Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Out of Control

Over the past few months, I’ve been trying to take my dream life seriously, pausing each morning to recall as best I can the details of the almost always vibrant and colorful dreams I encounter each night. Carl Jung observed:

“Man's task is to become conscious of the contents that press upward from the unconscious….[but] there is no coming to consciousness without pain.”


Some days I simply lie in bed upon awakening, pondering my dream; other mornings I’ll pick up the iPad ever by my bed and go to one or more dream symbols sites for interpretations. About half the time, I tap in a sketch of the dream on my iPad, send it to myself as an email, then get up, make my first pot of coffee, take my early morning walk in my garden and then finally come to my computer to begin working on it.

The entries I create from these dreams go into a collection I call my Dream University Doctorate. I want to track what my unconscious is telling me in this time of major flux in my life. Hence I take my dreams seriously.

Nothing is Working…

Most of my dreams these days invoke symbols which speak of change, of new directions, of journeys to foreign places. They also are marked by symbols of vulnerability and the fears and anxieties involved by major life changes. Many have spoken of creativity and personal growth, even more invoke imagery of spiritual development.

These are hardly surprises. My life has taken a distinctly spiritual turn in the last two years. And the last time I felt this detached from my daily work life I closed my law practice, packed up my Mazda and drove across the country to Berkeley to seminary.

The other night I had a disturbing dream. I was back in that huge teaching auditorium where the candidate for a tenure track position had tried to give her ill-fated teaching presentation several years back. Like that very sad day, the students were restless, noisy and inattentive and I, like her, was virtually paralyzed on the stage.

Everything I did failed to end the uproar in that auditorium. Students left the hall slamming doors, loudly talking on cell phones. Those who remained were focused only on their computers and cell phones. No one would answer the questions I posed. They ignored me. I kept thinking to myself, “What can I do to engage them?” Nothing would come out of my head  - or my mouth.

To make matters worse, the auditorium’s computer equipment was not working. I tried everything I could to get it to work to no avail. My well prepared presentation simply would not come up. And I knew there was no one to assist me with this problem. I was on my own.

I awoke in a cold sweat.

“Completely Out of Control”

As I lay in bed trembling the next morning, it dawned on me that this particular dream had its origins in a comment made by my husband earlier in the night at dinner.

Poor Andy has had to weather some rather stormy sessions with me and my online course sites at both UCF and Valencia this past first week of classes. Though he works in IT at Valencia, these course technologies are very different from those serving financial aid at Valencia that he skillfully navigates each day.

On more than one occasion he has uttered something to the effect of “What in the world is happening here?” as he has watched me walk step by step, doing what the program says I need to do, only to come up with error messages on the student view which means they cannot see the material I have linked up there. “That shouldn’t be happening,” he groans.

At dinner last Friday I mentioned that I was exhausted from just one week of classes. “I feel completely overwhelmed by all these things I am unable to change,” I said. His response stopped me dead in my tracks: “Oh, you’re completely out of control of your situation, Harry. It’s no wonder you’re exhausted.”

The obviousness of that comment hit me like a ton of bricks. But I hadn’t given it much thought until the next morning as I lay in bed shaking.

The reality is that most of my job is indeed outside my control. That is particularly true of the aspects of the job most crucial to being able to do the kind of job I am capable of doing.

To begin with, we instructors have no control over the size of our classes. While the subject matter we are teaching really demands small enough classes to hold meaningful discussions, our class sections range from 40 to 78 in size. Even at 40, it is hard to hold a discussion, much less get to know your students. At 78 it’s simply out of the question.

That many students means that course requirements now must be largely trashed to simply handle the crush. It’s impossible to grade 74 essay exams with any depth and offer any feedback of value. Let’s hear it for multiple choice exams with scantrons.

This means that in my world religions classes I can no longer require on-site observation visits because I won’t have the time to grade the papers. Any semblance of a “discussion” online in such cases would be a farce. At a very basic level, this reality reinforces exactly the opposite message of what good world religions classes should instill in their students: 

that religions matter enough to take them seriously.

Enrollments are driven by two factors: funding and classroom availability. Clearly, the more students the department agrees to serve, the more money we get. Everyone in public education today worships the god of FTE. Screw quality, give me the numbers.

As for classrooms, the university long ago surpassed its capacity to house its ever growing student body on campus thus commencing the gold rush to online sections. These can be taught by adjuncts, don’t require classrooms and students can be made to pay additional technology fees to take the classes they need to graduate.



Of course, face-to-face meetings in classrooms are not necessarily a luxury, either. Most of our philosophy department courses meet in an old building long ago abandoned by engineering classes for newer digs provided by corporate moneys from the self-described “defense” industry.

