Thursday, January 08, 2009
When Professors Vanish
Every so often, usually around this time of year, an adjunct who knows he's not coming back next semester simply vanishes. No grades turned in for the Fall class, no responses to emails or phone calls, just 'poof.' (I've never seen this happen with someone who had classes lined up for the following semester.) With no realistic prospect of continued employment, our short-term leverage for getting grades turned in is pretty weak. ("Give us the grades or...uh...just give us the grades!") Most people are professional enough that even if they don't like the pay, or the non-renewal, they still make the distinction between the students and the institution. But 'most' isn't 'all,' and the damage is real.
Most obviously, students are denied the timely credit they've earned. Sometimes that doesn't matter, as long as the credit eventually comes through, but sometimes they need it right away. Falling below the threshold of "successful academic progress" can have consequences for financial aid, academic probation/dismissal, and employer reimbursements, among other things. Delays in posting grades also hurt students who are sending out transfer applications, since deadlines are unforgiving and receiving schools generally assume that any glitch in the application reflects on the student. And it wreaks havoc with any course in a chain of prerequisites, since nobody knows who passed and who didn't.
In terms of getting back at the college, the extra work generated by late grades usually doesn't fall on the intended targets. The registrar's office does the on-time grades through 'batch' processing; anything late has to be done manually. Financial aid works much the same way. (Financial aid has it worse, since pots of money can be exhausted by the time the late grades are changed.) Neither office has anything to do with setting adjunct pay scales, but they're the ones that do the heavy lifting when this happens.
The post-finals 'poof' is the worst kind. Back at my first administrative gig, I saw adjuncts walk away mid-semester. That was bad, but at least at that point it was possible to address the students as a group, find a sub, and 'look for points.' (Whenever something along these lines happens, I've taken the position that we should do our best to hold the students as harmless as possible.) After final exams, though, there's no clean and painless way to address the students as a group. At that point, too, some fairly substantial components of the final grade are typically missing -- the final exam and/or final paper or project -- so it's tough to assign any sort of reasonable value to what they can show.
I don't make any grand claims for the kind of teacher I was, but I can honestly say that doing something like this never occurred to me. Even in the worst adjunct gigs, when I soured on entire institutions, I never left the students hanging. So when someone did, I was initially dumbstruck. It was so far past reasonable that I couldn't even piece together a coherent response.
(Before the flaming, I'll just stipulate that I'm not talking about an organized work stoppage. I consider that a different issue. This is action by a single person.)
If we get through January without this happening, I'll consider it a great start to the year.
A possible solution, however, would perhaps also be helpful to adjuncts. Making grade reporting more standardized would really help. When I was finally able to use a standardized, pre-set gradebook on Blackboard it was great, no more setting it up for me, and the students could see their grades, and in a pinch so could someone else (undergrad chair, a dean...). This isn't just an adjunct problem, what happens when a professor dies or goes off the deep end and runs away to Mexico? People would have to break passwords and sift through piles of paper to get what they need. Missing papers and exams are another issue, although when I have office space I tend to leave those kinds of things on campus, so office space might help as well.
It's crap like this that makes it harder for adjuncts who really care about their work and the students.
It is also a good reason to give adjuncts computer access (some don't have it) and at least some time-share part of an office -- because you might find the assignments there.
This past year our institution saw a tenured professor leave midsemester after a big go-round with the administration which had quite a bit to do with oversized personalities and egos clashing and very little to do with the ostensible reason for the battle ("academic freedom"). He eventually lost, so he quit, taking with him all the students' midterms and attendance and grade rosters to punish the administration for their "recalcitrant" stance on faculty freedom. His classes were divided up amongst various adjuncts to fill out the semester, but we (I was one) were basically starting from square one in a sixteen week class in week ten.
And the students were FURIOUS, having done all that work and suddenly it was gone and counted for nothing. And of course their fury was directed at those of us who took over, as if we had anything to do with his refusal to turn over grades. And we were strictly limited by the administration in what we were allowed to say to the students (to a certain extent, rightly, as it was a personnel matter, but it was badly handled w/r/t internal communication).
He continued to pop up around town telling his ex-students all kinds of stories of his part in the affair that were greatly exaggerated and cast him as the white knight. And those of us among his colleagues who took over the classes he abandoned -- even we were cast as part of the evil establishment he was sticking it to! Collaborators with the Nazi administration, if you will.
I had greatly admired this man, so the whole situation, in addition to being quite stressful, was very disillusioning.
Back on the market, he got good recs from the institution despite the manner of their parting -- because he lawyered up and made threats about lawsuits if they passed on bad info. So he's basically getting away consequence-free.
It's all left a very sour taste in my mouth.
I'm pregnant and due 10 days after finals are over, so this is something I'm thinking a lot about (and actually mean to write to DD to get commentatorial advice generally). This is my first pregnancy, so I don't know what to expect, and I do know fetuses are rotten at reading calendars and may refuse to abide by those 10 days.
I have a super-supportive department -- all the administrative personnel are women who had children while working in academia -- so I've had a lot of support and guidance. What I'm doing right now is rearranging my syllabuses and prepping lessons for the last two weeks of class so that the last two weeks could be very easily covered by subs if necessary. And if not, well, we'll have all the fun stuff clustered at the end. :)
But I'm definitely thinking about those other things, attendance rosters and gradebooks and so forth.
Long, long ago, at my institution an (untenured) assistant professor was told about the beginning of November that his contract would not be renewed. He did not come back from the Thanksgiving break (and, oddly enough, his students apparently said nothing--I wasn't here then, so this is hearsay) and he did not turn in grades. (And this was before on-line course management systems, and he did not use a spreadsheet for his grades.)
