The Building Blues (or, Yet Another Reasons to Teach and Take Online Classes)

There’s a discussion going on right now on the Tech-Rhet mailing list started by Bradley Bleck, who was looking for ideas for the “ideal” technology-friendly academic building. I don’t know all the details, but they are apparently in the planning stages at Spokane Falls Community College (where Bradley teaches) for a new and (hopefully) state-of-the-art building. Bradley said they are planning completition for 2011, so the challenge will be to not equip the place with things that seem like a good idea now but then quickly become obsolete. For example, when EMU built Halle Library, they spent a lot of money on ethernet cables and ports. They turned on a wireless network and turned off the wires about two years after the building opened.

Anyway, good for the folks at Spokane Falls CC. But I have to say that it makes me feel all the more worse about the situation here.

Now, don’t get me wrong– EMU is a great place to work. I believe in the mission and purpose of the university (though it is shifting all the time), I think we have great and interesting students, and I have incredible colleagues. Plus EMU is in a really interesting part of the country: close enough to Detroit to get access to “big city” activities, and right next to Ann Arbor, which means even easier access to one of the coolest college towns in the country. It really is a fantastic gig and I’m really happy to be here.

But (there’s always a but)….

I think there are two seemingly chronic and closely related problems with my job as a faculty member in the English department. First, parking is a pain in the ass, mostly because of the many commuting students at EMU but also because there just isn’t enough parking near the building I work in for all the faculty and staff who work there and in nearby buildings. But parking, that’s another post.

Second, the building where I work, Pray-Harrold, is one of the worse academic buildings I have ever been in, and it is by far one of the most unpleasant buildings where I’ve had an office. Built in an era in which the thinking was “bigger is better,” the seven-story behemoth has 75 classrooms and lots of offices and is still far too small for the thousands of people who use it every day. It was built in 1969, long before these new-fangled computer things, and the result is it is woefully ill-prepared for anything beyond chalkboard technologies. And beyond all that, the place is just generally falling apart.

Earlier in the semester, I was cautiously optimistic about the future of Pray-Harrold because the new president came in saying this was an important priority and because the Board of Regents approved a tuition hike that would be used specifically to help pay for remodeling Pray-Harrold. But the Provost and the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences came to a department meeting earlier this week, just when the discussion about the ideal building came up on Tech-Rhet, and, without going into unnecessary detail, this visit put a damper on all that. For one thing, it looks like the money EMU was hoping to get from the state is simply not going to materialize.

For another, even if we do get at least most of the money we’re asking for, it sounds like they are literally going to do a half-assed job by focusing on the first four floors of the building. Now, it is true that this is where most of the classrooms in the building are located and it is probably where most of the remodeling needs to take place. However, there are plenty of classrooms on the other three floors, and the top three floors of the building are also where the faculty offices (including mine) are located.

Interestingly enough, the Dean’s office is on the fourth floor. Oh, and it’s also worth mentioning that, as far as I can tell, the administration has not asked for any input on Pray-Harrold reconstrcution from any faculty members.

In short, they were hoping to spend $50-60 million dollars on remodeling, but it looks like we’ll have significantly less than that to work with. But even if they could spend that much money on remodeling, it would certainly not help enough. So while the discussion on Tech-Rhet about ideal building configuration wish lists rages on (wireless networks, plenty of outlets, projectors, sensible lighting, moveable furniture, comfortable chairs, etc., etc., etc.), we’re stuck, and, unless something really unexpected happens, it looks to me that I’ll be working in Pray-Harrold in the current configuration for pretty much the rest of my career.

