Tuesday, December 15, 2009


Ask My Readers: Getting Out of Dodge

A longtime correspondent writes:

Something that may spark some responses from your readers.

One of the things about our campus culture that gets to me now and then is the “It’s OK if you’re not on campus all that much” attitude of many of the full-time faculty. Historically, this has been an institutional thing. When I interviewed for my job here—in 1987—the chief academic officer told me that we tried to schedule classes so that the faculty only needed to be on campus two days a week. I was stunned into silence.

It’s not quite that bad now, but the attitude persists. I recently served on an appeals committee which had to deal with a situation in which a faculty member did not receive notice of something because he had left campus for the winter break immediately following his last final exam (on a Thursday; the final exam period did not end until Saturday and grades were due on Monday—and can be submitted electronically). After the break, the campus re-opened on the first Monday in January, for late registration, and so on. He did not return until the following Saturday, for a department meeting, which is when he received the notice. And which he received after the response date had passed.

His position is that expecting him to be around after his last final, or before the last possible moment before classes resumed, is unreasonable. That, therefore, he was not really notified. And, therefore, that the penalty he incurred from not responding should be invalid. Implicitly, his department also seems to take the position that he bears no responsibility for this.

My curiosity is aroused. Does anyone else work in a place in which this sort of culture exists? Is tolerated? If so, how do you work around it?

With variations, I've seen this enough times not to be shocked by it. Disappointed, yes, but not shocked. (And you get away with having department meetings on a Saturday? I'm impressed!)

This actually isn't the worst I've seen. At a school that had a designated final exam period, during which classes were not held and final exams were supposed to be given, I saw a dispiriting number of professors give their own finals the week before so they could get out of Dodge on the first day of exam period. It came to light when a student came by to complain about having three final exams on the same day, during a week when she shouldn't have had any. She was right.

At that time, final grades still had to be submitted on paper. The secretary in Academic Affairs mentioned in passing that she usually got about a dozen professors' final grades before exam period started. And those were just the ones brazen enough to hand them in.

In the case of my correspondent, it looks like the professor in question is reading every angle to his own advantage, then trying to claim the moral high ground. I don't think he's actually breaking any rules, but I wouldn't cut him much slack, either. At most colleges now, you don't have to travel to campus physically to get your email. If he really couldn't be bothered to check his email for a month, I'd have a hard time with the "but I wasn't notified!" argument.

As a cultural issue, though, this is maddeningly hard to address. If you don't have a formal attendance system for faculty -- and heaven knows I don't want to work anywhere that does -- then proving non-attendance becomes a nasty surveillance issue. The savvier faculty will eschew final exams altogether in the name of final projects or papers, then claim academic freedom if challenged. (To be fair, it's entirely possible to give final papers or projects without violating the spirit of exam week. I'm just saying that those who like to maximize their breaks often resort to this method. The honest ones will often use the designated exam time to return the papers or projects.) There's also the inconvenient fact that many students prefer the earlier end, too, so relying on student reports will tell you only a small fraction of what's going on.

At Proprietary U, one of the more civilized traditions involved free bagels and coffee for faculty during finals. One room was set aside as an impromptu lounge, and we could blow off steam there between rounds of grading. It was a small thing, but it helped, and it made the whole enterprise a bit less lonely. Food has a way of softening some rough edges.

I'm curious to hear from my wise and worldly readers. Have you seen an effective way to prevent people jumping the gun on the end of the semester?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator (and/or my wise and worldly readers!) at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

The bottom line is that faculty jobs aren't 9-5, 50 weeks/year kinds of jobs. I'd love to be able to get all of my responsibilities during the semester done in 40 hours -- and I'd love to have the kind of informal down time many 9-5 jobs provide... in exchange for the weekends/ nights grading and teaching (I regularly teach 2 night classes), I earn some extra time off during winter break, spring break and over the summer. The alternative is to have me on a clock -- and pay me overtime. I highly doubt the administration would like to do that... and, as long as that's the case, I can't reasonably be expected to be on campus outside of the semester/finals time.

I think the case presented above is not an example of a slacking professor. The example seems to indicate something left in the instructor's office mailbox -- or, at least it does not specify school e-mail. Also, the professor in question was on campus during finals week and came back as scheduled for classes. I don't think it is reasonable to expect a response over break. Rather, I think the administrator/staff person planning the project had a duty to try harder to contact the prof or simply didn't plan in advance. That is not the professor's fault.

This is NOT like a situation I observe on occasion, in which the instructor does all their exams etc.. during the regular semester, thus taking an extra week of break during finals week. While I don't think it's a problem for instructors to have papers due in place of a final exam -- I do think that students should have until their final exam date to complete coursework.
Where I teach, final projects are supposed to be due at the end of exam week. They can't be due during classes. Meanwhile, I agree with Inside, above, that this professor seems to have done nothing wrong - he stayed for his exam and returned for a Saturday (!) department meeting. Unless Dean Dad is right that the notice was an email, in which case he should have checked his email a time or two during break.
I think for those of us who are often attending to work matters outside 9-5, the equation of "on-campus" = "at work" is not only weird, but a bit insulting. If I go the extra mile to pull something out for a student outside of class time; when higher management (who generally have no idea what I am doing day to day) have a fit because I've decided to grade from home or go and work on a paper somewhere, it's a bit tough to take.

