Wednesday, August 28, 2013

One Job Per Worker, Please…..

I arrived home last night from my adjunct job at Valencia College to a veritable firestorm at the website of one of my university classes. I discovered it during the virtual office hour I hold each school night for all my classes. I’ve agreed to check the emails from every class by 10 PM at which time I assure my students I will see any email they have sent me. With our new system all of the emails from all of the classes come together in one big lump regardless of the course or section requiring me to match the students to one or more of the four courses they might be taking.

It’s one of the many joys of using the online technologies that have been repeatedly promised to save us.

Unlinked Images

Last night I found 5 angry messages from my HUM 3255 Modern Humanities course awaiting me, complete with screen shots of questions missing images.  Seems that when the IT folks transfer courses from our old system at Blackboard (may a stake be driven through its evil heart) to Canvas, the images on all the exams come unlinked from the questions. Thus, when the students go to the exam to take it, they are greeted by an empty box where the image should be, a familiar web symbol for a link that doesn’t work.

The damage is reparable. The images are all stored on the course site they just aren’t linked to the questions. You simply have to remember which images go to which questions and then edit each question, restoring the link. This is not an easy task given that the tests could have been created years ago, as was the one on Modern.

I finally got to bed a little past 11 last night after finally pulling out the text book to help me rematch the images to multiple choice questions that often referred only to “this image” with little clue to context. I suppose I am lucky that the system – stretched well beyond its capacities from more users than it was intended – only crashed once during that hour.

Let’s hear it for techno-tinker toys!

Of course, as I sat blearily trying to rematch images and questions last night after a full day of teaching, I did remember that this same little stunt occurred last spring in two Humanistic Traditions sections. It took IT a week to figure out what to do about that. I remember thereafter spending two whole days relinking questions and images.

This is definitely more fun than decent people should have.

This is how these folks do business….

Bear in mind that the transfer to this brand new IT system with its accompanying steep learning curve for all parties involved occurred in January, smack in the middle of the school year as if we had nothing else to do. (At a workshop on the new system at the faculty conference last summer I had the temerity to ask why the university chose to make such an abrupt and demanding change in the middle of the school year. A colleague standing next to me quickly responded, “How long have you been working at UCF? This is how these folks do business.”)

Had I been able to extrapolate from my previous experience with Canvas that the problem with unlinked test images would be replicated in every class that Canvas transferred over from WebCourses/Blackboard, I perhaps could have avoided this firestorm by spending the hour up front relinking the images. (All I had to do was simply remember everything that happened in those courses eight months ago, right?)  I certainly will do that for the four remaining quizzes in the Modern class.

Add four more hours to an already staggering workload.

I ended up setting the repaired quiz back a week and sending out a note to students informing them of that change and apologizing for the irritation they may have endured in the process. It was not irritation I had caused nor had I even been aware that it would occur though I will no doubt be blamed for it on student evaluations, the repository for virtually all complaints about the system these days.

Of course, that later quiz date does defeat the whole purpose of giving the quiz in the first place which is to insure that 1. Students actually buy the text, (hardly a given these days of $150+ textbooks) and that 2. Students actually read the text prior to the classes in which that section of material is discussed.  (Sure enough, when I called on students today to discuss the text, given that they hadn’t had to take the quiz, about half of them had to confess that they simply hadn’t read it and thus had nothing to contribute to the discussion)

When pedagogy is held hostage by cheap technology we just can’t do without, pedagogical considerations such as scheduling quizzes to insure reading become secondary to the all-important question of how the course – and its operator and students - can serve the interests of the technology and the businesses which profit from it. The means become ends in themselves.

An hour’s worth of free labor…

What results is that a lecturer with a doctorate in religious studies and very little technical training ends up having to do a lot of cleanup work for the providers of this technology. Of course, this is in addition to the job he was actually hired and is paid to do – teach undergraduate courses.

According to my calculations, the university and the company with which it contracts for this software just got an hour’s worth of free labor last night from a worker woefully unprepared to provide it but required to do so on his own time nonetheless and to take the heat from his students (read: customers) for its malfunction in the first place. And this doesn’t even begin to count the countless hours spent constantly revising uploaded documents which lose their formatting when uploaded to a new system. These must be manually reformatted so they don’t look like crap. It also doesn't cout the hours of trying to guess at work-arounds when the system simply won’t do what it promises to do.

Frankly I think that’s all pretty outrageous. And yet, this is a very common pattern that most of us in academia today know only too well. Many of us spend hours trying to get technology to work which has been foisted upon us often without our consent. We are required to learn to use it on our own time. And we often must do this work with little help from overworked and understaffed IT departments who are themselves trying to pick up the slack from the short cuts taken by the technology providers to insure profit and their university employers who are only too eager to pay as little as necessary for their technology.

