Retrenchment, Day 18

It's day 18 of the Retrenchment and tomorrow will be the first day of classes. I think I've already adequately expressed my feelings about as well as my differences of opinion with the upper management that if they have not gotten us into this mess have at least dropped the ball (completely!) on responding to our issues in any positive or proactive way. I'm not going to dwell on that today. Because although I'm going to continue to analyze and criticize this crisis and people's responses to it, I'm putting that aside for the moment to get ready to greet students in my three classes beginning tomorrow.

I'm only teaching three courses rather than four this semester because I decided to devote a "three-credit release" to the Z-Degree Exploration, funded by the grant I got to do that. Two of the courses I have this fall are in person: US History I and Women in World History. The third, American Environmental History, is an online asynchronous course, which means that although I will be having individual meetings in person or on Zoom with students, there will be no "synchronous" class meetings. This distinguishes this type of class from "Hybrid" courses where there is still a class-time that students are expected to show up for, if only online, to listen to a lecture, participate in discussion, or take a quiz or test.

There are some complexities involved in making an asynchronous online course engaging and valuable, which can be considered challenges or opportunities, depending on the instructor's attitude. Since I prefer to be the disruptor than the disrupted (pretty ironic given the current situation, I know!), I have tried to think of the online course as a way to explore new techniques and technologies to try to make my American Environmental History content more engaging, interesting, and relevant to the students' understanding of the world we live in today. In the past, when I have taught this in person at BSU, I have received good student evaluations. And when I first developed this course as an online elective for UMass (when I was still an ABD grad student), students said things like, "This was my first semester and this course has created an incredible first impression. If all the courses are this good, I am going to really enjoy my time here. The course has changed the way I look at the world."

The curriculum for the course the student was reviewing became my OER textbook. I'm using it again this semester and adding a new chapter that will try to deal directly with complexity and evolving worldviews. So I have to say, I'm looking forward to sort-of wrapping myself in that "dialogue-with-students" energy and forgetting my retrenchment problems a bit. I think it's important to get away from dwelling on this calamity too much, at least some of the time. It's also valuable to be reminded of why we do this work, anyway. It's not the institutional accolades, and it's certainly not the money. It's the students.

It's funny, though. I mentioned recently that some of the talks about reorganization were devolving into little squabbles about things like who is contractually authorized to read faculty members' Professional Development Plans (PDPs) and Reports (PDRs). I think I surprised some people, when this came up in our first department meeting last Thursday and I said that personally, I think the PDP/PDR process is bullshit (in the sense David Graeber used the term in
Bullshit Jobs). The university has replaced live, realtime mentoring and discussion of what and how we plan to teach our students or conduct our research and writing or do service, with these semi-annual documents that typically run to tens of thousands of words, leading ultimately to tenure and promotion applications that can balloon to hundreds of thousands (yes, instead of writing a tenure book, most faculty at BSU write a bureaucratic document of similar length!). I don't mind bragging about my accomplishments in the five "Criteria" on which I'm judged. But I don't really see a lot of value in this process where I say, "I did this, this, and this" and a couple of months later I get a response from the Dean that says, "Yep, you did". I'm not really getting a lot of guidance and coaching in this process. There are other opportunities for this, and I have a good relationship with my Dean and Department Chair in which we talk about what I want to pursue and they give e valuable feedback. But that's exactly the point. The official process fails to do that, so we find workarounds.

And yet, so much of the focus of day to day life at BSU
and of the conversation in this crisis is on these meaningless formal structures. Finding a way to abide by the contract in the PDP/PDR process after the reorganization -- or even finding ways to do the PDPs and PDRs more efficiently -- is the wrong goal. It distracts us from what we should really be doing, which is focusing on the students. And now, having vented a bit about that, I'm going to spend the rest of my morning launching my courses for my students.

Link to YouTube: