Thursday, 15 May 2008

Making friends and influencing people

One of my hobbies since before accepting my new job at TAMIU has been to peruse the Laredo Morning Times, so I can at least pretend to hit the ground running when I arrive in town. The occasional article provokes a bit of a double-take; this one, on the search for a new vice president for instruction and student development at Laredo Community College (the two-year institution that TAMIU was sprouted from back in the dark ages of academe) induced a bit more of a startled reaction:

After three attempts at hiring a vice president for instruction and student development, LCC has narrowed its search to one finalist: Beatriz Treviño Espinoza. The Yuma, Ariz.-based Espinoza is the former vice president of learning services at Arizona Western College and is now serving as assistant to the president for program development.

Last September, faculty at AWC gave Espinoza a vote of no confidence, just two months after she was named vice president of learning services, according to news reports from Yuma and AWC. ...

According to new reports, faculty became upset with Espinoza when she attempted to enforce a requirement that faculty work at least 30 hours a week and stop selling for personal gain textbooks mailed to them by publishers.

On a personal level, I really don’t think faculty should sell free textbooks—in my case, they usually accumulate on my bookshelf, although I’ve been known to give some of them away when moving. I wonder, however, how Espinoza thought she would be able to “enforce” this rule in practice.

I’m rather more intrigued by the idea that Espinoza would attempt to enforce a 30-hour work week for faculty. The typical teaching expectation for full-time community college instructors is around five courses per semester, or 15 hours (where an “hour” is usually 50 minutes). Presumably faculty then have office hour expectations; I’d say something like six hours per week is a reasonable standard for “posted” times for first-come, first-served meetings, maybe a little more during advising season. Assume that committee service and department meetings and miscellaneous crap (student-related extracurricular/cocurricular activities and the like) add about three hours per week, on average over the course of the semester. That would get us to around 24 hours or so of “face time”—e.g. some visible presence on campus.

Now, faculty also have to do other things—grade assignments, prepare for classes, keep up with (in the case of community college faculty) or produce (in the case of four-year college faculty) research—but these things can’t really be done during “face time” in any intensive way; I do accomplish some minor stuff during office hours, but you can’t expect to accomplish anything substantial in advance because you could have a student or six decide they are going to meet with you then. These things take several hours per week (I’d give a rough estimate that, for the average faculty member who’s teaching courses they’ve previously taught and not doing anything all that intense research-wise, we’re probably in the ballpark of ten hours or so), spread rather unevenly throughout the semester. And the ideal place to be accomplishing these things is rarely one’s own office, which is the first place that additional work seems to find faculty members.

Again this gets us back to the question of enforcement. If Espinoza wanted her faculty to teach 15 hours a week and sit in their offices with their doors open waiting for random students to decide to show up for another 15 hours with no expectation that they’ll accomplish anything worthwhile during the bulk of that time just so she can see more warm bodies on campus, and then add all the other stuff that faculty are expected to do—well, let’s just say that the no confidence motion would carry my household handily.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Why academics also hate meetings

James Joyner at OTB discusses an article by Paul Graham on why certain classes of people hate meetings; while programmers and writers are cited by name, I also think the complaint applies to academics (many of whom—among the social and hard sciences—are both, compounding the problem). Or, as one of my ex-bosses once put it, work is what we do between meetings.

The article also inadvertently explains why the absolute worst teaching schedule possible for an academic who has a research expectation features 1–2 hour breaks between classes. As currently constituted, my schedule for the fall, with classes at 9:30 (MWF), 12:30 (MW) and 4:30 (MW), seems almost explicitly designed to ensure I will not be productive at all on Mondays or Wednesdays. On the other hand, at least that leaves plenty of time for the other useless academic time-suck—office hours.† (You almost cannot imagine the cheer that went up when we learned that we only have four scheduled office hours per week required next year rather than our current six.)

Update: † For people who haven’t been here before, I hoist the following clarification up from the comments:

What I think is [useless] is the 5 hours and 50 minutes I sit in my office in the average week when there are no students around but—because theoretically a student might appear out of the ether—I could be interrupted at any time, so can’t immerse myself in a project. … [T]here is no reason in this day and age why students can’t simply schedule a meeting with a professor if they really need to meet them one-on-one.

In point of fact, I actually go out of my way to encourage students to visit during office hours or meet with me before or after class if they need to discuss something with me; while I frequently talk to students immediately prior to or after class, the number of unique office visitors I see in a semester is usually countable on one hand. And most of them have already told me they are coming to visit, thus defeating the point of having “drop-in” hours. If anything, I’d prefer it if more students did come to my office hours unannounced, but since virtually none bother it seems like a waste of time for all involved.

Monday, 17 August 2009

More on office hours

Revisiting a theme from a few weeks ago, Dr. Crazy at Reassigned Time ponders the merits of office hours, concluding thusly:

I say that we need to take another look at “office hours.” What do they mean? What are they supposed to achieve? If we are achieving those goals outside of a clearly stated four hours on the syllabus, that doesn’t mean that those efforts should be ignored.

Another serendipitous event—the arrival of a page of boilerplate “policies” to stick in my syllabi, much different from the boilerplate “policies” that I was told to insert last year and modified (apparently) without any input from the faculty—has also helped clarify some of my thinking about office hours.

I strongly believe (and this has been reinforced by discussions with colleagues) that many of said policies, including office hours, exist largely as a punishment for the perceived misbehavior of certain faculty members past and present. Rather than the dean or provost taking said faculty aside and saying “cut it out and behave like a professional adult,” the preferred solution is instead to impose a policy on everyone regardless of their past miscreant behavior, knowing full-well that the miscreants will just misbehave (albeit within the new, arbitrary rules) in the future anyway.