Semi-annual end of the summer/beginning of the school year resolutions: Time passes, bends, repeats

Thirty years ago this week, (give or take a week or two), I was preparing to teach for the first time as a graduate assistant at Virginia Commonwealth University. I had moved to Richmond in May 1988, shortly after I had graduated from Iowa, and that summer wasn’t exactly great. I could only find work for a few weeks with Clean Water Action, which essentially involved going door to door in various subdivisions within about an hour’s drive from downtown Richmond and asking for donations . Let’s just say the premise of the operation seemed sketchy, the money was poor, I turned out to be not very good at canvasing, and I ate a lot of Cheerios that summer– though fortunately, my old friends Troy and Lisa had actually moved to Richmond too and they fed and entertained me once in a while. In any event, some time in August that summer, I was probably in a workshop for new teaching assistants.

Twenty years ago this week, (give or take a week or two), I was preparing for teaching and work at my second (and presumably final) tenure-track position at Eastern Michigan University. Annette and I left Ashland, Oregon where I had been an assistant professor for two years at Southern Oregon University. People in Ashland thought we were crazy to be moving to Michigan because Ashland and that whole area of Oregon is stunningly beautiful. But there is no way Annette would have ever gotten a tenure-track job at SOU, there are no other universities or colleges within 100 miles of there, and truth be told, SOU was (and still kind of is as I understand it) a basket case of an institution. So in the late summer of 1998, we hired a couple of dudes to do most of the loading up of a U-Haul truck we drove east for four or five days with Will (not yet a year old) in a car seat between us while we sang round after round of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” to keep him from being fussy. In any event, I was probably in some kind of faculty orientation thing some time in late August, a session where I remember meeting my fellow cohort hires, Annette Saddik and Jim Knapp, and where I spent a day I will never get back being “orientated” and learning about insurance. As I understand it, the new faculty orientation has expanded  to almost a week of these meetings.

And now here we are once again with another new (school) year’s resolution(s) sort of post. Time flies and repeats and bends. I visited Richmond (and my friend Dennis Danvers) for a day back in late May and had a lovely trip down memory lane, driving by old apartments and seeing the many ways VCU’s campus has changed. Troy and Lisa (saw them back in March) are now in Brooklyn, and before that they were in Chicago for almost 20 years (with a “stop” in-between for a year in California). I hear once in a while from people who were at SOU, but not much. Annette Saddik and Jim Knapp both left EMU a long time ago. Annette (as in my wife, not Saddik) has been a tenured professor in the department for a while now, and Will is starting his senior year of college with an eye toward PhD programs.

As I’ve written about previously, EMU is in the midst of what I will charitably call “challenges,” a combination of self-inflicted dumb administrative decisions, changing regional demographics impacting enrollments, and a lot of other problems happening all over the U.S. at similar universities. This is a time at EMU where faculty who are able move on to other positions at other universities ought to seriously think about doing so, or where faculty who can’t move on should have a strategy for riding out the storm.

I am in the latter category– not that that’s a bad thing.

I mean, the grass might be greener elsewhere (or it might not be), but Annette and I both have tenured positions and we live in a lovely community. I can’t complain about that. This fall, I’m not involved in any quasi-administrative duties for the first time since 2011, and I am looking forward to being “retired” from that work to focus more on teaching. I’m especially excited about the section of first year writing I’m going to teach where I’m planning on using as Bruce McComiskey’s Post-Truth Rhetoric and Composition and where students will research something in the theme(s) of post-truth and fake news. It’s the most politically charged version of the course I’ve ever taught, but at this stage of my career, I think I can handle/navigate it, and I think McComiskey makes a pretty compelling argument about how we live in a time where teaching students about this is incredibly important. So wish me luck on that front.

Scholarship-wise, I’m beginning the last stages of a book about MOOCs I’ve been working on pretty much since Invasion of the MOOCs. It’s revised title is More than a Moment: Contextualizing the Past, Present, and Future of MOOCs, it’s being published by Utah State University Press/University of Colorado Press, and it should come out some time in 2019. Knocking on wooden things. I had said before that this might very well be my last “hurrah” as far as scholarly writing goes because I want to take a turn toward the more “mainstream” in terms of trying to write and publish more commentary pieces (like this one from Inside Higher Ed from March), and/or some more “popular” non-fiction or even fiction. Then again, I am also going to start putting together the paperwork/legwork for a different project that has the working (and in my head) title “Classroom Laptop Bans are Bullshit.” Plus, with what seems to be an increasing number of proclamations that blogging is “over,” this might actually be the right time to research them again. Stay tuned.

Otherwise, my new school year resolutions are similar to the ones I had last year:

  • Finish the book. Well, “finish.” There will still be production issues and copy editing and indexing and who knows what else, which is to say that the book won’t really be done until it is actually produced. But you know what I mean.
  • Go to the gym more (and generally try to diet, exercise, be healthy, blah-blah-blah).
  • Let it go/stay out of it/unplug from it/let others take it over.
  • Start enough of some new projects so that I can apply for summer and/or fall research support.
  • Blog more, which I realize is at odds with the “blogs are dead now” trend and all of that. But just like everyone else I know, I’m increasingly disillusioned with social media, and I kind of liked when I was blogging “reviews” of scholarly things I had read, in part because it often feels like there is a whole lot more attention spent on making scholarship rather than consuming it/reading it.

