after over a month of hectoring our IT guy. I had never even heard of this particular brand of Apple laptop so I took the time to search for information about the system on Wikipedia. It turns out that the “new” computer in my office is the precursor to the now ubiquitous Mac Book.

With its limited CPU power and an outdated browser, the most I can do with this laptop is check my email and read websites that aren’t overly graphics heavy or interactive. On most days I go upstairs to the computer lab and wait to use one of the three computers in our departmental computer lab. I also have the option (unlike most of my colleagues) of using the computer in my other office where I serve as an undergraduate studies program assistant.

Added to these frustrations is the lack of wireless internet access in either of my offices, which prohibits me from bringing my personal i Pad to work and getting around the technological limitations of my work space. At one point, I was able to “hack” my way into the network by plugging the internet cable in my teaching office into my own laptop, but as of today our internet connection there is down. This also makes it impossible to use the telephone in that room as my institution switched a few years ago from regular phone service to VOIP (voice over internet protocol).

If we move from my early twentieth century office into the classrooms where I teach, the situation is only slightly better. In a course I designed to teach digital literacy and multi-modal writing to my students, the most advanced technology in any of my three classrooms is a flat screen monitor with a VGA cable that allows me to plug in my own laptop and display its screen on a 25″ television. Wireless access is available in all three rooms, but that assumes that my students can afford to bring their own technology to class as I have.

“Plug and Play” is better than nothing in a world where technological access is no longer a luxury but a precondition for education to take place. Yet it places the burden of technology’s cost on the students and educators. Not only is this unfair, it also sends a strange message to our students: “You need to be educated for the jobs of the 21st century, but we will not provide the tools.” No wonder self-learning is coming back into fashion. Why pay for school when you can buy a laptop and let the internet teach you the skills needed to survive in a tech-driven world?

Now I should perhaps qualify my statement/rant above by reiterating the fact that I am a NTT faculty member. I’m also an English Professor. Perhaps things are different for the TT faculty in my department or are significantly better in other programs at my institution. My suspicion, however, is that while the technological infrastructure might be less antiquated than what I described above it is still inadequate to meet student needs.

When we talk about the digital divide, we need to remember that surfing the internet is a skill easily learned alone at home. Using the web to your advantage, however, is a skill that should be learned collectively in the classroom. Regrettably, this can’t happen when many educators work in an environment designed to teach Baby Boomers to fight the Red Menace.

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How The American University was Killed, in Five Easy Steps

A very well-thought out analysis of the current state of higher education. If you care at all about the issue, this is a must read.

The Homeless Adjunct

A few years back, Paul E. Lingenfelter began his report on the defunding of public education by saying, “In 1920 H.G. Wells wrote, ‘History is becoming more and more a race between education and catastrophe.’ I think he got it right. Nothing is more important to the future of the United States and the world than the breadth and effectiveness of education, especially of higher education. I say especially higher education, but not because pre- school, elementary, and secondary education are less important. Success at every level of education obviously depends on what has gone before. But for better or worse, the quality of postsecondary education and research affects the quality and effectiveness of education at every level.”

In the last few years, conversations have been growing like gathering storm clouds about the ways in which our universities are failing. There is talk about the poor educational outcomes apparent in…

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Coalition on the Academic Workforce Report Released

In what may qualify as the non-event of the year, the Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW) released its report on Adjunct working conditions yesterday.  The data paints a picture similar to that of Josh Boldt’s earlier crowdsourced study the Adjunct Project.  Non-tenure track faculty are working long hours for little pay, and they would gladly accept a full-time career track position if one were made available.  The more interesting statistic from the CAW study that gets lost in the overwhelming focus on pay is that a significant majority of those working off the tenure track are women who teach in humanities disciplines.

Reading through the CAW’s study, I couldn’t help but feel that the time spent on this project would have been better used somewhere else. The trends in Adjunct labor have not dramatically changed since the CAW was founded in 1997.  What has changed is that each year conditions in Higher Education have become steadily worse.  Studies don’t change society, men and women possessing moral courage who are mobilized for action do.  What makes this study even more useless (in my opinion) is the small number of non-academics who will ever see it.  They are the ones who need to see the data.  I would wager they are the only ones who would be surprised by the content of the CAW’s study.

