The manly art of saying "no" and other lessons to be learned

Way back towards the start of this blog, I was talking a lot about contract negotiations around here. At various times, I probably characterized those negotiations as an utter clusterfuck, accidentally successful, ironically self-defeating, and maybe once, as a good thing. As I'm careening towards the end of the term, I'm already running into the nightmares that tie, at least a little, to that contract and general planning.

The Big Deal in the contact was the shift to a 3/3 teaching load. We're presently at a 4/4 here, and as anyone can tell you, that's a nightmare for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is that it makes it impossible to do much of anything aside from man your hours, grade your papers, and not collapse during the regular term (which is why I found this Chronicle First Person column hilarious). For the record, it's a lovely great example of anecdotal evidence. I've interviewed at more than a few SLAC's, and the deal described in the article seems to be the exception rather than the rule. But it's interesting because the expectation of research seems to be increasing. That's the case here where in every review I've received the one consistent complaint is that I need to publish more.

So next year, we're starting our ill-thought out transition towards the 3/3. In most cases - except for the privileged Business and Education departments which, in spite of smaller enrollments than the other colleges, have managed to parlay not only better salaries than the rest of us but have been on de facto 3/3s for several years already - that means we're doing a 4/3 of some sort until the final shift.

Why do I say ill-thought out? Well, it was only after the contract was signed and people began to plot out their courses that something occurred: we have no one to teach those extra sessions. In a department like mine, that means we suddenly have somewhere between six to eight course sections that we have to fill in a given year now. Or, put another way, drawing on the student-as-consumer model that's all the rage with the kids in the administration these days - the way it's been framed at least once here - we have X number of student seats we have to accommodate. A variety of solutions have been put forth:
  1. hire more full-time faculty
  2. hire more adjunct faculty
  3. make class sizes bigger
This is where the hiccups come in. If we make class sizes bigger, we're not really freeing up all that time, we're just compacting a couple of hours a week and expanding grading time. Hiring more adjuncts is naturally the "logical" decision, though it carries with it several problems: do you have adjuncts teach your intro courses and thus lose valuable contact time with students at the start of the program? Do you hire specialty adjuncts to teach one-time specialty courses in their areas of expertise (assuming, of course, you're in a field where this is viable)? And if we're talking new full-time lines, who gets them and who doesn't?

In practice, it's bumpier still.

My department's been good about organizing things. As soon as the contract passed, we sat down as a group and attempted to map out the next four years with as much certainty as we could have considering I was on the market and we were hiring. There was an attempt to both make sure we were teaching the requirements - and that the full-time faculty were there for those key courses - and to make sure that we were getting a shot at keeping preps down while holding onto the courses we each enjoy teaching the most. And we nearly worked it out, though it's far from perfect because to make it work we had to tie ourselves to a particular set of numbers and needs. One hiccup in those assumptions, and things go astray.

There was a hiccup.

To counter high costs of tuition here, we've seen a rise in the number of students transferring in from community colleges and upping their workloads to get out early. We're also one of the popular majors on campus in spite of some very specific requirements. This has meant that our enrollment by student year (Fr/Soph/etc) can fluctuate pretty wildly. This surge - sorry, I can't type that word without wanting to flog myself: thanks War in Iraq for ruining a word and the world - has caused a problem for one of the gateway courses in our department (in this case, the first course students take on their path to graduation). Rather than the usual 25-30 students who need it, we have almost 45.

You'll never guess whose course that is.

Instead of the first year being a 4/3 for me, the surge in students combined with the lack of people to teach courses and the need to have tenured faculty teach the gateway courses, means that I'm effectively (if not actually) teaching a 5/3 next year. Where I'm already seeing the impact of this is in my ability to do anything but teach those courses. I've already had to turn down two honors students and a graduate student, because I'm feeling stretched thin now, and it hasn't even started.

I should be ready for this term to end, but now I'm frightened of the one around the corner.

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Dr. Crazy said...

Dude, is there any way that you can complain that you're teaching a double-section and that this should mean another of your courses is taken away in the fall OR that you get to teach only 2 in the spring? If it were me, I would seriously advocate for one or the other of those options for myself, and I would raise a bit of a stink of I weren't acknowledged/accommodated in some way. And let's say nothing can be done for me? I would immediately cut my assignments for the course in half, and let people know that this was the result of the uncompensated overload.

But then, I'm a trouble-maker :)

(Actually, that's a 3rd option: refuse to take the extra students into the section and demand that another section be opened up - which yes, means you're teaching the 4th course, but it also means that they'd have to pay you to teach it.)

April 29, 2008 at 2:18 PM
Dr. Curmudgeon said...

This has worked out to be the best version of the possible options - there was no way to let me out of other sections, and the other ideas that were fronted were absolutely appalling.

In the end, they are paying me for the overload (though what they pay is ridiculously low). Part of the summer is going to be devoted to finding a way to shrink the grading load of things (though the course is important and so it has to be done delicately).

There's been a lot of advocating (and trumpeting), and I've already dropped that I'll be expecting some quid pro quo in the Spring of next year beyond the overload cash. But it still leaves a lot of "no's" coming down the pike from me.

April 29, 2008 at 3:54 PM