Another semester, another 30 challenges

Just got the assessment scores for this fall’s online Eng. 102 section. These tell you how your new students did on the various reading, writing, and math tests they’re subjected to, and also what remedial and regular courses they’ve taken and their grades in those courses. When you see these things, you realize why so many community college students never make it even to the AA, and what an unholy challenge it is to bring a large body of low-SES students up to par.

I forget where I read it — saw it just recently — but studies show the single most accurate predictor of academic success (or lack of it) is socioeconomic status. Poverty breeds failure in school. For a variety of reasons, of course: broken families, parents who themselves are uneducated and so have no academic cultural capital to pass to their kids, hungry children, abused children, children growing up inundated in violence, poor medical care, substandard ghetto schools, kids having to work to support themselves or to help support their families, unwed mothers, and on and on.

Heavenly Gardens Community College is far from the lowest-SES school where I’ve taught. But it has its share of classmates who come from working-class or true poverty-level backgrounds. Most of these are bright young men and women: they’re smart, they’re usually hard-working, and they would not be here if they didn’t want to get ahead.

At this age, of course, the “hard-working” part works against them: many have to work so hard at surviving, there’s no time or energy left to succeed in college courses. Some are very smart, but not sophisticated in an academic way and so are stymied by the cultural barriers we erect around higher education.

And I’m afraid that often our well-intentioned efforts to break down those barriers and help them get ahead just make things harder for them. Here’s some poor soul who has taken a barrage of fifteen assessment tests in math, writing and language! Imagine the stress and frustration…heaven help us.

 Of thirty classmates, five have taken one remedial course; three have taken two remedial courses, one has assayed five remedial courses. That’s almost a third of the students.

Understand that each of these things delays the student by a semester, or at least by a summer session. Think of the sheer persistence entailed in sitting through five of them!

Not to be outdone in the persistence department, four people enrolled in Eng. 101 twice, one person enrolled three times before passing, and another four times. Three people have tried twice before this semester to pass Eng. 102, and one rugged soul has made five runs at this course.

So, a fifth of the classmates had to make more than one try to pass first-semester composition, a course that requires nothing more than four short essays. And more than a tenth have tried to pass the present course more than once.

I’ve said before that attrition rates in a typical Heavenly Gardens course can run as high as 30% to 50%.  If half of these folks drop — which I sincerely hope they do not — only fifteen of them will make it through their two required freshman comp courses. Little wonder that so few of our students, especially those who need remediation, ever make it all the way to a diploma.

The Blackboardization of Canvas?

Ugh! I hate the new gradebook in Canvas. They’ve gooped up what used to be a simple, easy interface by adding new layers of nuisance pointing-and-clicking…just like Blackboard.

It used to be that when you finished grading a paper in Word (I use Word’s track changes to show edits and enter comments), you could go to the appropriate cell in the grading spreadsheet, click on it, enter the grade, and straightaway upload the graded paper as an attachment. That was fast and easy.

You had an option of using the Speedgrader pane, which allows you to read the paper in Canvas but which does not offer the kind of sophisticated mark-up you can do in Track Changes — all you can do is enter comments, which means instead of showing a student where an apostrophe should go, you would have to write out an explanation: “Enter an apostrophe before the ‘s’ to make this possessive.” Right. We’ve all got lots of time to do that over and over and over again…

In the old Canvas grade sheet, you didn’t have to do that. Now, though, to enter a grade and upload a file, you HAVE to click through to Speedgrader, even if you don’t use it.

Consider what this does to your workload.

1. Click on the cell for the student’s assignment
2. Click again to go to Speedgrader
3. Enter student’s grade
4. Enter a message to the student
5. Click to upload file
6. Navigate to file
7. Select file
8. Upload file
9. Submit grade and attachment

Nine actions for every grade; that would be 225 mind-numbing actions for any given class with an enrollment of 25.

