Teaching Gone Bad: Reflections On A Semester Gone Wrong

Teaching has gone wrong this semester. I do not need to wait till the end of this semester to write my usual self-assessment; this semester has been a disaster. Two of my three classes are dead in the water, drifting aimlessly; my students and I are locked in a fatal embrace of disinterest and mutual distrust. They do not do the readings or display interest in class; I fail to generate interest in the readings, to hold their attention, to provoke their enthusiasm. We have both dropped the ball; the failure is joint and collective; I do not think this is an unfair indictment. It is clear to me that I’ve gotten the syllabus for one class terribly, terribly wrong–though I wonder if any readings could have held the interest of the particular group of students registered for that class; in another class, I remain happy with my reading list but find myself increasingly frustrated by the students’ utter lack of engagement with the material. Unsurprisingly, I’m teaching worse, and it shows: my students’ expressions assure me they have noticed and are responding. I have, out of frustration, muttered irritably in class about the need for greater engagement with the readings, for the need for written responses to the readings (which I sometimes fail to collect, so passive have I become); my students seem to listen, but their actions indicate only partial comprehension and compliance. Once, in a fit of irritable anger, I informed my class that they did not have to attend if they were not interested in the material, that life was short, and they should expend their time wisely; my students have smartly taken me up on the offer and voted with their feet. Yesterday, in one class, out of twenty-five students, only four bothered to show at class time. Another one drifted in at his usual thirty-minutes-late mark; two others staked out spots a little earlier. The disaster is complete; you can stick a fork in these classes; they are done, done, done.

I have often written here of the best of the teaching experience, of its utter indispensability to my intellectual life; this is the worst of the teaching experience, generating a demoralizing experience that corrodes my sense of self-worth and induces acute cognitive dissonance about my career choices and my identity as a teacher. The end of the semester seems too far; I cannot rely on any running out the clock strategies; the only way out is through. I do not seek advice from my peers; they will not tell me anything I do not already know. This is not arrogance, but hard-won knowledge. Some pedagogical strategies are impossible–for a variety of reasons–for me to implement; yet others have already been tried. Teaching despair is at hand; I do not know how to put all of us, teacher and student alike, out of our collective misery.

Every happy class is alike; every unhappy class is unhappy in its own distinctive way. I’ve found my personal and private version of teaching hell this semester. May it not be anyone else’s.

Why Faculty Lock-Outs Are Irresponsible And Inappropriate

In response to my post on Sunday making note of the lock-out of faculty at Long Island University (LIU), a Facebook friend wrote on my page:

So, I don’t understand. What makes university professors any different than people who work any other job? If you don’t like the pay, or don’t like the working conditions, simply go somewhere else. An employeer prohibiting someone from coming into their workplace who doesn’t agree to the terms of their employment is immenently fair. I’m sure the employeer (whatever, whoever, and for whatever industry) has made a calculated position to turn away their employees because they weren’t worth the compensation they demanded. The employees may not feel that way, and maybe they can come to an agreement, but maybe not and both sides go their own merry way.

Because students are people, not products; because education is not a commodity. That’s the short answer, and it should be enough. But let’s look a little closer.

The first part of the response above is eminently fair in one regard: faculty are workers who provide labor to employers; indeed, faculty organize themselves into unions precisely to make the point that they should be compensated fairly and that they deserve adequate working conditions in their workplace. Moreover, the possibility they may seek alternative employment or withholding labor (via a strike) is one their employer is aware of; these are tactics and strategies available to workers in labor negotiations.

So why criticize the employer for leveraging their power in their relationship with their workers?

Because, bizarrely enough, as just noted, there is the small matter of students and their education, the impact on which needs to be assessed when evaluating the appropriateness of any action taken by management or faculty. See, for instance, this post expressing concerns about how CUNY faculty should approach the decision to take a strike in case their negotiations with CUNY administration failed; at that stage, CUNY faculty had been without a contract for several years. That is, tactics and strategies which might compromise the education of our students were only to be resorted to as a last, radical measure when all other options had failed. (They included civil disobedience actions by faculty.) Management which took actions to compromise the mission of the corporation they managed would be looked upon very unfavorably by their shareholders; this is the situation we face at LIU. As noted in my post, LI management’s concerns seem to be exclusively financial–improving their ‘credit rating.’ Where are LIU’s students and their education in all of this?

