Saturday, December 21, 2013

Adventures in Edu-Cyberland II – Virtual Motivations

The first presentation I attended at the Sloan Conference focused on the motivations for taking and teaching online courses. “Measuring Motivation: What Drives Students and Faculty Participation in Online Education” was presented by Ruth Johnson of the University of Houston. The summary of the presentation and a link to the powerpoint presented can be found here:

Johnson laid out the findings of a study that she and UH colleague Cindy Stewart had conducted of online students and faculty at their own university. The team sought to test the degree to which motivation for taking and teaching online was intrinsic or extrinsic to the course and the student taking it as well as the faculty member teaching it. 

A Higher Quality of Engagement and Resulting Performance

The study began with a template first articulated by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan of the University of Rochester. Their studies of self-determination theory had shown that

People are often moved by external factors such as reward systems, grades, evaluations, or the opinions they fear others might have of them.  Yet just as frequently, people are motivated from within, by interests, curiosity, care or abiding values.  These intrinsic motivations are not necessarily externally rewarded or supported, but nonetheless they can sustain passions, creativity, and sustained efforts.

[Edward Deci, Richard Ryan, “About the Theory,” . n.d. Dec. 20, 2013.]

While everyone is motivated by extrinsic factors in varying degrees, the research supporting Self-Determination Theory found that “[c]onditions supporting the individual’s experience of autonomy, competence, and relatedness are argued to foster the most volitional and high quality forms of motivation and engagement for activities, including enhanced performance, persistence, and creativity.”

An intrinsically motivated student who engages an educational opportunity because they want to gain an understanding of the subject matter is likely to have a higher quality of engagement and resulting performance in any educational venture regardless of its format. Conversely, a student who is driven by considerations extrinsic to the learning process is likely to have a lower quality learning experience and resulting understanding of the subject.

Johnson and Stewart sought to determine the dominant motivation of instructors and students in both online and face-to-face (F2F) courses at the University of Houston.   They hypothesized that an intrinsic motivation for taking and teaching online courses would result in such students taking more online courses and intrinsically motivated instructors teaching more online courses. To test their hypothesis they surveyed 235 students at the University of Houston and 104 of the instructors teaching there using questions which revealed demographics and measured motivation.

Of course, such a premise is completely reasonable. It makes perfect sense to believe that students would take classes in a format they are drawn to engage and that faculty would teach in the format they find most likely to result in a higher quality of engagement and resulting performance among their students.


Such proved not to be the case.

Among students, Johnson and Stewart’s results showed that the number of online classes taken was determined mostly by extrinsic motivations. Online extrinsic motivations included how well classes coordinated with work schedules which were the student’s primary concern. It also included creating schedules which could accommodate demands arising from the home (child, elderly relative care) with school and whether courses required commuting to campus.

Students who reported considerations extrinsic to the course itself as the determining factors in their choosing an online format were three times as likely to have taken online courses as their fellow online students reporting intrinsic motivations centered in the course itself. Such intrinsic motivations included enjoying online format, seeing online courses as easier and a way to make better grades as well as a means of being more responsible to the educational process itself.

Essentially, online students took their courses online primarily for non-educational reasons. Perhaps more telling, the extrinsically motivated online students surveyed were 10 times more likely to have taken other online courses than face-to-face students who took their face-to-face courses based upon intrinsic motivations regarding those classes. Those students reported taking face-to-face classes out of enjoyment and the opportunities for interaction with fellow students and professors. Intrinsic face-to-face students reported feeling more motivated and responsible in such formats and finding it an easier format in which to succeed.

Among faculty, the findings were even more pointed. Faculty who reported being intrinsically motivated to teach online because they enjoyed that format, who believed their students could be more responsible and learn more in that format, were only slightly more inclined (+.01) to have taught online than their colleagues. Similarly, extrinsically motivated face-to-face instructors who were drawn to teach online by the appeal of flexible schedules and no requirement to commute were slightly more inclined (+.01) to have taught online than their colleagues.

