Rotten

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.

13 comments

  1. You’re forgetting the other reason for these wastes of money: So that some administrator can brag about it on their next job application. Needless to say, they will claim that it saved money.

  2. Interesting. Having never flipped my classroom fully, I would have thought flipping the classroom would have been much MORE difficult with more students, not easier. I suppose if the problem solving part is being done by UG students… Then yeah that would be horrid.

    “You’re forgetting the other reason for these wastes of money: So that some administrator can brag about it on their next job application. Needless to say, they will claim that it saved money.”

    Yeah our latest budget letter from the president was demoralizing. Blah blah blah… created new center of Excellence… hired 109 new excellence coordinators… XX million $ in new fundraising! NEW SHINY FACILITY for student funtimes (come visit)!!!!

    Yep there was no mention of how the nice budget surplus/windfall was spent on the core educational mission of the college, I mean… after all that kind of thing just … happens doesn’t it? Meanwhile… oh your dept. has ballooning enrollments oh well we don’t have money / space for new instructors and enrollments are down overall so we can’t discourage anyone from coming here because Tuition $$$, so deal.

  3. I love VOIP phones because you can usually set them to send any voicemail messages to your email – which makes not being in the office but still getting phone calls much easier!

    As an undergrad, I had a very hard time with large lecture classes- particularly science classes. I had so much anxiety about learning science and math, and in a large lecture class where I was a faceless, nameless student – I just felt disengaged and rarely came to class, and obviously didn’t do well. In order to graduate, I had to convince the honors college to let me do some of my science classes through them (10 students max) and did the final one during the summer (much smaller and taught by a very enthusiastic grad student who did a lot of hands-on learning and field trips).

    Science is so important and teaching it through large lecture classes causes students who would otherwise love science to lose interest and do the bare minimum to get the grades. Given how bad our populace is at understanding the value of science and at understanding scientific concepts (e.g., evolution and climate change), it seems like we should be investing MORE in science education not less.

  4. Then you will *love* what our school is doing. Putting all grad courses online by a 3rd party, so the courses can be taken any time of the year. 3rd party works on video quality and student recruitment. Will maybe count less than 1 course as teaching for us, and will require to pre record everything. It will mean people can take the course in summer? I will not be available for questions, exams, etc.

  5. What you are describing is not a “flipped” classroom, but rather a MOOC. Flipping a classroom is *more* work, not less. In a true flipped classroom, the students spend the classroom time in alternating cycles of in-group and full-class work actually setting up problems and doing them. In practice, a flipped classroom requires many more TAs and much more faculty involvement than a standard classroom. The in-class time is not just doing homework, but rather doing very very carefully constructed discovery projects. Doing a flipped classroom right is incredibly difficult and time-consuming.

    I agree with you 100% that the real issue is teacher quality and having enough qualified people (professors, quality TAs) to teach students and help them when they struggle.

    It sounds to me like your university is essentially underfunding the teaching mission. That doesn’t work in either a flipped or regular classroom, or for that matter in a MOOC. (The data on MOOCs are that they turn out to require just as much work and effort or the students don’t learn anything. Funny that.)

    [Personally, I teach my classes in the standard format with lots of interactive discussion and active-learning processes in class, but really, that’s the socratic method and how good classes have been taught forever.]

  6. I’d never heard of a flipped classroom before your post. I shall file it with “things I’m glad weren’t things” when I was in college”, right after Facebook. I like to sort these things alphabetically.

    Seriously, I would have despised that set-up as a student. I’m thinking particularly of your last post about high maintenance students. I used to hate group projects and collaborative learning exercises because invariably there were one or more students that fell in the high maintenance category who ended up being a drag on everyone else. I can’t imagine how incredibly frustrating it would be to be expected to put in some learning time up front, and then walk into a classroom and have to spend time in a group learning situation getting their butts caught up. I’m sure in theory that’s not supposed to be what happens, but I’m guessing in practice it sometimes does (particularly if there is only one professor and a large class -> impossible to have adequate oversight). I’m sure in theory even when it happens the advocates may view it is a positive because, after all, aren’t the ones having to do the explaining also benefiting? (Personal pet peeve: no, that is not true, at least not universally. Sometimes they are just wasting their time when they could be moving on to new material.)