In Long Island University’s case, there is no indication that management has these kinds of concerns front and center, no indication that management seems to understand the almost-fiduciary duty they have to their wards, their students: they have abruptly pulled the plug on contract negotiations, unilaterally declaring an impasse of sorts; they have hired inadequate, underqualified replacement workers, thus compromising the education the university provides. Just because an action is legally permissible does not make it responsible or appropriate. LIU management’s actions were not criticized in my post for being illegal; they were criticized for being grossly inappropriate to the situation at hand. LIU students have lost access to their teachers; this is very dissimilar to manufactured products losing access to their makers. (I hope this difference is clear.) LIU students have lost access to their education; this is the cost that must be reckoned with when assessing the worth of LIU management’s actions. From this teacher’s perspective, management’s actions are irresponsible and reckless, and provide clear evidence they misunderstand the nature of the work they are engaged in.

Long Island University’s Labor Day Gift To The Nation: A Faculty Lock-Out

Some university administrators manage to put up a pretty good front when it comes to maintaining the charade that they care about the education of their students–they dip into their accessible store of mealy mouthed platitudes and dish them out every turn, holding their hands over their hearts as paeans to the virtues of edification are sung by their choirs of lackeys. Some fail miserably at even this act of misrepresentation and are only too glad to make all too clear their bottom line is orthogonal to academics. Consider, for instance, the folks at Long Island University who have kicked off the new academic semester in fine style:

Starting September 7, the first day of the fall semester at Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus, classes will be taught entirely by non-faculty members—not because the faculty are on strike, but because on the Friday before Labor Day, the administration officially locked out all 400 members of the Long Island University Faculty Federation (LIUFF), which represents full-time and adjunct faculty.

Yessir, what a fine Labor Day gift to the nation this makes.  When contract negotiations with your workers fail, well, you don’t continue trying to find an agreement in good faith; you just lock them out¹ and replace them with grossly under-qualified folks instead:

Provost Gale Haynes, LIU’s chief legal counsel, will be teaching Hatha yoga….Rumor has it that Dean David Cohen, a man in his 70s, will be taking over ballet classes scheduled to be taught by Dana Hash-Campbell, a longtime teacher who was previously a principal dancer and company teacher with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

As Deb Schwartz at The Nation notes–quoting Deborah Mutnick, a professor of English and a member of the union executive committee–LIU President Kimbery Cline’s administration has sought to “accrue a surplus budget,” succeeded by “firing people,” and is apparently guided by the principle that “the primary goal of the university is to improve its credit rating.”  That strategy sounds suspiciously familiar, as it should, for it is taken straight out the corporate playbook. Remember how we were told the productivity of American workers had increased in the 1980s? And then we found out it was because fewer workers were employed, and they were all working longer hours.

Such emulation of the corporate world is precisely what university administrators aspire to, of course. The same plush offices, the same air of self-satisfied importance, the same deployment of incomprehensible jargon spoon-fed to them by management consultants, the same glib throwing about of that reprehensible phrase ‘the real world.’

An unsafe worker in one workplace means unsafe workers everywhere; the wrong lessons are learned all too quickly by the bosses. LIU’s tenured and unionized faculty have been treated reprehensibly here in Brooklyn; this is a dangerous precedent and those who ignore the message it sends do so at their own peril.

Note #1:  Kevin Pollitt, a labor relations specialist with New York State United Teachers, notes that this is the first time that higher-ed faculty have ever been locked out, an achievement that LIU administration can brag about to their monetization-happy fans.

Anticipating, And Interacting With, The ‘Bright Light’ Student

On several occasions this semester, while preparing for my classes–by doing the assigned readings, naturally–I find myself experiencing that most pleasurable of sensations for a teacher: the anticipation of an invigorating classroom interaction. With a wrinkle; I have very particular students in mind. Now, in general, I look forward to my classroom encounters with my entire student body–especially if they have done the readings–but as might be expected, on occasion, exceptional students stand out from that group. They do the readings more diligently; they say insightful things about the assigned material; they seem more widely and better read than their cohort; they challenge me to think on my feet even as they do the same. As such they start to command a distinctive attention from me.

For one thing, as I read, I pay closer attention to the text, on the lookout for material that will bring forth their inquiries and objections. I wonder how I will explain this difficult passage, this tricky move, this elision, this evasion. When I teach, I like to give the material I teach the best run for its money. That task can be made harder by a student who has already thought of good defenses for the material and found them wanting. Those students do not let me slack off; they do not let me become complacent.Conversely, I also find myself anticipating–in cases where the student’s inclinations have slowly become clearer to me as the semester has worn on–moments of intellectual convergence or agreement. At those times, I know that I will hear the student hold forth and offer their views on why they agree with a particular theoretical claim; these are very often, not just mere chimings in, but substantive elaborations instead. These embroideries can change my older understandings of the material I teach.