There is a reason the engineers fled the scene.

The elevator is often unpredictable in that building. It’s quite possible to get stuck between floors. One of my classrooms had a VCR which ate cassettes for lunch, some of them irreplaceable. It was removed but never replaced.

The internet connection in the classroom was tenuous and would often go out mid-lecture. The overhead projector in the ceiling was also not terribly predictable and would shut itself off periodically followed by a 10 minute cool-down before it would allow the user to turn it on again.

In a 50 minute class, 10 minutes is 20% of your class time. That’s a long time to do an improvised song and dance when a well prepared lecture is sitting there unused.

The insult to injury in that scenario was the filthy state of the building, particularly the bathrooms just around the corner from the classroom. The overwhelming stench of the men’s urinals, often taped up to prevent use because they were not functioning, often dominated our classroom on the third floor.  Some students actually became nauseated from the smell.

Complaints about these conditions did little good. The department has long been the stepchild in an arts and humanities college which is itself a stepchild at a university which began as a technical school and has never really grown out of that persona. In spite of constant grumbling at faculty meetings and ongoing written repair requests, the decrepit facilities that many of us not-so-affectionately referred to as Bangladesh continued to be our assigned location.

A Near Escape to Regional

This was one of the many reasons I sought to be reassigned to a regional campus.

There I am actually able to download updates for Adobe and Java to my office computer without asking the permission of the IT people who must come from another building to make any changes to my office computer in person with me present. I have a telephone in my regional campus office from which I can even make long distance calls. The phone in my main campus office was removed a couple of years ago for cost-saving purposes.  I never had “permission” to make long distance calls from my office, having to go to the main office to do so from the front desk.

People there actually ask me what I need. The first time I heard that I didn’t know how to answer. But these are small consolations.

Even with all of my classes online and my assignment at a branch campus, I still have little control over my professional life. When I need to come to main campus, I have to buy a day permit and find parking in the student lots, if there is any to be found. Some days that requires a half hour ordeal of stalking students returning to their cars after classes to sweep up their precious parking space. And it’s $5 a pop just for parking for me to come provide gratuitous weekly office hours on main campus and sit on never-ending search committees replacing revolving door instructors paid less than starting teachers at nearby public schools.

And then there is the teaching assignment. For the past several semesters, I have not known what courses I was teaching for the upcoming semester until mere days before they were scheduled to begin. In an online class, that means throwing something together to have it up online and ready to roll at 12:01 AM the first day of classes. On two occasions this past year that has meant creating brand new courses from scratch at the very last minute and scrambling the rest of the semester to get them up and running.

Then there is the nightmare of textbooks. Last semester I discovered two weeks into the course that my required texts had brand new editions. I discovered this when students began to complain that the images I was testing in my quizzes were not in their texts. I finally got the new editions the students had been sold the third week of classes. The decisions on the texts were made by the bookstore.

However, it is the online programs that ultimately remind me of how completely out of control I really am. Class contents can be transferred from semester to semester for the same class. But every link in every file available to students in the new class must be manually relinked each semester.

This is an enormously time consuming task which, according to my programmer husband, is totally unnecessary were the programs properly configured. Increasingly I find myself doing more and more technical work I am totally unprepared to do that has absolutely nothing to do with teaching or learning.

Misery’s Company

So Andy is right (as he often is). There is very little about my work as a lecturer anymore that remains within my ability to even influence the decisions which make or break the work I am expected to do. And I am hardly alone in this. While we faculty are expected to provide quality courses for consumers whose online satisfaction ratings can drastically affect everything from our raises to our future enrollments, we cannot be assured of the working conditions we need to do the jobs we are capable of doing.

This makes the increasingly shrill demands for “accountability” made by those who are not accountable themselves little more than a farce.

The first week of classes a colleague posted a message at a social media site reading “First day of classes not even half over and I already want to crawl back into bed and hide under the covers.” Clearly I am not alone in finding this situation untenable. And  it is precisely this reality that prompts life-long devoted teachers like myself to dream of change and new directions and to ponder with great hopefulness what a new life that might actually be professionally fulfilling might hold.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Asst. Lecturer: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Osceola Regional Campus, Kissimmee

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:

Anonymous said...

Harry, You were in my dream last night. You, & Andy, were in a loving, head next to head pose celebrating LOVE of each other and a younger child. The picture in you post of the wave about to destroy the city explains exactly how you must feel. Can anything be done by your professional community to make changes ? You inner self is explaining to you it is time for a change...............Agape, Mike