Something similar happens when you copy a course into a Canvas shell and then go to change the due dates to fit the new semester. Just to change a date…

1. Open an assignment
2. Select “options”
3. On the calendar icon, click through the months from the spring semester’s due date to the fall semester’s due date: that’s 5 clicks
4. Do the same for the “make available” date: 5 more clicks
5. Do the same for the “make unavailable” date: 5 more clicks
6. Click “Update”

The English 102 section I just prepped for the fall semester asks students to write 11 “reading reviews,” 3 full-length papers, and two extra credit projects, for a total of 16  assignments to enter in the course shell.

16 assignments x 18 steps = 288 mind-numbing steps

And all you’re doing is inscribing the new due dates in the website. It doesn’t include writing the weekly announcement, posting dates for those (16 weeks x 6 clicks per announcement = another 96 steps!).

It doesn’t sound like much, but when you’re talking about 384 steps — assuming you don’t make an error and have to back up and do something over again — it gets to be quite time-consuming. And I use the term “mind-numbing” advisedly.

That doesn’t include writing the required 26-page syllabus with the required redundant calendar of due dates that repeats the list of assignments with their descriptions and due dates. It doesn’t include sitting down with a hard-copy calendar and figuring out when these things should come due. It doesn’t include designing the assignments in the first place, or writing and posting t he auxiliary course materials, or writing and posting the rubrics.

All of it is free labor. Adjuncts at my school are not paid for course prep and grading. We’re paid solely for our presence in the classroom.

The syllabus writing and the assignment design and the calendar-juggling, of course, can’t be blamed on Canvas or on Blackboard. But the clumsy, unnecessary web design that requires click after click after click of everyone, even those who desire not to use x or y feature, certainly can be. Especially since we’ve seen, in an earlier version, that said frantic clicking is unnecessary.

Guys! If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

Pre-reading a Student’s Papers?

So, how do you feel about agreeing to critique a student paper, at the student’s special request, a day or two before the paper is due? In other words, you’re asked to perform extra work, unpaid, for one student who is eager to maximize a grade but insecure about his or her ability to do the assignment as requested?

Here’s what I have: a very bright and eager student, one who calls herself a “visual learner.” She’s not a kid; this is a woman in her late 20s who undoubtedly feels all those worries and doubts that plague a returning student. But trust me: she’s very smart and once she finds her footing will do well.

My current pedagogical craze is the “reading response”: to get students to go so far as to read the textbook, I ask them to synopsize the chapter and then to apply some of the knowledge or principles the text presents to one of the chapter’s readings. To do so, they have to pull specific examples out of the reading selections to illustrate the chapter’s high points. This works well to demonstrate a) whether the classmate has read the material at all and b) how well he or she has understood it.

These are very short exercises worth 15 points apiece, and there are plenty of them.

Some classmates don’t quite get the idea of applying their understanding of the textbook lesson to the content of the reading selection, and so they’ll speak in generalities: “Ah, yes, in this essay Mencken demonstrates the uses of ethos, pathos, and logos.” Period. No clue to exactly where these astonishing phenomena occur.

Before I could even return the most recent pile of papers, Ms. Promising (as we’ll call her, because she surely is promising) spotted her score of 10 out of 15 on two of them in the e-gradebook. Alarmed, she e-mailed to ask what on earth she’d done wrong. So I had to dig out her papers (three of them), reread them, reread my comments, and type detailed explanations into a return e-mail.

This, you understand, is time-consuming, and for me, time is money. When I’m not using my time to earn a living, I’m trying to use it to enjoy living. Perhaps I’m unduly jealous of those uses of my time….

Next thing I know, she’s e-mailed back saying she didn’t do a very good job, it was all her fault (awww…), and on Monday would I please read her next set of reading responses and tell her what she needs to do to get As on them.

In class? before class? after class? FOR FREE?

Because that’s what it is: unpaid, FREE extra work.

More to the point, it’s unfair to the other students. If I’m going to give her special one-on-one tutoring, then I have to offer special one-on-one tutoring to ALL the students.

Isn’t that what the writing center’s for?

