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…

While Rome Burns…

Seventy percent of New York University’s faculty is adjunct. They are unionized, and consequently they have access to health insurance and a retirement plan, assuming they can qualify and assuming they can afford the plans. However, they are adjunct, a status that even in a union shop equates financially to “can’t afford it.”

So NYU saves wads and wads of money by staffing its courses with part-timers. And where do you suppose all that money goes?

Well, for starters, into fancy vacation homes of its upper administrators. NYU’s president, John  Sexton, owns a million-dollar home on Fire Island, purchased with a loan from an NYU foundation. And he’s only one of a number who enjoy the the same perq.

Former NYU Executive Vice President Jacob J. Lew was graced with $1.5 million in mortgage loans, of which the university eventually forgave $440,000.

Former NYU Law School Dean Richard Revesz occupies a West Village town house financed by NYU and a 65-acre estate near the Housatonic River.

And so it goes. This and other egregious examples of tax-exempt academic largesse are justified, according to the Times, by a crying need to recompense upper management in the style to which they would become accustomed were they working in the corporate world:

“The purpose of our loan programs goes right to the heart of several decades of sustained and successful effort at N.Y.U.: to transform N.Y.U. from a regional university into a world-class research residential university,” John H. Beckman, the university spokesman, said in an e-mail. In some fields, he added, certain loans help retain faculty members who “can easily pursue a financially rewarding professional career instead of choosing the path of university scholarship and teaching.”

Right. Tuition is $1,204 per credit, plus an additional $63 “registration fee” per credit. Plus $11 per credit for any course offered in the College of Arts and Sciences. Plus a program fee of $250. Plus other course-specific fees. Plus $211 a week for a dorm room. One hundred twenty-eight credits are required for a bachelor’s in “liberal studies,” a degree that will leave you underwhelmingly employable.

At $1,204 + $63 + $11/credit, a bachelor’s degree from this institution will set you back $163,584. That’s assuming you live at home and that your parents foot the bill for your food and your commuting costs.

Presumably it’ll be a while before an NYU grad can afford a house on 65 acres by the Housatonic.

Presumably that will be never for most of his or her “professors.”

If you needed any further proof that the practice of staffing courses with adjunct faculty is grossly exploitive, you just found it.



How to Cut the Number of Points Available in Comp Courses

Frugal Scholar  has decided, in response to student complaints posted on Rate My Professor to the effect that she doesn’t provide enough points in her courses, to up the number of available points to 1,000. To make this happen, she will assign a bunch of 20-point activities, and to turn the result into an intelligible score for the final grade, she will divide the result by 10.

She compares this strategy — rightly, as we will see by the end of next semester — with J.C. Penney’s scheme of increasing their prices and then giving people coupons and sales. Consumers, we are told, would rather think they’re getting a bargain on an inflated price than to be offered “everyday low prices” (i.e., realistic retail prices) all the time. Students, like consumers in general, are very stupid about numbers, and so are easily flamboozled.

On the other hand, generating 1,000 points will not be easy. It will require Frugal Scholar to assign flurries of little 20-point exercises, each of which she will have to read and assess. Even if they’re rote things with simple “right” and “wrong” answers, they still will occupy time out of class. And since she’s at one of those colleges that inflict five sections a semester on everyone, even tenured faculty, that means 20 or 30 returned papers x 5: 100 to 150 papers per assignment to read.

If she can get through a given paper in 2 minutes, that’s 200 to 300 minutes per mind-numbing assignment: three hours and twenty minutes to five hours per assignment. And believe me, in each section at least two or three nimrods will turn in something that’s such a tangle it will take lots longer than 2 minutes to explain why the student scored 3 points out of 20. If she doesn’t take that time up front, then she will find herself spending even more time explaining to her chair or her dean why she’s discriminating against that poor little soul.

This is COLLEGE, for cripesake. If you have to assign a thousand points of busywork to keep students on task through the semester, they shouldn’t be in college. And you shouldn’t have to waste your time grading 20-point dingbats here and 20-point dingbats there because they can’t score passing grades on real assignments.

Toward the end of my own reluctantly reborn career in teaching freshman comp, I decided I was not going to read 20 or 30 busywork assignments (x 60 students!) meant to inflate their grades when the assignments that were required by the community college district’s policy came to four essays in 101 and three in 102.

