time to change the name of lee-davis high school

It’s become trendy in the last couple of years to propose renaming schools that bear the names of Confederate figures of importance. I support this trend because it first and foremost allows those whose values have evolved since the 1860s and 1950s to put their stamp on their communities. In Hanover County, Virginia, people are starting to talk about renaming Lee-Davis High School, so let’s take a look at the school’s namesakes.

Robert_Edward_Lee_by_Julian_Vannerson

Photo of Robert E. Lee by Julian Vannerson.

Robert E. Lee was born in 1807 in Virginia, and he died in 1870 in Virginia. He lived in Virginia all of his life, except when he was off serving in the military. He served in the military forces of the United States from 1829 to 1861, and he served the Confederate government’s army from 1861 to 1865.

By the end of the US Civil War, he was the general in charge of the entire Confederate army, and resistance against the United States collapsed after he surrendered his command to US forces at Appomattox Courthouse in April, 1865. Due to what is widely attributed as a clerical error, his citizenship in the United States wasn’t restored during his lifetime. Congress restored his citizenship in 1975, backdating it 110 years.

Lee was a military officer of distinction, having excelled at the United States Military Academy (aka West Point) and served in the Mexican-American War in the 1840s. He opposed the construction of memorials to his fellow rebels following the Civil War and supported the reestablishment of the pre-Civil War nation. However, he opposed racial equality and publicly spoke out against voting rights for former slaves throughout the remainder of his life.

Jefferson-Davis-by-Mathew-Brady

Photo of Jefferson Davis by Mathew Brady.

Jefferson Davis was born in Kentucky in 1808, and he died in Louisiana in 1889. He lived in various places in the south, including a stint in Richmond, Virginia, when he was president of the ill-fated Confederate States of America (1861-65). He continued to live in Virginia until 1867, when he was released from prison. Following his time in prison, Davis lived in Quebec, not returning to the US until President Andrew Johnson issued him a pardon in 1868. He then moved to Tennessee, where he ran an insurance company. He lived on an estate (bequeathed to him by a wealthy widow) in Biloxi, Mississippi, during his final years.

Davis continued to espouse racist and divisive rhetoric to the end of his days, though he did so primarily in private. His several attempts to return to legislative service following his pardon and return to the US failed.

In 1958, Virginia was caught up in the torrent of the civil rights movement. The US Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision led to the forced integration of public schools across the country. The response to this legal order by the governor of Virginia, Harry Byrd, was the establishment of Massive Resistance. Instead of obeying the Supreme Court, Byrd and his supporters in Virginia’s legislature effectively shut down as much of Virginia’s public education system as they could as a way to prevent Virginia’s black school-age children from receiving an education equal in quality – and with equal access – to that of their white contemporaries.

Also in 1958, Hanover County, Virginia, was nearly finished constructing a brand-new high school along US Highway 360. The high school was the newest in the county; located in the town of Mechanicsville, the residents were justifiably proud of its construction. They chose to call the new educational facility Lee-Davis High School. At the time, naming public schools after Confederate figures was common practice across the southern states as a way to push back against the growing tide of the civil rights movement, and anybody that opposed the name of the new school would have remained silent about it, possibly out of fear for their personal safety. The Lee-Davis Confederates became a centerpiece of Mechanicsville life, and the school’s mission “to prepare students for success” remains, for all intents and purposes, a clearly obtainable objective in the 21st century.

lee-davis-hs

(To be perfectly honest, I find the naming of schools after any person to be ridiculous. New York City has the right idea with its Public School Number system. There’s no reason Lee-Davis couldn’t have been called Mechanicsville High School when it was built, or even Hanover County High School Number 2, both of which would have been both descriptive and adequate.)

Two of Hanover County’s other high schools – Atlee HS (1991) and Hanover HS (2003) – have simple, descriptive names that denote their location rather than singling out any individual for the honor of a name plate. The county’s other high school that opened in 1959, Patrick Henry HS, came about by consolidating four small schools into one. PHHS is named after Hanover County’s most famous resident, the American Revolutionary War figure Patrick Henry – you know, the “give me liberty or give me death” guy. He was also Virginia’s first governor following the establishment of the United States of America. Henry was born in Hanover County – in Studley, as a matter of fact, which is about five miles from my house. He lived his whole life in the state and died in Virginia, and though he was a slave owner, he actively supported efforts to end the importation of slaves into the USA.

If you have to name a school after a person, Hanover County got it right when they named Patrick Henry High School. Henry was a prominent, positive figure in American history, one that – despite his status as a slave owner – we can all respect. He also is from the county of the school that bears his name. It’s as appropriate a name as can be found, although West Hanover County High School would have been perfectly acceptable.

It’s time to eliminate the names of Confederate figures from our public education facilities. It’s time to allow all students to have and show pride in their schools and their schools’ mascots. The idea of black students at Lee-Davis cheering on their schoolmates under the moniker of the Confederates disgusts me to no end. While I can see why Robert E. Lee’s name would be attached to a school in Virginia, there is no reason to put Jefferson Davis’ name on any public education building in the state for the simple fact that he’s not from here, he lived here only briefly, spent part of that time in prison, and the only reason his name was attached to the school in the first place was to reinforce the dominance of the white population of the state over its black population during a time of social upheaval.