But profit ultimately must come from somewhere. As I constantly ask my students: Cui bono? Good for whom? And at whose expense? Someone has to provide the labor to make this arrangement work. And at this university, like many others today, at least a portion of that free labor comes from lecturers like me. Worse yet, a large portion comes from instructors paid far less than me, most of them far less than beginning teachers. Many of them are freeway flying adjuncts whose piecemeal courses rarely pay them a living wage and almost never any kind of health care. 

All of us do this technical labor for free.

The 13th Amendment is still in effect, right?

Here’s the thing. I don’t mind doing my job. I work hard, diligently and consistently at it. Just ask my husband. I’m also not afraid of technology and will work long and hard to learn a new system. Indeed, all of my classes utilize at least an online component.  But I hate like hell having to do other people’s jobs for them. More than that, I hate having to do their jobs at my own expense.

It’s one job per worker, as I see it.

So far as I remember, the 13th Amendment is still in effect. Requiring people to work for free is still a form of slavery, right? Right?

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, Florida

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

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Final Count Down?

This semester I have 5 different classes taught over 4 days in 3 different disciplines; 3 face-to-face, 2 online; taught on 2 different campuses; 1 course taught for the first time in 13 years, 1 course brand new.

This schedule only became firm 10 days ago.

Now add Humanities advising as service (no course release)…. 0

                         BLASTOFF  ?????????????

Image source:

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.


Friday, August 02, 2013

Strange Bedfellows and Cognitive Dissonance

Been away so long I hardly knew the place
Gee, it's good to be back home
Leave it till tomorrow to unpack my case
Honey, disconnect the phone

I'm back in the USSR
You don't know how lucky you are, boy
Back in the US, back in the US
Back in the USSR
                              (Paul McCartney, The Beatles, The White Album, 1968)

Godless Communists and Would-Be Heroes

For those of us raised in the chilliest days of the Cold War, the interactions between Russia and the US today are hard to imagine. The idea that Americans would ever visit Russia, much less choose to stay there, would have been inconceivable in 1968 when the Beatles’ satire on the Beach Boys and Chuck Berry rose to the top of the charts as the lead song of The White Album.
Knowing how true blue Americans were supposed to feel about Russians was not difficult during the Cold War. The Russians and their Cuban dupes were the folks who had come within one hour of launching the fiery end of the world in a nuclear holocaust in 1962, blinking only at the last moment in the Cuban missile crisis. The Russians were anti-God, anti-democracy, anti-freedom. Schoolchildren were taught to deride Russian leaders with new versions of the Christmas song Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer which began “Khruschev, the bald-headed Russian” even as we learned to duck and cover to avoid being blinded by the nuclear flash a not so-amused Kruschev might have launched in response.
Perhaps that’s why today’s news feels so strange to many of us Baby Boomers who wonder if we’ve awoken from a Rip Van Winkle century long snooze to find self-proclaimed freedom fighter Edward Snowden accepting asylum in Russia to escape US legal prosecution for revealing spying tactics. And we have to shake our heads in disbelief to see the homophobia of 1960s America now championed by Russian politicians under the tired banner of “family values.”

