Monday, June 26, 2017

Bringing up "feels"

I read The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed most, if not all days. (I've been looking at them less this summer, with a different schedule, and with working on my new class.

But I ran across this article this morning. Fundamentally, this prof did the opposite of what I did last summer. I don't know all his circumstances or his details. I don't really agree with the tone of his letter; I was taught not to drag innocent third parties (the students, here) into your fight or to try to make people be on your side by using emotional language, but whatever. Maybe it was a heat-of-the-moment thing; I know I said stuff that was probably ungracious during our budget cuts.

What he did may have been right for him and for his situation, but I think I did what was right given my situation.

Last summer, the situation here was this: we had weathered I-don't-even-remember-the-percentage budget cuts, which came very suddenly (it was like the Legislature didn't know that the oil market was crashing and that they had also put some tax cuts into place) and higher ed really wound up scrambling. Honestly? Being paid less in the summer was far less painful to me than:
- seeing someone who had taught here longer than I had being let go "not for cause" simply because she had never petitioned for the protection of tenure (her position was "TFT" - temporary full time. It wasn't that we didn't still NEED her, it was that there had to be money cut somewhere. And it was not a departmental decision - it came from above us)

- having to take "furlough days" - essentially, being "laid off" two days a month because that was the only legal way they could cut our pay to make up some of the shortfall. It was uncomfortable to me because it caused a lot of cognitive dissonance in my poor, too-literal-for-its-own-good mind:

1. "You cannot do work during furlough time"
2. "However, all the work you need to do must still get done."

I am quite sure MOST people worked during their furlough time. I tried not to, because I genuinely felt I was breaking a rule if I did and I was somehow, deep in my lizard-brain, afraid someone was going to find out, and it was going to go on my "permanent record." I did try to do research-reading, on the justification that "I don't actually get paid for research, I am supposed to do that "on my own time," so it's not the same as grading would be.

Given my choice? I would rather have had a "We need to cut your pay by 9% this spring" without the polite fiction of furlough days, but I understand they can't do that for legal reasons.

The thing with summer teaching is this: our classes here are supposed to have 10 students. In recent years, because of changes in how financial aid is administered, it's harder to get aid for summer classes - even if it means a student graduates a semester or even a year early and then starts paying back whatever loans they have early. When those changes started, we saw our summer enrollment drop. (Before them, I usually had 12-15 students per course). For a few years, we managed, on the grounds that it "evened out" in a department - that demand for Anatomy and Physiology were so high (often having 30 students per class) that it balanced my lower-enrollment ecology classes. It was a bit of a fiddle, but being an intradepartmental fiddle, no one really cared.

Until last summer.

Then, someone somewhere found out about that, and decreed that "All classes must 'pay their own way,' and if they do not, the faculty member will be paid at the adjunct rate." This was probably partly a "gee, we need to do this for budget reasons" but also probably with a hint of "we really want people to cancel those low-enrollment classes."

The problem was, because the budget emergency seemed to take everyone unawares, classes were already on the books for the summer - people had already signed up. I knew I had at least one student counting on the class so they would be able to graduate in December.

My chair told me: "There is no requirement that you teach. If you do not want to be paid at the lower rate if your classes don't fill, go ahead and cancel."

But you know? I couldn't quite do that. I knew that one student "needed" it and it would alter his plans. And I also know a lot of our students operate pretty close to the bone, financially speaking: one of the reasons I SO object to my gen-ed class requiring some "web only" content (not my choice, not my idea, but because it's Gen Ed, I have to) is that for some people, the extra $100 or whatever to buy six months of access to the publisher's stupid website IS a burden, and I completely understand that. (I was better off than many of our students and shelling out $100 on top of tuition and textbooks so I could do homework online would have been a burden to me)

So I felt like: this sucks, but it's not the students' fault. I'm not going to screw over the students in this bad situation. Yes, it means I deal with something that is perhaps somewhat unfair to me, but whatever, this is kind of what I signed up for and I can deal with it.

The one thing I did do was kind of "beat the bushes" - ask my colleagues to encourage others to sign up, ask the students already signed up to ask around among their friends. But I didn't want to cancel the class.

So I taught. I told my chair I would teach summer 2016, but that unless we could have a promise in the future that (a) our enrollments would be high enough (e.g., financial aid rules would have to change back and there be demonstrable demand) or (b) they'd let us put the "fiddle" back where I could "ride" on Dr. W's high enrollment, I wasn't going to teach again in the summer, and to start telling students NOW not to count on there being a summer 2017 ecology class.

(And yeah, one of the commenters - and you know? Don't read the comments - one of the commenters notes that "no online summer class ever goes begging for enrollment" except that's not 100% true at small schools and also converting my ecology class to be "online" somehow would be far, far more effort than it was worth. And how would I do the labs? And also, the whole "don't volunteer to do something you don't want to be forced to do in the future" is reason enough for me to choose not to try doing it online)

A couple of other random thoughts though:

- I have no idea how essential the "pay profs of low enrollment courses at the adjunct rate" was here. I assume it was, because I prefer to assume honorable motives on the part of my higher-ups. And if they were trying to send a message to the Legislature, it didn't really work.