And I’m left with two thoughts. First, because the reality is EMU is unlikely to do the right thing about Pray-Harrold, my wish list is a bit more modest. Here’s what I want:

  • Furniture that isn’t broken and/or that is not as old as the average student’s parents.
  • Lighting, wall coverings, paint and decor that looks a bit less like a prison.
  • Windows that open. Or, in the case of my office and many of the classrooms, any window at all.
  • Floors that actually get swept and mopped once in a while.
  • Elevators that routinely work instead of the other way around (though I must say that my “marching up and down the stairs” exercise routine has been good for my calves).
  • Bathrooms that don’t routinely have standing water on the floor.
  • Some version of a heating/cooling system that actually maintains a normal temperature and that does not seem to have been designed by a climate schizophrenic (it is not at all uncommon to have a 20 or 30 degree temperature shift between rooms on the same floor).
  • An electrical outlet that doesn’t come up out of the middle of the freakin’ floor (which it does in my office).

Second, this is yet another reason why teaching online makes good sense for both teachers and students at EMU.

Where's Steve?

Don’t worry, my millions of loyal readers: I’ve just been busy with one thing or another, a lot of it having to do with school of course, but also a lot of it having to do with “life.”

I’ll post something more or less useful soon. In the mean-time, I’m:

  • Addressing various issues with student issues (various end of the semester crises), last minute meetings, Christmas parties, etc.; and
  • I’m pleased that I am not getting ready to go to MLA.

EMU starts a PAC (or, more than a day late and a dollar short)

The Ann Arbor News ran a large story this past Sunday about EMU’s (still relatively new) president John Fallon starting up a Political Action Committee; a version of the story appears on the mlive web site, “EMU seeks more help in Lansing.”Here’s the opening paragraphs:

Eastern Michigan University wants to win more friends and influence more people in the increasingly competitive world of Lansing politics, where the payoff for good relationships can be increased state aid or funding for building renovations.

This fall, as part of new President John Fallon’s plan to develop more clout in Lansing, the university formed its first-ever political action committee, called “Friends of EMU.” The PAC will give money or participate in fundraisers with legislators whom they view as supportive of EMU’s interests.

State political insiders say EMU is a latecomer to what has been a long-established practice that receives little public attention – public universities unabashedly raising private money to give to legislators who are in position to approve projects and policies in line with the universities’ needs and goals.

Fallon has apparently been making a lot of trips to Lansing to try and get more money for EMU, an issue he seems to understand better than the last three or so EMU presidents. Part of the problem, as the story talks about, is that the Michigan legislature instituted term limits a few years back, and that really changed the power balance. For example, back in the day, EMU had a major booster in a guy named Gary Owen, who was the Michigan Speaker of the House (and is the namesake of the College of Business building, too). But these people are all gone, which means that each state university has to hustle for itself a bit more, and EMU hasn’t done that.

The cost to EMU for this lack of “direct” political action has been pretty apparent, actually. EMU hasn’t had a “capital oultay money” (e.g., a building on campus or some other major project) since 1996, which I believe was the library. That ain’t good. The PAC is tiny right now and someone is quoted in the article as saying that university PACs don’t have that much influence because there isn’t much money there (compared to, say, the wine and beer distributors PAC). And you could make a compelling argument that state universities shouldn’t have to have PACs like this in the first place. But in situations like this, I think there are some political realities that require something like this.

One thing not in the article: I might be wrong about this, but EMU used to have a Vice President who was supposed to be doing this sort of thing. This person doesn’t work here anymore.

Kirkpatrick Lands at Texas A&M

Here’s one for the “you’ve got to be freakin’ kidding me” file: Sam Kirkpatrick, the highly problematic former president of EMU, is now “Executive Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Management, and Executive Professor at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.” You can take a look at his Texas A&M bio and such right here.

First off, I can’t resist pointing out the irony/weird justice of the situation: Kirkpatrick has been hired by the Bush (as in George I) school. Make your own political jokes here.

Second, our colleagues at Texas left some itty-bitty details off of the bio on the web site. So, just in case anybody in Texas is wondering who is this Kirkpatrick guy, they might want to do a search on Google for the words “President Kirkpatrick Eastern Michigan.” Or, if you want kind of a press round-up, check out this special section of M-Live devoted to the infamous house scandal. You will certainly wish you would have done this before you hired Sam, but now you know what you’re likely to be in for.