Instead of continuing the support the legacy of those who fought to preserve slavery (Lee and Davis) and those who fought to preserve educational segregation (Byrd), it’s time to support the legacy of local kids and the hope for the future they hold in their young hands and minds.

Change the name of Lee-Davis High School to Mechanicsville High School and put the establishment of a new mascot to a public vote in the school’s district.

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on history

If you only know me casually or are one of my Facebook friends, there’s a solid chance that other than myself, Ken Burns is the only historian you’ve ever heard of. He’s way more famous than I am 🙂
 
Read the commencement speech he delivered to the graduating class of 2016 at Stanford University. (opens in new tab) Take away what you take away, but I promise if you read it, you *will* take something away and be a more thoughtful person for it.
 
We’ve all heard that old cliché about those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. While humanity certainly exists in a cyclical fashion, I don’t believe we are doomed to repeat events about which we do not learn.
 
What we are, however, is doomed to never learning the lessons of those who went before us. If we remain ignorant of history, we lose the opportunity to learn what didn’t work before. No matter what transpires next, be it similar to previous events or a completely new event, we have prevented ourselves from advancement, from improvement.
 
French social contract theoretician Jean-Jacques Rousseau warned us that society is the corruptor of man; he said this because he believed that mankind is naturally good – even virtuous.  (I disagree with him, but that’s a topic for another time.)  The problem, Rousseau said, is that a bad upbringing and a poor (or nonexistent) education make people more susceptible to corruption, and when they get into positions of authority, the institutions which they staff then become corrupt, creating a cycle of nightmares that destroys society.

It stands to reason, then, that good people create good institutions, good institutions create good societies, and good societies create good governments – which in turn help create good people.  It’s a utopian cycle, to be sure, and one at which we have singularly failed to achieve.

Listen (or read) to Ken Burns, though, and breathe deep his words of wisdom.  We can learn from history, and in doing so, we can absorb the lessons of our ancestors. We may make some of the same mistakes they made, but they will be mistakes of choice, not ignorance, and we can always improve on our choices.

*Commencement speech transcript: http://news.stanford.edu/2016/06/12/prepared-text-2016-stanford-commencement-address-ken-burns/

Fist

the state of the semester

I thought maybe I’d wrap up this semester with some notes and statistics while I listen to Los Straitjackets’ Christmas album. It’s the cheeriest slab of holiday instrumentals you’re ever likely to hear.  Highly recommended!!

FALL 2014

  • Classes taught – 6; 4x 16-week & 2x 8-week: 18 credit hours total
  • Campus breakdown – 2x GMU/Fairfax, 2x NVCC/Woodbridge, 2x NVCC/Annandale
  • Course breakdown – 2x History of Western Civ I, 2x History of Western Civ, 1x US History I, 1x US History II
  • Students – 210; 20x US History, 190x Western Civ
  • Class sizes – 10, 10, 61, 47, 59, 23
  • Grade breakdown – A, 81; B, 56; C, 43; D, 10; Earned F*, 18; Unearned F, 2
  • Average grade, ignoring Unearned F – 79.68 (C+ or B- depending on attendance/homework completion)
  • Median grade, ignoring Unearned F – 86.61 (B)
  • Highest overall grade – 102 (A+)
  • Lowest overall earned grade – 9.167 (F)
  • Class with the most A grades – 23
  • Class with the most Earned F grades – 10
  • Students caught cheating on papers/exams – 4 (Earned F)

While my largest class this semester was 61, that’s not the largest class I’ve ever had. I’ve had multiple classes of 70-75; the highest I ever had was one year when NVCC was renovating one of its main classroom buildings and I had 102 one semester and 110 the following semester. Once they finished the building renovations, everything went back to normal.  I don’t mind big classes.  I know a lot of teachers say they love small classes because it lets them get to know the students better – and that’s certainly true – but small classes are a lot more pressure simply because you HAVE to get to know the students better.  I find it affects my objectivity at the end of the semester – “Oh, Nancy got a 65, which is a D, but remember that time when her kid was sick for three weeks? Yeah, she should totally get a C.”

Anyway.

My Friday class this semester was weird for three reasons:  1) it consisted entirely of adults – the youngest student was, I think, 25 or 26; 2) it was a 16-week hybrid – I’ve only ever taught 8-week hybrids before; and 3) it met during the daytime!! That’s right, it started at 0800 – the first time I’ve ever taught a weekday daytime course.  It was actually challenging – having to come up with 16 weeks worth of in-depth assignments (and grading ALL OF THEM!). (It actually came to 13 assignments – 2 weeks off for exams & 1 week off for Thanksgiving.)  It was a good class, though, and I got a lot out of it.

Thus ends my 26th semester of teaching (plus 13 summer terms). Since my first class in Fall 2001, I’ve only been idle one semester – Fall 2003. I’ve taught at least one summer class every year since 2003! By my calculations, I’ve taught a total of 84 classes – mostly Western Civilizations, but probably 30% US History, maybe a little more. Eleven of those classes have been for GMU (1st in Fall 2010), the rest at NVCC.

