EMU in the CHE for all the wrong reasons

From the January 5 Chronicle of Higher Education comes this article, “Cashing In on Virtual Courses: At Eastern Michigan U., professors can double their pay by teaching online, but some of their leaders find that unfair.” For the most part, it’s a recap of the problems with the grading stipend loophole for online teaching at EMU that I’ve discussed here in the past and also on EMUtalk.org. But there are a few differences.

First off, this has now become national news, and (I assume, at least) that one of the reasons why this is in the Chronicle at all is because this deal of paying teachers $150 extra per head for classes of more than 25 students is so out of whack with the normal practices at other institutions. I mean, this is a pretty sizable article, and there isn’t one other school mentioned in it. Shouldn’t this give the people in the leadership at EMU pause?

Second, my department and my department head are both specifically mentioned in it. Go figure! Here’s a lengthy quote with a few editorial comments along the way:

Mr. Eiss [note– This is Harry Eiss, the “poster boy” for this practice of enormous overrides and a guy who has an office just down the hall from me] used to teach more courses online, but his department has capped the number a professor may teach online each semester at two courses. [note– This happened a couple years ago, before the rise of online classes, when Eiss was scheduled to teach five or more overload CE classes, some of which appeared to be meeting at the same time.] And it has decided to cancel the online version of his advanced course on critical approaches to children’s literature, which he taught in the fall. [note– This was because Eiss was letting in so many students into his advanced online writing class that the other versions of the class that other faculty were teaching were canceled because they didn’t fill.]

According to Laura J. George, head of the English department, the children’s literature committee decided it was important to have face-to-face interaction in every writing class that is offered, which includes Mr. Eiss’s advanced course. She says the department introduced the cap because it became clear a few years ago that Mr. Eiss was teaching an “exorbitant” number of classes online.

“There were some concerns about quality and service to students,” she says.

[note– Not surprising, all this is more complicated than is suggested here. I think it’s fair to say that the department (and this is a discussion at the department level now, not just at the Children’s Literature committee) is okay with online classes, but it believes that these classes shouldn’t be overloaded.]

Mr. Eiss says his fellow professors are wrong about the quality’s being lower. He thinks they are simply jealous.

According to the grading-stipend policies at Eastern, for every student Mr. Eiss takes over an established limit of 25 he earns $150. So for this winter’s course, in which he may enroll up to 100 students, or more than 70 extra, he could make as much as $10,000. A salary report released recently by the university reported that Mr. Eiss was the second-highest wage earner among the university’s 680 faculty members last year. His nine-month base salary was about $68,000, and he made an extra $95,000 by teaching overload courses.

I wouldn’t want to speak directly about Eiss, but let me just say something in general terms here about the charge of faculty being “jealous,” about the “hard work” of these faculty teaching these huge overloads in online classes. If one decided that they wanted to completely divorce themselves from the workings of the department– that is, hypothetically, if faculty member decided they no longer were going to come to department meetings or volunteer to serve on the various committees that do the work of the department, then one could probably teach extra classes. Also, if one decided and/or convinced themselves that it was okay to lower the standards of what counts as teaching in these overloaded online classes in order to “cash in,” then it seems to me that a faculty member could indeed manage to teach online classes like this.

But for me, this isn’t something to be jealous about. It is a practice of a fellow faculty member that I for one find unethical.

Two more “behind the scenes” aspect of this story I thought I’d mention: first off, this is a “discussion” that is still going on in the department in terms of policies that we will be adopting to govern online teaching. That’s all I’ll say about that for now.

Second, the writing faculty started talking about this a while ago, and I think it’s fair to say that we’re all on the same page when it comes to these class caps. Simply put, online writing classes don’t have any more students than face to face classes. My online version of English 328 has 20 students in it and my online version of English 516 has 15 students in it, the same caps as I would have in a normal classroom.

Besides the obvious pedagogical benefits of these lower numbers, we decided as a committee that we didn’t want to undercut or cannibalize each others’ teaching. I mean, if I let in 80 people into my online section of English 328 just because I want to make more money oh, excuse me, work harder, then I would end up causing some of my colleagues’ versions of English 328 to not make. Thus the term cannibalize.

And third, this is (as you can imagine) a topic of discussion on EMUtalk.org right here.

5 thoughts on “EMU in the CHE for all the wrong reasons”

  1. I was doing a search about online classes, and I came across this blog entry. As an online student in one of Dr. Eiss’ classes, I am surprised by your post and wonder if you have taken time to research your facts. Yes, there are a large number of students in many of these online classes, but as for that having any effect on the education I am receiving; I beg to differ with you. Dr. Eiss always responded to everyone within 24 hours, better than my experience with professors in classroom courses. I enjoy reading other’s responses, so I read many of these and Dr. Eiss was engaging students in discussions and debates about the materials. There were comments on every one of my homework assignments, papers and discussion responses. I’m sure this professor did spend many hours every day at the computer “teaching� this class. I also think caps will keep students from being able to take classes they may need, or may not be able to take in a traditional setting. The simple fact that these classes get large numbers of students proves that students want them. I am a mother of 3 who lives 45 minutes away from the EMU campus, and I needed this class to keep my teaching certificate. I for one am grateful that there are professors out there willing to put in the extra time and work that these online classes require. Are there probably some professors who abuse the system? Yes. Just as there are professors who abuse their tenure. That is true of many professions. But I for one am here to tell you that Dr. Eiss is not one of those teachers. I had a fantastic online experience and would enjoy taking a class from Dr. Eiss in the future.

  2. Like I said in my original post, I don’t really want to speak about Eiss specifically, and, like all faculty, he has his detractors as well as his fans.

    But again, all of the research on online teaching– and I do mean ALL of the research– suggests that, like face to face classes, smaller is better. So you might have had a good experience with Eiss in his 100 or so person section; but don’t you think you might have had a better communicative experience if the class was just 40 or so students, or maybe 20 or so students?

    I teach online, I cap my classes at 20, and I cannot imagine how I could communicate with my students in a way that I would want if there were 100 students. Maybe Eiss is a super-human figure, a teaching dynamo who doesn’t need to sleep and who can bend the space/time continuum. I for one am not.

    The other issue here is about class sizes and class availability. The solution is not bigger classes; the solution is that the school hire enough faculty, something that EMU (and many universities) are not willing to do.

  3. I’ve had the experience (notice I didn’t say pleasure) of Dr. Eiss as a putative instructor. He was not present and did little to advance our knowledge of the subject–Jungian analysisy of dreams. I think he was in it to pimp his self-published text ($100).

    Our class was most upset with him for not joining in on discussions and for not answering pointed questions about his requirements for the second paper, since we obviously did not get it first time. He gave me an A in the class, but I don’t know why based on his comments on my work. I think I earned an A, but I expect to have interaction in graduate school, discussion and questions for stretching and delving. Nope.

    I have posted an unsatisfactory review of his class at the school, Pacifica Graduate Institute, suggesting that they do not hire him again.

    I also teach online for U of Phoenix, and folks, it takes more time to instruct online if you are present in class. Phoenix does have a cap of 4 classes at a time, and limits classes to 20 students. They also require that the instructor post 3-5 messages 5 days of 7 and that feedback on assignments be turned in every week within seven days of submission. Each year the grade average of each instructor is checked, and no one is to assign higher than 3.5 overall for classes. Not an A-mill.

    Online does not have to be a slide-by class, but it can be if no one is watching.

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