This conclusion came about after a couple of full-timers described how they operated their sections. With a five & five teaching load, they certainly weren’t knocking themselves out reading 87 gerjillion 20-point assignments.

I gave students one, count it (1), opportunity to turn in a draft, which was to be “as close to a final paper as you can make it.” This occurred before the first required essay; it was graded as though it were a final paper and commented upon in detail, with instructions on what they needed to do to score a decent grade. Those who were clearly illiterate were instructed to take their papers to the writing center and work with a coach before turning them in to me.

To keep them busy, I compiled a 60-page workbook of exercises, which they had to do in class. Instead of grading that stuff, we discussed their responses in class. This, as you may imagine, handily consumed a fair number of class periods. Since most of them had never heard of a style manual and few understood (or cared) that pasting passages off the Internet into their papers amounts to plagiarism, it gave them opportunities to practice MLA style and other key matters without being beaten about the head and shoulders.

And then I assigned the topics for each paper — for each student — at the beginning of the semester. Each classmate had to give two oral reports preparatory to submitting a given paper:

1) What specific approach did they intend to take to their topic? How did they intend to focus the essay, and what specific research material did they intend to use? (All of their papers were sourced and documented — yes, even in 101, and no, most of them had never written a sourced paper in their lives.) They had to turn in an outline with this report.

2) Report to your classmates what you have learned about your topic and why it should matter to us.  With this report, they had to turn in a preliminary bibliography.

I also assigned them to groups by closely related topics, so they could help each other with their research. They spent time in the library to do research (many of them spent the time socializing) and time in the computer labs drafting their papers (many of them spent the time on Facebook).

They got scores for the oral reports — meaning I didn’t have to use unpaid time out of class to read the equivalent garbage they would turn in when I used to ask them to put the stuff in writing. I used the first report to determine whether they were on track in terms of subject matter and focus, and the second to see whether they were actually doing any work on the assignment. Additionally, they got scores at random for the exercises (they never knew when I was going to ask them to turn one in).

That enormously reduced the amount of time I had to spend reading careless schlock. Instead of a spreadsheet that extended to and disappeared over the western horizon, the gradesheet had (for Eng. 102, for example) 12 scores, 6 of which were oral reports. And since adjuncts at Heavenly Gardens are, by explicit written policy, paid only for the time they spend in the classroom, it reduced the number of hours I had to spend working for no pay.

It did not change the grading curve.

It did not change retention levels.

Ultimately, it did not make me dislike the low-paid, futile job any less. But it did make it bearable for a few semesters.

Good Li’l Students!

So here we are, a few weeks into the semester, and the Magazine Writing Crew at Heavenly Gardens Community College has turned in its first real article, after an interminable number of preparatory exercises and real-world projects. Amazingly, quite a few of their efforts are very good. One — actually, maybe two are writing at the publishable level. Several are doing creditable jobs for student efforts, and several are well above creditable.

Sounds just awesome, doesn’t it?

Well, of course, it is awesome. Happy indeed is what we should be if even one of our students, especially one on the 200 level, is already reaching something like a professional stage. Pleased, if several of them are earning genuine A’s, not the kind generated by busywork calculated to inflate grades with the purpose of inflating our student evaluations.


But the fact is that these excellent students self-select in the MagaWriting course simply by staying enrolled. Of the twenty who enrolled in this course, eight survive. Seven of those turned in the recently due article; eight turned in the query (a type of real-world proposal) for the next article.

Fewer than half the original bunch are still with us, and they’re the ones who are earning A’s and B’s. One or two of them are functioning at such a high level that one might reasonably ask why they’re in the class at all, since they could be selling freelance articles right now, today.

Soooo… The people who could actually benefit from the class, the ones who could actually learn something new: they’ve absented themselves.

There must be a way, somehow, to keep those students in the class.

I just wish I knew what it is.

Little Lambs Lost in Canvasland

We’re nearing the end of the first week of Heavenly Gardens’s online magazine writing course, which for the first time I mounted on Canvas. Five days into the term, I’m still in the honeymoon phase with Canvas. As for my little lambs? Uhm…it’s hard to have a honeymoon with someone you can’t find.

Nineteen students signed up for the class. Of those, nine replied to the e-mail notice I sent out last weekend, telling them where to find the course’s site and asking them to reply to let me know whether they intend to participate. (Many community college students run into personal and work circumstances that make it difficult or impossible to do coursework they expected they could handle.)