While it would seem logical that concerns for being able to work from home and create one’s own schedule would result in more online courses being taught by extrinsically motivated online faculty, in fact there was a slight negative relationship among those professors in the number of online classes taught (-.02). However, that negative relationship ballooned among faculty with face-to-face intrinsic motivation (-.29) who saw in-person formats as easier to teach, providing a greater opportunity for student learning and desired face-to-face interaction. Not surprisingly they had taught the fewest online courses in the past. While the faculty results are not quite as clear cut as for their students, intrinsic concerns for the courses themselves appear to be strong predictors against teaching online.

What’s the Bottom Line?

These findings are hardly surprising to me. It has been my experience that strategic and surface learning approaches have long since supplanted any desire for deep learning in most students I encounter. This is true of both online and face-to-face students but is particularly observable among those online. Extrinsic motivations are strongly related to strategic approaches (What must I do to get the grade/credit/degree I seek? What is the bottom line, the least I can do for the maximum return?) and surface approaches (What must I do to avoid failing? What is the least I must do and still make a passing grade?)

Strategic learners often have trouble being fully present in their current courses regardless of format. They worry about admissions to graduate school, getting into their chosen professions once out of school and getting jobs that will provide them with the maximum pay and status to allow them to feel good about themselves (or so they tell themselves). Surface learners often are in college for extrinsic reasons to begin with– they had nothing else to do, everyone else was going to college, their parents forced them to go. In either case, there is limited intrinsic motivation or resulting joy from being immersed in an educational process.

So, it is hardly a surprise to me that the motivations for both taking and teaching courses online tend to be largely extrinsic to a concern for learning on the part of the students and their faculty. Indeed, I know in my own case that my primary motivations for teaching online – which currently means all four of the classes I will teach at the university next semester -  are precisely those reported by Johnson:  the flexibility of my own schedule apart from teaching, my ability to do things I actually want to do and being freed of the daily endurance test of commuting with thousands of my most intimate friends to campus 20 minutes from my home.

In all fairness, I have discovered that I am able to get into some fairly decent one-on-one discussions with students online about both the course material as well as some of the aspects of their own lives that instructors usually discover in face-to-face contact.  I find I do come to like a number of them or at least the virtual persona which they portray online. And I suspect that a very small number of painfully shy students might find online contexts easier to endure than face-to-face contexts.

But I weary of the quibbling over content quiz questions from students who clearly are cheating on those quizzes by using their texts and the internet to find answers. I dread the expectable loss of up to 1/4 of the class who simply will not take the course schedule seriously. And I also have little patience left for students who whine about a work load well below the Carnegie Unit requirements (2 hours prep/1 hour class) to begin with who have additionally been excused from 1/3 of the course requirements by not having to attend class.

I should hasten to add here that I don’t entirely blame the students for these responses. They were sold this bill of goods starting in elementary school where minimalistic pedagogies reduced learning to Pavlovian standardized testing programs in the name of accountability. Students learned how to adequately play the test game so they could get passing scores, their school could get As and so their funding didn’t get funneled to private religious schools.

Moreover, extrinsic motivators are uncritically extolled by everyone from the President to the incessant pounding of the private online diploma mill ads on television to the student orientation team at the university – if you want to get a good job, you have to get a degree. An actual education is optional

Troubling Questions

This leaves me pondering some deeply troubling questions. Are students really willing to settle for less? Is an online approach driven largely by extrinsic motivations simply good enough for most of them? Do they really have a choice? And, if so, is that a conscious, informed choice made with an understanding of the possible consequences or have they simply drunk the kool-aid of education understood only in the instrumentalist, extrinsic terms they have had drilled into them?

I take up those questions in my next post.  

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, M.Div., J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Lecturer: Religion and Cultural Studies, Humanities, 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

Adventures in Edu-Cyberland I – A True Believer Defects

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend an online education technologies convention. The Sloan-C annual conference was held at Disney’s Swan Hotel over a four day period. I originally agreed to attend the final day because I was interested in meeting the man who operates one of the higher education teaching and learning discussion lists on which I participate. He’d encouraged me to come to the conference so we could talk over lunch. And I figured it would be an interesting experience to hear how computer folks see the future of higher education.

