The Shelf Life of Total B.S.

With self-appointed vigilantes gunning down unarmed teenagers, elected officials rushing to pass laws enforcing repression of women’s rights, a spring so surreally warm in the eastern half of the country that the blooms have come and gone like time-lapse photography, CEOs who earn 327 times the wages of average workers (at least those that still have jobs), a decade of endless war burning through the national budget, civil war searing the Middle East, et cetera, it is hard to understand why David C. Levy has singled out my higher education colleagues for scapegoating in his editorial, “Do College Professors Work Hard Enough?

His editorial, which appears in this morning’s Washington Post and was apparently printed in a smattering of other newspapers around the country, blames the rising costs of higher education on the supposedly cushy schedules and salaries of faculty. Levy, who defines himself as an “educator,” does not list a single teaching position in his entire biography. David C. Levy is a former director of Washington, DC’s Corcoran Gallery and is now president of Cambridge Information Group, a firm best known for acquiring companies in the information industry – including ProQuest, a staple of library databases, and Sotheby’s.

Even if I were to grant that Dr. Levy is a credible source on workload in higher education – which I don’t – his argument rests entirely on factual errors and unsound logic that wouldn’t pass muster in a student paper. For example, he singles out my institution, Montgomery College, as an example of what is supposedly wrong with higher education:

Maryland’s Montgomery College (an excellent two-year community college) reports its average full professor’s salary as $88,000, based on a workload of 15 hours of teaching for 30 weeks. Faculty members are also expected to keep office hours for three hours a week. The faculty handbook states: “Teaching and closely related activities are the primary responsibilities of instructional faculty.” While the handbook suggests other responsibilities such as curriculum development, service on committees and community outreach, notably absent from this list are research and scholarship.

Okay. First of all, only 50% of the employees at MC are teaching faculty, according to the same page Levy cites in his $88,000 figure. What the website doesn’t say, but which would have been easy for Levy to find out with even cursory research, is that of those, only about half are full time, and of those, few are full professors. (The starting salary for an instructor is 56,000.) Interestingly, he does not attribute any higher education costs to our having 20 vice presidents, 11 of which were added in the past year. In the meantime, faculty and staff are heading into our fourth consecutive year without a pay increase, and tuition will be raised yet again.

Having misstated salaries and composition of the MC workforce, Levy goes on to offer distorted information on faculty workload. His contention that full time faculty only spend 15 hours a week teaching is especially outrageous. Levy writes: “Even in the unlikely event that they devote an equal amount of time to grading and class preparation [as they do to teaching], their workload is still only 36 to 45 percent of that of non-academic professionals.”

First of all, for most faculty, teaching “15 hours a week” means teaching 5 different classes, most of which have at least 25 students. In my department, we routinely spend 20-30 minutes commenting per student essay – and easily double that on the 8-10 page essays in transfer composition. We assign five essays a semester, minimum. Although I’m not a math whiz, my calculator says it adds up to 200-325 hours per semester on grading alone. For a 15-week semester, that’s an additional 13-20 hours a week just on grading. That’s not counting office hours, meetings with students outside of office hours, or prepping. If Levy thinks he can do a good job teaching without spending at least a couple of hours outside of class for every hour in class, he has no business calling himself an educator – and, based on the inaccuracies this essay, it’s clear that he needs to spend a little extra time fact-checking what he puts in print as well.

As for the “curriculum development, service on committees and community outreach” our faculty handbook “suggests,” Levy might not realize that these activities are not only part of our evaluations – in other words, that would-be slackers still have to participate – but are intrinsic parts of ensuring that our students learn. In an average week, most of us spend at least a few hours in committee meetings and a few more hours doing work for our committees. We engage in professional development so that we can be more effective in the classroom. And some of us, despite a lack of financial support from our institutions, still find time to engage in scholarship.

Nevertheless, none of these things are what I feel I do.

Most community colleges have open enrollment, which means that anyone with a dream of going to college can come through our doors and get an education. Seventy percent of community college students are considered “nontraditional,” meaning they have families, work more than 20 hours a week, and/or were out of school for a few years before they came back. Around half are “underprepared” for college coursework as determined by placement testing; but a large percentage of those whom the tests deem “prepared” still struggle with a variety of competencies necessary for success, including academic vocabulary, college-level reading skills, study habits, and communication skills. On top of the academic challenges, we regularly have students who routinely deal with hunger, health problems, homelessness, lack of childcare, legal trouble, family problems, and lack of funds.

What our students also have, though, is the will to change their lives despite – and often because of – all these obstacles. I know I speak for many of my colleagues when I say, put simply, that I am honored to teach them. Our goal is to help students meet their goals, regardless of their preparation for college work. We don’t just teach classes; we teach individual students. Helping every student succeed takes a lot more time, and is a lot more worthwhile, than showing up in the classroom for a few hours and then vanishing. As one of our former students put it (AsperGirl, posting at 8:31 on March 25) in her reply to the Washington Post article, “I frankly got a [sic] better teaching at the community college. The professors pay more individual attention, work harder to communicate their vision and love of their craft/study and make efforts to make more extracurricular time and activities for their students. Frankly, at UMD there were few professors at UMD who didn’t begrudge students even the time allocated to office hours, as if their time was too valuable to spend with the grimy hordes.”

The idea that teachers get away with being overpaid slackers is a fantasy whose popularity endures despite abundant evidence to the contrary. I am sure it must be more appealing to blame teachers, with whom we’ve all had personal experience, rather than one-percenters or budget-cutting legislators, who seem to be protected by a bubble reserved for the already wealthy and powerful: people like David C. Levy, who has published an editorial that relies on speculation and cherry-picked support but taps into ignorance and prejudice.

