Have you ever woken up and thought, "I can't. Whatever it is, I just can't"? That's been me for about a week, or at least the past couple of days. I wake up, look out the window and think, "no."
I think of that scene in Bull Durham in which the Durham Bulls players all desperately need a break. They are so tired and worn out, and their exhaustion is affecting their morale and their game. So, Crash (Kevin Costner) arranges for a rain out. He and the team break into the field the night before a game and set off the sprinkler system to flood the field. Good lord, do I need a rain out!
Suitably, we have rain today. NOAA's National Weather Service says that we will have rain for the rest of the week. Sadly, this still does not give me a rain out. Short of a full-on server meltdown, there will be no rain out. Even then, I fear that would end up as a case of "be careful what you wish for."
Our spring semester officially ended last Wednesday, the day of the fiesta of meetings. Our summer semester begins today. Yes, not even a week later. This is typical of our academic calendar, which has to be one of the quirkiest I have ever encountered. Our spring semester, for instance, did not begin until after the inauguration, at the end of January, this year. Our fall semesters officially end either 2 days before or 2 days after Christmas. I'm waiting for the day that the semesters overlap. Also, you can look at the official online academic calendars and find the days that classes start, but you can never find the day that classes end. The final exams schedule is often listed as "ask your instructor," except the instructors aren't given a finals schedule until after the semester starts, at the same time that the students receive it. I often wonder who makes all of these schedules, and if they consult an actual calendar. Sometimes you feel like you are one of the western powers dealing with Russia before the revolution: you have one calendar and they have another that's like yours, but several weeks off.
Anyway, I have to teach this summer. We don't have any contractual obligations for summer teaching, but most instructors want to teach. In fact, when the administration tried to implement a policy limiting summer teaching for full-timers last year, everyone was up in arms. That's because everyone has a mortgage and kids or child support and credit cards and so forth. I'm fortunate in that I have none of the above. I've also been pretty good about saving this year. This is the first time in probably forever that I've been able to look at the summer and think, "hey, I could use all three months to write, or research, or sit on the sofa and watch my toenails grow!" Nice work if you can get it, let me tell you!
This summer, one of the NEH Summer Institutes accepted me for one of their month-long programs. This one takes place in Baltimore and has to do with slave rebellions in the Atlantic World, which should be incredible. I can see more of Baltimore and roam to some Frederick Douglass sites (because all things lead to Frederick Douglass), official or unofficial. I had hoped to spend the first part of the summer getting ahead on the very extensive reading list, and moving forward on my Douglass's women research. I also have another little thing I'm working on, too -- or want to be working on -- but that's another story.
Anyway, it looked to be a fabulous summer of Douglass and resistance and rebellion and the Atlantic World and being a scholar and just simply recharging. The recharging is the most important part of that equation since I taught the second summer session last summer, then taught 18 credits in the fall, then about the same in the spring. All of these credits included that hideous fellowship and a compressed semester class in which the whole semester's worth of work takes place in the second half of the semester. I also developed 4 online classes, 2 in the fall and two in the spring. Throw in a medication change and a triple wisdom tooth extraction and you now understand the reasons that I broke down, went crazy and built a Peeps diorama.
I need the equivalent of a Peeps diorama, now!
You see, the summer semester starts today and I have 3 online classes to teach. I'm not required to teach these according to my contract, but I am the only history instructor at my campus who has been trained to teach online. My chair -- the other history instructor -- and one of the adjuncts are supposed to be training over the summer. The adjunct actually has more incentive since the training will make him more marketable and he gets paid for it.
This adjunct now knows that he gets paid for it because I made sure that he did. I made sure that he knows because I had found out that the distance learning department had not paid me for the training. They had failed to tell me that I would get paid for the training, and when I accidentally discovered that they were supposed to pay me, they told me that I had not submitted the proper paperwork before the training and that they couldn't pay me retroactively. I didn't submit the proper paperwork before the training because neither I nor my chair nor even my dean knew that there was paperwork to submit. The dean went to bat for this one, as well as the extra pay that I was supposed to receive for the four courses that I developed, and they agreed to pay part of it over the next year.
Getting back to the point of my whining: since I am the only instructor at our campus who has been trained to teach online, I am the only instructor who can teach online. Therefore, I must take all of the online classes for the summer. Originally, there were four online classes, but enrollments were so low for one that they folded it into the other section of the same class (thank goodness!). I'm also hoping that, once the students see the amount of work required of them, half of them will drop.