I don't know what the resolution was, but there's a coda. His name was still in the schedule of classes for the next fall, and two of the three classes he was scheduled to teach drew 8 and 4 students...I think the word got out, but the price was paid by his replacement.
In our program (Human Services), it would have devastating consequences for the students, as most of our courses are prereqs for the next level -- if they don't have a grade for 101, for example, they can't enroll for 201 and without 201, no 301.
Eyebrows McGee makes a good point that this can happen in other circumstances such as death. Every prof is not well-organized - anyone who has worked in academia knows that. I once had to take over for an adjunct who was fired mid semester for ridiculous reasons. Personally, I think the guy wanted to be let go. His spreadsheets were incoherent and were plastered with nasty comments about students. He left me no information other than random grades. I had to ask the students what they learned and took it from there. The semester worked out because I was full-time; I knew the curricula and taught 20 out of the 30 courses offered in the department.
My point is that when this situation happens full-timers need to be assigned to the class rather than adjuncts. An adjunct should be assigned to teach only if he/she has been employed by the department for a long time and has taught many of the courses in the curricula.
If not, someone above your pay grade should have seen to it that the college has a contract spelling out the penalty for non-performance of duties. Heck, if you pay the person electronically, you don't even have to sue. You can just pull the money back out of the bank account and force them to sue you for what they didn't earn. (Automatic deposit can work both ways.)
We had a professor die in mid semester. In that case, the only problem would have been if the grade books and/or encrypted flash drive went up in flames during the accident, but most sensible people have backups somewhere so no single point of failure would make it impossible to grade their class.
BTW, I don't think our Dean was ever trained on what to do when a Prof dies, but he handled it very well. He visited the class the next day with a college counselor and the replacement instructor, to explain the situation and make it clear what accommodations and assistance were available.
My advice to the pregnant prof is to simply make it clear to the students that you have planned for what might happen.
There's obviously no excuse or reason, its simply a pathology that allows someone to think that such behavior is somehow OK. I'm glad that in my 10 years as Dean this has only happened once.
Over the years I have found the following things reduce the rate:
1. Check in. If I understand the cc model correctly, adjuncts may teach a whole term without senior-level feedback. If they teach at odd hours they may not even really see their peers.
This sense of isolation can do strange things. I know there are students there, but it is not quite the same.
I think direct, friendly contact in Oct, Nov, etc. ("Hey it's been a month... wanted to check in and see if you had any concerns; hey I like this in your syllabus") can go a long way. I realize as a dean you probably can't do this personally, but perhaps you could get some adjunct mentors or something going.
2. Never underestimate the power of a cup of coffee as you near deadline. The less experienced the writer, the more necessary this kind of thing is, in my field. It's like when they're actually staring the deadline in the face, they freeze. I can see how a stack of grading could be similar. Show up at the class at the end of it. Shake hands. Smile. Offer coffee. I kind of feel envious that you at least know where your adjuncts ARE. :)
3. Be available. "Grades are due in 4 (3, 2,) days! If you are struggling please let me know."
4. If/when they miss the deadline, your first message ASAP should be: You missed the deadline but this is OKAY just PLEASE let us help you finish this up. Some people, upon missing a deadline by 5 minutes, give up. When really, ok, it's a pain, but you just want the stuff.
5. When in doubt, put the subject line of your email as: Are you okay? It's just such a human question. Obviously then the email has to ask them if they are okay as well. But if it's corporatese, it's much easier to ignore.
The adjunct who runs off, and leaves behind a full-time pal incessantly making excuses for him.
Happened once. Guy is hired on FTP's vouch. End of the semester, poof. Out of the country. No grades entered, no grade sheets turned in, nothing. And he had direct deposit, so there was not even that leverage. (No complaints about him as a teacher; had this happened I would have been happy to have him back.)
So: we go through May, June, half of July, I'm getting it from all sides. Students are calling me and screaming into the phone. Under the guise of "all matters such as these decided in the students' favor" I ask the dean if I can just give all the students an A and have gone with it. Nothing doing. Meanwhile, FTB is over my shoulder, asking me, Am I sure I didn't lose them?
Finally, around the middle of July, a crumpled grade sheet shows up in my box. No note, no apology, nothing entered online.
Second worst of all, FTB is up in my face, asking, Am I SURE they haven't been in my box all along?
Worst of all: two semesters later, I go on sabbatical. FTB takes over temporarily, and--under the dean's nose--hires him back!
I really like what the Anon editor said about keeping in touch as a preventative measure. Most terms the only time I have contact with anyone besides a dept secretary is if there is a problem and I do experience an extreme sense of isolation from anyone but the students. While it hasn't yet fostered feelings of deep-seated anger to the point of packing up and leaving, it is distinctly odd to feel so detached and it would be nice to feel included and offered some support.
Just a thought.
This is a cost of doing business for your exploitative model. You know the model is exploitative; you're trying to change it. You know you're counting on the professionalism of people that you as well as I do you intend to hose repeatedly.
This is simply a cost of that model. Either pay your adjuncts enough such that they can consider themselves professionals or expect this to happen regularly.
But more. This doesn't happen with adjuncts who have courses for the Spring. It happens with adjuncts who have not been renewed. They think of themselves as having been fired. They have to find another job. If they find one which they'd have to start before the Fall semester finishes, they're supposed to turn it down to complete the Fall semester with you? The one who fired them?
How about this: Say a bank forecloses on a house -- or raises the rate on credit cards -- if they later decide the rate was too low, since they now justifiably hate the borrower. Legal or not, is that simply the cost of doing business with banks in competitive markets?
Of course not and it's laughable to suggest as much. This could be a huge burden for the hapless students and, under any reasonable circumstance, really beyond the pale.