Two Thoughts on “Volunteer Faculty”

It must be after the end of the school year because why else would I have the time and/or motivation to write not one but two blog posts in less than one week! In any event:

Just the other day, an associate dean of some sort at Southern Illinois University–Carbondale sent around an email to department heads (available in full in a variety of places, including here on the blog School of Doubt and also via “The Professor is In” Karen Kelsky’s Facebook page) floating the idea of “voluntary” adjuncts to help do some various kinds of academic work for free. Supposedly, this came from the SIUC alumni association, and the renewable “zero-time adjunct graduate faculty appointments” to do stuff like:

…service on graduate student thesis committees, teaching specific graduate or undergraduate lectures in one’s area of expertise, service on departmental or university committees, and collaborations on grant proposals and research projects. Moreover, participating alumni can benefit from intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units, as well as through collegial networking opportunities with other alumni adjuncts who will come together regularly (either in-person or via the web) to discuss best practices across campus.

I have to say my first reaction to this was “this must be a joke and/or hoax,” because it kind of had the markers of “fake news:” an outlandish story that is also very easy for people to believe, especially people who are already upset about the decrease in tenure-track positions and the rise of increasingly bad part-time adjunct positions. But it was/is real, though, as SIUC tries to clarify here, it’s an experiment not meant to replace teaching faculty and all that.

Needless to say, the response from academics who actually have to get paid to do work was not positive. I think John Warner exaggerates more than a tad when he suggests that we should mark April 24, 2018 as “the day public higher education was lost,” but I get his point. The mere suggestion that the work that faculty (both on and off the tenure track) do can be done as well by eager volunteers was enough to piss a lot of academic-types off, and with some justification. I do this work because I love it, but I’m not a volunteer.

So, toward that end (especially for readers who have already read and thought about these SIUC statements and reactions like Warner’s), I thought I’d offer two somewhat related thoughts:

First here’s an overly optimistic, generous, and forgiving reading of this call for “0% adjuncts”  (and I freely admit this is probably too optimistic, generous, and forgiving). Maybe what the SIUC administration was trying to do was to systematize a way for qualified alumni to “give back” to SIUC, and to do so in a fashion that gives these alum credit for their volunteering. So, let’s say that I had a PhD from SIUC and for whatever reason, I was interested in/being recruited to be on a couple of dissertation committees for current students. I guess if I was a 0% adjunct faculty member, I could then do that. Maybe?

Now, I don’t really know why SIUC needs to go through this rig-a-ma-roll. I mean, I’ve been a reader on a dissertation for another university and I didn’t have to do any kind of appointment gymnastics; maybe it’s different at SIUC. Maybe there are some alumni in some departments who perceive this as perhaps helping them in their current positions and/or to find better positions. But again, I don’t really know.

As a slight and related tangent though, faculty do end up working for “0%” on a lot of different things. People who do review work for journals generally do not get paid for that labor, and people who review books before publication don’t usually get paid very much (if at all). I’ve been paid before to do tenure reviews, and I have agreed to do one this summer for free as a favor. So extending the invitation for this kind of volunteer work to alumni serving on various committees is perhaps a misplaced reading of the next logical step.

Also related (and overly generous and forgiving on my part): perhaps the goal here is to go back to the work adjunct faculty are supposed to be doing. I think in an ideal world, all adjunct faculty in all fields would be professionally active in whatever they do and they would teach a course or two at a university mostly as a way of “giving back” to the profession and the institution. I have a friend of mine who has been a journalist for several decades and he teaches a bit part-time about reporting, and I think this is his view of the value of this work. I am imagining a scenario where a doctor or a lawyer or a similar professional teaches a course at the university, again to give back and to share their “real world” expertise.

Of course, this is not what most adjuncts are now.

Second, I am reminded of the advice I have heard about freelancing: never work for free. I’ve never made any real money freelance writing (though one of my goals in the next few years is to try to make as much money freelancing as I used to make teaching in the summer; we’ll see what happens). But one of the main pieces of advice I’ve read/heard from freelancers is you should not ever agree to work for free. Here’s a long piece about by Yasmin Nair from a few years ago, pointing out that some big organizations (like HuffPo) only pay (at least some) of their freelancers with “exposure.” Maybe that’s useful if you’re just starting out or if you have a message you want to get out to the world; but otherwise, it’s not worth it. And it’s especially not worth writing for free for entities/publications that make money in part by not paying for content.

Now, I think this is easier said than done in a couple of different ways. For one thing and as I already mentioned, academics do a lot of work not necessarily “for free” but for little or no compensation. If we stopped doing not directly (or poorly) compensated work like writing articles, writing books, giving conference presentations, reviewing for journals, editing journals with minimal resources, reviewing tenure cases, sitting on dissertation committees, and so forth– the wheels of the academic machine would grind to a halt.

For another thing, what am I doing right now? I’m not getting paid for this. It’s worth it to me because I write in this space to get stuff out of my head and (potentially) out to interested readers, and there have been many things I have been able to do– some of which even paid me!– as a result of the writing I do here. The same goes for the book I’m working on right now: I’m never going to make any real money from it– at least not directly. But besides personal satisfaction and another item to put into my (already full) tenure and promotion basket, maybe this work will lead to some other opportunities, some of which might actually translate to compensation or even money.

