Ah, yes! The semester has ended as of yesterday, just in time for the summer semester to begin on Tuesday (Monday if you teach online, but that gripe is coming).
The big blowout that concludes the semester involves a whole day of meetings. First, we have the big all-college meeting in a room that in no way accommodates the whole of the faculty, staff and various administrators. This meeting tends to go like this: "What a great semester this has been! We are so wonderful! Our students are wonderful! Our staff is wonderful! Our administrators are especially wonderful! Don't we have such wonderful administrators? And so many of them! Oh, and yes, the faculty are also good. This is such a wonderful place! We are all so wonderful! Here is our first wonderful speaker! Isn't he wonderful?" This goes on for about an hour and a half.
Yes, it's nice to hear we are wonderful. What else are they going to say? Still, after about an hour and a half of "wonderful," the word starts to lose its meaning. "Wonderful" means even less when the administration cut cost-of-living increases and travel money and froze all hiring while at the same time bringing in a 6-figure-charging consultant to talk to us in what one faculty member described as "glittering generalities" about "having discussions" and "catalytic conversations." This consultant went on at length about "having discussions" and "catalytic conversations" without actually allowing anyone at the college (other than the high-level administrators) to participate in said "discussions" and "catalytic conversations."
I wanted to know if anyone tried playing Bingo with these terms. Someone suggested a drinking game, but the Bingo game seems to be in the works for the consultant's next appearance.
This all went to explain the reason for high faculty turn-out at the next meeting. After a long, impassioned debate about switching to a +/- grading system (people were really up in arms about this!), and a dismissal of faculty appreciation awards ("oh, we are out of time, you know who they are!"), the first meeting ended and the union meeting convened. Yes, we are a union shop, and thank goodness for that! Being a union shop means that we have an advocated making sure that cost-of-living increases weren't all that we lost. After all, the administration had threatened pay cuts. Those 6-figure consultants don't pay for themselves, you know!
People were pissed at this meeting. I kept waiting for pounding chairs and chants for freedom or something dramatic. I forgot that this was an academic union, so what we got were calls for unspecified action accompanied by long-winded Zaprudering of what these unspecified actions should look like. Eventually, these unspecified actions came down to "vote of no confidence" on the one end and "write individual letters of protest to the Board of Trustees" on the other. The consensus was that a "no confidence vote" was an overreaction at this point and that individual letters of protest, all of which had to be signed, might be the better first step in airing greivances to those on high. Of course, everyone realized that the letter writing campaign would be limited to people who had been with the college long enough to have earned tenure (they phased out tenure over a decade ago), or who were on six-year contracts. Anyone on a 1 year contract (such as myself), could easily be "non-renewed" and replaced with an adjunct. Still, those who can are plowing ahead.
I bide my time, being as I am on that 1 year contract, am new, and am in an as yet indeterminate amount of trouble for the fellowship thing. At least I've found a female companion in strong language, who knows other females of strong language, most of whom have longer contracts than myself. We have to stick together, you know!
The union meeting ran over by 30 minutes, which seems to be part of the culture of that particular campus as much as a result of the passion expressed yesterday. Fortunately, I sat near the door, and my rather large consumption of water by that time of day meant that I could not wait a second longer before I stepped out to the ladies' room. That business taken care of, I noticed that the lunch (at least they feed us!) had been set up in the next room. I figured that I would pick up lunch and return to the meeting, since I would then have to run to the next meeting three buildings over; and, then, I would have to leave that meeting for yet another meeting.
See? I told you that yesterday was a fiesta of meetings.
Fortunately, the union meeting ended about that time, and most of the people at the following meeting were in the union. Of course, that meant that the following meeting started an hour late, by which time I had to leave for my 4th meeting of the day.
The fourth meeting had to do with the honors curriculum, in which we were approving proposals for honors sections. It's one of the two committees on which I have just agreed to sit. The other involves two of the women with strong language; but I agreed to sit on it before I knew that. Actually, I had to run for the seat, which I did after nominating myself (we all did). I nominated myself because the strong-language woman who sent out the call for nominees advertised the committee as "not scary" and as meeting on my campus on one afternoon each month. Afternoons? On our campus? Not the one an hour commute away? Sign me up!
At the first meeting of that committee, which took place in the wake of that fellowship ordeal, I quickly learned that our campus is known as the trouble-maker campus. Given that we are located in an area that has designated itself a "nuclear free zone," was often known as a "People's Republic," has a history that, during the Vietnam War, included a break-in at the draft office and an SDS house down the street, and a pooch as mayor of one of its better know trails -- well, you can see that we have a legacy to uphold!
Also during that first meeting, the other committee members were drafting a letter to the college president protesting certain events. The letter that they had written had been revised by the union president. As I read the revised letter, remembering that I had just been lectured about my "destructive" language, I thought, "man, this is harsh! They are going to have to tone it down." Oh, no. They thought the letter was grovelling and weak. My chair had also read it and had the same reaction. As they ripped apart the revised letter, and reworded it to be more precise and stronger, I shed a little tear. "I'm not alone!" I thought.