All in all, 2014 was a good year – 11 classes overall, probably close to 500 students. It’s still my favorite work-type thing to do, so I’m going to keep doing it!!

* The difference between an Earned F and an Unearned F is simple – if you turn in at least one assignment and still get an F, that’s Earned.  The Unearned F (a zero) comes from somebody who shows up one or two times, then stops coming but never drops the class. My policy is if you show up once, it’s now your responsibility to drop the class and I won’t do it.  NVCC requires that I drop students who don’t show up in the first 2 or 3 weeks; GMU doesn’t have this requirement, but I take roll and email students who don’t show up and encourage them to drop. If they don’t, that qualifies as THEIR PROBLEM!

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summer book exchange #5: Killing Mr. Griffin

It’s every kid’s fantasy, isn’t it? The school will burn down, or the teacher they hate will drop dead of a heart attack – and then everything will be OK.

Killing Mr. Griffin, by Lois Duncan (1978, updated 2010)

photoThe first thing I have to say is this: while I understand that Duncan may think that updating the book to include references to cell phones and Google might make the book more “edgy” or “relevant,” I think doing so was pointless and an affront to the original story. There isn’t a teenager in the world that wouldn’t relate to this book as it was written in 1978.

You know, I just realized that out of the 6 books I’ve read so far this summer, a 15-year-old girl was the main character in 2 of them. That’s a disturbingly high percentage.

This is a decent book – it’s well written (good thing, too, since the target of the story – Mr. Griffin (actually, Brian Griffin, which I had to laugh at – you’d think if Duncan was going to update the story anyway, she’d change his first name so it didn’t make people think of the talking, smoking, alcoholic dog in Family Guy) is a high school English teacher. As a matter of fact, it’s probably better written than the story deserves.

It says right on the cover that Duncan also wrote I Know What You Did Last Summer, which I remember as being a decent, if predictable, movie. That did give me the impression that this might be a fairly predictable book, and that proved true. Of course, it could be that I felt it was predictable because I’ve read hundreds of mystery/thriller stories and there’s only so many tropes and cliches that you can put into one story.

There are a couple of twists, but nothing terribly stunning. The characters in the book are very straightforward – Susan, the lonely, mousy, bookish girl; David, the class president who is, of course, gorgeous; Jeff, the jock who does all the heavy lifting, including coming up with the idea at the core of the story; Mark, the brooding, moody weirdo; and Betsy, the effervescent cheerleader who goes along with anything. The adult characters, except for Mr. Griffin, are broadly stereotyped as well, even the ones the kids just talk about.  Mr. Griffin’s wife doesn’t believe anything the kids say, there’s an unsympathetic cop, Susan’s family is annoying but her parents think she can do no wrong, there’s an air headed hippie teacher, etc.

Duncan makes it hard to sympathize with Mr. Griffin, because even though she shows us that he cares about his students, he’s kind of an asshole. In reality, he’s my kind of asshole, and I see a lot of my own teaching philosophy in his efforts. (I guess I better start watching my back in the parking lot!) Here’s two examples of soliloquies from Mr. Griffin that mesh well with my attitude.

(Remember this book was first published in 1978 – it’s amazing how little things have changed in education since then. Of course, I haven’t read the original unupdated edition, so Duncan could well have added these things in 2010, but I doubt it.)

Griffin: “Many of the kids coming into my classes at the university are all but illiterate. You give them a page to read, and they can’t tell you what’s on it. Try teaching them the classics, and they can’t pronounce the words. Ask them to write something, and they can’t make complete sentences, much less spell anything over two syllables… By the time they’re in college, it’s gone too far. They’ve had twelve years without disciplined learning, and they don’t know how to apply themselves… They fall asleep in lectures because they expect to be entertained, not educated.”

and

Susan: “He said I was bright enough, but sloppy. That I messed myself up by not paying attention to details. He said that in his class an A meant ‘perfect,’ and that nobody in that class including me was doing perfect work, but that I was probably capable of it if I made the effort… He said that I was spoiled – that we were all spoiled – because we’re used to over-grading. That so few high school students take their work seriously that anybody who seems to be doing anything stands out, and teachers reward them with As even though they don’t deserve them, because they’re better than the others. And because they get As, they think they’re doing great, and they never even try to push themselves into doing the best work they can possibly do.”

Both of these passages hit close to home. I could have written either of them, and I’ve said the things in them on more occasions than I care to remember.

Although it sounds like I’m being overly negative, I did enjoy reading this book. It’s a great beach book – fast, light and fun to read. Even knowing what was going to happen didn’t stop me from wanting to see how Duncan wrapped it up – which, and this is one of my common critiques of books, she did in a rather hurried fashion. All the loose ends get tied up very quickly, with one exception involving David – and I won’t spoil that for you.

In the end, I’m not too worried about ending up like Mr. Griffin. For one, if any of my students jumped me, they’d have a rough time dragging my fat ass through a damp, muddy field to the secret, secluded place where they’ve decided I’ll be taught a lesson.