As it turned out, my lunch (or even coffee) date never materialized. But I did learn a great deal from my day trip to edu-cyberland , the first of which is that nothing about that encounter is cheap. My registration for just a half day of the final conference day was $200. Then there was the parking fee of $15 and the tolls enroute to the conference at morning rush hour. Fortunately for me, the department’s travel funds covered this. And, to its credit, the hotel was thoughtful enough to provide Starbucks coffee.

A Bomb Dropped Among the True Believers

The opening session featured the final keynote speaker at the end of a four day conference. Anant Agarwal, creator of edX, one of the new MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) and a professor at MIT where edX has been pioneered, was the featured speaker. What he said had the true believers of a digital, self-directed educational system with no human teachers scratching their heads in disbelief. 

Angarwal began the speech by dropping a bombshell: MOOCs simply don’t work as a replacement for college courses. The reality is that the vast majority of students who enroll in them never finish. While MOOCs do provide access to enlightened speakers to viewers all over the world, in that sense they operate more like a highly democratized TED Talk than a college course. The latter demands student engagement, not mere passive viewing, hence the reason so many students (over 90% in places like San Jose State) simply disappear.

Of course, this was heresy in edu-cyberland. The worship of the work of our own hands when it comes to anything remotely involving technology has long been recognized as a not-too-disguised form of idolatry. As Elizabeth Scalia so accurately observes in Strange Gods, Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life, “We humans create gods so reflective and shiny that they keep us looking at ourselves,” or at least what we want to believe about ourselves and our reality. According to Scalia almost all idols trace back to this same source: “I” is the first idol.

Neal Postman accurately predicted 30 years ago in his book Technopoly that in a culture which had come to be mediated almost entirely by technology, all innovations in technology will inevitably be seen as progress regardless of their impact on that culture. If it can be invented, it must be used. One wonders if the villagers in Pakistan periodically visited by missile laden drones share that presumption. No doubt the 90%+ of the students who bailed on the MOOCs are wondering the same thing.  

But Angarwal was not finished. The best and highest use of online technologies, he said, was – GASP! - in a mixed mode application where face-to-face classroom meetings are interspersed with work online. Why? Because students simply need the human interaction. And without it, many of them simply will not become educated.

Clearly, access, proffered as the ultimate value among techno true believers, is only the beginning of the conversation when it comes to providing educational opportunity.

I told you so…..

I experienced no small amount of vindication in these comments coming from such an unexpected source. I have long said that the best and highest application of online technologies is as a complement to face-to-face class sessions.

In my own use of this technology, online sites allow for interactive Schedules (complete with linked readings, discussion topics and assignments) which are available to students 24/7. They are great places to upload the day’s power point for presentation in class, to link up the note outlines students can download to follow the lecture, to house links to Youtube film clips and to provide content quizzes the student must complete prior to class to insure reading and to test comprehension. They also allow for student engagement on days when the instructor cannot attend class. Indeed, on the Friday I attended the conference, my classes all had online assignments which were calculated into their engagement grades.

Because I have only experienced mixed mode classes (partly online, partly in person) as an instructor, I am not completely certain that this is the best usage of online technologies for students. But, if Angarwal is right, having the consistent, periodic engagement of live human beings allows for students to remain on track and to not experience the complete isolation and dehumanization that running solo at the end of a cathode ray tube tether often causes.

As I have experienced it, totally online classes best suit adult learners who are disciplined enough to manage their time between class and the multitude of other demands on their time (work, family, health) that they face. They are able to turn off the Facebook, Twitter and Gameboys long enough to be responsible to their coursework. This means that online works best in upper division courses if not post-graduate work. Ad it also means that most undergrads simply are not included in this group because they have not yet developed the self-discipline and time management to handle this context.

Ranking the Modes of Presentation

Even so, totally online classes pale in comparison with face-to-face sessions of these same students. Spontaneity, body language, tenor of voice, passion are all lost in disembodied asynchronous “discussions.” The ever present possibility of cheating on quizzes is a given. A predictable third of the students each class will encounter difficulties meeting the course requirements on schedule without the reinforcements of classmates and instructors to remind them. A common complaint among students who struggle in online settings is the experience of isolation.