So it’s official, the dead horse has been beaten once again.

More promising but still cringe-inducing is the plan endorsed by Middle Tennessee State University to create a four phase plan for non-tenure track faculty that would recognize their integral role in departmental life.  It would allow those teaching on semester-to-semester contracts (Adjuncts in the truest sense of the word) a path to becoming full-time lecturers and (eventually) senior lecturers.

That path is severely flawed, as the Homeless Adjunct points out.  Moreover, it’s not even that inventive.  My employer already has such a  system in place and has for at least as long as I’ve worked there (2000).

Yet in spite of these flaws, talk of a phased system of Adjunct employment moves us beyond the statistical study of “the Adjunct Question” and the tiresome stories of victimization to actually doing something about the problem.  Let’s hope that more talk about solutions comes into vogue so that better plans than Middle Tennessee’s might emerge.

If nothing else, the CAW study and the “four-phase” plan adopted by Middle Tennessee and endorsed by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) demonstrates the epistemological gap between the tenure track and the non-tenure track in Higher Education.  It also demonstrates that Academic Professional Organizations are paper tigers.  I guess that explains why union membership on college campuses is up while professional groups struggle to maintain their ranks.

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Quality Over Quantity–Computer Assisted Grading Revisited

A Reuter’s report describes recent efforts to create computer software that could scan and grade common errors in student essays.  Mark Shermis, Dean of the College of Education at the University of Akron, is supervising a contest created by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation that would award $100,000 to the programmer who creates an effective automated grading software.

Shermis argues that if teachers weren’t swamped by so many student papers in need of grading, they would assign more writing and student’s would greatly improve their written communication skills.  He sees this new technology as an aide to the overworked writing teacher rather than a potential replacement.

Steve Graham, a Professor at Vanderbilt who has conducted research on essay grading techniques, argues, in contrast, that the replacement of writing teachers by grading software is not only “inevitable” but also desirable as “the reality is humans aren’t very good at doing this.”

As the writer of the Reuter’s article notes, talk about paper grading software is not new.  It began in the 1960s.  Now, however, technology has reached a level where such grading is not only possible but also probable.  But the question still remains:  Is it a good idea?

Leaving aside for a moment the question of faculty employment, machine grading sidesteps a more important question than how to get students to write more and grade that writing effectively.  Namely–what is writing and who is responsible for teaching it.

In too many schools writing is viewed as the “problem” of the English department.  Students are sent to writing classes to learn essay structure, research techniques, and grammar.  Only the last of these is universal.  The other two skill sets are discipline specific.  I guess that explains why to my students everything they read is a novel and every paper a literary analysis.  They’ve been taught after all that writing equals English.

If we really want students to learn not just writing but effective communication, parents, teachers, and administrators need to spread the responsibility for this instruction across the curriculum.  Some schools already do this but most are content to leave communication training to literary scholars.  Machines won’t change this.  They will be programmed to evaluate whatever curriculum is currently in place.  Until the curriculum is changed, the machine will not only replicate the error but multiply it.

Moving on to the issue of employment, part of my unease with a machine that grades papers is it would most likely put me out of a job.  I have 48 student essays in need of grading that are staring at me right now as I pen this post.  Of course, the curricular changes I suggest would more than likely have the same effect, with or without machine assistance.  The way to counter this, however, is to lower class sizes.

This is the other aspect of the issue that is completely ignored by most research.  If class sizes are lessened, not only will more teachers have employment but writing will become a less onerous task to teach and evaluate.  It could also then be meaningfully integrated into the entire curriculum and not remain the purview of the English Department.

Would such changes cost a lot of money?  Yes.  But it is a good investment.  Far better than the money we’ve wasted in Iraq and Afghanistan and the even larger sums of money we spend incarcerating drug offenders.  It’s even better, dare I say, than the cost of a certain software currently being designed to solve all my problems.