So I’m not saying that there are no reasons to work “for free” in academia, and the line between working for free and not is a lot more fuzzy than whether or not a check is in the mail for that work. Nor am I suggesting that this ham-fisted proposal for 0% adjuncts ought to be read as just “normal business” because it is clearly not that. But I am saying that the conditions and practices of academics doing work for free (or at least not for money) was not invented by this odd email.

What’s even more sad is I am quite sure that there are SIUC alumni with terminal degrees who are so desperate to do something– anything!– to find some way into an academic position, and that includes signing up to be a 0% adjunct.

Miscellaneous End of School Year Blog Post

I haven’t been writing here much lately (obviously). A lot of it has been I’ve been busy. A lot of it has been because I’ve had nothing I wanted to say– at least not here. A lot of it has been intensity of the school year.

The year started before the fall semester with me meditating over the realization (as the result of a “salary adjustment” promotion I earned after being a full professor for ten years) that I’m both getting old and I’m in all likelihood “stuck” at EMU. Also before fall got going, my former department head cancelled a graduate class in the writing program I was coordinating without bothering to tell me. Then this same department head took a different administrative position at EMU, further kicking up the mess of naming an interim department head, someone who is doing a decent enough job but who might also be “interim” for years and years. The faculty union and EMU administration continue to be embattled over various arguments, and, without going too deep into the weeds, I ended up to once again spending too much time trying to argue for courses counting as four credits rather than three, and increasingly, this all feels like it’s all going to shake out in a year or two so that we’re more or less still teaching a 3-3 schedule, which means that all of the arguing about this for the last two or three years will have just been a giant waste of time. My colleague and friend, Derek Mueller, is taking a new job at Virginia Tech, a career move that probably makes sense for him, but a move that will certainly leave a hole for those of us who remain, a hole that will probably take years to fill. More or less out of nowhere, the EMU administration announced in January budget cuts and staff layoffs, including of one of my department’s secretaries, a woman who had been at EMU for around 20 years. The administration also cut a few sports to save money, though there is some debate as to whether or not those savings will be realized, and, of course, the big sports remain untouched. Meanwhile, EMU hired a couple more assistant football coaches, presumably entry-level sports coaching positions that pay more than I make after 20 years and after a “salary adjustment” promotion I earned after being a full professor for the last decade. Oh, and EMU also sold its parking rights to a company with weird agreements in a variety of states, and the money that EMU has earned from this deal (I guess around $50 million?) is likely to be used in large part as collateral to borrow even more money to build sports facilities. I wasn’t teaching in the fall (more on that in a second) and I began the winter term of teaching more ill-prepared than I have been since I came to EMU, and it was unnerving to say the least. The department politics of the semester more or less concluded in another last crazy meeting of the school year, and my school year concluded without any summer teaching– a class I was scheduled to teach (which I am certain would have run) was cancelled before it could be offered.

So it’s been bad, one of the worse school years of my career, the hardest I can recall since my first year on the tenure-track way back when. On the other hand:

I was on a Faculty Research Fellowship in the fall, an award from EMU that bought me out of teaching. While I used (donated?) too much of my time back to EMU to do the quasi-administrative work of being program coordinator, I did “finish” a draft of a book manuscript about MOOCs (another reason I haven’t been writing as much here in the last year). The reviews came back earlier than expected, and while they did not recommend immediate publication without any changes (I assume that never happens), they did recommend publishing and they made constructive suggestions for the revisions I’m working on right now. Liz Losh’s edited collection on MOOCs came out in fall and I have a chapter in it. I quickly wrote and published a little commentary piece for Inside Higher Ed, “Why I Teach Online (Even Though I Don’t Have To),” which even includes a staged photo of me “teaching” “online” while wearing my bathrobe. The only downside to that piece is IHE has still not paid me, nor have they ever specified how much they’re going to pay me. Hmm. Despite a chaotic start, my teaching turned out well enough, I think. I tried to pull off an experiment of a collaborative writing assignment in the online version of Writing for the Web that ultimately (I think, at least) turned out to be not entirely successful but kind of interesting. Among other things, it resulted in this collection of readings and annotations from my students about social media. It is rough rough work, but I did learn a lot about what to do (or not do) the next time I try an assignment like this, and there is a lot here that will be useful for teaching next year. And as an important tangent: one of the things that’s really nice about being an increasingly old fart a senior and seasoned professor is I can try assignments like this and not really have to worry about what the student evaluations might mean to someone or my Rate My Professor ratings or whatever. I can get away with making things “break,” I can be a lot more honest with students now than when I started, and I also know better how to fix things when they break. So I have that going for me.

And just like that, I’m officially done with EMU things until late August (though of course I’m not really done). I would prefer to be teaching starting in May because, well, money. But I have to admit I do like the free time.

The first job (really, the only job) for the next month or so is to finish the revisions on the MOOC book, though I should probably say “finish.” I was talking with my father a couple weekends ago about nothing in particular and I mentioned I needed to finish my book, and he said “didn’t you say you finished that back in December?” I realized that yes, I had finished a draft, but now there is “finished” the revisions, and there will almost certainly be another stage of “finished” after the reviews on the revisions come back that will involve copyediting and Chicago Style (shudder) and indexing and…. Anyway, it really won’t be finished finished until it comes out in print, and that could be a while.