On the other hand, accessibility, often touted as the consummate value in selling online courses, may be a deciding factor for some students. If one has to choose between a totally online class or not completing one’s education because they simply cannot make the trek to the campus for class meetings, the former is the lesser of the two evils.

I also willing to consider the possibility that a small online class might be at least equal if not potentially superior to a large, factory process lecture class offered in an auditorium with hundreds of your most intimate friends. The former at least has the potential for an instructor to identify students having problems and addressing them directly in private. In the latter, students predictably begin their visit to your office with “I’m Student  X and I’m in your Y class and I want….”

If I were to rank course formats by potential quality of educational experience and degrees of technological application, the list would look like this:

1. Small (maximum 25) face-to-face classes.
2. Small mixed mode classes
3. Medium (25-75) face-to-face classes

TIE 4 –
            Small online classes
            Medium mixed mode classes
TIE 6 –
            Large (76+) auditorium classes
            Medium online classes

8. Large online classes      

The ranking ranges from the highest degree of potential engagement of students to the highest degree of potential disengagement and isolation if not alienation. Clearly not all students will take advantage of the potential for engagement. Indeed, that depends largely upon their motivation for taking a given class in a given format.

A True Believer Defects

One of the more interesting aspects of the keynote address was seeing how it was received by true believers and corporate representatives. As I looked around the ballroom filled with perhaps 1200 attendees, my guess is that about half of them were engaged in the very behaviors that make success in online classes and MOOCs for most undergraduates (and even some of their older classmates) difficult at best – surfing the web, texting, playing games. What I found troubling is knowing that a large majority of these folks are actually the teachers of online classes. Little wonder they have trouble recognizing the problems with these behaviors and their potential impediments to learning.

I also have to wonder how many of them checked out on the speaker because they simply could not – or would not - hear what he was telling them. The hype that has surrounded online course technologies generally and MOOCs in particular has been nothing short of epic in nature. Predictions that online, fully automated courses would replace human teachers by mid-century have been regularly proclaimed by the prophets of Technopoly as if self-evidently true. The panacea of technology to resolve every woe of education in America has been routinely pronounced from pulpits at conferences such as this one to the halls of academia. Such hegemonic predictions dominate online discourse to such a degree that they confront the web surfer as revealed Truth.

And yet, while the Emperor may not be completely naked, his new set of clothes are decidedly scanty. And one of the recovering True Believers is now playing the role of the little boy who dared to reveal the truth.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, M.Div., J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Lecturer: Religion and Cultural Studies, Humanities, 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. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Friday, December 13, 2013

Barometers of Life II – A New World Coming

There's a New World Coming
And it's just around the bend
There's a new world coming
This one's coming to an end

There's a new voice calling
You can hear it if you try
And it's growing stronger
With each day that passes by

There’s a New World Coming, Mama Cass Elliot (1970)

A Sign that Life is Changing

I have been very intentional about getting into my yard these last few weeks and working to bring the jungle back into a semblance of control once the crush of this impossible, unrealistic semester was through. For me, every pulled weed, every transplanted flower was a statement that I was reclaiming my life, that I was unwilling to continue flushing inordinate amounts of my life energies down the toilet for someone else’s imperatives. It was an insistence that my own time and place accounted for at least as much as those who increasingly demand of those energies without much consideration of how reasonable their demands might be.

It is also a visible reminder to myself that my life is changing. The new position I was finally able to obtain, albeit as the runner-up in that competition, will be primarily taught online with the possibility of periodic live classes at the Osceola Campus and the occasional course on main campus. While I have mixed feelings at best about online education, I relish the ability to work on my classes from home with Oscar, the dachshund, at my feet and Magdalena, the drama queen cat perched on the printer. With my schedule in my own hands, I look forward to the possibility of perhaps getting some writing done, releasing some of those demons in my head who increasingly claw at my brain demanding to be at least released to my computer screen.