This book contains a little violence (obviously), but no graphic scenes at all. Everybody that dies in the book does so off-stage. There is no sex in the book at all. I would recommend this book to anybody 13 or older that has ever hated a teacher.

(I know exactly what book I’m going to send to the person who gave me this book. It may give her nightmares, but then again, it may open her mind to a great series of books. Muaaaahahahahaha!)

the ongoing criticism of the hiring of adjunct professors

When it comes to the practice of hiring adjunct professors, I’m definitely in the minority in that I don’t find the practice at all reprehensible.  I’m an adjunct myself, and a big fan of the system.

Could it be better?  Yes, absolutely.

It could be a lot worse, too.

People in this country will complain about anything, though, and hardly a week goes by that some pissed-off adjunct doesn’t write a blog entry about how oppressed they are, how poor they are, how much the conditions where they teach suck, blah blah blah.

My solution to many of these problems adjuncts think they face is simple:  GET A DIFFERENT JOB.  If being an adjunct sucks so much, STOP DOING IT.  I don’t make my living as an adjunct and you don’t have to, either.

Now, on with something of a point-by-point discussion of common critiques of the practice of hiring adjuncts.

 

76.4% of college professors are now adjuncts

I see this statistic thrown down in multiple places, and perhaps it’s true across the nation. I can only speak to one of the colleges where I teach. While I won’t explicitly name the college or the campus, if you pay enough attention to me on this blog or Facebook or Twitter, you’ll have a good idea where I’m talking about.

This college and campus has 15 history professors. Five are full time (which more or less equates to tenure) and 10 are adjuncts.  This indicates that 66% of the professors in this department at this campus of this college are adjuncts.  Pretty close, but below 74.6%

What I infer from this statistic, though, is that the majority of classes are being taught by adjuncts, which I do not believe is true.  At any given college in any given department, most adjuncts will teach one or two classes, while full time professors will often teach up to 4.  (For the record, I often teach 4 or even 5 classes in a given semester.)

To that end, let’s look instead at the percentage of classes being taught by adjuncts.  For the upcoming Fall 2014 semester, I counted 46 sections of history classes in the 100 (43) and 200 (3) levels at one campus at one of my schools. Here’s the breakdown:

  •          World history: 25 sections; 15 taught by full time faculty, 10 taught by adjunct faculty
  •          US history: 21 sections; 8 taught by full time faculty, 13 taught by adjunct faculty

Now, I’m no math wizard, but 23 sections taught by full time faculty and 23 sections taught by adjunct faculty looks a lot like 50%. At this school, in world civ/history, adjuncts teach 40% of world civ/history classes and 62% of US history classes.  Both of these numbers are well below the implication that nearly 75% of college classes are being taught by adjuncts.

 

The pattern of hiring adjuncts is symbolic of the corporatization of universities

Maybe. Probably. No matter what the high-minded among us think, universities are for-profit entities. They strive to make money, because the opposite – losing money – is bad for them. Local, state and federal budgets have been systematically gutting the budgets of ALL educational institutions, including higher education. If universities don’t make money, they disappear.

Every other aspect of US life and culture is corporatized or on the way to becoming so. Why should universities be any different?

By the way, what does corporatized mean, anyway? The articles decrying the corporatization of our universities never get into that. They throw it down as a critique, yet they don’t talk about what exactly they are critiquing.

 

Adjuncts are paid less than a living wage

My classes are all 3-credit classes; this implies 3 hours of class time per week, which is about right. Figure, though, that each class requires about double that amount of time, on average, per week. There are some weeks where I only have to answer a couple of emails from students in a particular class. There are other weeks where I spend 8 straight hours grading essays or exams. It evens out over the course of a 15- or 16-week semester, so I always tell people it’s safe to double the credit hours to come up with actual work hours. I figured it down to a rate of $26 an hour for each class I’m hired to teach. Given that the minimum wage at the time of this writing is $7.25 an hour, I think $26 an hour is pretty respectable. Of course, that number includes no benefits at all and doesn’t extend through the entire year, so it does have its limitations, but $26 an hour for a PART TIME JOB is pretty damn good money if you ask me.

Would it be hard to live on one class a semester? Yes, it absolutely would. Most adjuncts who don’t have other jobs (like I do) would have difficulty living on one class, so most of them (if not all of them) teach more than one class. I will agree that living on adjunct pay may very well be difficult, but I reject that it is impossible. Get a roommate.

 

Adjuncts don’t get any benefits like health insurance or retirement plans

What part-time workers get these kinds of benefits?  This is an ongoing issue in the USA, and when it’s solved for people who work at gas stations, 7-11, and Wal-Mart, it’ll get solved for adjuncts.

 

Students who take more classes with adjuncts are more likely to drop out

I wish I could speak to that, but I’ve been kind of busy lately congratulating former students of mine who are graduating this month. Of course, I can only congratulate the ones that keep in touch, which is admittedly a very small number of them.