More about insurance for lecturers (and maybe faculty?) at EMU

A couple weeks ago, I blogged about the lecturer’s negotiations and how paying for a portion of health insurance was figuring into the formula. This morning, Howard Bunsis, who is the president of the faculty union (the EMU-AAUP), emailed faculty and told us some of the basics of the deal the lecturer’s ended up with:

  • In a five year deal, the lecturer’s will get 3.2% in the first year and 2.0% for each year after that; and
  • Lecturers will have to pay up to $1,500 a year for insurance– half that if they are single, if they don’t use the insurance much, etc.

Bunsis concludes that this means that the lecturers actually negotiated a contract where they ended up with a pay-cut. How much of a pay-cut I supposed depends on how a particular lecturer uses (or doesn’t use) the insurance and how much they get paid. But for single folks who get paid around $32K a year, I think they end up with a slight raise the first year and they “break even” for the other four years of the contract. Regardless of the exact numbers, this is not exactly good news.

Now, Bunsis said that there’s no way that the faculty union at EMU would ever accept a contract that resulted in a pay-cut, and I think this is true. If the administration at EMU tried to make the same deal with the faculty that they (apparently) just made with the lecturers, I’m pretty sure that faculty would strike. And I should point out that our faculty union is not one of these “we’re going to work without a contract” sorta unions. Since I came here in ’98, we’ve been on strike twice: once for a week (more or less), and once for about 7 hours.

Of course, one of the reasons the administration made the deal they did with the lecturers is because they could. Simply put, the lecturer’s union doesn’t have the same kind of numbers of members as the faculty union.

But while I admire Bunsis’ committment to a contract where faculty don’t pay for health care, it’s pretty clear to me that this is inevitable that we’re going to paying something for insurance soon.

A long day for the Emus…

I’m sitting here watching Eastern Michigan’s football team getting absolutely humiliated by that quaint liberal arts school in Ann Arbor, the University of Michigan. As I write this sentence right now, it’s still the first quarter (and the proverbial “anything can happen”), but so far, it’s been EMU four ‘n out, and then two scores by U of M. It’s 14-0 right now with over 8 minutes left in the first quarter, and I am quite sure it will be 21-0 by the time I finish this post.

Now, I realize that the University of Michigan has had a good football team for a long long time, and it looks like they have a pretty good one this year (though, as their loss to Notre Dame last week demonstrated, not as good as a lot of folks in Ann Arbor think). And I also realize that EMU has some very strong sports teams in things other than football– women’s basketball (men’s once in a while, too), swimming, and track and field to name a few. Actually, the track team at EMU is quite good.

But football– not so much. They’ve had a terrible team for a number of years now. By the way, it’s 21-0 now.

This is not normally the sort of thing I would cover in a post on my official blog, nor is it something I would really care about one way or the other. I mean, I’m not much of a football fan in general, but I’ll watch college games on TV, I went to see the Iowa-Michigan game last year, and it’s kinda fun to go see an EMU home football game once in a while. But I guess a game like this makes me wonder why EMU has a football team– or at least a NCAA Division I football team.

Now it’s 28-0.

Last year, there was a controversy about attendance at football games that forced the resignation of the former athletic director. The student newspaper, The Eastern Echo, reported the story here. In brief: it turns out that the NCAA has a rule that says in order to be a Division I football team, a school has to have an average game attendance of 15,000. EMU said that the average attendance at home games was 16,060. Anyone who has ever been to an EMU homegame would probably wonder about those numbers, and it turns out with good reason. According to The Echo (who had to invoke the Freedom of Information Act to do this report), the total number of tickets issued and sold for home games last year was 22,258. Even my meager math skills tell me that with these numbers, the average attendance per game was quite a bit lower than 16,060.

I have no idea what the NCAA’s reaction to this is; perhaps we are on some sort of probation.

35-0 now.

The other thing is that the new president at EMU, John Fallon, has made it one of the goals of the institution to “Strengthen the University’s Athletic Programs,” and it’s no secret that for the board of regents, this means in part making sure that EMU stays in Division I football. I think it probably means that for Fallon, too.