Well, okay, chances are the writing center is closed over the summer. But peer review would do the job, too.

Am I unreasonable for feeling that critiquing a single student’s paper in advance of the due date, so that she can maximize her scores by five points here and five points there, is a) unfair to the other classmates and b) unfair to me?

Into the Breach…Again: I must have lost my mind

“Never say never,” eh? It is true, I did say I would never set foot in another face-to-face classroom again. Ever. Never.

But tomorrow I ride into the mouth of Hell once more.

In a weak moment, I told my delightful chair and his redoubtable admin that I’d take on a four-week section of freshman comp this summer. It starts tomorrow.

As a practical matter, an extremely compressed section like this is a whole ’nother critter from the last gawdawful section I taught, which was offered over a standard sixteen-week semester. Students who sign up to do a semester’s work in four weeks tend to self-select into a fairly elite group, even in the community college. By and large they’re ambitious types, and justifiably confident of their skills and abilities.

It meets four days a week between June 2 and July 2. I managed to wangle generous amounts of library time and computer commons time, and so they’ll have opportunities to do much of the course’s work during class meetings, which will be helpful for those who can write their names without too much difficulty. With any luck, those who need remedial work will have enough sense to sign up for a 16-week-long section in the fall.

Twenty-four students are enrolled, one short of the max. That doesn’t mean, of course, that one more won’t show up in the next few days. We’ll see how many last. At the normal attrition rate, we should end up with eight to twelve on the final day. But given the type of student likely to sign up, it’s within reason to hope that most of them will hang in there.

I also hope no nut cases surface this time.

Yes, I know: mentally ill folks deserve a college education, too. But I am a writer and an editor; I am not a psychiatrist, a therapist, or a social worker. If our colleges and universities are to train the out-of-control mentally ill, then colleges and universities should hire psychiatric and social workers to teach — and pay commensurately.

Slave Labor? REALLY?

Not surprisingly, the term “slave labor” as applied to adjunct teaching has spawned a fair amount of controversy, academia being what it is.

Not an academic? Well…lemme tellya: Political Correctness R Us. Academia is the home of political correctness. It doesn’t matter what you say: sooner or later you’ll offend someone. That’s OK, though — it gets their attention. ;-)

Okay, let’s get serious here. My friend La Maya brought this issue to my attention by objecting to the term as the title of my forthcoming book and explaining why she feels it’s inappropriate. I responded that, alas, the book is copyrighted under that title and the ISBN is registered under that title and the artwork is done and I ain’t changin’ it.

Shortly, to her delight, she came across a couple of articles on the subject supporting her point of view, which you may be sure she forwarded to me with élan.

Never one to miss an opportunity, I decided to jump into the fray and so spent a morning cranking my own article. Josh Boldt over at The Adjunct Project just published the thing at his site’s blog, where it’s already scaring up a bunch of lively comments. Go on over and check it out — it’s an interesting discussion.

Coincidentally, Thursday morning was my turn to do the weekly presentation at my business networking group, the Scottsdale Business Association. The members of this group are mostly financial industry and real estate executives or owners of small businesses. Rushed and generally feeling harassed over the past couple of weeks, I had prepared nothing and had no clue what to speak about.

So, I brought a printout of the article and passed around a glossy printout of the book’s cover art and just read the damn thing to them.

You should have heard the uproar that caused. They were amazed and outraged when they understood the extent to which the practice of adjunct staffing has spread and the degree to which adjuncts are exploited.

You understand: adjunct staffing of university and college courses is a business issue! These people will hire our students. Not only that, but most of them have children and grandchildren in college now, racking up obscene debts in exchange for on-the-run teaching from low-rent “freelance” faculty. And they do recognize when the customers aren’t getting what they’re paying for.