 

Adjuncts don’t get access to sample syllabi or learning objectives

I’m straight out calling bullshit on this one because it’s both untrue – and entirely unimportant. As an adjunct, I have exactly as much access to sample syllabi and learning objectives as any full time or otherwise tenured professor. I have gotten sample syllabi from my department, from books and from the internet. I have easy access to learning objectives at both the departmental and institutional levels from both of my schools.

This is one of those things where the responsibility falls directly and fully on the professor – adjunct or otherwise. The last sample syllabi I looked at was in a book about teaching large classes. One of my schools posts every professor’s syllabus on its departmental website, which I can browse through any time I want.

A syllabus is like any other professional document.  If you don’t know how to write one, LEARN.  Ask for help, ask for advice, seek out examples.  DO IT!

Criticism:  REJECTED

 

Adjuncts are hired last minute, so they cannot adequately prepare for a class

As I write this, it is mid-May. The spring semester is over and everybody’s gearing up for summer school. I already know my full teaching schedule for the fall semester, which of course doesn’t start until late August. LATE. AUGUST. To top that off, I’ve had my classes for the fall since April. APRIL, I TELL YOU! How exactly is that last minute? This is standard procedure for all the programs I’m involved with.

Of course, things happen outside normal processes. I have been asked just weeks or days before the semester started to take a class that a colleague had to abandon. I’ve even been tapped mid-semester to take over a course in progress when another professor was fired. Yes, that absolutely cuts down on preparation time.

However.

Any serious professor who is worth their podium has already done the bulk of the preparation needed for most classes they’ll be called on to teach. One of my deans could call me today and ask me to start teaching a Western Civ class next week – and 90% of the preparation is already done. There is always class-specific (meaning specific to those students in that section of a class) that has to be done, but it’s a few hours of work at most. AT MOST.

There is, however, the possibility I’d be called on to teach a class I’ve never taught before. If that happened right before the semester started (which would be unlikely), that would require some scrambling. In the normal course of events, I’d know about that class months in advance, so any resultant scrambling would be my fault, not the university’s.

Assuming adjuncts aren’t prepared to teach classes – even on short notice – is insulting to them at best and I completely reject it as a critique of the hiring of adjuncts.

Criticism:  REJECTED

 

Adjuncts are not provided with office space, making it difficult for them to meet with students

I’ve addressed this before, so I’m basically repeating myself here. I teach for a traditional 4-year university and a 2-year “junior” (community) college. The 4-year institution provides me with office space every semester. I share this office space with other adjuncts – we rotate using it so nobody has to overlap or double up. Every office to which I’ve been assigned has had adequate space and a computer (not that I need one). The 2-year institution does not provide me with specific office space, but every campus I have taught at has general/common office space, which includes rooms in which I can hold a private meeting with a student if necessary.

In addition, I often meet with students outside these office spaces because, frankly, offices are stuffy, weird, awkward places to meet. We have libraries, cafeterias, quads, coffee shops, and many, many more places to meet that are much more low-key than a tiny office filled with ceiling tile dust and fluorescent light.

Criticism:  REJECTED

 

Adjuncts spend too much time commuting between schools where they teach

Possibly. I teach for two different schools at three different campuses and one off-campus location as well. One semester each of my classes was at a different location, requiring me to wrestle with remembering which place to go on which day and which parking permit to use. I made it through, largely because … really? It’s that hard to remember where you’re supposed to be on which day?  In my whole history of teaching – now reaching into its 13th year – I have only once gone to the wrong class.  Yes, it was embarrassing to walk into a math class like I knew what I was doing only to see an ocean of completely unfamiliar faces.  We all had a laugh and my actual class got an unexpected day off.  They weren’t terribly upset about it.

However, I can certainly see how this could be an issue for some adjuncts. I’m lucky in that my campuses are all within a relatively small geographic region. Yes, the traffic in that region (northern Virginia) is astoundingly shitty, but still – having every campus I could possibly teach at in a 15-mile radius may be the exception rather than the rule.

 

Adjuncts are often saddled with large amounts of student loan debt

Possibly, but that’s their own fault. You don’t hear me crying about paying off my student loans, do you? Why? Because they’re MY loans. I got them, I’m responsible for them, and that’s the news on that. When I was younger, I struggled to live within my means while still servicing my debt, and that often meant going without stuff like high quality food and cable. I had housemates until I was 35. That kind of sucked, but that’s what happens when you get a bunch of student loans. I didn’t have to do get those loans, but I did and that’s my responsibility.

In other words, why should adjuncts be any different than anybody else with student loan debt.  Can’t pay your loans on an adjunct’s pay? GET A DIFFERENT JOB.

 

Adjuncts are not compensated for outside-of-class activities, like writing recommendation letters or attending departmental meetings

True, but neither are tenured professors. I write rec letters on my own time and I attend one or two departmental meetings (out of 3 departments) a semester. Hardly worth crying about.  In 13 years of teaching at the college level, I have never once been invited to join a committee, let alone required to participate on one.

Criticism:  REJECTED

 

Adjuncts are afraid to challenge their students for fear of bad reviews, which prevents students from developing critical thinking skills

I’m going to reject this critique outright as well.