The College is now requiring students to use a G-mail system specific to the District. This wish is mostly honored in the breach. In the first place, younger students hardly use e-mail at all. And in the second, nobody wants the inconvenience of having to ride herd on yet another in-box. So, many students simply ignore this demand.

And that means it’s entirely possible that ten of the maga-writing students never saw that e-mail.

Two, responding to the same notice placed in the first weekly announcement, said they haven’t received it. Since I copied and pasted their e-mail addresses from the District’s records, that seems…well, unlikely. But anything’s possible.

The first two (very mickeymouse) assignments are due by 11:59 tonight. So far seven classmates have turned in one or both of these. Those who have full-time day jobs presumably will send theirs this evening.

So far, I really like the way Canvas is working. It hasn’t gone down even once — at least, not that I’ve noticed. Its ease of integrating assignments with the gradebook and with communication is just awesome.

The student (I finally figured out how to get into the “Student” view) can click on the Assignments link in the navigation bar. There she sees a list of live links to each of the course’s graded assignments.

She clicks on, say, “Market Research,” the first substantive project of the semester, and she gets a detailed description of the assignment, its due date, its point value, and a “Submit Assignment” button. When she clicks on that, she gets an option to attach it as a file or to paste it into a textbox. She also can add comments to the instructor.

The instructor can then see, by at least two avenues, which assignments students have turned in. Within the gradebook, you can see icons flagging submitted papers, and you can instantly access the student’s work simply by clicking on the icon. Once you’ve read the classmate’s paper, you can enter a grade in the page the icon elicited, and that places the grade in the correct place in the gradebook. And you can return the graded paper to the student from the same page.

So: no more clicking and clicking and clicking and clicking on the same function until you’re blue in the face. Navigating the gradebook is easy, with no fussy demands that this, that, or the other bit of ditz be done before you can move off a cell.

The one drawback about it — so far — is that students can’t access an assignment’s “submit” function until close to the due date. That’s a nuisance, especially if you have students who have a good reason to submit papers early. For example, I tell them that if they know they’re going to be out of town on a due date, they should turn the stuff in beforehand. The only way they can do that, then, is by e-mail.

As we scribble, my go-to e-mail has 116 new messages waiting for me to answer or to delete. In a current like that, it’s easy to lose a message from one little student, especially at the start of the semester, when you don’t recognize their names. So it would help a lot if they could submit papers through Canvas at any time, whenever they choose.

Maybe that function is there, though, and I just haven’t found it yet.


Canvas: So Far, an Improvement

Gearing up for a new eight-week session of English 235, the magazine-writing course. The course is 100 percent online; in the past Blackboard has proven to be such a headache that I created my own CMS (“course management system,” ô ye mercifully uninitiated) on, which does everything my students need, is easy and intuitive for webmaster and student alike, and never goes down. Heavenly Gardens Community College, however, has dropped Blackboard in favor of a newer, less bloated system called Canvas, the product of a five-year-old enterprise called Instructure. At this point I have the entire course online, and it took only two evenings to get it there — a huge improvement over days of wrestling with Blackboard!

Apparently it’s pretty easy to export a semester’s course to a new shell for a subsequent semester, and so if the organization I’ve designed works for the students, it should take significantly less time to set up future sections.

At the outset, several conveniences rolled into one impressed the hell out of me. Videlicet: in the “Assignments” function, you can enter a full description, due date, and point value for each of the tasks with which you intend to belabor your students.

When you do that, you accomplish not one, not two, but THREE tasks, any one of which is time-consuming and tedious in Blackboard:

1. You establish a chronological list of the course’s assignments, visible to classmates.

2. You automatically enter the assignments and point values in the gradebook(!!), in chronological order(!).

3. You enter assignments on their due dates in a nice calendar, organized in a normal, conventional calendar format.

Holy freaking mackerel.

Building the gradebook in BB is such torture. All of that misery — sometimes several hours of misery, we might add — disappears with Canvas.

Fall on the ground and worship at the feet of Instructure’s young entrepreneurs!

The calendar function allows you to enter assignments from within the calendar, too, but more to the point, you can enter other “events.” This allowed me to post reminders, a week or so before unusual or particularly difficult tasks are due, to let students know they need to get started early or that they should already be addressing a specific phase of the job.