The business world is where those of us who care about this issue should take our cause. Adjunct advocates should make it a practice to address Chambers of Commerce, BNI chapters, Local First, NAWBO, and other networking groups — they love it when speakers volunteer, BTW. Explain what adjunct hiring is, be frank and clear about how much adjuncts are paid and the conditions under which they attempt to teach, and draw a clear, explicit connection between the use of adjunct faculty and the falling quality of US higher education. And never fail to point out that as colleges and universities jack up tuition for a B.A. into the six-figure range, they staff those expensive courses with people who often make less than minimum wage.

A Chamber of Commerce, particularly one in a large city, has a lot of political pull. Politicians themselves often belong, and those that don’t are regularly in the pocket of this or that business lobbying group. If you address a business association like this, chances are high that you will reach someone who has the ear of a state legislator.

Just do it.

eBook Forthcoming! How do you like this cover design?

So, the e-book that will spin off this site (with significantly more commentary and reportage) is almost ready to go. About all that remains to be done is to approve the cover design, proofread the .mobi product, and tell the designer to Make It So!

After much thrashing around, I went back to an old friend of mine who is a premier graphic artist (a fine artist, too, on the side…) and asked him if he could come up with something that would work for the cover. The ideas I had in mind were just too, too politically incorrect. My favorite was a painting, now in the public domain, by Henry Louis Stephens of a Black man reading the Emancipation Proclamation. It really looked neat, except…


As a practical matter we are talking about a group comprised mostly of privileged Whites, none of whom is (objectively speaking) forced to work at the sub-minimum-wage job that is adjunct teaching. Not one but two African American friends looked askance at the thing.

At a writer’s group, I found a person who presented herself as a designer who said she could do e-book and print-on-demand covers for a ridiculously reasonable price.


Let’s just say you get what you pay for.

I asked her to create a cover, to Amazon’s arcane specs, with type only, no image. First, she proposed another politically incorrect image (ethnic is ethnic, m’dear! and this is academia we’re talking about…the Birthplace of Political Correctness). When pushed to the wall, she disgorged a cover with nothing but cover lines, hold the images.

The mock-up I’d tricked out in PowerPoint looked better. And I can spell my name correctly. :-D

So it was off to the guy who knows what he’s doing, and charges accordingly. And you do get what you pay for. How do you like this one?


MIA: Students Who Never Show

I’m about to drop six students of the eleven who remain in the magazine-writing course.

Fifteen signed up. Of those, four have already left. These six are people who aren’t turning in assignments but haven’t bothered to drop the course. That’s a total attrition rate of 66.7%.

Only three classmates turned in the most recent assignment, so I’m afraid two more may be on their way out.

This is not atypical. One interesting (but very small) study showed that on the MBA level some 42 percent of online students dropped. The New York Times puts attrition rates as high as 90 percent in some large online courses. More credibly, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports that “countless” studies show success rates of around 50% in online courses, as opposed to 70% to 75% in F2F sections.

Nor is it surprising, especially in the community colleges where large numbers of students hold down full-time jobs and care for families while they try to struggle through their coursework. As the Chron‘s author pointed out three years ago, some subjects shouldn’t be presented online at all, and many students aren’t well suited for independent online study. I think it might also be said that the online environment itself is not well suited for certain kinds of study: people who use the Internet all the time quickly come to expect short bursts of information requiring brief, gestalt bursts of attention. The environment itself invites distraction. That’s inimical to sustained concentration, study, and effort.

On the one hand, for me it means almost no grading. But on the other, it would be bizarre for the college to continue offering this course, when maybe three of fifteen students make it through to the end of the semester.

And that would be too bad (for me…). I don’t make much on these little courses, but it’s a little bit. And every little bit helps.

Hope the “indie” book-publishing scheme works. It may be needed to replace the so-called income from teaching…fortunately, so little money comes from teaching that I won’t have to earn much from the books.

As we speak, a conversion dude is working on making Kindleizing a book spun off this site: Slave Labor: The New Story of American Higher Education.

As soon as he finishes that, he’ll move on to the diet/cookbook: How I Lost 30 Pounds in Four Months. Then to the first of what I expect to be a series of speculative fiction novels, Fire-Rider.