 

 

 

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March 1st National Day of Action on Behalf of Higher Ed

This week is one of those rare occasions in which the blog post for both sites I manage is the same.  My reason for this overlap is the severity of the crisis we face in Higher Education in the United States.  In the last thirty years, public funding for Higher Education at the state and federal level has consistently been reduced.  Private colleges have also been squeezed more each year by a decline in alumni giving and the investment returns from their endowments.

With colleges and universities living in a constant state of budget crisis, students are more dependent upon loan debt rather than scholarships and grants to finance their education.  A recent study conducted by the non-profit Institute for College Access and Success indicates that the average student indebtedness in the United States is around $26,000.  In my home state of Illinois, 62% of college graduates reported owing some form of debt upon graduation.  That is up from 46% in 1990.

Students are also becoming part of the low wage economy through work-study jobs that not only have no connection to their studies but have unwittingly helped dismantle blue-collar employment on campus.  Who wants to pay $45,000-$65,000 a year to clerical and service workers when the same work can be done by an undergraduate for pennies on the dollar.

Colleges were forced by circumstances to find ways to “economize” and “monetize” their existing assets, but inviting corporate logic into the realm of Higher Ed was like welcoming the fox into the hen-house.  Higher Education has now become a factory that turns out graduates while remaining agnostic about their fate subsequent to graduation.

In order to address this crisis, Occupy Education, a branch of the larger Occupy movement, has called for a National Day of Action to be held on March 1st throughout the United States to draw attention to the problems we face and hopefully prod those interested towards crafting a solution.

Here in Chicago a number of rallies are planned throughout the city. I will be at events taking place in the Loop beginning at 8:30am and ending around 4pm.  Here are a list of those events:

8:30am– A panel led by Diana Vallera, the president of Columbia College’s Part-Time Faculty Union (P-Fac), and Curtis Keyes, the lead organizer for the union at East-West University will be held as part of the National Education Association (NEA) convention taking place at the Palmer House Hilton.  That panel will address the current crisis in Higher Education and the work that unions have been doing to combat it.

11:00am–A rally will meet outside the Palmer House as Curtis Keyes speaks with members of the student group C.A.C.H.E. (the Coalition Against Corporate Higher Education) prior to marching south to the main offices of Columbia College at 600 South Michigan Avenue.

1:00pm–C.A.C.H.E. will continue its march to Congress and Michigan and hold a rally.

These are just a few of the events occurring that day.  Hundreds more will pop up all over the city so keep your eyes open.  If you are unable to find or participate in one of these rallies, check out these facts on Higher Ed and share them with a friend or coworker.  Together we can insure that college education is available for all who want it and maintain the educated citizenry necessary for a healthy republic to survive.

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Knowledge Is Power

Somewhere in the top drawer of my dresser is a metal insignia that reads Savoir C’est Pouvoir–Knowledge Is Power.  That insignia was given to me by my uncle years ago when he left the 82nd airborne to return to civilian life. He had served for several years as an intelligence officer with his unit and that service was reflected on the insignia he wore on his maroon beret.

What is true for the armed forces is often equally true in other areas of life.  In this case the quest to reform the conditions of teaching and learning in higher education.  To achieve any kind of victory, it is first necessary to understand what exactly you are up against.  Good data can save lives on the battlefield and it can shape for the better (or worse) the future of students and teachers in the college classroom.

The task to gather accurate intelligence on Adjunct labor conditions began with a vengeance last week as Josh Boldt, an Adjunct Professor of English at the University of Georgia and fellow attendee of the New Faculty Majority summit, created a Google docs spreadsheet where Adjunct faculty can list their salaries, benefits, and working conditions.  Here for the first time the general public can see in one place how much Adjunct faculty make at institutions throughout the United States and (in some cases) the world.  I’ve added my information to the spreadsheet.  I’d encourage you to do so as well.