But once that gets off my desk, then I want to turn to other things. I had been saying for a long time that this MOOC book is the last scholarly bit of writing that I might ever do because I want to try to pivot to writing more “popular” things that people might actually read (commentaries on stuff I know about but for the mainstream press, maybe something pitched to a more popular audience, maybe something like the work Steven Johnson has done for years) and/or fiction (which I am under no illusions will find much of an audience) and/or more blogging. Derek and I were just talking about this the other day, that maybe it’s time to go back. Maybe blogging again– as opposed to just posting stuff on Facebook or Twitter or whatever other platform– is like the internet version of a new interest in vinyl.

Some things I haven’t heard reported (yet) about arming teachers and professors

Of course arming teachers is a terrible idea. This is mainly a crazy plan focused on K-12 schools, but there have been shootings on university campuses and talk of arming faculty-types too. So here are a few random thoughts I haven’t seen reported/discussed elsewhere yet I thought I’d share:

  • Here I thought being an academic was the least stressful job there is precisely because they didn’t have the life and death stresses of people who really do need to carry a weapon for their work, jobs like cops and soldiers. Oh, and as if there weren’t enough other reasons why young people are deciding that going into K-12 teaching is a bad idea.
  • There were a few stories after the Parkland shooting of teachers and other “grown ups” fleeing the scene ahead of students, and these stories had a bit of a whiff of “look at those cowards.” I have no idea what I would do in a shooter situation and I hope to never find out, but I have a lot of sympathy for those fleeing teachers. I love and care for my students, but not so much that I’m willing to “take a bullet” for them.
  • It is easy to imagine the headlines in a world with armed teachers. “Professor/Teacher Accidentally shots self (or co-worker or student).” “Armed Teacher Surprised and Attacked by Angry Student; 10 killed.” “Angry Professor Snaps, Shoots Administrator.” And so forth.
  • And the lawsuits, my God, the lawsuits! Suppose a legally armed teacher– one who is encouraged or even required to carry a concealed weapon by her school or university– were to accidentally shoot an innocent student. Suppose an armed teacher or professor fails in protecting bystanders from a shooting, either because he tried to use their gun and missed or shot a student, or because he just ran for cover like a sane person would. Who is suing who?
  • Is this all some sort of long-con plan by the educational technology industry, maybe with some help from some social media start-ups? I mean, one “solution” to the dangers that exist at schools and universities from guns and other violence is online courses, and when everything is online, why do we need those pesky teachers and professors? Does Academic Partnerships have any connection with the NRA?
  •  I don’t think Trump’s “plan” (which I guess he says wasn’t really his plan either) to train teachers to shoot would-be attackers is going anywhere. While the energy and passion we’re seeing in the media from high school students speaking up for sensible gun control laws gives me some optimism, I don’t think that’s going anywhere either– at least not until it’s time to vote, and we all have a way of forgetting these shootings that only make the news when they get into double-digits.
  • But if faculty were encouraged or required to be armed and if there was an increased expectation that the work of educators includes the kinds of duties assigned to cops or soldiers, then I’m out. I’m all for making the university a “safe space,” but I am not willing to risk my life to do that.

So, how hard do I actually work?

The answer for anyone in a”tl; dr” mood: when I was in my PhD program, I probably worked 60 or 70 or more hours a week, which is why I was able to finish my doctorate in three years. When I was tenure-seeking and then associate, I probably worked more like 50 hours a week and a lot in the summer. Now that I am full and fuller/uber, it’s more like 40 hours a week (with a lot of multitasking and a lot of work at home) and a lot more time off in the summer.

Here’s the more complicated version prompted by a recent article in The Atlantic, “How Hard Do Professors Actually Work?”

Continue reading “So, how hard do I actually work?”

The close of my summer off/FRF semester and the return to teaching

The book manuscript is getting real.

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During the week between Christmas and New Year’s, this weird “out of time” time where it’s not always clear what day it is or what’s open or what’s on TV or when it is socially acceptable to drink a beer, I usually end up writing some kind of post reflecting on the year that was. But I’m not really in the mood for that now, maybe because most of my year that falls into the public part of my life is already out there on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter.

Instead, I’m in the mood to reflect on finishing a copy of the manuscript of my book with the working title MOOCs in Context: (insert catchy post colon part of title here). I am reluctant/too superstitious to share much more about the details of the book beyond the title, other than I have a deal with a publisher and it is due to them at the beginning of the new year. I printed off the copy pictured here because a) it’s a lot easier for me to get help from Annette with the copy-editing and initial feedback if it’s on paper, b) it’s easier for me to re-read/revise like this, and c) it’s cool to see the whole thing as a physical object.

I wrote a bit about this at the beginning of the semester. I didn’t teach this past summer, and this past fall, I had what we call at EMU a “Faculty Research Fellowship” (FRF), which buys faculty out of teaching for a semester. It is not quite a sabbatical but close. So from about June until late August, I was doing program coordinator stuff and then I quit for a while (largely because of some department politic nonsense) and then I started doing that work again (again, more department politic nonsense). So far, this coordinator work has been done without compensation/out of the goodness of my heart. All of which is to say that I’m someone who is a combination of a team player who wants to help out, a control freak who wants to make sure things are done “right,” and an idiot masochist who just doesn’t know how to say no. Much of this coordinator work will continue through the end of winter term (though I’m getting course release then), and then I am hoping to be done forever at least for a while with quasi-administrative duties.