This other committee meeting yesterday went on forever, also running 30 minutes over, and it already had run for 2 hours at that point. Seriously, this is a feature of that campus! No only does the commute there and back take up to 2 extra hours out of the day, but then you can never know when the actual meeting will end.
In any case, the fascinating thing about this meeting was that it involved reading other people's syllabi. Instructors have to submit a syllabi for their proposed honors sections. Since the college loves multi-volume syllabi this was a lot of reading. Yet, in reading the syllabi, we get this unique insight into the problems other instructors have faced in their classrooms, particularly in regard to the classroom policies. The college has certain expected policies that we all must include in the syllabi, but every teacher adds to them, and this is where they create this record of past problems in their classes.
For instance, I have added an extensive list of items that are considered unacceptable speech in my classes. These all include racial, ethnic, religious, gender, and sexual orientation slurs. I also include a rule against getting up in the middle of class to throw away trash that can wait until the end of class. I have rules about which door to enter and where to sit if students are late. I have extensive rules about e-mail, including subject lines (have one!), preferred e-mail accounts (the school's, so it doesn't go to the spam folder), signatures (have one, your name), indication of the course in which you are enrolled ("your history class" doesn't really help me) and so forth. I limit where student can sit because a class of 30 in a room with 100 seats means that everyone gravitates toward the back and sides. Yes, these all seem ridiculous and anal and controlling. Yet, they all indicate problems that I have had to the point of exasperation; and the attitude of the school is that, if it isn't specifically stated in the syllabus, then you cannot require it of the students.
In this committee meeting, we began to see the same frustrations and neurosis in other faculty. Many of these were things that we have all included. There were the admonishments on attendance and tardiness. "If you are more than 20 minutes late to the class, you will be counted absent," or the various combinations of the number of tardies that equal an absence, and the number of absences that lead to an F or a W. One instructor wrote, "the school allows two absences before you are dropped. That should be enough!" What incident, one wonders, prompted that language? Yet another forbid students from frequently exiting and re-entering the class. "More than three times in one class meeting equals an absence," wrote that instructor.
The syllabi also revealed a general distaste and often deep rage about cell phones, texting, and other electronic communication. One instructor would take away the device if used during class. Another would count the student absent. Yet another, whose class met in a computer lab, required students to turn off the computer screen when not in use. We were all taking notes on these points.
The writing instructors seemed to have the most interesting policies. One instructor required 3 inch discs for storage of all in-class writing. "Why 3 inch when computers these days don't come with 3 inch drives?" I asked. "Oh, I do that," said another committee member. "The classes meet in computer labs where they have 3 inch drives. That way, I know that they aren't copying something at home and trying to pass it off as theirs in class." Wow! Who knew? Although, I'm sure that the intrepid student would find a way around that because they aren't stupid.
Another writing instructor included a requirement that in class writing (presumably by hand) must be done in blue or black ink. "NO FANCY COLORED INK OR PAPER!" he admonished. This was followed by one that would endear him to Dr. No, "NO EXOTIC FONTS." You can imagine the scenario, after receiving one too many silver inked essays on light blue paper embossed with fuzzy kitty cats, after having yet another project masking its poor research with the Broadway font, he snapped. "Enough!" he shouted, and revised his syllabus.
Yet another instructor included the very odd stipulation, "only use small staples. I will not accept papers held together with large staples." Small versus large staples? Isn't there only one size? What was she talking about? Then I realized that perhaps she had received one too many papers fastened together by one of those industrial sized staples meant to hold together 50 or 100 pages, not the two or three of a freshman's essay. At least, that was the scenario that I imagined.
A creative writing instructor forbid pornographic stories. "I have to do that too," said the art instructor on our committee. "In photography, I have to ban explicitly sexual or graphically violent photos. Especially when we are working in the dark room and the whole class is there. These images suddenly appear and it upsets many of the students."
Being the historian, I began to wonder what future historians might make of these syllabi as documents of both the prescribed behavior in classrooms and the past behavior of students. Will they see the instructors as control freaks, dictating all behavior and limiting the creative expression of the students? Will they see the students as disengaged, irresponsible and lacking attention spans? Of course, there are many people out there right now of all political stripes who think both of these things, some sitting in the classrooms, some teaching the classrooms, some administering the schools, and some funding the schools. Yet, these people are, for the most part I am assuming, working from a weak body of evidence based primarily upon their experience and anecdotes from people that they know. In the future, historians look at the evidence that we now generate, having the benefit of a larger pool of documents over a larger geographical and temporal space. What will they see; and will they find any difference from their own time?
In any case, the meeting day finally ended at 5 pm, just in time for rush hour traffic. I killed a few more hours at the nearby Target and Barnes & Noble (yes, I'm going to hell), and finally got home at 7 pm, grateful that today, I don't actually have to go anywhere or do anything.
Then, I remembered that the summer session starts next week, and I have 3 online classes to teach, not by choice or contractual obligation, but because I am the only one trained to do so. So, I turned to yet another mantra, which I had been chanting to myself all day: "At least I have a job. At least I have a job. At least I have a job and its a pretty damn good job to have."