Students of such calibre are rare, I agree. But they are not non-existent. I encounter them every semester; they would fit into any high-quality academic program anywhere. They humble me; all too often, I catch myself envying their intellectual prowess and the stations–of the mind–it has already brought them to in their careers. When I look back on my undergraduate years, I am overcome with regret at: my indiscipline and indolence, the time I wasted, the books I didn’t read, the writing I did not do. I was ignorant then, and did little in those years to dispel my ignorance. These students, the ones who challenge me, who make me work harder on the material I teach, are well ahead of me; they certainly seem far more possessed and capable than I was at a comparable age. That might not mean much in some absolute reckoning but it serves them well in these classroom reckonings with me. I respect their abilities and their visible ethic of directed inquiry; I seek to do well by them, to respect the standard they seem to articulate for our encounters.  This standard, I hope, will become mine too.

Step This Way For The Deunionized American Workplace

American unions look headed for another legal beating in the US Supreme Court. Pretty soon, we’ll be able to drop all pretense and just advocate beatings until the morale–of American workers–improves. The Supreme Court is about to hand their overseers a slightly thicker, more knotted, whip.

Ten Californian teachers have sued their union–on First Amendment grounds–alleging that by paying union dues “they are being forced to pay money to support positions with which they disagree.” Their plea will likely find sympathetic ears on the current almost-completely-fallen-over-to-the-right Supreme Court, which has twice ruled that “the First Amendment bars forcing government workers to make payments to unions.” These are no innocent plaintiffs; they are an integral component of a “decades-long legal campaign to undermine public unions.” (Their lawsuit has been organized by the Center for Individual Rights, a libertarian group which enjoys funding from conservative foundations.)

Of course, the plaintiffs will continue to benefit from the union’s work to secure higher wages and workplace benefits–that’s just how collective bargaining works. But the rugged individualist at the head of the lawsuit, Mr. Elrich, will have none of it. As he notes, presumably standing on a cliff overlooking the American West, through which he will roll on his covered wagon, fighting off various governmental depredators:

“I can negotiate for myself,” he said. “I’m a good teacher, highly respected, and I can go anywhere.”

If the experience of American workers in the years following the extensive deunionization of the American workplace is any indication, most teachers will  likely “go” down the ladder of economic and social advancement. But freedom, fuck yeah, so that’s cool.

The plaintiff’s First Amendment concerns appear overblown:

Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr., representing the Obama administration, urged the justices to leave the Abood ruling alone. Reaping the benefits of collective bargaining, he said, is not the same as being compelled to support a political position.

 “The typical worker would surely perceive a significant difference between, on the one hand, contributing to a union’s legal and research costs to develop a collective-bargaining proposal for his own unit, and, on the other hand, making a political contribution to a union-favored candidate for governor,” Mr. Verrilli wrote.

Kamala D. Harris, California’s attorney general, told the justices in a brief that workers who object to the positions taken by unions suffer no First Amendment injuries because “they remain free to communicate their views to school officials, their colleagues and the public at large.”

Unsurprisingly, there is plenty of market language forthcoming from the plaintiffs

Ms. Cuen said the unions might need to improve to keep their members.

“If they’re worried about not getting forced money from everyone, what does that say about their product?” she asked. “So maybe if we win the case and they’re worried about people leaving in droves, they might need to improve their product and make it a little more user-friendly.”

I’m surprised Ms. Cuen forgot to throw in talk of union ‘brands’ and how they are losing their ‘customers.’ Perhaps she’ll do in her press release following their legal victory.

Scott Walker: Destroying Tenure, Keeping You ‘Free’

Scott Walker is well on his way to destroying one of the finest systems of public education in this country.  Those who cheered his attack on public sector unions will cheer this move on too: it has everything they want. A repeal of tenure, destruction of faculty governance, budget slashing, more power to university administrators. Nation-hating leftists, lazy, corrupt, subversive teachers, insolent workers forming themselves into unions; these have all been disciplined and put out to pasture. The cheering from those who would have benefited the most from high-quality, affordable public education, from organized workers fighting for fair wages and better working conditions, will be the loudest. The masochistic tendencies  of those who elected Scott Walker will thus be prominently on display.  So will their sadistic ones, for they will enjoy the spectacle of uppity faculty and unionists brought to their knees, they will enjoy the idea of ‘someone else’ being told to work longer hours, just like they do.