I’ve complained a lot about EMU lately, especially with the junk around trying to jack up our teaching loads and saddling us all with a shitload of bureaucratic work, aka “equivalencies.” But I have to say that EMU is still pretty generous with support for research in the form of sabbaticals and FRFs, especially since EMU is teaching-centric and the bar for what we have to do in terms of scholarship for tenure and promotion is ridiculously low. I was on sabbatical in 2015 (where I was working on the earlier stages of this project) and thanks to this leave this past fall, I finally was able to “finish” a draft. So I’ve got that going for me.

should have been done with this a while ago– at least in my own mind. I was hoping to finish it in the summer of 2015 after my sabbatical. Originally, the deadline I had with the press that will publish this (knocking on various things) was August 2017, which I was able to renegotiate and extend to January 2018 in part to argue for the FRF. And the supportive publisher in question didn’t raise any issues at all about extending the deadline, maybe because they knew before I did that my initial goals were unrealistic, and/or because extending deadlines in academic publishing is pretty much the norm.

I also would have liked to have been finished with the manuscript in October because it would have given me a couple solid months during the fall term to goof around. I’d like to blame the previously mentioned administrative bullshit and program coordinating work, but the reality is I just needed the time. I worked pretty steadily the whole semester, but from about the beginning of November through about December 20 (not counting the Thanksgiving break) I was pretty diligent in putting in a couple of hours a day on it. I haven’t written anything this long that has this much of a “narrative” to it since my dissertation (the textbook doesn’t count for me since that’s a lot more disjointed). I generally try to write in the morning, but with this project, I found myself doing other things first– putzing around with email and the news, going to the gym, running errands and shopping, etc.– and I often didn’t get down to actually working on the book until early afternoon.

Anyway, it’s finished– well, “finished.” Annette is reading it to give me her feedback and copy-edits. I need to do some copy-editing of my own. Then it needs to go to the publisher who will send it out to readers who will (presumably) make suggestions for changes. Those will hopefully be minor, but again, still not finished finished. Then there’s an indexing process, which I am contemplating trying to do by myself but which will probably involve me paying someone to do. Then there are proofs and whatever is involved in discussing a book cover and marketing and all that, then there’s the physical (perhaps digital too?) printing before it gets into peoples’ hands to read level of finished.

And what’s next? Well, the short-term is I have to get kind of serious about contemplating what I’m going to be teaching this coming winter term which starts January 3. I am looking forward to getting back to it, though at the same time, I feel quite ill-prepared. As far as writing/scholarship goes: we’ll see. I’ve been telling most anyone who asks or who is willing to let me talk at them about it that I want to try to write something different that isn’t necessarily academic– maybe fiction, maybe some op-ed pieces, maybe some non-fiction essay kinds of things, etc. I might try to reboot my textbook project into something self-published, and I have a different kind of writing textbook kind of thing I might try to do– though again, I’m not interested in trying to deal with the textbook publishers. I learned my lesson on that one way back when. I might try to reboot my dissertation too, though that’s pretty long in the tooth at this stage.  Maybe just more blogging.

Academic Partnerships, “False EMU” in the news, and finding a concluding “hook” to my book project

EMU is in the news once again for the wrong reasons, and interestingly enough, the latest problems are helping me find a conclusion to the book I’m working on. But before I get to that, let me try to explain a bit what’s going on here.

One of the things that happened at the end of the Fall 2016 semester (thanks in part to the knuckleheads who were in charge of the EMU-AAUP back then) was the administration entered into a deal with an operation called Academic Partnerships (AP). AP agreed to market nationally an online Bachelor of Science in Nursing program (BSN) along with an online Bachelors of “General Studies” program. In exchange, AP would collect around 50% of the tuition collected from these online students. As I wrote back in February when I went to an informational meeting on all this, I saw a lot of problems with this arrangement with AP, and the new leadership of the EMU-AAUP had LOTS of problems with the deal. The new EMU-AAUP leadership said that the arrangement with AP goes well beyond marketing and that ultimately, AP would be doing a lot of the teaching and curriculum work of these courses under the name of EMU and without faculty control, The administration has argued this isn’t happening and isn’t going to happen, that AP is just marketing.

The administration didn’t want to negotiate this at all, so the EMU-AAUP essentially took them to court: that is, a labor arbitration process where a judge/arbitrator hears the case and makes a ruling. I know that was in process, which might explain the timing of the EMU-AAUP’s PR campaign right now. So far, that campaign has been pretty effective. The Chronicle of Higher Education picked up the story here, “Faculty Members at One More University Push Back at Online Programs.”  Here’s a longish quote from that article:

As an online program manager, or OPM, Academic Partnerships has contracted with Eastern Michigan to market and recruit students for its online programs. Typically, OPMs — which also include 2U and Pearson Education — build a college’s online enrollment and bring in more revenue than the college arguably could bring in on its own. But critics argue that such partnerships can result in a lower-quality education and fewer consumer protections.