The new position also means less time on main campus with its 25 minute one-way, toll-laden commute. It means not having to pay $180 annual parking fees for spaces that may or may not be available depending upon the all-important football program and any number of entertainment opportunities brought to a campus which advertises itself as the University of Comfort and Fun. It means less immediate presence within the toxic politics of the university and the ego-driven competition of academics.

It means less time serving as an all-purpose, drive by advisor/technocrat  presumed to be on-call for any student who cannot find their own advisor, regardless of major. It means being less readily available for any number of “service” obligations tacked onto a fluid, ever-expanding job description even as course releases to compensate those additional duties disappear.

No doubt I will miss a number of my students and co-workers. My last day of classes Monday I found myself overwhelmed with sadness at the realization that it would probably be the last time I’d be in a university classroom until at least summer. Indeed, I worry about how well a life-long extravert who loves to be at the front of a classroom of any kind will adapt to being alone, tethered to a computer. But at this point I am willing to try. And I have a sense that the timing for this change could not have been better.

Michigan Meditations

It is no accident that my first response to liberation from the grueling endurance test of Oktoberfest was to get my hands into the very earth of my front yard. The earth grounds me, both literally and spiritually. Returning to the earth also reflects an unexpected spiritual turn my life has taken in the last year. I find myself seeking to deepen my understanding and practice of my native Franciscan spirituality (including courses with New Mexico Franciscan Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation) and to live out that spirituality in a devotion to the good creation and justice making.  

Digging in the dirt also reflects the down to earth realities of the working poor I have come to know from my daily bus ride to work. They have become my new teachers offering lessons from life experiences that are very different from my own.

One of the first places I began to withdraw my support for and presence at the university this term was in refusing to pay to park at my place of employment. This reflects an unwillingness to add my car and its fuel consumption to a culture unwilling to deal with its addiction to fossil fuels as well as the additional strain their use places on a climate already in danger.

Working in my garden not only grounds me, it slows me down, much like riding the bus. It gives me time to think, to reflect on my life activities, to ponder what is important to me. Such reflection often centers upon what I need to be doing with the remaining time and energies I have left on this earth.

My garden is helping me solidify the understandings which slowly coalesced last summer during my four weeks of walking the banks of the Red Cedar River among the specimen trees, shrubs and acres of annual flowers at Michigan State after the long, mind-numbing daily sessions in the classroom. I am grateful to Michigan for the time and space to reflect in such a beautiful setting. Here is what my meditations in Michigan helped me realize:

  • I don’t owe anyone anything at this point in my life. I have paid my dues. And I intend to be in no one’s debt if I can avoid it.

·         I will resist being manipulated into meeting any obligations I am not willing to assume and have a choice about. Too much of my life has been marked by a largely unrecognized codependency.

·         At this point in my life, I have nothing left to prove to anyone. My degrees, awards and experiences speak for themselves. Those who really know me recognize and appreciate my capabilities and my accomplishments already.

·         I will seek no one’s affirmation to be OK with myself. After a lifetime of conditionalized self-regard giving rise to compulsive affirmation seeking, this requires major effort and it is easy to forget this. But my sense of my self and my value must remain in my own hands, not in the hands of the arbitrary affirming/disaffirming other. Nonconformity is often the price of authenticity.

·         I am no longer willing to engage in competitions for status, power or privilege of any kind. I have nothing to gain, nothing to prove and there is nothing I particularly desire from such competitions, most of which tend to be mindless.

·         I will resist consumer advertising which would sell me things I do not want or need by conditionalizing my self-esteem. I am content with what I have in life and I cherish the living beings I have been given to love.

·         Finally, I seek to make whatever contribution to the world I can make in the time and energies I have remaining to make the world a better place. This is no different from any other time in my life. But it means making conscious choices about what is a valuable expenditure of energies and what it not. And it takes on a bit more urgency now that I have attained the age of 60.

For a long time now I have been in the process of reassessing all the aspects of my life, withdrawing my support from those aspects which demand energy and time for imperatives I no longer share (or perhaps never did). Among them are consumerism, academic status games, corporate-driven higher education imperatives, gay tribalism, institutional religious tribalism, the pointlessness of most sporting events and free market fundamentalism in all its demonic guises.