We could follow his advice to increase the teaching load, decrease salaries, and cut education budgets even more than we have already, but since the education funding problems really come from legislative cuts and budget freezes, bloated administrations, and skyrocketing enrollments, we’ll see little, if any, improvement to the funding situation. Meanwhile, faculty’s effectiveness will come up against our natural physical limits. Privileged one-percenters like Levy will buy their kids’ way into institutions that support quality teaching, and those students who can only afford public college will suffer.

I am sure we can find Levy a job as an adjunct instructor so that he can see firsthand how actual faculty spend their time. He might even be a better “educator” once he does some genuine teaching instead of sitting in an office orchestrating media mergers. Don’t get me wrong – community college teaching is a dream job, but only for the right sort of person. My guess is that Levy wouldn’t last a semester once he realized how different our jobs are from the outright fantasy he has constructed for the Post.

In the meantime, let’s call Levy’s argument what it is: bullshit.

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Lessons from the First Decade

The Friday before last, I celebrated the tenth anniversary of the first class I ever taught. Well, to be perfectly honest, I thought about celebrating – in between answering email, grading essays, and scrambling to finish three separate projects by their deadlines – and wished I had time to blog in honor of the occasion.

People seem to have a widespread misconception that, unlike in every other profession, good teachers spring into shape like instant Ramen rather than going through a period of training, learning, and sometimes-painful introspection. As a mentor and superb teacher who had been in the classroom more than twenty years told me, “My first year, I thought I did pretty well. Then after a few more years passed, I thought, ‘Well, the students learned in spite of me.’” Even though multiple colleagues told me I was “a natural,” I still had a huge amount to learn. I assume that once I’ve taught two decades I will look ruefully back on how little I knew after my first one, precisely because experience matters. Here are some of the (hard) lessons I’ve learned so far.

10. Don’t put policies in your syllabus that you don’t have the heart to enforce. During my first year teaching, I tried to strike a balance between the faculty who wanted me to impose military-style discipline (there were a lot of veterans at my first job) and those who told me, “But your emotions are part of your pedagogy!” Classroom management is like training a cat: either be consistent, or just let the cat take charge.

9.  It’s best to be gullible. I am an English professor, not an FBI agent. I prefer to believe what my students say, even if it is likely that they are not telling me the truth. And, if I can’t prove that a statement is untrue, it’s best to pretend to believe it. The most outrageous example occurred when a student known to be a compulsive liar claimed to have a brain tumor. When he showed up at class, seemingly unable to walk without assistance from other students, I took his word for it. One of my colleagues, on the other hand, required medical documentation. By the next class, he was fully recovered. However, I would not have wanted to be the one to say “I don’t believe you” to someone with a serious illness.

8. Most plagiarism is accidental. When I learned to cite sources, there were more or less only three kinds we were allowed to use in essays: books, magazines, and newspapers. Today’s students are exposed to literally hundreds of different genres, some of which themselves contain plagiarism, sampling, and remixing. The idea that ideas as well as words can be plagiarized comes as a particular shock when I cover academic integrity. While some students flagrantly copy whole papers and hope to get away with it, most are genuinely confused.

7. There is no such thing as review. You are either teaching – as if students have either never learned or have forgotten what you’re talking about – or reinventing. One of my worst-ever teaching mistakes (Fall 2004, my first time teaching developmental English, is burned in my memory) involved rushing through material I thought students would know if they had met the course prerequisites. It took us about a month to recover, but I never made that mistake again.

6. Less is more. One of my favorite student comments of all time (I think it was Winter 2004) came during the class before an essay was due. I knew some students had been confused by the assignment, but I had explained it multiple times and thought they now understood. About a third of the way through class, though, one of my most conscientious students asked, “I know you have said we need to include X and Y. But what are we supposed to do in this paper?” Oops.

5. Don’t work harder for your students to pass than they do themselves. As I have mentioned, I teach at a community college, and many students face serious obstacles to completing an education. There’s a fine line between reaching out to a struggling student and, well, overreaching. Films about teachers often focus on recalcitrant students who respond to a teacher’s caring and mentorship (Good Will Hunting, with multiple people chasing after the troubled-genius janitor played by Matt Damon stands out especially), but in real life, I have found that if I put more effort into the student’s passing than the student herself, outcomes are almost always bad no matter how noble my intentions. Consequently, I have learned to let passing be the student’s accomplishment, not mine.

4. Teaching is the fun part of your job. Committee work is the price of admission to a classroom, and there is no better antidote to frustrating college politics (or, for that matter, exhaustion, aggravating personal situations, etc.) than an hour spent teaching students.

3. Dress for the mess. I truly admire my colleagues who can wear white to work and not stain it with coffee, dry-erase markers, ink, copier toner, or any of life’s other little accidents. Come to think of it, I’m not sure I actually have colleagues who wear white to work. Public speaking may be the most common phobia, but even faculty who get up in front of people every day don’t want to feel like the spotlight is on…spots. Prints and layers are good. Black is usually good unless you are teaching with old-fashioned chalk, in which case you’ll look like you’ve been in a paintball fight by the end of class.

2. Leap. Even a well-planned class can sometimes go awry, and at such times, you are lucky to be in a profession where you can change direction without warning or approval.

1. Don’t let what you’ve learned override your passion. When I was a new teacher, I had love for my subject, but no experience. Once I had some experience, I became obsessive about getting class right – being structured, sequential, and clear – and not leaning on spontaneity when I should have good planning. While these goals were all worthwhile, I realized last summer that, somewhere along the line, my perfectionism had led me to leave my passion at the door when I stepped inside a classroom. This year, I realized I’d come full circle: my magic ingredient was the one I’d had with me all along.

I feel like I could easily come up with several dozen more lessons. So, colleagues, what bits of hard-won knowledge would you include on your list?