Retrenchment, Day 32

I'm going to begin this post by stipulating that for most Americans today, what I'm going to describe is not the norm. Almost everybody I know, from my wife to nearly all the people in my little northern Minnesota town, work "regular hours". Many of them also have second jobs or side hustles as well, though. And since COVID there has apparently been a growing sense of dissatisfaction represented (although probably this is overstated by media alarmists) by people opting out of just going back to work in the same types of situations. So perhaps this won't seem as strange as it might have, a couple of years ago.

When I worked in high tech, there was a little flexibility, depending on the job. If I was a manager or an inside (over the phone) salesperson or a systems engineer, then I was in the office all day. When I was an outside sales rep, I made my own schedule, but I was typically seeing business clients during business hours. The big difference as an outside salesman was, I was judged almost entirely on my "production" of revenues, rather than on the amount of time I had to devote to achieving those results. Inside sales was sort-of the worst of both worlds, since you were only paid on what you produced but you were still under the thumb of management who could count the number of calls you made, listen to what you said, and even hassle you for getting back a few minutes late from lunch.

As a grad student after my retirement from high tech, I sort-of considered myself to be self-employed. There were things I had to do to get the "A"s in my classes, but I got to choose the classes and I was typically overachieving; so I typically felt a lot of "agency". As an Assistant Professor at BSU the past six years, I've similarly felt like I was easily fulfilling the job requirements and so I was pretty free to come up with ideas for new experimental courses or for initiatives like the Open Ed work I took on.

But there were some requirements in the faculty job, related to things that could be measured to document job performance and "professional development". There were minimum requirements for office hours and there were course "caps" (capacity maximums). Faculty was expected to be in their office available for students to visit on a walk-in basis, and courses were supposed to be as fully-enrolled as possible. Neither of these were really useful measures, in my opinion. I generally went into the office pretty early in the morning and spent way more than the required office hours in my very comfortable space on campus, with my view of the lake and coffee maker. Students rarely visited, with or without appointments. And although I used to get attractive posters made and put them up all over campus, announcing my electives and especially new courses, I'm not sure how much enrollment I gained from this -- although I have to say, it was better than nothing and there was really no one else promoting courses on campus.

Before the retrenchment, there was some talk about how the administration was going to begin looking much more directly at tuition revenues and class enrollment numbers in determining whether BSU could "afford" instructors. The details are a bit blurry to me now, but I think we were supposed to be able to "pay" our salaries with 2/3 of the tuition revenue represented by a student. BSU tuition is $313.55 per credit plus fees. So each student in a 3-credit course is "worth" about $900. Two thirds of that is about $600. Getting judged on something you can't really control is a bit messed up, but that was the bright idea.

I have 90 students this fall, so that 2/3 total comes to about $54,000. My salary for this semester is substantially lower than this, so I was apparently "paying my way". Of course, the contract enforced by our union doesn't allow for anything as crass as tying employment
directly to revenue generation as if we were salespeople. I imagine the administration is frustrated by this impediment. I sure would be, if I was a manager responsible for aligning employment with financial contribution. It's a little more complicated than that, of course. There are other valuable things faculty do, beyond filling seats with paying customers.

But now that I've been retrenched, the situation for me is different. I don't think I'm working any less. If anything, I'm doing more now because I'm using this countdown to remind myself I need to solve this problem and find myself a job that will pay the bills after next May. It's interesting though, that I'm thinking much more directly at the problem of creating value that people will be willing to pay for. When I think of courses, for example, I ask myself what I have in my portfolio that I can put into a format I could offer it to people outside the university? I think there are some things I teach, like my American Environmental History, that are unusual enough that they might attract an audience even if I wasn't offering three college credits in return for completion. Lacking the three credits, I think my price would have to be a bit lower than $900. But it might be doable.

I have a friend who has a consulting and training business where she works with regional (and increasingly national) non-profit institutions. She suggested that I offer services around helping academics prepare their research for publication. I'm pretty good at that, so I'm considering how that might work. I've bounced around the idea in the past of creating a note-making and writing course -- maybe having it focused on an academic audience might differentiate it a bit.

Ideas like these will take some time to work out. It's interesting to me, that most or all of them are pretty much the opposite of the old-fashioned jobs. Nothing but the result matters, but deciding when, how, and how much to work is entirely up to me. I think it's a new paradigm -- or it will be if I can make it pay!

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