Monday, January 07, 2013

Field of Broken Dreams – Part IV (of IV)

(conclusion, part IV of IV)

Fighting over the Scraps

“Dreams are extremely important. You can’t do it unless you imagine it.”  - George Lucas

“The best way to predict the future is to create it.” - Abraham Lincoln

When I came to the university 11 years ago, it was a dream come true for me. I was finally going to be able to work with upper division students as well as the underclassmen I had previously been teaching at the community college. I would be using all the higher education I had worked so long and hard (17 years to be exact) to achieve. I would be working with very bright professional educators whose areas of research interest challenged me to engage in ongoing learning from their expertise, a true gift for a life-long student like myself. I had even hoped that among the many classes I knew I’d teach, I might actually have some time to get some research and writing of my own done.

 I was truly excited when I secured the visiting instructor position and elated when that position became permanent four years later. I will always be grateful to the three colleagues who helped make that possible. Despite all that has occurred in the department, the college and the university since then, I am still deeply grateful to have had the chance to be there.

The department had great plans back then. We were working on securing a graduate division (complete with graduate students to assist in teaching our undergraduate courses), opening a humanities center on campus, creating new courses and curricula with connections to programs and students universities around the world. The faculty socialized regularly at parties and pot-lucks. There was a camaraderie and a sense of team work among us that was determined to do great things even at a university that had long had difficulty shedding its persona as just one more average at best tech school.

That all seems like such a long time ago now.

Early on there was trouble in Paradise. When I came to UCF in 2001, in part to continue teaching the General Education courses I’d been teaching at the community college, the Gordon Rule classes we taught were capped at 37. That was nearly twice the number of students in those intensive writing classes I’d been teaching down the road at Valencia but I wasn’t teaching as many sections (4 instead of 5) so that was a fairly even trade. Within four years, however, the 37 had doubled to 75. An instructor teaching four Gordon Rule sections could well be teaching up to 300 students per semester and reading their four Gordon Rule assignments each, 1200 total papers a semester.

When I pointed out to my then chair that it was pretty much impossible to do justice to that kind of a workload, I was informed that I should tell the students that the Gordon Rule only said they had to write the four papers. It didn’t say they had to be graded, so the plan was that I’d only grade one. Students wouldn’t know which one would be chosen for grading so they needed to do a good job on all four. Of course, that completely defeats the purpose of the Gordon Rule which is designed to help students’ writing improve through feedback and opportunities to improve. It also reflects a rather Machiavellian pedagogy which engenders little trust and even less respect from students, deservedly so.

After ongoing complaints from instructors teaching these classes, the Gordon Rule classes were cut to their current range of 55 to 65 total students per section. Many of them are now “delivered” online (in the language of the business-technology complex), a format that consumer-students presume (demand?) to be easier than formats which require at least a warm body with a pulse in a seat three times a week. It also allows the university to avoid the responsibility of providing a seat for all of its students on campus, for lighting and cooling their classrooms and it permits the university to tack on an extra  technology fee for the class. Never underestimate the cleverness of the business-technology complex when it comes to money.

For the record, I still read and grade every Gordon Rule paper. If I’m not going to grade it, why assign it?

Faculty meetings that were once wide open brain-storming sessions regarding where the department wanted to go have now become endurance tests for round after round of bad news, most of it about money or curriculum. The meetings are sometimes marked by acrimonious fighting in public and by back-biting in private. Departmental socializing has declined.

Of course, it’s very easy to see your former colleague as a competitor if not a potential foe when the Sword of Damocles is constantly hanging over your department, your program, perhaps over your very job. The result is that a once vibrant, harmonious social organism has devolved into a department that thus far remains functional with a veneer of civility if not cordiality but which overlies a tense uncertainty just beneath the surface. And this is one of the healthier departments at the university.

When a recent hire to the department asked me to summarize the state of the department, I responded that what might be seen by outsiders as anger, detachment, even depression had to be seen in context. Sadly, we no longer talk about our hopes and dreams here anymore. Given the once-promising history of this department over the past decade, what one really sees among its remaining members today is little more than heartbroken survivors surveying a field of broken dreams.  

In all fairness, the context for that heartbreak is largely set outside the department. When the pie continues to be cut smaller and smaller, it’s not surprising that those relying on a share of that pie would fight over the scraps. College administrators play petty games with budgets, curricula, faculty lines and academic programs keeping faculty and departments constantly up in the air. The arbitrariness which marks decision-making regarding departments and the micro-managing oversight which increasingly mark its interactions with their staffs is incredibly infantilizing in impact. Little wonder people sometimes behave like children. University administrators exact retribution against a union virtually powerless by state law when it has the audacity to insist the university follow its own contract to pay study abroad instructors for their instruction. As a result, all faculty members and programs are penalized with impunity. State education department officials cut general education programs with abandon leaving departments to guess how they will respond to such changes and staff them.