It was very easy to replicate the series of weekly announcements I’d posted in WordPress. All I had to do was copy from the “Visual” view and paste to Canvas — links in the copy came over unmolested, formatting converted nicely to Canvas’s standard, and all that remained to do was update a few details and then schedule posting at the desired dates. I kind of thought I would have to copy the HTML out of WP’s “text” view into the equivalent view in Canvas, but nay…all went smoothly with exactly zero extra hassle.

Burn incense to Instructure’s young entrepreneurs.

Entering hypertext is intuitive and easy with the traditional link-shaped icon, and magically, typing a URL into your text automatically makes it go live, relieving you of the task of highlighting it and copying it into the insert/edit link command. This is one of those many small tasks that, when repeated ad infinitum (as they will be when mounting any online course) consume an inordinate amount of unpaid time.

Light a candle to Instructure’s investors.

There are a few things I have yet to learn.

In the faculty training seminar, we built a bio; I can’t find a way to edit that.

Our instructor showed us how to embed YouTube videos, but I couldn’t replicate her trick, which as I recall entailed having to use the old YouTube embed code. Even if I could remember exactly how she did it, the old code doesn’t appear with my video lectures.

There’s got to be a way to create a page of links or a list of links in a sidebar, but I’ll be darned if I can find it. I had to type links into Word docs and upload them into a function called “Files.” It’s a clumsy workaround that I’ll have to change whenever I figure out how to do that job right.

These are pretty minor issues, though, compared with the ease of building the grade book, the automation of the calendar, and the sheer consistency, across functions, of the operations. So far, no two functions require different coding or different actions. They all work the same way. None of them are provided by outside vendors, and none of them are quirky, annoying, or weird. Hallelujah!

Thank you, Gods of Instructure!

Fixing these small matters will require a trip to the campus during one of the open lab sessions, which I’ll need to do some time over the next couple of weeks — the course starts March 3, and I want it to go live a few days before then.

Now, if the thing just stays up all term and doesn’t crash at the psychological moment, I’ll be converted to a true believer. For the time being, I’m keeping the WordPress course as a back-up, just in case. That means double the free labor, of course, but it’ll be worth it if the new system goes down, as Blackboard could always be relied upon to do. And for the same reason, I’m asking students to e-mail their completed work to me, rather than posting it on the site, having been burned one time too many by BB.

Canvas looks good now. We’ll see how it holds up when every campus of the largest community college district in the nation plugs in. Last fall we had over 265,000 students; that could be a challenge for a young enterprise with only 200 employees and some 300 client institutions. If they can just keep it simple, though, and not gum up the works with unnecessary functions and bloatware, maybe they’ll have a shot at success.

Paranoia in the Classroom

Nice timing: the hideous events in Connecticut occurred as I was filing final grades for the last composition classes I’ll ever teach.

When the news came down, a selfish and unworthy thought entered my mind: thank God I’ll never have to walk into a classroom again!

You know, one doesn’t obsess about it, but concern for the safety of one’s students and oneself does enter every teacher’s mind. La Maya and I were talking about this yesterday. She says the Great Desert University West has jimmied the classroom doors so faculty can’t lock them.

They used to be lockable. When I taught there, I checked — I wanted to be able to lock the classroom door in case some poor unhinged soul decided to come a-visiting with a semi. And my students told the tale of a faculty member who became so irked by students wandering in late that he took to locking the door at the appointed hour, so late-comers couldn’t get in at all.

Some punkins! :roll: Why on earth would you care if the kid shuffles in 15 minutes late? This isn’t high school…missing part of your lecture is the kid’s problem, not yours. Oh well.

At Heavenly Gardens, none of the doors lock. What’s more, each classroom has only one entry. GDU’s computer-equipped classrooms have two: one near the front of the room and one near the back. So, if someone who meant us no good did come in one door, at least a few students would be able to get out the other. With the Heavenly Gardens set-up, everyone in the room would be trapped.

GDU also had phones in every classroom. At the community college, the only phone is out in the hall. Apparently it doesn’t occur to the administration that 80% of the school’s faculty don’t earn enough to pay for a cell phone.