There’s a huge difference between challenging your students and offending them. Universities (and students too, for that matter) don’t look at a review that says “this professor is hard, he made me think outside the box and expand my mind” as a BAD REVIEW. This also assumes that student evaluations hold any significant place in whether or not an adjunct is rehired the next semester. I have found this to be patently untrue.

As a matter of fact, I have never had one of my supervisors (departmental assistant deans) bring up a negative review to me. EVER. They barely bring up positive reviews. If you want to talk about people in academia that are overworked, look right at the assistant deans. Hoo boy, do they do a bunch of stuff. I have had a handful of students complain to my dean(s) about me, issues which were addressed in normal fashions and which, I’d like to add, were all unfounded and resulted from a student being unhappy about something I said, did or graded. Sorry, I’m digressing.

Part of my job is to introduce students to ideas outside their own experiences, which in and of itself can be challenging. Trying to explain to a lifelong southern Christian about the motivations of the people who started Islam … you have no idea what a challenge that is for both me and them. Trying to explain away the myth that people in the 15th century thought the world was flat is, though perhaps less controversial, similarly challenging.

If you are constantly offending students and they’re not learning anything along the way, you’re just a bad teacher. That has nothing to do with you being an adjunct; it has everything to do with you being a shitty teacher. Students don’t equate HARD with BAD. If your class is so impossible to pass that students give you a reputation as an impossible-to-please professor, you’re a shitty teacher – adjunct or not.

It is, however, a lot easier to punish (“fire”) bad adjuncts than it is to punish (fire) bad tenured professors. With an adjunct, you just stop calling with offers. Getting rid of a tenured professor is a long, tedious process – and in my opinion, it shouldn’t be. Also in my opinion, it’s time to abandon the whole concept of tenure, but that’s a different discussion. To add to that, though, professors – including adjuncts – are no different than workers in other industries. Some of them are awesome, some of them suck, but most of them are OK.

Criticism:  REJECTED

 

Adjuncts are stuck in this academic wage slave system because they have to teach so much in so many different places for such low pay just to survive that they cannot produce scholarship (research/published articles), and that prevents them from attaining tenured positions

This is a big reason why I think we should abandon the tenure concept entirely. The idea that you have to publish an article or a book based on original research on such-and-such a schedule to be a good teacher is completely idiotic. It’s been my experience that great teachers generally care little about research and great researchers generally care little about teaching. Some of the worst teachers I’ve ever had have been brilliant academics that wrote important books that expanded the knowledge on some subject.

Teaching and writing do not go hand in hand. It’s time universities stop forcing them to do just that.

None of my feelings on this matter address the issue, though, that adjuncts are wage slaves stuck in the system because they work so much (commute, teach, write recommendation letters, meet with students, commute, teach, repeat) that they have no time to do original research, write articles and find somebody to publish them to boot. This criticism may very well be true, but it’s not part of my sphere of influence since I’ve never published a single article. I wrote one, sure, but it’s been rejected 67 times at this point by various publishers, so meh. I’m a teacher, not a researcher, so I really don’t give a shit if I ever get published. I also don’t see being published as a way to further my teaching agenda, but it’s clear that lots of folks do.

 

Adjuncts cannot organize with each other due to the nature of their positions – they are cut off from other adjuncts

Really? In the age of the internet, adjuncts can’t find a way to meet with each other?

Criticism: REJECTED

 

Well, that wraps up today’s little rant about how poorly adjuncts are doing in academia.  It’s unlikely that my little blog will garner much attention outside my Facebook friends, but some of y’all are teachers, professors, students and former students, so maybe this will reach you.

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the plight of the adjunct professor

angryprofA few weeks ago (a couple of months – could it be that long?) the story of Margaret Vojtko came out. A longtime adjunct professor at Duquesne University, she died of a heart attack in what looked like abject poverty despite having committed the bulk of her life to teaching at the college level.

Naturally, people were outraged. Here’s an old lady working for a Catholic school, and they unceremoniously tossed her out on her ear to suffer from cancer, the frigid temperatures of a Pittsburgh winter, and of course, the fatal heart attack.

Slate (not always the most …unbiased… of sources) ran a follow-up article that makes Vojtko look more like a cranky old crazy woman than a sympathetic doddering professor, but that’s neither here nor there.  Here’s the article: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/education/2013/11/death_of_duquesne_adjunct_margaret_mary_vojtko_what_really_happened_to_her.html

It’s an interesting piece – weird to see actual investigative journalism going on – but I want to talk about a couple of things.

1.  Vojtko says that teaching isn’t a job and that it’s not about money. It’s a devotion, something that somebody does, not for the money, but because they simply have to.

I agree.

I’ve been an adjunct professor for more than a decade. While the money never hurts, I’m definitely not doing it for the money.  The schools I work for pay about $2,500 per class.  If I had to make my living on that, especially now that one of the schools has limited adjuncts to just 3 classes per semester, I’d be one hungry, broke-ass dude.  Figure 3 classes in the Spring, 3 in the Fall – that’s $15,000 a year, 20% of which goes to taxes.  Add in a class or two over the summer for maybe a total of $20k a year.