Those three books are in the can. I’ve got material residing on Funny about Money to spin off at least one book, maybe more. The puppy is a gold mine of schmaltzy stories of the sort that sell. I have two more plotlines for the Fire-Rider series and a decent idea for an entirely different series of sci-fi novels.

Additionally, I have CDs on how to improve your writing skills — things I used to sell to my upper-division students at the Great Desert University. Should be able to crank at least one e-book from that; another on how to edit your own work; and one or two more from various presentations I’ve given over the years. They say eight is the magic number for writers who want to earn a noticeable income from e-books. I expect to have that many on Amazon and waypoints by the end of 2015.

It has to be said that any day I’d rather poke along writing fun little books than spend hours laboring over student papers and other people’s Ph.D. dissertations.

Meanwhile, there’s the great mystery of why people pay good money to attend a college course and then never bother to show or even to drop.

Would You Advise a Student to Get the Ph.D. in Your Discipline?

So, here we are reading student intros for the newest iteration of the magazine-writing course, and up pops a young woman who announces she wants to go all the way through to the Ph.D. in English(!) because, heaven help her, she wants to be a professor of English.

Oh, dear.

What do you say to an otherwise smart kid like this?

I can’t imagine recommending that a student — certainly not one enrolled in a community college — get a doctorate in English. Maybe, maybe if she had a solid, credible shot at a graduate program at, say, Princeton or Harvard. But if this is a kid who’s likely to end up at a public university? Not a chance!

Maybe I was too blunt in replying that she should be very careful about what she wishes for. When I was that age, there was nothing in the world that I wanted more than an academic career.

I wanted to go into the sciences. But in the first place my math wasn’t good and in the second, as a practical matter women were even less welcome in astrophysics and microbiology (my two preferred subjects) than they were in university humanities departments. Hence by default I ended up first in French and then in English. But…in those days the baby boom was hitting college, and there were lots of jobs in just about any subject.

LOL! By the time I finished the doctorate, the boomers had graduated and the academic job market had collapsed. Since then, hiring in academic positions has gone from bad to worse, especially in the humanities.

If I were a young thang today and I envisioned myself, oh so vividly, someday pacing the ivied halls of academe, I would get the terminal degree in business management. The math required is not too onerous, and because of the apparently irreversible trend to convert university-level education into trade-school training, there are still plenty of jobs in business schools. Better yet, a Ph.D. in business will affect your real-world job prospects in exactly the opposite way of the doctorate in English: instead of making you unemployable, it will make you highly desirable.

If I could muster the math skills and gag down the boredom, I’d get the degree in accountancy. Even the Great Desert University is hiring brand-new Ph.D.’s in accountancy at salaries in the six figures.

You’re lucky to earn five figures with a degree in English.

What about you? What would you say to a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed young student who expressed a desire to pursue a Ph.D. in your field?

Adjunct: It’s Not a Job. It’s Community Service

That sounds ironic, I expect. But…maybe not. I’ve turned over a new leaf in the attitude department. A few weeks ago I came across a resumé posted by the Great Desert University’s radically high-paid legal counsel, a gent who happens to be a former law partner of my former spouse. On it, he mentions that he teaches the occasional course at the community colleges.

And where does he list this attribute? Under “Community Service.”

Heh. That’s good, isn’t it?

When you think about that, though, it’s more than just ironically, deliciously good. It’s freaking brilliant.

First, the guy has got it dead right: Pay for community college teaching is so absurdly low it doesn’t even come up to the level of minimum wage. It’s decidedly not what we  professionals earn.

Second, to say he’s teaching college courses as a “service” makes him sound sooo magnanimous!

Welp, after some rumination, I came to the conclusion that what I do to earn a few shekels on the side does not rise to the level of a real job, but it does qualify as a kind of volunteer work. It is, one could say quite accurately, community service.

So after this, that’s what I’m calling it.