The thing that’s sad about this though is that, given all the demands on limited resources and the real inability of for EMU to compete at this level, the logical and smart thing to do would be for EMU to drop down to the next division– I guess it’s IAA or II, I’m not sure which. If we did that, we’d save a ton of money (because I guarantee you that the football team is not a self-sustaining program here) and we’d probably even be competitive.

At the half, it’s 38-0. I think I’ll turn the channel.

First off, the final score was 55-0.

Second, the Ann Arbor News had a story on the front page this past Sunday titled “EMU looks to boost its football program– and fading fan base,” and that story pretty much explored the same questions I did about playing football in Division I. And the quote from EMU president John Fallon is pretty much what I expected:

Some campus critics ask that given such challenges, why stay in the NCAA’s Division I? Why not pull away from big-time sports?

“I don’t think we should,” Fallon says, noting schools such as Northwestern have revived struggling football programs. “I’m not the kind of person that would want to give up running with the big dogs.”

I like Fallon so far, I really do, but this is the kind of “folksy wisdom” that really glosses over the issue. And actually, the “issue” is commented on earlier in the article:

Winning aside, Fallon and other EMU officials and students acknowledge the university faces some special challenges in drawing fans to major sports events.

For one thing, fewer students live on campus than on most Division I schools. Last fall, about 3,500 students lived on campus and another 3,100 lived in Ypsilanti, about only 28 percent of EMU’s total enrollment of nearly 24,000, according to university figures.

In addition, the university has a large number of non-traditional students who already have a family or a job. “They can’t shoe-horn in more conventional college experiences like a college basketball or football game,” Fallon says.

Look, besides having a tradition of winning, the vast majority of students at that liberal arts school in Ann Arbor are “traditional” in that they live on or near campus, they are 18-22 years old, and they have the time and money to be a fan. A huge percentage of our students– typically not 18-22 and not on campus– are working on Saturdays so they can actually attend college in the first place. They don’t have the luxury of being fans, and there’s little reason to believe that’s going to change anytime soon.

Health care trends at EMU?

Faculty received an email today from the EMU-AAUP President Howard Bunsis about a number of things, including the status of negotiations between the EMU Lecturers and the administration on their contract. (Two points of explanation are perhaps in order here: first, the lecturers– full-time and permanent instructors who are not on the tenure-track– have their own union that is different from the faculty’s union. Second, EMU has a strong tradition of collective bargaining, and the faculty union is not merely a “gentlemen’s agreement” of a group. We strike. Since I’ve been here, I’ve been on two: one that last about a week, and one that lasted about seven hours).

According to the update that Bunsis sent, the administration is offering lecturers a 2% pay raise but they want to charge them up to $2200 a year for insurance (for the “family plan” insurance). Bunsis said that, assuming an average lecturer salary of $31,500 and an inflation rate of 3%, the package that the university is offering lectuers really represents an 8% cut in wages. That probably isn’t completely true for a variety of different reasons: for one thing, it’s hard to predict next year’s inflation rate and how it will effect people (and even Bunsis, who, like most of the union folks, prone to exaggeration in their favor, offers a “non-inflation impacted” figure of a 5% cut as well). For another, I am sure that the $2200 a year is the most expensive insurance option, and I’d be willing to bet that there are plenty of lecturers who will not pay that much for their insurance.

Still, this is an alarming development, for the lecturers now and, presumably, for the faculty later. Now, I know (as does everyone else around here) that most faculty-types at most other colleges and universities, like most employees at most other businesses, pay for a portion of their insurance out of pocket. But here’s the thing: for years and years, the various unions at EMU have been willing to ask for less money in base salary than a lot of comparative institutions in exchange for excellent benefits. If the administration wants to start tearing away at the bennies and they want to start offering contracts that ultimately represent a pay decrease, well, that does lower incentive, doesn’t it?