In the DC area, who the hell can live on $20k a year?  Somebody fresh out of college, maybe, living in a house with 3 other people. That’s not going to work for me – I have a family to take care of. Therefore, I have a day job – a full time position with a  company that has all the benefits you’d typically expect a full-time employer to have.

The schools offer me exactly no benefits except for being able to say I teach at those institutions.

2.  The author appears to make the following assertions:

2a.  “Hiring adjuncts instead of tenure-track faculty is unquestionably great for a university’s bottom line.”

Perhaps, but perhaps not. While it may appear from the outside that paying adjuncts peanuts & denying them benefits saves the college money, if the quality of the adjuncts gets too low, students will stop coming to those schools, which makes it in the university’s best interest to hire the best adjuncts possible – which costs money.  At any rate, I do agree that denying adjuncts access to standard benefits like health insurance does, indeed, save the colleges money, possibly a great deal of it.

2b.  “Professors who don’t have their own offices … cannot devote as much energy and time to their students as they would like.”

Patently untrue.  I devote exactly as much energy and time to my students as I would like. My students contact me via email (mostly) and phone (rarely). Even when I had access to an office AND held regular office hours, very few students ever came to see me. What did they do?  They emailed me.  As a result, after several years, I stopped holding regular office hours and now, if a student insists on meeting with me in person, we make an appointment that is convenient to both of us.

2c.  Adjuncts often find out what classes they’re teaching shortly before the semester starts, and that hampers their ability to adequately prepare for those classes.

Partially true.  While on occasion I have been contacted in the few weeks before a semester starts to take on a class, that is the exception. In general, I know my classes several months in advance simply because universities plan their semesters months in advance and don’t generally like to leave things to the last minute.

However, adjuncts are rarely tasked with teaching highly complicated classes that they’ve never taught before. I teach the same 5 classes semester after semester, over and over. My dean could call me the DAY a class starts and I could show up 6 hours later having done nothing more than updated some information on the syllabus and jump right into teaching the course.

The author’s assumption that adjuncts are not well prepared to teach their classes is inappropriate and belittling.

2d. “Hiring adjuncts anew every semester is inefficient, and managers’ lack of accountability for how their treat these employees leaves them vulnerable to discrimination suits.”

It is perhaps inefficient to issue contracts to adjuncts for each semester’s classes, but when it’s incorporated into the scheduling process as it seems to be at the two schools I teach at, it doesn’t seem to be any more or less efficient than any other hiring process.

In fact, I would posit that it is in some ways more efficient, as when a department no longer wants to employ an adjunct, they don’t have to go through any complicated process – they just stop calling them. Not very nice, sure, but that’s life. It’s very efficient and quite easy for the university.

As far as accountability, I know who my supervisors are and who they report to. While I have never felt the need to go over the head of any of my deans, I know how to do it. Every meeting or discussion I’ve ever had with senior management at either of my schools has been cordial and I left feeling as if I’d been taken seriously.  (Not to toot my own horn too much, but I even alerted a senior dean to an issue within his department and saw, over the course of a few weeks, several changes take place that resolved that issue.)  I have no doubts that my chain of command has all the accountability it needs.

2e. “We should expect universities to pay adjuncts a living wage, give them benefits and some job security, and provide them with the resources they need to do their jobs well.”

No, we shouldn’t.  What we should expect is clarity and honesty.  “This job provides no benefits” – understood from the get-go – enables you to make the choice of whether or not to accept the job.  “This job pays $2,500 per course” – clearly stated up front. You decide whether or not that amount of money is worth your time and effort.  I’m provided with all (more, even) the resources I need to do my job well and have NEVER asked one of my schools for something they weren’t able to deliver.

Look, being an adjunct is no better or worse than any other job.  It has good days and bad days.  What all these people up in arms about poor Margaret Vojtko aren’t doing is looking at the GOOD aspects of being an adjunct.

For example:

  • No pressure to publish.  “Publish or perish” is a huge thing with tenure-track & tenured professors, and it creates an unbelievable amount of stress.
  • No student advising.  While I care deeply for my students and do my best to help them when they come to me, I am not assigned a block of students that I have responsibility for. I’m not expected to guide anyone through their college experience and make sure they’re taking all the classes they’re supposed to take to graduate on time.
  • No committee assignments.  I hate meetings and even more than meetings, I hate bureaucracy.  I’m not required (or even asked, really) to be on any committees, am asked to attend very few meetings, and have no responsibilities in these arenas of college administration.
  • Ultimate flexibility.  If I don’t want to teach over the summer so I can go on a motorcycle trip, no problem.  When they say “what’s your availability for the summer?” I can answer “I’m not available” and rest assured that they’ll not only find somebody else to teach those classes, but – as long as I’ve been doing my job well anyway – will be happy to welcome me back for the following semester.

There’s more benefits to being an adjunct, but I’d guess anybody who feels roped or trapped into being an adjunct will dispute or deny them.  Yes, there are times that being an adjunct sucks, but there are times when it flat-out rocks, too.  I am lucky, I suppose, compared to other adjuncts, that I not only have a full time job with benefits, but that I teach because I want to.