Simultaneously I have been seeking to discern and pursue those aspects of life which call to me at this juncture of my life journey. They include solidarity with the working poor, protecting and serving the good creation, seeking spiritual depth and breadth, mentoring the leaders of tomorrow when given the opportunity, teaching those truly wish to become educated human beings when given the opportunity, offering the benefit of my experience to those willing to listen, learning from the many, MANY sources who have much to still teach me, seeking right relation with all living beings and, as always, working for justice.

In all honesty, I look forward to the changes that are already underway and those yet to come with elation, excitement, confusion and no small amount of terror. Though I have no crystal ball, I sense that I have much more work to do before my time here is over. No doubt my garden and my library will continue to prove the barometers of how healthy this next phase of life proves to be.

Safe in my garden, an ancient flower blooms
And the scent from its nature, slowly squares my room

 “Safe In My Garden,” The Mamas & The Papas  (1968)

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, Ph.D., J.D., M.Div.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Third Order Anglican Franciscan (TSSF)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida,
Osceola Regional Campus, Valencia College, Kissimmee, FL

 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.

Barometers of Life I – Surviving Oktoberfest

Well, then can I roam beside you? I have come to lose the smog.
And I feel myself a cog in something turning.
And maybe it's the time of year, yes, said maybe it's the time of man.
And I don't know who I am but life is for learning.
We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon,
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.

                   Woodstock, written by Joni Mitchell, 
                          performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (1970)

I can always tell the state of my life by two basic indicators. The first is my library. If my books are stacked up, waiting to be read, I’m spending so much time on work that I am not feeding my mind. If the pile of partially read opened books stacked next to my bed threatening to fall on my head and kill me in the night is any indication, I’m in big trouble.

The second indicator is my garden. If my plants are overgrown and the borders of my beds have disappeared under cascades of growth, I am not feeding my soul. My yard has never been a chore and certainly not a matter of conformity to middle class aesthetic values. Given my deep connection to the earth, my garden is inevitably a veritable barometer of my own mental and spiritual health.  My garden reveals the state of my soul.

An Anxious Waiting Game in Michigan

My yard was badly in need of attention when I left Florida to attend the NEH seminar on ethics of global development at Michigan State last July. I found out late that I had been accepted, no doubt when a first round pick declined. My time before my departure had been spent on a summer faculty conference and teaching an online course. The last three weeks before leaving were spent locating and reading an avalanche of materials preparing for the seminar getting nowhere close to the bottom of the stack of readings assigned.

I had also spent an enormous amount of time preparing for a job interview for a new regional campus position that presented itself out of the blue in January. While I had requested to simply make a lateral transfer to the new position leaving my main campus lecturer position to be filled, as has happened previously in our department, I was told early on that I’d have to jump through the hoops of yet another search process once again. The first interview was once postponed the day before it was to occur and then rescheduled for two days before I left for Michigan.

Not surprisingly I was pretty frazzled by the time I finally departed, new laptop and suitcase in hand. I promised the stacks of books by my bed, in my office and library that they would be filed away once I was back from Michigan. And I promised the yard it would get my attention first thing upon my return. However, as my father repeatedly told me as a kid, the road to Hell is always paved with good intentions.

I arrived in East Lansing with great anticipations. The subject of the conference – looking at poverty in the developing world and its relationship to privilege in the developed world – promised to provide me with new insights for my teaching and writing. Though I knew I came with a bit of a deficit in philosophy, I had a decent grasp of the ethicists we were to discuss and a ton of life experience in observing first-hand the conditions in the developing world.

Sadly, I found I couldn’t be fully attentive to the seminar once I arrived at Michigan State. My first two weeks there were consumed with the anxious waiting game of the job search, a game in which I ultimately came in second as the search committee minutes later revealed and just as my intuition had sensed. I assume I ultimately secured the position because the first place candidate turned the offer down (perhaps because it was not enough money to make a living wage). After finally getting the offer, a week of negotiations for salary garnered a slight raise in my base salary to $45,000.