According to a recent report on the industry from the Century Foundation, “the involvement of a third-party — particularly a profit-seeking entity — in providing services so intertwined with the actual teaching and learning … presents potential risks to quality and value in the education.”

That “recent report” from the Century Foundation is perhaps something more interesting to me and my work on MOOCs than most quasi-casual observers of this arrangement with EMU, but among other things, OPMs are a lot more common and far-reaching than I thought. It’s pretty damning of the deal EMU has made, but also of the deal that many many universities have made.

Also in the press today is this piece from Michigan Public Radio, “Faculty unions fight EMU online degree contract with ads.” EMU’s spokesperson/PR guy Geoff Larcom is quoted saying that EMU won’t be using any AP “coaches,” and he went on to say this:

Larcom says initiatives like this are necessary, because Michigan’s population of college-bound students is projected to shrink over the next decade.

“Regional universities like Eastern Michigan, like our peers, are needing to think of ways to further enhance revenue,” he says.

Just as a slight tangent here: first, whenever anyone associated with the EMU administration says anything about the institution’s finances and then they don’t say anything about how much money EMU wastes on athletics– particularly football– I stop listening. The bottom line is the upper-administration and the Board of Regents cannot have it both ways. Second, universities like EMU need to recall that we are a state-operated and non-profit university and our main purpose is to educate students. We’re not about generating “revenue” generally, and if Michigan’s population of college-bound students does indeed go down over the next decade or so, then maybe EMU should think more about graceful strategies for getting smaller rather than “growing revenue.”

The story also got picked up by this piece from EdSurge, “Professors Take Out Ads Protesting Their University’s Online Degree Programs.” I came across this piece because Larcom posted a link to it on the EMUTalk Facebook page– he offered it as an example of how this article demonstrates faculty input and control in the process. I don’t think that’s what it says at all, but let me quote from the end of this article because I think this is what Larcom is referring to here:

“They wanted to know, ‘Do you really need letters of recommendation for students?’”[Ronald Flowers, Department Head of Leadership and Counseling in the College of Education] recalled. But he said he always pushes back in such situations. “Our faculty make the decisions about who gets in, and that process hasn’t changed at all.”

“There’s been a perception that Academic Partnerships has dictated some things,” he added. “But I’ve been in the room when we’ve had conversations where I’ve said, ‘This would threaten our academic integrity and we won’t go there,’ and they’ve said, ‘Fine.’”

He said that the charges made in ads placed this week by faculty groups about the university’s arrangement with Academic Partnerships are “not accurate.”

“I appreciate the concern about the nature of privatization of public education—I get it,” he said. “We don’t dispute that it’s a good conversation to have. But it shouldn’t necessarily be a conversation stopper.”

For union leaders, though, the biggest concern seem to be what might happen as these for-profit entities move closer to the academic core.

I suppose you could read Flowers’ recounting this exchange with AP as an example of how faculty (though in this case, I’d say administrators since a Department Head at EMU is technically not a faculty member but an administrator) can “push back” against AP. But the fact that this relationship with AP requires any faculty to “push back” is a huge problem. And all it would take for AP to get their way on lowering the standards is a less forceful administrator– which is why I think the EMU-AAUP’s fears are valid. It’s also the conclusion of that report the CHE article links to, “The Private Side of Public Higher Education.” One quick quote from that report relevant to this quote:

If institutions—public and nonprofit alike—are not careful to monitor these contractors, students and taxpayers who thought they were working with a relatively safe public institution may find that they have been taken advantage of by a for-profit company. More so than other contracting arrangements, OPMs represent the outsourcing of the core educational mission of public institutions of higher education, threatening the consumer-minded focus that results from the public control of schools.

But what about your MOOC book? Oh yeah, that. If you’ve read this far, I guess I can go into that a bit…

My book project has the working title “MOOCs in Context” and it’s about the rapid rise and fall of Massive Online Open Courses viewed from the instructor experience (I interviewed a bunch of people who created and taught MOOCs), the student experience (I took a bunch of MOOCs and write about that), and also from the historic experience (I compare MOOCs to previous technical innovations in distance education.)  I guess I have two basic arguments: first, there has always been a disconnect between what MOOC providers hoped/thought MOOCs could be and what MOOC students and faculty hoped/thought MOOCs were. Second, MOOCs are not “completely new” (a claim made repeatedly by MOOC providers and pundits); rather, they are part of a long history of distance learning technologies that have happened in higher education in the U.S. over the last 150 or so years.

I’ll spare the details for now, but MOOCs “failed” in the sense that they will not be altering the way that higher education works in the foreseeable future. They will not, as some pundits predicted just a few years ago, close down universities. But a lot of what I’m trying to do in the last chapter of this book is to ponder the “fuzzy future” of what comes after MOOCs. It’s obviously tricky, but one of the things I think the “MOOC moment” should teach us about the future of higher education is to be weary of the “transformative” promises of for-profit entities like AP. So from my point of view, this EMU “current event” story will fit in well with the end of my book. We’ll wait for what the arbitration says, but I hope it’s a happy ending.

 

Potter is not wrong, it’s just…

Clair “Tenured Radical” Potter seems to have struck quite the nerve with her Inside Higher Ed column “Angry About Adjuncting? The radical move might be to quit.”  The gist of the column is basically in the title: adjuncts who are angry and bitter about their working conditions ought to quit and seek employment outside academia. Lots of comments on the column and social media I saw more or less echoed the sentiment of “The Dude” in this exchange with Walter: Potter is not wrong, she’s just an asshole.

