Thursday, July 22, 2010

Creating a Paper Trail

I finally got confirmation from the college bookstore today that my books are indeed ordered for the fall term. Despite my requesting notification at the online order site for all four classes (I have four different plannings this fall), I received only two - the Humanities I and World Religions books which we always use. The other two classes – Encountering the Humanities and Latin American Humanities (which is the first time I’ve taught this in 6 years) – produced no notification that the bookstore had received my orders or that the books were available.

Fortunately I had printed out copies of my orders from the online ordering site. Last week I sent the bookstore a copy of those orders with a note asking if they had been ordered or if there were any problems. As of today there was no response (despite my having included my business card complete with phone and email) so I went over to the bookstore to find out for myself.

Part of the problem with the bookstore is that it is run by students. Literally. This is not to say that students are inherently unreliable or incompetent. Indeed, several have been in my classes and I know them to be very good students with a strong work ethic. But I also know that students have other things on their minds besides school, much less their work study jobs. And so folks like me - with my puny little request to simply be informed if the books I’ve ordered are even available, much less ordered – generally fall through the cracks of student employee priorities. (Of course, given what Barnes and Noble textbook division pays these kids, it’s no wonder).

All of this would be simply annoying were it not for a recent decision to make ordering textbooks by the deadline set by the college a component of annual review (translation: salary). The college has bought into the consumerist presumption that having textbooks selected and ordered weeks, even months, before classes begin is necessary since consumers, um, students might want to order texts online. What this means for instructors is that they must stop whatever they are doing mid-term, often in the midst of teaching very different classes, and figure out what texts they are going to use the next term to meet the corporation’s, um, university’s deadline.

This all might be worth it if students actually took advantage of the lead time for textbooks and came to class with texts in hand. The reality is quite the opposite. The last two semesters I’ve asked how many students actually had their textbooks with them the first day. The average is about 10%. Indeed, most students don’t have texts by the end of the first week and increasingly request extended time for initial readings and the quizzes and assignments that flow from them. One young man was six weeks into the fall term and informed me he was “still waiting” on his textbook prompting my sputtering response of “How is it coming? By passenger pigeon?” (As it turned out, he had had to wait until financial aid was available to buy the book).

Thank goodness I had kept a record of my order. It’s my guess that the copy of that order is what prompted the bookstore to actually order the books. And, should there have been any question of me meeting the corporate requirement imposed by the university to order them by deadline, I could prove I had done so, regardless of what the bookstore did with that order.

I guess I should not be surprised by all this. Increasingly I find myself creating a paper trail for all my activities here at the university in order to protect my interests. It reminds me of my days practicing law where a paper trail (i.e., evidence) was a normal part of one’s daily practice.

But the legal system is based upon a presumption of an adversarial system. Frankly, I never thought the cut-throat competition of a no-holds barred adversarial system was a particularly good way to run a legal system, hence one of the primary reasons I no longer practice law. But I am completely convinced that a premise of an adversarial system within a university is counterproductive if not ultimately destructive.

Socrates said that the unexamined life was not worth living. As I watch the imposition of corporate imperatives and adversarial practice on what once was at least in theory an institution devoted to higher learning, I feel my once passionate love for teaching drowning in a sea of frustration. As my gentle partner reminds me, "It'd be one thing if somebody actually cared about it. But they don't." I am reminded of the concluding lyrics of Don McLean’s ode to another prophetic figure in human history, Vincent Van Gogh: “They would not listen, they’re not listening still. Perhaps they never will.”

There are now only 688 work days until retirement.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando
 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

1 comment:

JD said...

I really wish there were more choices for getting college textbooks than a) participate in Barnes and Noble College Division's extortionary price inflation (sometimes as much as 15%-20% compared with books at their main retail branches) to get books on time, or b) buy books online for a fair price, but suffer a time penalty. (This can often be the only place to get used textbooks, because the college bookstore sells out, and charges too much unless you're independently wealthy anyway.)

The compromise I ended up making was b) because it was what I could afford, but closing the gap by borrowing classmates' books or reading them in the bookstore itself.

The system is pretty broken, by all accounts.