Teaching Online at EMU: Thoughts after (less than) a week

Despite the numerous things I resolved to do in my last post, it sure seems like most of my week has been dominated by the “Figure out this online teaching stuff” resolution (though I am happy to say that I was at the gym three long mornings this week, too). A few thoughts this morning about the process so far:

  • I think I might need to start keeping a private log/journal about some of what has been happening with me and my students’ work in this class. I say “private” because it just wouldn’t be cool to talk about individual students here.
  • The learning curve is flattening a little, but there is significant stuff I still need to figure out. Like the grade book feature, for example.
  • For the most part, I think eCollege is pretty good and pretty straight-forward software. But I guess I have two complaints about eCollege so far. First, as I mentioned before and as is typical of all CMS systems that I’ve seen, it doesn’t quite match my teaching. It’s a bit like putting my ball into their box: I can do it, but it doesn’t quite fit. Second, the eCollege interface is just plain ugly (IMO). Take a look at this demo class page: my class shell is uglier than this with ill-fitting fonts and a kind of neon green color scheme. Icky, and as far as I can tell, there isn’t much I can do about it.
  • The best thing about eCollege so far is the support. I email these people and I get an answer in a few hours. Simple as that. And I guess this is the real tension about using some sort of institutionally supported software (like eCollege) versus open source products (like moodle, as Jenny is using, or drupal or whatever): on the one hand, open source products give users tremendous flexibility. On the other hand, if you use open source software, you are on your own, basically.
  • Teaching online reminds me (unfortunately) about how much of my teaching is in my head and depends on a physical presence. I take notes and have some things written down or typed up before I go into a class, but most of what I teach is based on memory, and most of the exchange happens with me speaking to students and with students speaking back to me and to each other. Being “there,” present in a non-virtual form in a classroom, makes a difference. But beyond that complicated problem that I’m not going to go into now, there’s the more practical issue of getting stuff out of my head and into a format that my online students can interact with. That ain’t that easy.
  • eCollege (and most of these other CMS products, of course) have some interesting double-edged teaching tools that make me think about my face to face teaching, too. For example, eCollege allows me to track in minutes how much time students spend in different parts of the class. I can tell that some students have already spent hours online and I can tell in what parts of the class they have spent their time. And I can also tell that there are some students who have spent very little time with the class so far. Now, on the one hand, this kind of electronic surveillance is obviously kind of creepy. But on the other hand, we conduct this kind of “surveillance” in face to face classes, too. Teachers make judgements (accurate and inaccurate) about the extent to which students are participating in a class by the cues they give. Students who sit up straight, nod with the discussion, raise their hands, volunteer comments, etc., we judge to be engaged. Students who are reading the newspaper, slumped back, nodding off, silent, etc., we judge to be not engaged. Either way, we make these judgements with a more simple form of direct observation/surveillance.
  • I’m thinking about proposing a presentation/talk for Computers and Writing that is basically about all of this. I’m not sure I can articulate this that well yet, but I guess I didn’t think the learning curve and the work would be as hard for someone like me, who has been invested in teaching with technology for a long LONG time now. But I’m beginning to think that it might be even more difficult for me than it is for some of my colleagues who are more or less starting from scratch. We’ll see…. I haven’t seen the CFP for C&W 2006 yet…

New Year's Resolutions

Today’s the first day of classes here at EMU. Since I don’t teach today, my original plan was to actually not be at school today, but it turns out that I have a Faculty Council meeting I need to attend. Oh well; summer is over.

I’ve thought of the beginning of the school year as the beginning of “the year” pretty much my whole life and certainly since I started teaching 17 years ago. Jeesh, 17 years ago. I was a graduate assistant back then. I was 22 years old in an MFA creative writing program at Virginia Commonwealth University, teaching first year composition about three or four months after I finished my BA. Ah, memories….

