Day: February 12, 2018


One reason for the rising job disillusionment among us academics is that administration keeps gaslighting us. They want us to eat up clearly illogical, bullshit explanations for their maneuvers, when the following simple explanation is really behind the vast majority of them:

Whenever something is being pushed relentlessly, regardless of pretext, the real reason is that someone has decided to cut costs or divert funds from the fulfillment of our core missions. 

That’s it. End of story. Whenever some bullshit makes no sense, this is the real reason that people don’t want to talk about (they might if you press hard, really hard).

This is also one of the big reasons why I am an opponent of the flipped classroom.  (Disclaimer: I’m not saying it can’t be done right, but it’s being done far too broadly and far too badly, and when it’s done badly it’s worse than a traditional class gone badly. Also, disciplines differ; schools differ. I am talking about mine.) There’s a colleague who’s a real flipped-classroom zealot, but then his ‘flipped students’ get into my follow-on course and they don’t know anything. For courses with a lot of physics, the students need to be taught how to set up problems, and then use math to solve them. None of the students were taught that in the flipped class, because learning how to solve problems — which is the only thing that counts, none of the ‘I know the concepts’ bullshit: you either know the concepts well enough to apply them to problems or you don’t actually know them — requires learning from an expert who shows you how to set up and solve problems, step-by-step, with plenty of opportunity to ask questions and interrupt, and then also have humans check how you set up problems and how you solved them (also known as grading).

When, at the end of the day, my classes (traditional lecture, with plenty of homework, many office hours, and a discussion section) produces far better students for the follow-on classes than the flipped equivalent, I finally get to hear the real reason: We are facing increasing enrollments and to serve more students without an increase in the teaching-assistant budget or splitting courses into sections, the only way is to go all electronic. That way, you prerecord lecture nuggets, have everything done electronically (including grading). A single instructor, assisted by perhaps one (or none) graduate TA, and a whole horde of (note!) inexpensive undergraduate student hourlies can serve hundreds of students, where serve = walk around in case people have questions. Let’s repeat: hundreds of students with one instructor, at most one TA, and a whole bunch of ultracheap undergrads acting as helpers… With prerecorded lectures and all-electronic assessment. Let’s not forget that, for all this goodness, students are paying ever-increasing tuition. (Funny story: One undergrad student hourly in my zealot colleague’s undergraduate flipped course, who was chosen presumably because they did really well in that class, ended up getting a C in my follow-on course. What a helper this student must have been!)

Grading and giving actual human feedback on hundreds of exams is hard. Teaching large courses takes up a tremendous amount of time. But being there and putting in face time and sweat equity — both on the part of the student and the instructor — is the only way. Smaller classes are better — I have been advocating for splitting these ballooning classes into smaller sections, but my pleas have been falling on deaf ears… It was doable 20 years ago, but now it’s somehow not. It’s likely not cost-effective. If I am overworked, I’ve been told that I should flip the classroom and generally shut the fuck up.

Well, there’s something I’d like to flip, that’s for sure, and it ain’t the goddamn classroom.

This all comes on the heels of replacing an excellent course management system by one that is vastly inferior, campus wide. Why? Blahblahblah. “It has a better user demo.” WTF? Who cares about demos? These things are all easy to use, and the superior system is actually so intuitive that it didn’t need a demo at all. The new one misses important features, and, ironically, diehard classroom flippers cannot port most of their assignments between the new and old platforms (insert onomatopoeia of Schadenfreude here). None of the cited reasons for what happened makes sense… Except, of course, that someone managed to cut cost and/or line someone else’s pockets with the change of the course management system.

Some time ago, we all got new phones as the analog phone lines were discontinued (there still have to be some analog phones left in labs for safety reasons) and everyone moved to VoIP. It’s a giant pointless undertaking, because so few people actually use their office phones for anything any more.  I have had an extended absence greeting for years that says, “You won’t be able to leave a message here. If you need to get a hold of me, send an email.” The vast majority of my colleagues and I use email or Skype for all communications; if I actually want someone to call me, I give them my cell number, because I am in and out of the office so much. Now we all get these useless new phones, a massive investment marginally more useful than getting new fax machines (which we didn’t get, thank heavens). This is money simply down the drain. Why didn’t we do something useful with this money? Like hire more staff? More TAs? Buy freaking desks and chairs for graduate students? Because whoever manages money has no interest in what the faculty actually need, or, more nefariously, knows exactly what the faculty need and instead chooses to fritter money away on expensive stupidities. Someone’s pockets got lined up on this, I can smell it.

There are also extensive renovations in the building, which would be fine if we hadn’t done equally extensive renovations just a few years ago. Because the exact color of the walls is absolutely critical for student learning. If anything, it would only make sense if having the whole goddamn campus color coordinated is likely to affect the students’ subconscious in a way that makes them more likely to donate large sums of money later in life. Which I bet someone somewhere did a study on and showed to be true.

We have 1/3 of the department staff that we had when I joined. Student coordinators, who used to know every student, have now been consolidated at the college level. They are not even in the building and most of us don’t know when they’re hired or fired or who’s to be asked for a problem with a student or to do something about classroom assignments, because all these people are sequestered under the pretense of efficiency, but it’s really cutting costs by reducing the staff that actually supports the core mission, with a side benefit (or perhaps the central benefit) being the loss of actual ties between faculty and staff, which leads to reduced understanding and empathy, and increasing animosity.

I feel for the students whose families pay through the nose for the education. I feel for the bare-bones, overworked staff who actually support the core mission — teaching and research. I feel for us faculty, as these small defeats, these small humiliations, these instances of gaslighting where we’re told that something makes sense but it really doesn’t for anyone who really cares about the students — we are here for the students; this is a goddamn university; has everyone forgotten it? — add up to a fabric of our careers at these formerly grand state schools, a fabric that’s full of holes and smells rotten.