Neither school has a very simple and obvious expedient: a panic button at the instructor’s station. How likely is it, when someone charges in the door shooting, that you’d have time to dig a cell phone out of your purse and call for help? GDU installed panic buttons for the admins after one menacingly disturbed faculty member had to be fired (they cleared out part of the building before sending the chair, accompanied by several DPS officers, to his home to tell him he was canned). There’s no reason they couldn’t be installed in every classroom.

Lockable classroom doors and a panic button in each room seem so simple, so obvious, and so inexpensive. What is the matter with administrators that they don’t provide them?

Some remarkably foolish things have come out of the hysterical national conversation surrounding the horrific event. One is the bizarre idea that there’s a direct connection between Adam Lanza’s alleged Asperger’s and his breakdown.

That’s absurd. People with Asperger’s are just like other people: they can be angry, they can be calm; they can be happy, they can be sad; they can be smart, they can be dumb; they can be mentally healthy, they can be mentally ill. Asperger’s syndrome is not a red flag that you’re going to become violent.

I’ve had two Asperger’s kids in my junior-college classrooms. And yeah, they’re different. Sometimes they can be a little difficult. With the right kind of accommodation, they can be successful and rewarding human beings.

The idea that screening every gun buyer will prevent events like Newtown is pretty pathetic, too. The shooter didn’t buy the guns: his mother, who was regarded as a stable member of the community, bought them. Like anyone who wants a semiautomatic weapon, the shooter found a way to get  his hands on them.

It’s way, way too late to take guns out of Americans’ hands. As we scribble, Arizonans are cleaning out the shelves of local gun stores, as they always do every time a new gun control flap arises. Prior stupidity that made it possible for civilians to buy military-style weapons and load them with cop-killing bullets has ensured that we will never be able to take the things off the street. The country is pretty well flooded with high-powered weapons, and there’s no way gun owners will obediently turn them in to government agencies.

Particularly not the ones who think the world is going to end on Friday.

Meanwhile, we need to find ways to keep our public spaces safe, and that does not include arming teachers and administrators.

Classroom doors should be lockable and hardened so the locks can’t easily be shot off. Every classroom should be equipped with a panic button. Every classroom should have more than one exit.

Sales of semi-automatic and fully automatic weapons need to come to an end. Today. Now.

And most important: access to quality health care, including mental health care, must be made available to every American, rich or poor. That is the only way we can bring a stop to the staggering losses the status quo is causing. We’ve lost more than 20 little kids and eight school faculty. Adam’s and his mother’s lives were wasted, too.


FREE AT LAST! But with a little gift or two…

Oh, God. Finally got done with the last class. Yesterday was a bear! And like the eternally undead, this accursed teaching job will. not. go. away.

Out the door at quarter to seven, navigating the cut-throat traffic to get to my regular Thursday business meeting. Stupid woman damn near crashed my car by charging around me, into the oncoming traffic, in a major intersection as I was turning left!!!!!!!!!

Fly from that meeting, running late. Speed across the city, jet up a freeway, and run into the classroom right at the minute the 101s’ final exam period started.

Feed them Phaque Phood to go with the Phaque Phinal: horrible popcorn purchased perforce (oh, the onomatopoeia!) from charity-happy colleague.

Every kid who had even the vaguest question about her or his semester grade wanted me to grade the final right then and there. This was easy because it’s just a matter of glancing at the thing, and though it was mildly annoying, it meant I got rid of about half of them on the spot.

Meanwhile, an Eng. 102 student who has an F in that class has been pestering me, by e-mail, to meet with her on the campus. I explain three times that a) I have no office in which to meet; b) after she received two D’s and a 0, there’s no way her grade is going to be anything other than an F; and c) I have work to do and I’m not traipsing back out to Heavenly Gardens to argue with her.

Just as I shoot off an e-mail volley to this woman, Mr. Strangelove comes up and asks didn’t I get his papers? I say he submitted one, count it one, of the four papers, the first one, and he should have noticed that I never returned any of the others…that was because I never received them. He now says he discovered his e-mail wasn’t forwarding them and it was sequestering emails from me. That’s clear and present bullshit, of course, but I wasn’t in any mood to accuse him of lying. Ultimately, he talks me into accepting three of the four papers that he never bothered to turn in. He claims he has to work and will need 48 hours before he can get back to his computer.

This means that for reasons unknown to anyone with an ounce of sanity, he has decided to write all three papers in the next day and a half.