Rather, because I have to.

See, like Margaret Vojtko, I have never believed that teaching is about the money. I am driven to do it, I am, at heart, a teacher.  I have been teaching in one capacity or another since 1988 and cannot envision a time in my life where I am not teaching.

I’m also learning, though, and one of the lessons I learned long ago is that making a living as an adjunct is tough. That more than anything is why I have a full time day job.

some books belong in the trash

I’ve been toying with the idea of going back to school to finish my PhD for years.  Every now and again, I get the bug to take a class (instead of teach one), just to see if I’ve still got it – you know, that “it” that makes you work hard and get good grades.

Right now, I don’t have it – but you never know what the future holds.

In 2007, I waded back in, taking a summer course at NOVA.  I was pretty excited about it – a philosophy class, and a logic class to boot.

Unfortunately, my excitement soon turned to dread for two reasons.  First, I didn’t realize that the base-level logic class was really more like a math class, with formulas, proofs, equations and other math-like aspects.  Second, the professor was hands down the single worst teacher I have ever had in my entire life.  The guy was just horrible.

The fluorescent lights hurt his eyes, so he kept the room half dark. Great for him, perhaps, but not for anybody trying to take notes.  He assigned us a textbook, then ordered us not to read it. He felt the book was OK for the homework problems contained inside, but that his superior knowledge of the subject was more important than anybody else’s.  His lectures were pedantic in the extreme, laced with personal asides that had nothing to do with the subject matter and served to distract us all from the lessons at hand.  Homework assignments were voluminous and overly repetitious.

Those are the more objective reasons why I thought he was such a poor teacher.  On a purely personal note, he not only informed the entire class that I was a professor myself (after I explicitly asked him not to do so), but after the first two of our three exams, he took it upon himself to inform the class that I had the highest score on said exams.  While normally a person would be proud of that accomplishment, I found it to be terribly embarrassing. If you’re interested in looking at what a logic class exam looks like, you can see one of mine by clicking this link.

(One interesting side effect of him exposing this data point to the class was that all the slackers in the class suddenly wanted to be pals with me and join my study group.  I spent most of the last 4 weeks (of the 6-week class) coming up with new and increasingly less believable excuses to exclude people. I was very lucky in that before the 1st exam, I was able to connect with two intelligent, motivated classmates – our study group of 3 rocked those exams!!  It is precisely for this reason that I never, ever expose the identity of the student that gets the highest grade on any exam in any of my classes.)

As I often tell my students, all that up there is background – I told you that story, basically, so I could tell you this one.

ImageToday, of course, I had my Saturday morning History 101 class.  It was their mid-term examination, so there wasn’t much for me to do other than give the instructions; encourage them that they could, indeed, succeed on the exam; and be available to answer questions during the two or so hours it would take them to complete the exam.  I brought a book to read (Lawrence in Arabia, by Scott Anderson – an excellent look at the Middle Eastern theater of operations in World War I), but I have to admit I didn’t read too terribly much of it.

The reason I didn’t read much of it was because, upon my arrival, I noticed that whomever used the room before me (I’m assuming on Friday, because who would have a class that was over before 0800 on a Saturday? You’d have to be insane!) hadn’t bothered to clear off the table at the front of the room where I normally station myself.  It was covered with papers – and one book.

An introduction-to-philosophy textbook.

Written by … you guessed it, the Worst. Professor. Ever.

I couldn’t help myself. I had to read it.

It was, as you can probably expect, torturous to read. I heard his droning voice and incessant lip-sucking in my head as I read it and that surely didn’t help my judgment of the content.  Each chapter was just like one of his boring-ass lectures, only without the personal anecdotes.  He’s the only author I’ve ever come across that basically tried to convince the reader that he was smarter than Socrates.

I looked at the back of the title page to see when the book was published – 2010 – so a while after the class I took from him.  I was further stunned that anybody would actually publish such a book, so I looked to see who the publisher was.

I’d never heard of Publish America, so I looked them up on the internet when I got home.  Based out of Frederick, MD, Publish America is a typical “vanity” press.  Anybody can get anything published through Publish America, you just send it in and promise to buy a bunch of copies.

Publish America and “publishers” like them are universally reviled in academic circles for a wide variety of reasons.

I wasn’t the least bit surprised that this particular professor had used a vanity/print-on-demand publisher for his book.  I looked up his Philosophy 101 classes and surprise – he’s listed the book as his course’s required text.

(Interestingly enough, the 2nd worst teacher I ever had – this one at GMU back in the mid-1990s – did exactly the same thing, requiring us to buy an expensive book he wrote that was, of course, not available used as we had to buy it directly from him.)

After about an hour of thumbing through this purple turd of a book, I tossed it on the floor with the other stuff I’d moved off the desk and started reading the most excellent book I’d brought with me.  I thought about tossing it in the trash, but then I realized that somebody shelled out their hard-earned cash for it, and maybe they’d come back for it.

It was a tough decision, though.  A really tough one.