Actually, no— I don’t think Potter was being an asshole. I think she was trying very hard in her column to be kind with her mostly sound advice. It’s just not exactly the kind of advice adjuncts want to hear, especially if one is an adjunct and feeling trapped, depressed, desperate, on the edge of financial ruin, living in their car, contemplating sex work, etc. 

Seth “Here Comes Trouble” Kahn had a good blog post about this, where he points out the problems of Potter’s “just leave” advice (though I don’t think that’s exactly what she’s saying). He’s right– it’s not just that easy to give up sometimes because of personal and emotional investments, not to mention because a lot of adjuncts are “stuck” geographically or for family reasons or what not, plus a lot of adjuncts are “golden handcuffed” to the work in that it’s just barely enough money to get by and they don’t want to risk losing that. Though I think Seth kind of agrees with Potter too.

I’ve blogged about adjunct work and the job market frequently over the years because it has been a concern/topic in the academic media since I started caring about academic career things almost 30 years ago. I used to read the excellent Invisible Adjunct blog regularly. She (it was an anonymous blog) left academia and closed down her blog in 2004, and I do wonder once in a while how things turned out for her. I hope well. My point is none of this is new and there was never a golden age for being an adjunct, either real or imagined.

So while I realize that Potter’s advice might make her sound like she’s being an asshole, she’s still mostly right. I guess though I would add three other thoughts, all of which I’ve written about many times before:

  • Being an adjunct should be a temporary thing. Unless you can afford to work part-time because of life circumstances, being an adjunct should be a “transition” to a career and not a career in itself. Of course, this is advice to heed at the start of one’s adjuncting career, not after being in it for 10 or 20 years.
  • Don’t quit your day-job; make a gradual transition. I was an adjunct between my MFA and PhD studies, but I taught at night and had an office job during the day. This was really important for me professionally because I got a chance to see at least a taste of what a “real job” was like and also could (sort of) pay the bills and had insurance and such. But I think this advice works the other way too for the full-time/part-timer: that is, while I think there is a certain purity in Potter’s advice of just quitting, it seems to me the more sensible thing for the adjunct trying to leave academia is to try to ease into non-academic work a bit more gradually.

I should add that I am not speaking from experience on this one because I’ve been a professor/had the same job for about 20 years. But I will say that entering my fifties and the state of affairs at EMU has made me at least contemplate briefly a different career. I guess if I was serious about leaving my job, I would start by researching career counseling services, or maybe even temporary employment services. That’s how I got a “real job” oh so many years ago.

  • Higher Ed generally (and composition and rhetoric specifically) needs to find ways of cutting our dependence/addiction to cheap teaching labor. I blogged about this here with my “Modest Proposal” about MOOCs; in brief, I think my field needs to stop requiring every single college student to take first year writing. For me, this is not an argument about the value of the course because I think it is valuable. But the universal requirement perpetuates the exploitation of part-time instructors. In other words, part of the solution is of course on the “supply side” of things, which is what Potter’s advice and the call for decreasing the number of PhD students in the humanities (especially in fields like literature) are trying to address. But Higher Ed and the profession also needs to address the demand side of the equation as well.

The random opportunities of an alt-ac career path

Somehow– I’m not really sure how– I have found myself on an electronic mailing list for the Kimble Group, which is a “recruitment search firm focused on the hiring needs of Fortune 500 companies as well as small businesses nationwide.” I must have clicked on something at some point, maybe at one of those moments where I think that I’ve “had enough” of academia or something, I’m not sure.

Anyway, here is a selection of the hundreds of different jobs these emails have suggested I apply for:

  • Substitute Teacher/Paraprofessional
  • Assistant Manager, Checkers Drive-In
  • Team Leader-Optical Dispenser-OptimEyes
  • Licensed Cosmetologist-Detroit Airport Spa
  • Assistant principal, Secondary (Detroit Int’l Academy)
  • Food and Beverage Supervisor, MGM Grand
  • Detroit Red Wings – Red Patrol Member
  • Executive Producer, McCann Detroit
  • Disk Jockey
  • Assistant Professor of Journalism – Public Relations
  • Medical Assistant
  • Assistant Professor of Cinema Studies – Filmmaking
  • Detroit Tigers Foundation Intern
  • Medical Assistant-Infectious Disease
  • Assistant General Manager, Taco Bell
  • Division Head, Hematology/Oncology – Henry Ford Health System

And so forth.

To be fair to the Kimble Group people, I think I was getting random job suggestions like this because I never updated my profile, though that was because I never quite understood how I started getting these emails in the first place. Once I did update it to stuff I could probably actually do (freelance writer and content strategy, for example), I did get an email for jobs I could kinda/sorta apply to.

Still, it’s amusing to me to think that what the Kimble Group was doing was sending me their best guesses as to what someone who has been a college professor for 21 years might be qualified to do, which is to say everything, anything, and nothing all at the same time.

The last third

Late August/early September is the beginning of the year for academic-types. Just as summer is ending and normal people begin to think about fall and the year winding down, academic-types are thinking of starting again. Though this new school year finds me in a place where “starting again” isn’t quite what’s happening. I’m more imagining the last third of my career, give or take.