That's the problem with online classes: they require far more work of both the students and the teachers than the regular classes. Lots of people sign up to take an online classes because they think, as our administrative assistant so succinctly put it, online classes will "allow them to sit at their desk at work and earn credit for a class without actually doing anything." As one student put it an evaluation, "we had to write an essay every week, which was too much work! We are busy people and take online classes for a reason!" That reason would be, presumably, to get "life credit" and therefore not have to do as much work as in a regular class, much less the more work required of a class in a medium that naturally requires written communication. Some people think that online classes are all multiple choice tests taken at their leisure.
Sadly, many people who have not taught online classes seem to think the same thing. "Oh, but it's online," they tell me, "so it isn't as much work," or "you can work from home" or "you can go out of town on vacation and take your computer with you."
As a math instructor and I were discussing after one of those meetings last week, online teaching is much more work for the instructor because the stuff that you can do in class -- the stuff that lets you know the students are understanding the material -- must be done online and rigorously graded. Furthermore, whereas discussion in class takes place organically (once you get them talking), you actually have to force the students to interact online. In a regular classroom, you can ask probing questions in real time, which takes much less effort and time. Online, this is a constant process over a several days, taking up much more time and much more effort. This is a more rigorous educational process, and definitely requires much more work on writing; but the process requires extra attention to that rigor on the part of both the teacher and the student. In the summer, the three or four months of the regular semester must be compressed into five weeks. "Intense" does not begin to describe the workload of a single class, let alone three.
"Plus," the math instructor says, "while working at home is great, it also means that the work is always there." The work at home side is probably much more of a benefit for me than for him, since I am the sort of teacher who dresses "professionally" and the sort of female who considers pantyhose and make-up and done hair part of the uniform. He is more of a t-shirt with jeans and no makeup and wet ponytail sort of a teacher. Still, as he said, the work is always there, always lurking, like a ghost haunting your home, whispering "grade more! Grade now!" It's the opposite of the Amityville Horror's "get out! Get out!" In fact, you often find yourself wishing the Amityville ghost would take down the Online Teaching ghost.
As for the vacation suggestion, he and I just fell over laughing like two hysterical cartoon characters. Really! Isn't taking your work with you on vacation an oxymoron? Vacation, by it's very definition, is the OPPOSITE of work. That means that taking your computer with you so that you can grade your online classes while on vacation isn't actually a vacation. To which we both said, "Duh!"
When I ended up with the four -- then three -- online classes, I protested. My chair, who doesn't really understand the amount of work yet, but takes my word for it, went to our dean to ask if he could get someone from another campus to take some of the load off of me. The dean, however, refused. I'm not sure exactly why, but the refusal has something to do with either the possibility of the other campus getting the classes permanently because this will seem like we don't have the staff to accommodate those classes, or simply that the other campus would get the money for the class right now. In any case, the dean said that she would not authorize the use of an instructor from another campus, so I had to take one for the team and teach all three.
With no break between the spring and summer, with the sheer number of these already work-intensive classes, with no break between the end of these classes and the beginning of the NEH seminars, with no break between the seminars and "professional week" at the beginning of the fall semester, I don't get any sort of relief until Christmas.
All of this is to say, I'm a bit stressed out, unable to recharge, annoyed beyond reason by everything, pissy, grouchy as a green monster in a garbage can, and drained of all creativity.
I bitch here as a means to release some of the pressure and some of that creativity because, believe it or not, I know that these are good problems to have. Like I wrote at the beginning of this post, half of the faculty around me would love to have three summer classes. Heck, people in the unemployment lines would give anything to be bitching about too much work. I wish I could subcontract to them (off the record, of course, so they could still collect the unemployment payments)! Who knows? The way things sometimes work out, I could end up needing this extra pay to survive unemployment myself at some point in the future. Mine is a one year contract, after all.
This bitching is a very privileged sort of bitching, and I know from whence I speak. Three years ago exactly, I was making $15 an hour, was investigating bankruptcy, and plotting the rhythm and intersection of bill and paycheck cycles. Four years ago, I was making less and wasn't even sure if I was going to be employed for the summer, much less beyond. Five, six, seven and eight years ago, I was working on soft money with a boss who would allow summer funding disasters to happen in order to "rescue" me from them in an effort to earn my undying loyalty and affection (that backfired on him, and I still spit curses at the mention of his name).
I know that enforced, paid overtime in a union shop is not the worst of problems to have in a shrinking profession in an economy that may still be circling the toilet bowl. It is the best of problems to have short of "damn, I have to pay taxes on my lottery winnings!" I just wish I could have some breathing room to appreciate it! I need that rain out because, as Crash said earlier in Bull Durham, "this game is fun. Fun goddammit!"