Look out, Mr. Gates, I’m gunnin’ for you!

Gentlemen, Start your engines…..

But the position was only half of my worries, my teaching load being the remainder. The final configuration of my fall schedule was decided a mere 10 days before classes began. It included a brand new online class of my own making, Religion and Law. While I was excited about teaching two subjects near and dear to my heart, I’d been told right up to the end of the summer that it would not make and would be replaced by an online lower division humanities course.

So I hadn’t done any prep for the class presuming I wouldn’t be teaching it. Miles from home and a mere 10 days from fall term blastoff, I suddenly had a tsunami of work to do in locating textbooks and readings, drafting syllabi and schedules and creating assignments and exams.

I arrived back at OIA at midnight, Friday. My brand new class had to be up and running by that Sunday midnight along with the three other course websites. Working furiously over the next 48 hours, I managed to get the first two weeks of assignments and quizzes for all four classes up and running by the deadline.

But fate had more surprises in store for me.

The world religions class I had agreed to teach at the Osceola Campus of Valencia (where my new position would be located) was cancelled due to low enrollment. But the college needed someone to teach the Ethics and Critical Thinking course instead. I agreed to take the class because it would place me on the Osceola campus where I could get to know the regional campus UCF staff and hopefully proselytize Valencia students for the new religious studies program I would be teaching. And, truth be told, all of my classes are ultimately about ethics and critical thinking regardless of content. So why not?

All of these changes occurred within the three weeks surrounding the beginning of the semester. By the time they were through, I would find myself teaching five different classes in three different disciplines (Humanities, Religious Studies, Philosophy). It would mean reading two new textbooks to be used in two new classes. It would mean teaching on two different campuses and at two different colleges. It would mean attending faculty meetings on those two campuses. It would mean reading and assimilating two brand new text books.

It would also mean continuing to do all the advising for the Humanities department during my three days on the main campus as well as advising new students at the regional campus. I had been told that I would have no more course releases for that advising because advising was to be divided among all the faculty. While the course release did go away, the parceling out of advisees did not happen. I’m guessing it was a good deal for someone.

Finally, it would mean having to use two different online course providers, the flakey-on-a-good-day Canvas program at the university and a dreadful Frankenstein patched up version of Blackboard at the college. And it would mean being on those two different campuses four days and one night each week with only Thursday to catch my breath, plan and grade papers. As it turned out, most Thursdays I found myself in bed trying to recover.

I spent most of the semester on a dead run creating discussions, assignments and tests, trying to stay at least one week ahead of my classes. Though I like to get all graded work back to students within two weeks, I often found myself triaging prep work for the next week before grading. I finally completed the prep work for all of my classes - which I almost always have completed prior to the semester’s start - the second week of November.

Were my work schedule the only schedule that mattered, as is often the presumption that many employers make about their workers, this might have been a little more manageable. Such was not the case.

I had promised the Florida Humanities Council a year prior that I would serve as their scholar for the Prime Time Reading program at the university branch of the public library. I was hardly in a position to tell them I couldn’t serve a mere four weeks from the starting date. Thus, for six Wednesdays in September and October, I would leave my last class at the university and go to the local library branch. There I would spend the evening serving parents and children of our community learning to appreciate reading through story-telling and my follow-up questions designed to provoke critical thought.

I had also promised two churches I would preach a given Sunday service for them long before any of these changes at work came to be. Thus I would travel one weekend in September to a Unitarian church on the Gulf coast to talk about ethics of global development and spend the first weekend in October in my home parish, St. Richards Episcopal, Winter Park, preaching on St. Francis and blessing animals.

In all honesty, I’m thankful I had all of these non-academic commitments. They were little breaths of fresh air amidst the train wreck of my academic life this semester.

I called this impossible six week period in the middle of this long, difficult term my Oktoberfest. I stocked up on vitamins, drank the fresh squeezed juice my husband provided me each morning, rode the bus to reduce the stress of negotiating the tollways and university parking and spent most weekends in bed when I was not working on classes. I knew if I could just get through that period, I’d survive this unrealistic, hellish term.