I take him over to the chair’s office, where fortunately said chair is lurking, and ask if I can give Mr. Strangelove an Incomplete or what. He says that’s fine, but it’s really easier to give him an F and then change the grade later, because the Incomplete process is so complicated and difficult to navigate. Okay. Strangelove agrees to this.

Shovel the 102s out the door, again running late.

Jump back into the car and jet back out to Scottsdale for a BNI meeting. First one of those I’ve ever attended. It’s a bit of a cult, but I can see that if you really got into it, you might turbocharge your marketing. Expensive, though: about $1,000/year. Not at all sure I can spare that, what with quitting the hated composition job.

After a luncheon of Mexican food that I really don’t feel like eating, I listen to a hustle to get me to join and then stumble out the door.

By the time I get home, it’s 2:30. The dog has been trapped inside the house for over 7 hours. I ran out of meat for her yesterday afternoon and so had to feed her canned dog food. Thought this would give her the runs. I was right.

She has deposited not one, not two, not three, but FOUR stinking mounds all over the family room floor.

Thank God for tile floors.

A free turkey that I procured after Thanksgiving has been sitting in the fridge, where it had fully defrosted and by yesterday was heading toward decomposition. This bird was to supply the next month’s food for said dog. Rain is predicted, and I need to cook that thing now, not later. I have to cook it outdoors in the gas grill, because the flicking oven, being a Frigidaire product, cannot be run on the self-clean cycle, and I am not sticking my head in a metal box full of Easy-Off fumes, ever again.

Fart with that. Takes four hours to cook the thing; finish just as the storm clouds are lowering.

102 student keeps begging. I cc my answers to the chair.

I promised La Maya one of the lariat necklaces I’ve been making. This job is taking a lot longer than I expected — have been working two days on it and still have a ways to go. Meanwhile, I’ve neglected a client’s work; his project started out as a tangle and is still a tangle, and I need to get back to work on that. But first I’ve got to get the pile of beads, charms, and findings off my desk!

While the turkey cooks, I string beads as fast as I can string. Finishing this job takes the entirety of what remains of the day and all the evening hours, too.

102 student begs some more. Before shooting off a sharp letter to her, to be cc’ed to the chair, I figure I’d better C my A with a closer look at the work she’s done this semester.

That’s when I discover either my TA has neglected to enter the score for the woman’s last, gigantic, 2,500-word paper or I somehow managed to erase it.


She’s received a generous D on the thing: an even 60%. With one point a day for showing up in class and breathing and a few more points for various busywork, this brings Ms. Importune’s semester score up to 62%, a low D.

Amazingly, Heavenly Gardens will accept a D in freshman comp as “passing” for credit toward a two-year certificate or AA, although the course will not transfer to a four-year school. Even though you or I may see little difference between the disgrace that is a D and the disgrace that is an F, Ms. Importune wants that D.

So. Now today I have to traipse all the way back out to Heavenly Gardens — in the rain! — track down a change-of-grade form, fill it in, and go stand in line to turn it in at the Registrar’s office for a good 40 minutes with all the students who are trying to get into courses for next spring.


To frost that cupcake, the eye pain/runny nose has morphed into a full-blown, nasty cold. I just knew it! Two of the 102s showed up on Monday with heavy colds and sat there sniffling, snorting, and smearing germs all over the hard-copy “finals” I had to grade. I thought at the time, Don’t touch your face! Don’t scratch your nose! Don’t stick a finger in your mouth!!!!!

But all those things are unconscious, especially since my nose itches all the time. Within hours after shuffling those virus-laden papers, I was coming down with this thing. Hoped it might subside, but should have known better: I’ve been sick nonstop for over a year. Every time one damnfool thing starts to clear up, another ailment takes its place. Presumably my immune system is faltering in old age. And of course if I was going to get sick from hanging out in the sink of infection that is a college campus, it was going to happen on the last day of my career there.

Along about 9 p.m., an old client resurfaced. Would I index a 360-page volume of medieval and Renaissance history?

I think I got about $500 for that job the last time. That wasn’t enough: it’s a HUGE job. But I could sure use the money. He wants it done yesterday. As usual, he’s running late on the printer’s deadline.

This means I’ll have to put off the chiropractor’s job another few days. Not good. I wonder if I can foist that job on the Kid.