Anyway, since I’m at the beginning of the new year, I thought it might be good to make some new year’s resolutions (and I also thought that if I made them here, I might stick to them, too). So here they are, more or less in this order:

  • Get into shape. This might seem like the sort of thing I would mention on my unofficial blog, but I mention it here because I have an academic schedule this term that allows me few excuses for getting exercise and I really do want to make losing some weight and being a bit more healthy my top priority this semester.
  • Figure out this online teaching stuff. So far, so good, though I haven’t seen any activity on my online class yet. It’s pretty early though. And one of the things I am going to have to figure out for sure this year for my online teaching is podcasting and (possibly) screencasting, too. I just found out my CCCCs proposal was accepted; it’s called (right now) “Broadcast Composition : Using Podcasts to Build Community and Connections in Online Writing Classes,” and for the time-being, it’s going to be about using things like podcasting and other “lower-end” multimedia to supplement my online teaching. But that could change and evolve.
  • Read. I have mentioned this in the recent past on my blog, but basically, I am (more or less and/or one way or the other) finished with my textbook project, I am (more or less and/or one way or the other) pretty much off of the job market, and I have therefore reached a point in my career where I don’t have to produce scholarship in order to participate in that “academic game.” So, for a while at least, I think I’m going to become mainly a consumer of scholarship and read, both current scholarship and some of the things before.
  • Blog. And despite what Ivan Tribble said again, I stand by what I said back in July: While he did have some valid points, I think blogging can help someone on the job market and I think it helps those of us who are more “established” in academic careers too. To read more about Tribble II, I’d suggest reading Collin’s entry about this. By the way: it occurs to me that it is a little– I don’t know, strange/funny/ironic — that Tribble in this article seems to think that blogging under one’s own name can be okay and yet he’s sticking to his pseduonym here. Hmmm…..

My Freshman Day (sorta…)

I participated in a freshman orientation session yesterday morning at EMU. Basically, the session I lead was about “life in the classroom,” and my job was to give them a sense about what classroom life was like in 50 minutes or less. Needless to say, I didn’t manage to accomplish that; I think they’ll actually have to start going to class before they can figure out for themselves what it means to be a “college student.”

I was able to work through an explanation of the handout they give to students, which has sections about things like the need to attend class, reading the syllabus, appropriate class conduct, not cheating, where to get tutoring help, etc. I guess it was useful for them. I mean, all of this stuff strikes me as common sense, but of course, what counts as “common sense” depends on the community that you are in. For example, a couple of students asked about this thing called a “syllabus” and about books (“How am I supposed to know what books to get for my classes?”). Questions that definitely mark these kids as “new.”

And I should point out that they were “kids.” We have a lot of “non-traditional” students at EMU, but as far as I could tell, all of these students were right out of high school and getting ready to live in the dorms, away from home for the first time ever. Most of these students were born around 1987, and this makes me feel quite old. Given that I was in my junior year in college back in ’87, it is no longer a stretch to say that I’m old enough to be the father of these kids. Yikes.

Anyway, while a lot of the questions these future students had about the classroom struck me as simplistic and obvious, I was also struck by how little I knew about the part of EMU that they inhabit on a day-to-day basis. Maybe I’m thinking about this now because I am reading the excellent book My Freshman Year by Rebekah “not her real name” Nathan, which is about an anthropology professor who enrolls as a freshman to research the life of college students the same way that studied other “distant and foreign” cultures. I haven’t come close to finishing reading it yet, but early on, Nathan talks about how different the university looks to her as a student than it did as a college professor. Among other things, she means this in a basic geographic sense: Nathan talks about how as a faculty member, she was able to park and thus enter the buildings where she worked from a particular vantage point. But as a student, especially living in the dorms, the university had a completely different geography, one that she found disorienting and confusing.

I experienced a little bit of that confusion myself on Sunday. While most of the orientation session I led was on “my turf” of the classroom, the students also asked about things having to do with meal plans, some dorm life issues, and registering for classes. There were two “student leaders” in my group, college juniors and seniors who were hired to usher around the new freshman, and I’m glad they were there. I had no clue about the questions these students were asking, and I found some of the answers surprising– the meal plan that students buy works everywhere except Wendy’s in the union, for example.

I could go on, and I guess I shouldn’t be that surprised that what the university looks like is different based on one’s point of view. But I guess I was just struck by how very different this place seems to look to students than it looks to me. Something worth thinking about as I get ready to actually teach….