Pay us less, make us work more, make universities more expensive for our children, let corporate managers, the one who rules our lives, run our universities too, let them hire and fire teachers and professors like they would hire and fire us–without reason, let them decide what our children will learn; our father, which art in heaven, thou hast made us powerless; make others powerless too, especially those that dare speak up for themselves. These are the rallying cries of those who elect Scott Walker, artfully packaged and funded by those who would actually benefit the most: monopolist capitalists like the Koch brothers. Wisconsin is tragedy and farce simultaneously.

I seem to remember another instance of this kind of phenomenon:

The emotional satisfaction afforded by these sadistic spectacles and by an ideology which gave them a feeling of superiority…[and] was able to compensate them–for a time at least–for the fact that their lives had been impoverished, economically and culturally….[it] resurrected the lower middle class psychologically while participating in the destruction of its old socioeconomic position. [Eric Fromm, Escape From Freedom, Henry Holt and Co., New York, pp. 219]

Why do the folks who voted for Scott Walker feel this way? Perhaps they are “seized with the feeling of individual insignificance and powerlessness…typical for monopolistic capitalism…[their] anxiety and thereby…hatred were aroused; it moved into a state of panic and was filled a craving for submission to as well as domination over those who were powerless.” [Ibid., pp. 218]

Perhaps I exaggerate; so let me turn to The Onion for a dose of much-needed realism, where, in the ‘candidate profile’ for Walker, we find:

Personal Hero: Sixth-grade teacher who inspired him to strip educators of collective bargaining rights and dismantle publicly funded higher education

Greatest Accomplishment: Stood up to people who make living pulling others from burning buildings

Gubernatorial Record: First governor in history to raise enough out-of-state funding to overcome recall challenge from own constituents

Chief Political Rival: Those who want to make a living wage

This same man will now run for president on a platform that will look very similar to the one he brought to Wisconsin.  We live in interesting times.

The Clock-Watcher’s Punch In The Gut

Last Monday, as I taught my graduate seminar on The Nature of Law, one of the students in attendance turned to look at the clock: we still had some forty-five minutes to go in a two-hour meeting. As I saw this, I experienced a familiar feeling, one that, as usual, temporarily, if not visibly, incapacitated me, tempting me to call a halt to the proceedings right there and then. I didn’t, of course, but neither did I just get over it. (I’m blogging about it, am I not?)

I taught a university-level class for the first time, as a graduate teaching assistant, almost twenty-seven years ago. Thirteen years ago, I became a full-time member of the teaching faculty at Brooklyn College. All of which is to say: I’ve been teaching a long time. But no matter how old that gets, the clock-watching student always manages to cut through the haze and deliver a punch in my  gut. Some look left and right, some look back over their heads at the clock behind them. Doesn’t matter; they all make me feel the same way.

At that moment, I stand accused of a particularly devastating combination of pedagogical and personal sins: I am boring; I have failed to make the subject matter interesting enough. My pride is buffeted: I am not a riveting performer, entertaining and educating in equal measure; I’m not like those great teachers I keep hearing about who keep their students spell-bound and rapt with attention, sometimes keeping their uncomplaining and adoring brood in class well beyond closing time. Clock watching students seem to inform me, rather unambiguously, that their time could be better utilized elsewhere, that whatever it is I’m selling, it’s not worth their hanging around for it.

Little of what I have written above is ‘rational’, of course. Students are human beings and tire, just like I do. In particular, attending a night-time class is always onerous after a tiring day spent elsewhere, perhaps reading and writing dense material, perhaps working a full-time job. Sometimes clock-watching can be instinctive; we are used to the idea of calibrating our progress through the day with frequent consultation of our time-keepers. Classes are held indoors, and with windows granting access to what might be a more salubrious outside, who wouldn’t want to check on how long it will be before the frolicking begins? (This is especially germane now, here on the East Coast of the US, as we recover from a brutal winter and enjoy a glorious spring that has sent temperatures soaring into the sixties.)  Lastly, it is not as if all my students are so engaged in clock-watching. One or two out of twenty or thirty might do it; is that so bad? You can’t really please all the folks all the time.

And then, of course, there is dirty little secret that many students are well aware of: their teachers also watch clocks. They too want to be done subjecting themselves to this experience, which no matter how inspiring and edifying at its best moments, always carries just a tinge of terror: that unshakeable feeling that your ignorance, instead of your wisdom, will soon be on display.