“Rumor has it there’s a house in there….”

The good news is that I did survive.

In the past few weeks since Oktoberfest ended, I’ve finally begun giving the yard its promised due. The huge Bolivian Sunflower I’d planted out front had grown so large as to block our mailbox and obscure the entrance into our yard. It has now been cut back and transplanted to another area of the yard where it will have room to grow. Sadly, it was just about time for it to bloom for the very first time but I couldn’t wait. The postal service carrier was having a difficult time getting to our box.

The corner of our yard where Roberta Avenue and Pickfair Street come together was also completely overgrown but has since been cut back. The blooming agave (which our friends dubbed the penis plant for its curved bloom spike soaring some 30 feet into the air culminating in an explosion of blooms) has been cut down. The baby agaves it spawned have been saved for planting elsewhere and the wild pineapples encroaching into the yard and the street have been snipped off and replanted back in the corner bed. And I definitely have the scars to show for it.

The Mexican petunias banked along the street side of the living walls which separate our home from the madness of the world around us have been hacked off a good foot or so. Already they are sending up new growth from their roots and stems. By the spring this river of lavender that surrounds our property will return with a vengeance. At their feet, the border grass is being dug out and replanted to form a ribbon of dark green defining the jungle, tying up our little corner lot.

There is much, much more work to do in the yard. I now am working on removing the African wedelia and Aster daisies which have invaded the grass out front so it can be sprigged and hopefully replenished with grass. The grass in the south front yard under the trees died of drought and overzealous mowing this summer during my absence. Given the shade in that area and the difficulty in keeping it watered, I have chosen to replace the grass with patio stones and border grass. This is a big project that will likely take most of the winter to complete.

I’m also in the middle of replacing a number of my hanging orchids, bromeliads and staghorns around the yard that died from drought or vermin attacks this summer. The replacement for my Magic Tree which came down in a storm this summer will have to wait for the winter break. I’m thinking a Tree of Life might be its replacement. I’ve bought the timbers for the trunk and branches and am currently soaking the labels off the green wine bottles that will serve as its leaves.

For now, it once again appears that we do not live amidst an abandoned lot. The neighborhood joke that “Rumor has it there’s a house in there” is only funny when the neighbors are still laughing.

My beloved garden, the external barometer of my life most apparent to the world, is improving as I have had time to catch my breath post-Oktoberfest. My books, on the other hand, the internal barometer apparent only to me, must wait until finals are graded next week to finally receive their attention. I am planning to organize my library this winter as preparation for the writing I plan to start working on this spring. It is a job made for the long, cool days of winter as the days begin to grow longer again.

[Continued in a second post]

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, Ph.D., J.D., M.Div.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Third Order Anglican Franciscan (TSSF)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida,
Osceola Regional Campus, Valencia College, Kissimmee, FL

 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. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Gratitude on All Souls Day

Today is All Souls Day on the liturgical calendar, the day we remember all the departed. Here is my collect for this day:

O G-d, from whom all things come and to whom all things return: Grant to the departed the peace of your loving presence and to those left behind who remember them this day the hope of reunion with them. And when our time comes, O G-d, draw us also to your heart. For our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you. Amen.

This day I remember my saintly mother, Marjorie Webb Coverston, my dear cousin who died at 23, John David Coverston. I remember those who shaped me in younger life, my Great Aunt Helen Louise Coverston and my maternal Grandparents, Thomas Burton Webb and Avie Lee Webb. I remember my friends whose sorrows overwhelmed them and they took their own lives: Robert Hayes, Rusty Avera, Ed Pyatt. And I remember my mentor Robbie Thomas and her husband Bill and Joe Durocher, my boss at the Public Defender’s Office. These are but a few of the saints of my life to whom I owe an immense gratitude this day and whose leaving has diminished my life and the world their presence enriched.

Who would you remember this All Souls Day?

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Lecturer: Religion and Cultural Studies
Osceola Campus, University of Central Florida, 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. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++