And then there is the state legislature which from its sniper’s nest in Tallahassee continues its slow but steady march to defund higher education even as it demands colleges produce four year degrees for set prices. Worse yet, legislators presume the pedagogical competence (for no apparent reason) to dictate curricula. The governor uses his bully pulpit to bully his own employees, proclaiming that disciplines like ours which insist student learn to think critically, creatively problem solve, effectively communicate and assume ethical responsibilities in the larger world are unnecessary and should be eliminated entirely or made more costly by raising tuition for these classes. All the while the media continues to mindlessly cheerlead unsupported truisms such as the overriding importance of STEM courses and the lack of connection between all other disciplines and the job market.

This is well beyond demoralizing. It verges on being self-destructive for those who continue to labor within it, selfless dedication notwithstanding. Our own department has had an enormous turnover in the past five years alone and I would estimate that at least a quarter of the faculty currently have considered other opportunities in the past couple of years.

It is, after all, what we ordered

I think it would be easy to see these remarks as little more than engaging in the same kind of whining that I lament here. Indeed, a common defense strategy to avoiding critique is always to shoot the messenger.

However, there is a difference between complaining about legitimate concerns – the factors that increasingly make it difficult if not impossible for teachers to actually perform their jobs – and whining arising out of the unwillingness of lawmakers, administrators or students to actually do their jobs out of a sense of entitlement that suggests they shouldn’t have to perform their part of the bargain. For the professional teachers who perform their jobs to the best of their abilities under difficult conditions on a good day, who care about their work, how it impacts others and about the ongoing deterioration of the once noble enterprise in which they are engaged, the failure to object to unjust compensation and being treated in a manner in which their dignity is consistently violated effectively makes them complicit in their own exploitation.

Moreover, even as I criticize the largely mediocre (at best) performance and the attitudes of entitlement of the majority of the students I currently encounter, I hasten to note that I do not hold them entirely responsible for these adolescent behaviors. In many ways, they are much like Pavlov’s dog, taught to respond upon command. And, in all fairness, they are well trained.

Cathy Davidson, a professor at Duke University, makes a very good case for this in her blog entry at the HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Sciences, Technology, Advanced Collaboration) site. In her essay “Why Students Today Complain About Grades—and How We Can Fix It,” Davidson says the following:

You are the best teacher in the world and you’ve just turned in your grades for the best class you’ve ever taught.   If you are a college professor you know what comes next:   the barrage of complaints about the low grade, the litany of excuses for why this or that missed assignment was due to health reasons, the pleading that the B+ be raised to an A- or medical school plans will be foiled and a life ruined, the thinly veiled threat that changing a grade is easier than dealing with a student judiciary complaint (or an irate parent).   It’s the most demoralizing part of being an educator today.  
And here’s the paradox:  if our students weren’t all tireless grade-grinders, we educators would have failed them.  Yes, you read that right.  They were well taught and learned well the lesson implicit in our society that what matters is not the process or the learning but the end result, the grade.   A typical college freshman today has been through ten years of No Child Left Behind educational philosophy where “success” has been reduced to a score on a test given at the end of the course.  For a decade, they have had the message that a good teacher is someone whose students succeed on those end-of-grade standardized tests. 

 Davidson goes on to say that “We will not eliminate the grade-grubbing until we change our current educational system.”

I believe Davidson is right on target. As a long-time mentor of teachers from Chicago recently said to me, "No Child Left Behind is one of the biggest disasters in American educational history." I have come to believe that the misuse of high stakes standardized testing as a means of assessing everything from children’s learning to whether schools must be closed entirely must end. And we must replace it with an approach to learning that truly leaves no child behind, that develops all aspects of their potential (not just those skills global corporations deem important to future obedient worker drones) and that fosters a love of learning in human beings who in their lifetimes will be required to constantly adapt to an ever increasing pace of change and thus must be able to continue to learn and relearn the rest of their lives.

So, what would be better?

So what would be better? What needs to change? And how do we get there? As I see it, the answers to these questions are daunting to say the least. And as always, the iNtuitive tends to look at the big picture first.

First, we’ll have to deal with some of the larger problems forming the context in which these behaviors occur beginning with America’s historical  anti-intellectual tendencies (see Hofstadter, 1964. The confusion of anti-intellectualism with notions such as populism and the common man makes this task even more onerous. And its connection to an indefatigable and largely uncritical anti-government sentimentality and the radical individualist and NIMBY tendencies that mark American politics today threaten to unravel any notions of the common good our Framers sought so diligently to enshrine. That makes this concern even more urgent.

More immediately, we must deal with state legislators who defund public institutions even as they make ever more demands upon them all in the name of protecting the privilege of wealthy Floridians. We must deal with the absurdity of former used car salesmen and business boys whose own academic records are at best mediocre who arrogate to themselves the competencies to create and impose educational curricula on those who actually have experience in creating and implementing them and the students who must be subject to them. As an attorney I never let my clients make my closing arguments. They simply weren’t equipped to do so. And I see little reason for those with little if any experience as educators to dictate to educators how they should do their own jobs. If you don’t trust us to do our jobs, don’t hire us.