Cognitive Dissonance en el Campo

Of course, this is not the first time I’ve had to deal with the cognitive dissonance in the face of a world whose previous understanding had been stood on its head. In 1992 I was a part of a team of seminarians who came to El Salvador under the auspices of the World Council of Churches to observe the cease fire in the long, bloody civil war there. One of the sites we visited was a community of burn victims who had survived horrific injuries from napalm poured from helicopters down on their heads quite literally. Whole sections of the countryside still bore the marks of the fiery scouring by napalm where bare rock stripped of all life, scorched black was all that remained in many places.
The young man we talked with at the community was scarred from head to toe including his face. How could anyone have survived such a painful ordeal? He spoke of being burned as he rushed from his house when napalm began to descend on his village where rebels against the US-supported regime were living. Trying to remain as silent as possible given their grievous injuries, he and others had hid in muddy, water-filled ditches overgrown with weeds as government troops drove by to mop up those who had survived the aerial assault.
So, who treated you for your burns, we asked. “The Cuban doctors,” he said.
The first wave of cognitive dissonance swept over me. In my world, Cubans were evil, the cause of the missile crisis which caused Floridians to fear imminent annihilation in 1962. The duck and cover exercises in our schools triggered by sonic booms of the nuclear bomb laden jets constantly flying overhead from nearby MacDill, McCoy and Patrick Air Force Bases gave birth to nightmares of fiery mushroom clouds, Over and over we had been told that the time to say goodbye before atomic bombs launched from Cuba arrived in Florida was a mere 90 minutes. How could anything from Cuba ever be good?
Later that same day, our group visited a base community named for the house keeper of the Jesuit massacred by paramilitary terrorists at the University of Central America. “We want to show you something,” the village elder said, And so we walked to the top of the hill where a village square of sorts had been fashioned among the trees. And towering overhead lashed into the tree branches was the fuselage of a military helicopter. “This is the helicopter they dropped the napalm out of,” the elder said.
To my right, my fellow seminarian softly observed, “It’s a Hughey. It’s one of ours.”
The US government had, indeed, provided much of the weaponry used against the rebels in a number of Central American countries during the 1980s. US supported regimes resisted the calls for the distribution of fallow lands to farmers dying of starvation. They branded unions, intellectuals, clerics, anyone who questioned their heavy handed authoritarian regimes subversive. And they brutally repressed the inevitable uprisings with the help of US aid, weaponry and training in terrorist tactics provided by the School of the Americas. 
The second wave of cognitive dissonance now overtook me. The Cubans were the good guys in this story. My own government was the villain. It was responsible for atrocities whose evidence had seared my conscious mind. How was I to make sense of that?
It was a valuable if painful lesson in recognizing the constructed nature of understandings of the world. And it would be only the first of many lessons in the destructive impact US foreign policy and the ravages of a rapidly globalizing “free market” has had on the world outside our borders.  For all of the good things America has been, its repressed Shadow is brimming with death and destruction.

Asylum in the Panopticon

Thus I found myself once more shaking my head in disbelief as the events of the past week have played out. Edward Snowden, who took it upon himself to reveal a widespread pattern of spying that the American government has conducted around the world - including within the US borders on US citizens – was granted asylum in Russia. Snowden, whom opponents of the security state seem ready to canonize, came to Moscow from Hong Kong after China rejected his bid for asylum there.
Neither state is exactly a beacon of liberty and both have long routinely conducted spying on their own citizens that would no doubt make the NSA look tame. (Honey, disconnect the phone…and turn up the radio so we can talk….). Indeed, if Jeremy Bentham were alive today, he might well proclaim the Russian bear the winner in the race to create a society-wide panopticon which successfully maintains all its citizens under almost constant surveillance.
No doubt, there have been previous Americans who have made this seemingly perverse flight for freedom into the maws of the Russian bear. Ironically, the only figure I can recall is Lee Harvey Oswald, the suspected assassin of President John Kennedy, a desperate figure whose rapid disenchantment with the Soviet empire drove him to return to America within a few years.
Frankly, an advocate of freedom from governmental snooping who seeks asylum in a security state which is famed for its efficiency in snooping in order to avoid facing the music in the country he allegedly sought to save doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. And, in all honesty, as much as I empathize with Snowden’s concerns, he simply doesn’t strike me as much of a hero though this hardly fazes his supporters. Even so, there is no small amount of irony in watching the same people who have decried godless communism for so long now defending Snowden, the icon of freedom, defecting to the successors to the Soviet system.

Homophobia and Ex-Communist Family Values

Perhaps even more ironic is watching the banner of a rather virulent homophobia dressed up as traditional, family values being unfurled in Russia on the eve of the Winter Olympics. Of course, the violence against LBGTIQ people and those who would dare to support their rights to be treated with equality and dignity in Russia today is hardly unfamiliar to an America which has only recently begun to repent of their homophobia.
Historically, Evangelical Protestant and conservative Catholic wings in America have been key players in the fight against what they saw as the godless communism of the Soviets. It is a fight in which homophobia played a major role during the Red Scare of the 1920s and 1950s. Homosexuality came to be seen as a security risk by homophobic anti-Communist politicians. It was also seen as a symptom of moral decay by puritanical religious leaders, the same claim made by many Russians today who claim membership in the revival of Russian religiosity post-Soviet Union.
Today America seems to be on the verge of finally rejecting this base social prejudice that has informed its cultural values and its resulting law for so long. It is the successors of the godless communists who now utilize the rhetoric of God and country in a Russia which has largely committed its communist system to the dustbin of history.
No doubt it is more than a little uncomfortable for folks like Pat Robertson to realize that while most of his fellow Americans have rejected his fear-driven religious morality, his message finds willing hearers across the ocean in a Russia who has taken up the banner of homophobia disguised as traditional family values. According to all the polls, Robertson and company now have more in common with folks like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the imams of fundamentalist Islam than their fellow Americans.
You know that’s got to smart.
Charles Dudley Warner noted in 1850, politics often makes strange bedfellows. These days there seems to be plenty of cognitive dissonance to go around. 

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.