At the BNI meeting, a lawyer has asked if we can edit a short document for him, pretty clearly thinking he’ll try something brief just to see what happens. I’ve said “sure,” and as soon as I get back to the house, signal one of my legal editors that this thing will be incoming. She thinks she can breeze through it. I say I think she’d better check facts, because I suspect he’s about to throw us a curveball. With the confidence of youth, she predicts no problem.


Around 11 p.m. the factotum at the center for historical studies at the Great Desert University, which last year paid the bill for the indexing job, emails to say the publisher is now covering all editorial and publishing costs.

On the one hand, that’s good, because this is a solid mid-range scholarly publisher, one of the houses I intended to hustle for business as soon as I got free of teaching. On the other, not so good: they’re likely to be tight with indexers, and negotiating a contract means more delay. I’m not doing the job for under $500, which is practically throwing my time away. This job will take three or four days, maybe a week. It’s really worth more like $800 or $1,000.

I email the client to tell him I need to know who to contact at the press to discuss this. So far, no answer, and it’s already 6:40 in the morning.

The cold has progressed to laryngitis, so I won’t be singing soon…probably not on Sunday or at midnight mass.

I was too sick and too exhausted to go to a surprise party for one of the choir members, which I’m sure was noticed.


I’m free, all right. Never again will I teach freshman comp.

But it sticks to my feet like the stuff the dog dumped all over the family room:

• Not one but two change-of-grade hassles, one of which has to be done when I have much better things to do.

Thus, more time spent in more unpaid labor while I should be working on paying jobs.

A terrible cold.

A client’s job still not done, and now unlikely to get done for another week, unless I can shift it to my sidekick. To do that I’ll have to drive across the city. And it’s a hideous mess…I doubt if she can easily untangle it.

Continued bad odor among a group that might be a source of friends if I could manage to find time to be civil.

One fiasco after another. Defines teaching, doesn’t it?

Class meetings left to go: 0


Countdown to Freedom: 12/11/2012

One more class meeting to go.

The 102s’ Phaque Phinals are graded; for that section, final grades have now made themselves evident, and I have instilled the same in the District’s official grading system. All that remains now is to administer the extra-credit Phaque Phinal to the 101 class, score it, let Excel tote up the final grades, and report them online to the District.

Hum. I forgot that the odd 9:30 final exam meeting time will conflict with my networking group’s Thursday morning breakfast meeting. Damn. That means I’ll have to keep an eye on the time and leave by about 10 to 9. Nuisance: I’m cooking up an enterprise with one of the guys in that group, and I need to meet with him after the chatfest.

The final exam period for that class runs until 11:30, but I have a BNI meeting at noon in Scottsdale and will need more than half an hour to fly across town to that.

Understand: the Phaque Phinal consists of ten, count’em (10) rather MickeyMouse questions.

What is wrong with this sentence? If you can’t articulate the problem, just show how you would fix it.

The cat ate it’s food.

Here is an example of a fallacy:

The dog grabbed my steak off the kitchen counter and gobbled it down. Two hours later she barfed. So, the steak must have made her sick.

What type of fallacy is this? Why?

Not a single one of the 102s scored 50 points on the Phaque Phinal. The highest score was 40, and that was with me fudging the answers to give them a break.

Nothing on the PP was new. None of it covered anything we had not discussed in class. All of it was addressed in class, covered in the textbook or handouts, posted on our website, and explained on Internet sites to which I provided links. If you couldn’t follow my explanation, or you couldn’t keep your eyes open through the class discussions, then you could figure it out by reading the textbook or else go to some other expert’s interpretation and hope for words of fewer syllables.

So, it’s dismaying when even the best of them fall short of 100% (two A students showed up to take the Phinal, even though they were home free without the extra credit). Especially so, because last semester several classmates nailed 50 points, and the “exam” has not changed.

Whence the abysmal performance on what is essentially grade-school material? How is it possible that second-semester college freshmen can’t recognize when proximity is confused with causality? How can they not know what it’s means?

Part of the problem — in my opinion the largest part of the problem — is poor academic preparation. Large numbers of bright and theoretically competent young people leave high school utterly unprepared for college-level work. Or, come to think of it, for any kind of white-collar work. I don’t know what’s going on in the lower grades, but whatever it is, it ain’t workin’ for enough of our children.

Another issue, which probably is part of the same problem, is poor study skills.