I’m not teaching this fall because I have a Faculty Research Fellowship from EMU, which is basically a “sabbatical light” sort of award. It’s a good thing and I am busy working on a book about MOOCs, but it also means I’m not getting ready to teach classes for the first time in like 29 years. Dang, I just did that math, but I think it’s right: I started teaching as an MFA student in 1988, and while I had a winter semester sabbatical and some other breaks along the way, I’m pretty sure I have taught at least one class every fall since 1988 as either a grad student, a part-time instructor, or a tenure-track faculty person. Until this year.

Plus I am beginning this semester as an “uber” or “fuller” professor. That’s not what it’s really called, but “salary adjustment promotion” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. This was one of the good things the union did a while ago (with the last contract?) that helps deal with both the problems of salary compression and motivating full professors to stay active. In a sense, it isn’t that big of a deal because everyone in my department who has done the paperwork and process for this promotion has gotten it. Like tenure and promotion more generally at EMU, it is more about “time served” than demonstrated excellence, though I think there’s a good argument to be made about why our system is both more humane and more empowering for faculty who take their scholarship seriously than what happens at most universities. But in another sense, it is a big deal because it is a significant pay raise and because it does tick off another career milestone: I’ve been a full professor now for 10 years.

Oh, and given the low bar for scholarly productivity at EMU, I’m pretty sure that the stuff I’ve done this year that didn’t count this time (presentations and a chapter in a book on MOOCs that just came out) plus my MOOC book (knocking on wooden things) will be enough in my scholarship bucket for me to get a second one of these salary adjustments in 2027, even if this MOOC book I’m working on is my last scholarly project. This assumes both the salary adjustment promotion and me are walking the earth in 2027, of course.

Plus PLUS there is the ongoing mess of course equivalencies and the generally bad and/or in-over-their-heads administrators at EMU right now, everyone from the President all the way down. I don’t have a lot of confidence in any of these people, and I don’t think my opinions about the administration are all that unusual.

Plus PLUS PLUS I turned 51 this year. I don’t know if that is that important of a milestone or not, but it seems a bigger deal to me than 50 was, maybe because of everything else that’s going on.

So the bad news is that career-wise, I probably have no choice but to ride out the storm at EMU. Never say never, but I’m too old and too senior and I don’t have the academic pedigree to compete for most of the tenured professor positions that might be coming about this year. Besides, we’re a package deal. Annette (also a tenured full professor) and I long ago decided that a “commuter marriage” wasn’t a good idea. So sure, we might look at the job market a bit more than we have in the past, but more than likely, we’re stuck.

Mind you, being “stuck” at EMU isn’t all bad. While the working conditions might be getting worse in different ways, I am pretty sure EMU isn’t going to be closing its doors in the foreseeable future. It could be a lot worse; I mean, I don’t worry about losing my job. I like my students and my colleagues. I like southeast Michigan. The pay and benefits are still pretty good (though it’ll be interesting to see what gets clawed back with the next contract). And as I’ve seen before, the working conditions at EMU (and most universities, actually) can turn from good to bad to good again on a dime. It’s bad now; it could be totally fine next fall.

But yeah, I’m not feeling particularly rosy about this new school year.

My friend and colleague Bill Hart-Davidson wrote a relentlessly positive Medium post here about his start to the new school year at Michigan State University, newly promoted to both a full professor and the Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Education in the College of Arts and Letters.  The post is called “Like an Oak Tree” because he tells the story of an oak tree he has in his front yard that appears to be dying. In reality, that tree is becoming “reborn” by providing a “home” for the various woodland creatures feeding and living on/in it while simultaneously it is healing itself with new growth.  You should read that. It’s inspiring.

But right now, I am reminded of  T-shirt slogan I have seen before, “50 isn’t old if you’re a tree.”  And as an academic who is feeling kind of “done” and pessimistic, the metaphor of “dead wood” seems somehow more fitting.

I don’t think too frequently or specifically about retirement. Usually, I think “retire from what?” I mean, I still like what I do, it’s not exactly back-breaking labor, and I’ve gotten to the point where I really can take a long break in the summers. But sometimes (especially when the morale and environment is like it is right now), I think “how soon can I get out of this?” Either way, the start of this school year has brought into sharp focus for me that I probably am entering the last third of things. Thinking about retirement doesn’t seem quite as far-fetched now as it did even a few years ago.

Anyway, my new school year resolutions:

  • Finish the MOOC book. And finish a draft of it before my FRF wraps up this fall.
  • Go to the gym more.
  • Let go and find something else “to do” besides by EMU. What I mean by this is as I unplug from various service and quasi-administrative duties and instead focus on my teaching and me, I need to find things that provide value in my life that don’t have to do with EMU and my work. I’m not entirely sure what that means yet and there are people close to me (like my wife) who say I am not going to be able to “let go.” But I got to start trying.
  • Finish the book.
  • No really, finish the book! Which (more knocking! more knocking!) really is entirely possible.
  • Stay “out of it.”
  • Plan early enough for winter teaching– though I will of course need to know what I’m teaching in the winter more than a week before classes start, which will not necessarily be the case.
  • Start writing something else that has nothing to do with my “career.”
  • Okay, have a little fun, too.