Reading through all the information on the spreadsheet is a bit daunting and at some point it will need analysis and visualization to work as an organizing tool, but I anticipate some great coalition building campaigns emerging from out of this data.  Administrator’s can easily dismiss claims based on ethos and pathos but they can’t dismiss the logic of numbers.  A quick scan of the data on this sheet shows that the median salary for Adjunct faculty is well below the suggested MLA guidelines and is far lower than the amount needed to sustain oneself let alone a family.

In a recent post to her Inside Higher Education Blog, College Ready Writing, Lee Bessette extols the benefits of this “crowdsourced” project on behalf of Adjuncts everywhere and I am inclined to agree with her.  My only quibble is with her use of the word “hero.”

At the New Faculty Majority summit I was frequently the annoying pragmatist who pointed out the need for data and clear talking points not simply to push our adversaries back on their heels but also to energize the people we hope to form into a coalition to change higher education.  Call it lamenting, kvetching, carping, whatever you like–the fact remains, I have been witness to and participant in ALOT of failed organizing campaigns.  I’d like to think that I have learned something from those experiences and what I was saying came from that perspective.

We don’t need heroes in the quest to reform higher education.  Instead we need patience, perseverance, and clarity of vision.  These are the qualities that inspired Srdja Popovic in his campaign to topple Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic and later guided uprisings in places such as Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.

Let’s not kid ourselves.  The status quo works for the people in power.  If it didn’t, contingent labor wouldn’t be expanding and it wouldn’t be invisible to the general public.  To make it stop working will require thousands of micro-strikes against it rather than one dramatic lunge.  We are small but mighty.  Non-violent guerilla war against corporate higher education has begun.

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Reflections on the New Faculty Majority Summit 2012

A few hours ago I returned to Chicago from the New Faculty Majority (NFM) Summit, which took place this Saturday from 8am to 5pm at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington, D.C.  I was invited there along with Josh Boldt, Lee Bessette, Brian Croxall, and Karen Kelsky as part of a “social media” team.  Our job was to amplify the voices of those at the summit and make its issues and conversations known to audiences all over the world.  From what I have seen so far–I think we succeeded.

The first session began with a discussion of the origin, development, and scale of the shift from tenured to non-tenure track labor in Higher Education.  Much of the material in this panel has been covered by writers such as Marc Bousquet (http://howtheuniversityworks.com/wordpress/) and will be familiar to those who have been working and researching Adjunct and Grad student labor.  However, given the nature of the coalition that NFM seeks to forge, joining Faculty, Staff, Students, and Parents, it was necessary to first set the context for the discussion before we could proceed.

Following this opening session the summit moved on to examine successful campaigns for adjunct’s rights (see in particular Vancouver Community College’s Program for Change http://www.vccfa.ca/program-for-change/index.html), effective strategies for coalition building, and ways to change attitudes towards Adjunct faculty on campus.

The post-lunch sessions involved small group meetings where each room examined NFM’s own Program for Change draft and made suggestions for what to change, add, or leave out.  Summit participants closed the day with a reflection on the results of their break out sessions.

If it’s possible to be energized, daunted, and disappointed all at the same time that is where I am at following the close of this summit.  I think Josh Boldt’s recent post (http://karmaslide.com/2012/01/29/nfm-12-post-two-stop-looking-for-the-treasure-map-and-start-laying-bricks/) describes my emotional state as well.  Perhaps you should read his words before proceeding to finish reading this post.  Of course, he puts me to shame as a writer in that piece.  So maybe you should wait to read it until later.