We’ll also have to call to account a media which has largely failed to tackle critical issues such as the failure of No Child Left Behind while propagating unfounded presumptions that all students need to know lies within the limited disciplines of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. If you want to see a society that tried to elevate STEM while eviscerating its arts and humanities and thus its very soul, you need look no further than the Third Reich to see how bad an idea that is. We must also confront the unchallenged truism propagated by an infotainment media that the ills in education today arise solely from the overworked, underpaid and – in many cases – highly demoralized teachers who continue trying to make a silk purse out of the sow’s ear they have been dealt. There is plenty of blame to go around for our current fiasco and thus plenty of responsibilities to deal with it. 

We must deal with the citizens of Florida, our friends and neighbors, many of whom have readily traded in their duties as citizens for what they see as a responsibility-free role as consumers. Ultimately is the people of Florida who irresponsibly elect such legislatures and happily vote themselves tax break after tax break while demanding that schools and universities improve their services in the face of defunding and demonization. Of course, it was precisely in a public school that I learned as a child that there is no free lunch. That lesson remains as true today as it did in the 1960s when I learned it.

Finally, those of us in the academy must also shoulder our share of the blame. Systems of promotion based in publish or perish (or more recently, procure grants or perish) play a very direct role in the perpetuation of classes with no real demands beyond showing up for exams bubble sheet and pencil in hand. Tenure track professors who are always busy publishing or money grubbing trying to survive simply don’t have time to engage their students at any depth.

Moreover, adjuncts, who now compose up more than half of the instructional duties of America’s colleges and universities, cannot pick up the slack by teaching sections which are too large to effectively grade their many students’ assignments. Adjuncts must balance their work at any given campus with their work at multiple other sites and the commute between them, all of this to keep the lights on, the student loans paid and the premiums for health insurance not provided by their employers paid out of their pockets.

If we want teachers who value academic rigor and integrity, who would live into the Carnegie Unit’s requirements for academic soundness of our classes, we must hire enough of them to do so and make possible the required conditions to competently do their jobs. And then we must demand they do so. Lazy instructors make it difficult for all of us who seek to do our jobs of providing rigorous, demanding higher education for the people of Florida.

There are plenty of big problems to deal with, indeed.  The question is not whether we are capable of meeting any or all of these challenges. Rather, it is a question of whether we will.


“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.” Thomas A. Edison

Inevitably when I write these kinds of big picture cathartic essays, I feel the need to add a “However,…” section. It’s the Perceiver at work, adverse to final judgments and wanting to insure all the evidence is considered, no doubt. There are always exceptions to the rules. And a failure to take them into consideration is always a recipe for disaster in any analysis.

The initial “However,…” must be addressed to two groups of students who fell outside the paradigm I lay out above this past semester. The first was an Honors Humanitistic Tradition I section of 17 students. Led by two seniors who had taken my classes previously (and thus knew what to expect), this was an outstanding group of students. They worked hard, discussed vigorously, wrote well, worked together with very little competitiveness and presented some of the best group projects I’ve ever seen in my teaching career.

In many ways, this was precisely the kind of experience instructors should have with honors students as a matter of course. I’ve taught a lot of honors classes and this one was decidedly the best. Sadly, it is also a major exception to the rule. Few students evidence more entitlement than honors students. Indeed, teaching honors students is seen as combat pay in many colleges for good reason. But for this little experience of grace, I am truly thankful. And I hope I will see these students again.

The second “However,…” that must be addressed is the handful of students in my two face-to-face courses last semester who provided living examples of what a real college student  looks like. Interestingly, these students were all women, slightly older than their cohorts, most of them with families and jobs. Yet, amidst the demands of family and a local workplace which habitually exploits college students desperate to keep the lights on and the beans on the table, these women still wrote exemplary papers, consistently came to class prepared and often carried the dead weight of their slacker group mates in class discussions.

I am deeply grateful for their witness to the value of higher education. But more than that, I admire them deeply for their dedication, hard work and excellence in the face of very difficult circumstances in each case. These are students I hope I will see in the future. Indeed, many of them seek to be college professors themselves and I look forward to the day I can call them colleagues.  
In the same vein, the final “However,…” goes out to the many fine students I have had the privilege of knowing and working with over my professional career. You know who you are. Some continue to remain in touch with me long years after their departure from the university. Indeed, some have provided some very thoughtful comments to the first installments of this blog entry, comments I always read and consider carefully. 
I watch with great pride the many good things they are doing with their own lives and in their efforts to change the world for the better with whatever education they managed to get at our credentials factory. As today, that handful of real students has made the task of dealing with the hordes of detached, entitled and self-absorbed credit hour seekers bearable and, on occasion, even joyful. They were a privilege to teach, a gift to know and now to count as friends and colleagues. I am grateful for them.


How long can one teach for the handful of real students, the occasional good class, swimming upstream in a torrent of entitlement, demonization and acquiescence to mediocrity? What are the limits of devotion and dedication to the state of one’s birth when it drives its dedicated teachers to heartbreak over broken dreams no longer safe to even hope for? When does that debt become paid? When does enough become enough? How does one go about staunching the wounds from an ongoing societal Waterloo?

For those of you who have made it through this extended lamentation, I thank you. And for those of you who have any suggestions about any of the topics I’ve covered here, as Ross Perot said in the 1980 presidential debates, “I’m all ears.”

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. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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