You should see the difference in people’s reactions, when you say you teach as a community service rather than saying you teach adjunct, you teach part-time, or you teach on a contract basis for the junior colleges. It’s amazing. The other day I sprang it on one of my clients, a high-powered CEO of a foreign bank. He accepted the statement with equanimity and even gave me a fleeting look of respect.

Quite a change from the look of pity, the look of disdain, and the blank look the phrase “adjunct teaching” elicits.

So I’m feeling a little better about the job. Regarding it as a variety of volunteerism means the pay is irrelevant. And that’s nice.

I guess.

The attitude is much improved, too, by the fact that henceforth all my courses will be online, except for one short course this summer that’s likely to attract relatively high achievers. Not having to go into the classroom and deal with the barrage of disrespect, inattention, and outright craziness makes managing these courses bearable.

To the extent that I can avoid it, face-to-face teaching is now a thing of the past for me. I’ve got an English 102 section and the magazine writing course this semester, as many courses as the chair is allowed to assign. If he’ll keep that up, by golly, my teaching “career” won’t be at an end, after all.

Well, yes it will. It’s no longer a career. It’s a volunteer activity.

A Good Syllabus: Different for Full-timers and Adjuncts

While I was out of town on Friday, the departmental chair e-mailed to ask if I would take on a mythology course: in the English department, a study of the literary and anthropological evidence of organized mythological constructs around the world. The full-time instructor scheduled to teach the section this semester had fallen ill. Could be back in one to three weeks; might be out all semester.

As a practical matter, the District’s pay for substituting is pretty good — at least over the short term. It works out to around $50 an hour, in the ball park of what I earn as a contract editor. If you end up taking over the course, though, pay falls abruptly into the adjunct’s minimum-wage range, because it doesn’t cover the hours spent grading papers and conferring with students out of class.

That notwithstanding…I recently ponied up $1650 for a desk chair to ease the excruciating back pain that’s afflicted me over the past 18 months. A net $1900 or so would cover that expense. So, thought I, why not? It’s not freshman comp…that’s something.

This gives me two sections this fall: an eight-week online course that starts the middle of this month, and a face-to-face lit course that started several weeks ago and has been without an instructor for some time.

So the chair sent the instructor’s syllabus over. And it’s quite a production.

As a device to help community-college students achieve success, this is a very fine teaching tool. It’s designed to teach effective study skills — or to reinforce them for those who already have them.

The disabled instructor has assigned seventeen short writings over the reading matter — clearly intended to force students to actually read the texts and, not only that, but to think about the reading. She asks them not to summarize but, in a couple of paragraphs, to consider how a specific concept applies to a specific myth and then to analyze the myth in that context.

She has also assigned two substantial researched critical essays, 1,000 to 1,500 words or so.

She promises random pop quizzes.

And she has a final exam — an essay exam on the Odyssey.

Wow. The sheer amount of work involved in grading this volume of student maunderings beggars the imagination.

Even as a full-time faculty member, this lady is definitely earning her pay. On the other hand…her pay is substantial. Some of these folks earn near or in the six figures. For that kind of pay, I could write a syllabus like this one, too. And would.

But as an adjunct? Well, my syllabus would be significantly different. I would seek ways to maximize student effort and minimize my effort.

Instead of assigning a weekly paper, I’d probably do pop quizzes to be graded and discussed in class. This occupies class time and gets students talking about the reading material. Instead of two term-paper-length essays, I would assign one presentation and one substantial paper. And instead of an essay exam, they’d get a true-false-multiple guess final.

Even at that, I’d still be earning less than minimum wage, with no benefits, by the time you figure in the course prep time and the grading time.

Would my course be lesser than our f/t instructor’s? Absolutely. It would be designed more for my self-protection and less for tutoring weak students in the techniques of learning.

And therein lies a specific, real-world illustration showing how the widespread practice of staffing college and university courses with adjuncts works real harm. It harms students, and it harms the quality of American education.

So it goes: we get what we pay for. Well. Unless we’re students, that is…