    I sometimes genuinely miss college and grad lecture classes because I liked the straightforwardness of it. Go to class, listen and learn from someone who knows, get evaluated based on your performance.

  7. I agree with most of what you say here (it is happening at my university also), except for one point—your complaint about “a whole horde of (note!) inexpensive undergraduate student hourlies”. It has been my experience, and the experience of other engineering instructors who spend time in the teaching labs, that undergraduates who have done well in a lab course are fare more useful than grad student TAs in helping teach the lab courses. Way too many grad students have no useful lab experience and teach shitty lab techniques that they learned from other incompetent TAs. The problems seems to be somewhat worse with the grad students from India and China, who often have had only book learning with no lab experience at all.

    Of course, selecting the right undergrads requires some care, which means that the professors have to be spending time in the teaching labs themselves (and have to care about the labs, not be book-and-computer only).

  8. I have no doubt that the Ideal, Platonic Flipped Class is a wonderful thing.

    The Real, Existing Flipped Classes are more than just students spending lots of time on intensive discovery projects. They’re also taught by people who enjoy jumping on the latest fad and have taken the catechism of “Students Must Succeed! We need them to! STEM Pipeline Uber Alles!” to heart. They tend to be warm and fuzzy. Many are convinced that “conceptual understanding” is an important thing that stands quite distinct from skill with mathematical problem-solving, and they accordingly place greater emphasis on the qualitative rather than the quantitative. To be clear, not all are like this, but certain trends do seem to be common.

    And some of them either won’t do the work to make the class an intensive experience, or weren’t given the resources to make it sufficiently intensive, with armies of TAs to help during class and well-constructed interactive online tutorials prior to class and whatever other bells and whistles.

    So Real, Existing Flipped Classes often fall short of what is usually promised. In the ideal scenario, though, the shortfalls aren’t widely recognized until the administrator who provided short-term funding has moved on to some better position.

  9. We have spent so much money on new shiny buildings that the state couldn’t borrow any more without downgrading their credit. The shiny new buildings are full of fancy new $$$ equipment that very few people use. In contrast, old stand-by equipment is scarce and faculty with old stand-by are constantly barraged with requests to use it. Just adding to your point that no one seems like they want to actually ask research faculty what they need to do research.

  10. A-fucking-men. We also all got brand new shiny phones. They work like shit – I can’t hear a thing through them – but they do give the weather and a word-a-day. Worst of all, if we want voice mail, we now have to pay for it. And don’t even get me started on flipped classrooms.

  11. I am with you 100%–this mania for flipped classrooms drives me nuts. As if students can’t possibly be engaged any other way. And I just posted on how my students are now citing crazy administration as the reason they don’t want to be professors (rather than the proposal rat race). That alone should let the powers that be know how bad it has gotten.

  12. There is currently an industrial dispute between the academics’ union and university management here in the UK (university pay is on a national scale set by a single collective employer’s body, which is in effect there’s one employer for all the older universities). The dispute is over pensions, but basically if the employers’ get their way we all get a substantial cut in benefits (and comparatively poor pay with good benefits is how universities, like most public service, work over here – so an attack on benefits is seen as a betrayal of the basic pay deal for career academics).

    We were sent a letter from the administration which said that the university couldn’t support having the employer’s collective body make any concessions, because paying academic staff more would detract from the core mission of the university.

    Which really makes us feel valued. Apparently the core mission doesn’t involve teaching, or research, or admissions (academics staff all open days, conduct interviews, get roped in to run the phones lines…), or any reporting paperwork for government (which all depends on the individual returns we put in on things like what we worked on for sample weeks for time tracking, student achievement, research reports…).

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