I really loved the energy generated early in the day and gained some really useful insights, many of which ended up in my twitter feed under the hashtag #newfac12.  These included:

  1. You don’t need to form a Union to organize.  Something of a revelation for this Chicago Democrat.
  2. Coalitions should include more than one interest group.  This relates to point one.  Unions only allow those seeking a labor contract under the law to join.  A non-union coalition isn’t hampered by this.  Parents, students, staff, and even administrators could join.  As Joe Berry put it during the summit, to have a successful coalition you need both “insiders” and “outsiders.”  The outsiders raise hell and the insiders create a framework to make sure that changes stick.
  3. Changes in Adjunct labor begin with attitude.  In particular, Adjuncts should act “as if” they were not contingent but stable members of a department.  Show up to social events, colloquia, open meetings.  Have conversations with tenured faculty over coffee and tell them what you are working on in and outside of the classroom.  And don’t be afraid to keep looking for a better job.  We are devoted workers but we shouldn’t be martyrs.  (Shout out to Karen Kelsky goes here.  See her website and in particular this post:  http://theprofessorisin.com/2012/01/24/adjuncting-and-stockholm-syndrome/)
  4. Not all Adjuncts are teachers.  Don’t forget the Alternative Academic community.  Librarians, Technical Support, Laboratory workers, Research Assistants, etc.
  5. Educate yourself.  coalition building and advocacy depends on accurate information, which includes budget numbers, faculty appointment data, and documented working conditions across campus.  We should also relearn the old fashion skills taught in civics class such as how to lobby our congressperson and get legislation introduced at the local, state, and federal level.  It’s your government.  Find a way to make it work for you.

Ok, now for the disappointed and daunted part of my post.  As Josh Boldt expressed it, I was hoping for some concrete goals to take back home at the end of NFM.  Some things that NFM wanted me to do to get the national coalition off the ground.  I didn’t get that direction.  Reading through their Program for Change draft (http://newfacultymajority.info/PfC/?page_id=2) I couldn’t help but fear that I’d be another “guy with a clipboard.”   You know, the person on the sidewalk trying to sign you up for a worthy cause for reasons that as yet remain unclear.

There are just too many petitioners for our time and money in realtime and online.  How and why does NFM stand out from this large number of social activist groups?   My hunch is that NFM’s niche is as a higher education advocate whose special focus is Adjunct labor rather than simply a labor focused organization. Unfortunately, this strength does not stand out in the current Program for Change language.  This puts the would-be organizer for NFM at a daunting disadvantage.  Not only do they have to create the coalition but also create the language to convince it to come into being.

The lack of direction in most break-out sessions reflected the overly “squishy” (Lee Bessette’s word) nature of the Program for Change document.  I fully understand why it was made general–to allow for variances at campuses across the United States.  However, this decision puts too much pressure on local groups to create the NFM message without proper guidance from a national office.  To borrow the metaphor from Peter Brown (cited by Josh) we only have the walls of the building.  But I would argue there are not four walls (a full shell).  Instead, we have two.  Give me two more and I can put up a roof and start filling the interior.

What would those two walls consist of?  Here are two suggestions.  First, an organizer’s kit with “suggested” talking points and statistics gathered by NFM on Adjunct labor.  Some of the materials from the summit (contained in the tote bag) might double in this role.  I need to read through it all before I can come to a conclusion on this.  Sorry, I was busy tweeting all day yesterday.  Second, some mechanism to check in on locals and see how they are doing.  Even if you don’t plan to mandate standards for local NFM groups, you still need to make sure they are doing something to justify the affiliation.  An occasional request for a status update would help.  This information could then be uploaded to the NFM website to demonstrate progress (even of the smallest nature) and would help boost morale in other parts of the NFM network.

I can’t end this post without expressing my immense gratitude to NFM for inviting a relative nobody like myself to take part in the summit and paying for my travel as well as part of my hotel expenses.  Let’s face it, Washington, D.C. isn’t cheap.  To show my gratitude I will continue to write on NFM’s behalf through twitter, Facebook, and my blog.  I will also get to work on coalition building here in Chicago with groups such as P-Fac, Occupy Chicago, IFT, and CACHE (the Coalition Against Corporate Higher Education).  Most importantly, however, I’m going to put my money where my mouth is and join the New Faculty Majority.

If you’ve read my post and want to get involved in shaping and sustaining the great work being done by NFM, you can donate online at their website (http://www.newfacultymajority.info/national/).  I’ll be doing that tonight.

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