- The commenters bring up the old "overpaid professors" trope. This makes me angry because it is a fundamental lack of understanding. Yes, some profs are paid a lot for doing relatively little work - there are PIs on grants, I am sure, who can still manage to make a decent salary and have most of the "grunt work" done by grad students or post-docs. (Then again: if you're a PI, your job is not pipetting or measuring, it is people-wrangling, and I would far, far rather spend my days pipetting or measuring or digging in the soil or any of the "grunt work" tasks than have to call someone in to my office and ask them why they have not been doing the work they are contracted to). Also, and yes, I'm revealing private information here but: my 2016 W2, at least for the Social Security calculations* has me making just a few bucks over $63,000. And that included summer teaching. Which is good money, yes, but I would hardly argue it's "overpaid." Certainly not by the mindset of the "They're making six figures for 12 hours a week of work" (I am in the classroom maybe 15 hours a week, including prep and cleanup time (I generally do not have TAs), I hold 10 hours of office hours, I have several hours of grading, several hours of research, I need to read to keep up, I have meetings....I am not as idle as some outside of academia would believe I am)

(*My "actual" income looks smaller because I have a 457B plan and have pre-tax dollars taken out, on the hope that I can save enough to fund an eventual retirement, even if Social Security totally collapses and our state pension plan totally collapses)

Yes, the "average" full-prof salary is somewhere north of six figures, but you have to understand - that includes people on the expensive coasts, that includes people in law schools and the like where money is thrown at "superstars" to keep them happy and from departing to private practice. I am neither a superstar nor in a field that private industry/private practice could draw me away to, so teaching is a pretty good gig. But I bristle at the implication that I'm somehow overpaid.

- I still think it's...."petulant" is maybe the right e-mail your students and tell them "I am cancelling class because the big bad administration is bringing down rules on my head and I can't make good money for teaching this summer." Simply saying "circumstances have forced me to cancel" is good enough, with a verbal explanation to those who come and ask. Most students have even less power over administrative decisions than profs do, so (to use a phrase I hate) this just feels like "punching down." Or be up front: "Low enrollment in this class means I will be paid half (or whatever) of what I would normally make, so I choose not to teach."

And yes, when students asked me about furlough days in the spring of 2016, I did explain it. But I tried to do so unemotionally and I did say something like, "Yeah, it stinks, but I'm going to try to take mine so it has minimal impact on you all. The worst that might happen is you might get papers back a day or two later than normal."

But anyway. Last summer I taught for adjunct pay. It wasn't fun; one thing the prof in that article notes is that "it is as much effort to teach eight students as it is 15.” and there is some truth to that: grading is easier for a small class, you can maybe do things you wouldn't otherwise do, some of the logistical issues (lab space, space in field vehicles) are not so bad, but you still are there and expending the energy to teach and the level of prep work is pretty much the same.

I did learn how hard it would be to try to live teaching adjunct. (The worst thing with being full-time adjunct: most places don't offer benefits, so you'd be on your own for finding health insurance, unless you have a spouse who has it and it's not too awful for them to pay to have you covered as well). I admit it did sour me for a little while: "If I'm only being paid $17.50 an hour, and that's for only about 40 hours a week, why should I do (whatever extra thing I'm being asked to do)." I need to break out of that mindset and I mostly have.

- I do think it is a bit rich to expect a full professor, one doing research and service and all that, to willingly teach for adjunct pay. (Adjuncts do not need to do research or service, and generally their office-hour expectations are far less than the 10 a week (which is also true of summers) for us). I did it that one summer because it felt like an exigency, and to me, it seemed to be the right thing to do for the students. But this year, I said no going in.

I don't regret not teaching this summer, at least not so far. I've gotten an article that was accepted revised and in, I got a second one written and submitted, I've prepped at least a month of my new class so far, and I've relaxed and caught up on my sleep and had time to meet up with a friend who was passing through town, and I've had a bunch of medical appointments without having to worry about when I schedule them.

Also, I've noticed, my resting blood pressure has been consistently lower, and I suspect the biggest factor there is not having to people-wrangle during the days and also being on my own schedule. (Also, I am perhaps eating slightly more healthfully, given that I can go home for lunch and also have more time to cook)

I don't know. I suspect more and more of us, in the future, are going to have to make these kinds of decisions, like "I am offered adjunct pay for this low-enrollment class that is important to the students; is it important enough for me to accept the low pay?" or maybe "there are pay cuts coming, do I get out now and take a job elsewhere?" or "The job market is awful right now so do I keep this suboptimal job I have right now, or do I take my chances that something else is better." A lot of it comes down to, I think, "how much 'suck' can I tolerate, and what is the dealbreaker?" I accept a lot of the financial challenges we have here because I get along well with most of my colleagues and I genuinely like a lot of my students, and also, I feel like maybe I'm doing a little good for some people (I think we clearly have had students who have moved to a higher socio-economic stratum than they would have been able to achieve without the education we provided). If I had a big turnover in colleagues and the amiable people I have now got replaced by ego-heads or backstabbers, I might not be so willing to stick it out.

(I will say, as sad as it makes me, that I wouldn't counsel a young person to go into academia these days, other than maybe a case where you can teach part time because you have a spouse with good employment and benefits, or as some kind of a "side hustle*" in retirement. I have joked if I were eligible for the early retirement plan they did out of desperation last year here - to shoe horn out some high-experience, high-pay people - I'd take it, wait out the six month "dead" period, and then come back to my chair and say "Hire me as an adjunct; I'll teach two classes a semester as long as I don't have to publish, write grant proposals, or serve on committees")

(*And oh, oh, oh how I hate the concept that it's now seen as desirable/necessary in this world to have a "side hustle." That's why things like hobbies and religious institutions and clubs are dying: people are too tired from hustlin' everyday to do anything "extra." I'd rather at this point have less money and more time, though again, as I said, given my salary, I don't really know 'want' so maybe I'd feel differently about the "side hustle" if I were only making $23,000 at my main gig)

1 comment:

Roger Owen Green said...

Not sure about the other guy, but YOUR situation really SUCKED!