Despite my taking them by the hand and begging them to start working on their papers early — particularly on the difficult 2,500-word paper, a project all the more difficult for students who have never written a sourced paper in 13 years of K-12 schooling — a week before that paper was due, student after student would admit to not even having framed a topic, much less started research and drafting.

Several students came up to me a few days before the major research paper was due and asked me what date it was due and what they were supposed to be writing about — this, after having taken a quiz on the syllabus early in the semester, which asked them to state when the papers were due and what their topics were to be. And after a prewriting assignment was due. And after an oral report on their topic was due.

Some classmates never purchased the textbook.

Knowing that they would not, I offered a workaround: links to websites providing the same information as the material in the assigned textbook readings. In spite of my regularly having pointed these out in class, many students evinced no awareness that any such things existed.

Do remedial courses  help? I don’t know. I do know that many graduates of Heavenly Gardens remedial English and writing courses arrive in my English 101 and 102 courses  utterly unprepared to perform at the college level. For those students, at least, remedial classes clearly didn’t do much. But how many students experience success in their college courses after remediation?

Some figures say as many as 60 percent of incoming college students need remedial training. Peter Bahr studied the results of math remediation and concluded that those students who experienced success in remedial math courses functioned about the same in later college work as did students who didn’t need remediation. However, a majority of remedial math students do not succeed in such training, and for those students, outcomes are less than positive. Typical community college students who need but do not complete remediation have only a 21% chance of transferring, and they face a 73% chance of neither completing a course of studies nor transferring to a four-year school.

Little is known about the effectiveness of remedial training for college students. Some studies have indicated that remediation may be helpful in math but has little effect on reading deficiencies. In any event, results are consistently mixed. No one really knows whether these programs do anything for students.

But anyone with any common sense should be able to guess that it would be a great deal cheaper for the taxpayer, a great deal more effective for our young people, and a great deal more sane for colleges if students showed up at the door with ordinary study skills and reasonable proficiency in reading, composition, and math.

Is that impossible?

I doubt it.

Back in the Dark Ages when I went to school, few first-semester freshmen were relegated to what was then unkindly called “dumbbell English.” I went to a public university with average rankings in most programs other than the top-rated astrophysics and cultural anthropology. Few of us were products of elite homes or private schools: I was a first-generation college student, and so were almost all my friends and acquaintances. Having skipped my senior year in high school — my father contrived to get me admitted early so he could quit his job and retire to Sun City, whose rules required that one’s youngest child had to be over 18 or enrolled in college — I started my freshman year shortly after turning 17.

I had no problem keeping up with the coursework. Neither did any of my dorm-mates or my classmates or my boyfriends or my cronies. We arrived on the campus understanding that we needed to buy the required textbooks, read the assignments, and submit written work on time. We knew how to prepare research papers and lab reports, because they were not very different from the kind of work we’d been doing in high school and junior high school.

Today I meet college students who have never written a sourced paper of any kind. High-school graduates tell me their English courses required them to write poems, essays, journals, and short stories, but never a research paper. Some students tell me they didn’t even take an English course in senior year. A few have said they hadn’t been in a library since middle school. Colleagues who require students to read more than a few anthology entries report that students go to their dean to complain about the unreasonable reading load — on some occasions arguing that if a course is not listed as fulfilling a literacy requirement, no substantial reading assignments should be expected.

Bright students tell me they’ve earned A’s and B’s in K-12 courses without studying and in some instances after cutting a large number of class meetings. They don’t see why that shouldn’t apply in college, too.

Having led many a horse to the Pyrrhean Spring without much luck at getting them to drink, I can’t bring myself to blame K-12 teachers for the present state of affairs. I do blame educational theorists who pushed through wacky ideas to the effect that formal training in usage, grammar, and style does nothing to build and polish language skills. And I do blame trends that have changed our schools from academies of learning into institutions of social work. We need to change our thinking about what ought to be taught in American schools, and how. Ideas that have become politically incorrect in our brave new world need to be revisited, and parents and taxpayers need to ask why strategies that worked to train our grandparents effectively were relegated to the dustbin.

I’m not suggesting that we go back to the Dark Ages. I ask only that we figure out what worked during the Dark Ages and consider whether those approaches should be revived and adapted to our kids’ present circumstances.

We know that most high-school graduates once were prepared for college-level work. Why are 60 percent of them underprepared now?