In my own administrative life I know that sometimes you have to be able to reach people quickly. In the electronic age, I suggest the best policy is to require availability during days of employment, and to set reasonable expectations about what those might be. For example, I expect people to be available by phone and email within 24 hours unless advised otherwise, and it's a pretty rare case that this doesn't work out.

Ass DD suggests, if you go into surveillance mode, you might want to make sure you're capturing all the beyond-the-call-of-duty work from your good people as well as the slacking off from your bad people, otherwise you'll be giving people more reasons to feel unwanted and undervalued.
To address your ultimate question, yes. I've seen a faculty member placed on the "on notice" board for nonfeasance for not meeting class during the scheduled exam time as required by contract, policy, and law. (Final exam days, like regular exam dasy, are included when counting "instruction" hours in both states I have taught in.) But the professor in question did not "jump the gun" in that sense.

Our college has no requirement that you show up on campus during final's week for anything other than giving your exams. Office hours end with the regular semester, for example. Ditto for the days after finals, when we used to have to physically turn in grade sheets for the grading work we did over the weekend if we had late finals.

I can only think of one time that we had a meeting scheduled on "grade" day, and that was given heavy early notice, plausible excuses and absentee ballots accepted, and food was provided.

A similar policy applies during the preparation days prior to the first day of class except for the times when we have specific assigned duties like advising or meeting with adjuncts. There are no scheduled office hours so we can work at home.

We do have one rule, however: The Dean has to know how to get in contact with us (no matter where we are) during those days when we are working but not required to be on campus.

Which brings me to the case that appeared in your in box. Like ItPF and klk, I don't see how it was the professor's fault that ze did not see the notice, particularly as it was unclear how it was delivered. A flyer or envelope in a campus mailbox? Nonsense. E-mail? Depends. But if it was critical enough, why wasn't it sent "return receipt" with a cell phone followup when it did not get answered or maybe even seen? I know lots of faculty who do not read e-mail after exams are given or after grades are posted, and a chair or dean who has ever taught a class will know why.

Finally, whether a 2-day schedule is odd or not depends on whether it is a CC or a university. It is common for faculty to schedule teaching days and research days at a university, and it is perfectly reasonable (sometimes even necessary) to spend writing days at home. Our CC has the expectation (in policy) that you will be available to students every day of the week, but it is possible to have those "office" hours on Blackboard. The bean counters don't mind because they can check virtual hours easier than physical ones.
You mention some interesting parameters - especially an expectation of a "critical issue" characterized by immediacy BETWEEN semesters. While we need deadlines, I find it sometimes interesting that some issues become "immediate" at odd times outside the regular semesters.

Then, of course, there is the old 9 to 5 punching the clock argument versus how many hours most of us really work.

Regarding finals week - even when we went to online grade reports, we have less than 48 hours after the last finals are GIVEN to submit grades. I'm still trying to figure out how that deadline schedule encourages thorough evaluation of complex student learning at the very end of the semester.

There's also the issue of some "slow starts" to the semester to account for students changing classes, paying fees, etc. In other words, the message is given "not to do too much that is important" during the first week or two of classes so that students can figure out everything. That eventually bleeds over into professors not doing anything but reading the syllabus (literally) to students and not really getting started for the first few weeks. I don't know of any other job that allows you to not get rolling at the very beginning and also encourage the concept of "I didn't miss anything, did I?" from students who regularly avoid classes until a week or two into the semester.

Appreciate your point about opening the barn door on "checking up".

And what about those of us who carry quite a bit of the load behind the scenes that ensure students are served that they (and our colleagues ;-( ) often do not understand. (accreditation paperwork and reviews come to mind. .. .) And, much of this requires time off campus and being away from home overnight.

Multiple complex issues here. We're dealing with people, right?
Our cc policy is classes MUST meet once during exam week. Instructors can use this time to give an exam or let students present final projects or perform interpretive dances, but we have to meet once.
I agree with the other commenters that, while the correspondent's university has a problematic culture that encourages faculty to be on campus as little as possible, the professor in the case at hand is not at fault. I regularly get annoyed at some of my colleagues who are almost never in their offices, but I don't see anything wrong with leaving after one's regularly scheduled final and not returning until a couple days before classes start, provided one is fully prepared for the first day of class and perhaps checks email occasionally during the interim.

Turning to the broader question, I think such faculty cultures are pretty common in places where many faculty have substantial commutes (and sometimes housing prices or other issues make it impossible to live near campus). Also, at more research oriented places, the rewards system does favor hiding out at home and doing research/writing (for those disciplines where this is possible) and as long as those are the incentives people will continue to do this. How one would change the culture is a very interesting question --- Boston University instituted some formal policies about this a couple of years ago; anyone know if they had any real effect?
To clarify a point or two in the original. In fairness to the faculty member involved, it was no email, it was an actual piece of paper placed in his campus mailbox. And, we didn't cut him much slack.
For the record, students can also be pissed about exams late in exam week. At XU, the last official exam is scheduled for Dec 23. I can promise you that if I'd had an exam scheduled for that day, I would have done it during the last day of class because I don't want to deal with a group of pissed and bitter students who don't want to leave on Xmas Eve. (Fortunately, my exam is scheduled for Dec 17.)
"The bottom line is that faculty jobs aren't 9-5, 50 weeks/year kinds of jobs. I'd love to be able to get all of my responsibilities during the semester done in 40 hours ... The alternative is to have me on a clock -- and pay me overtime."

What, exactly, are these professional jobs that are 9-5, 40-hour weeks, with nothing taken home, that pay overtime?

Every professional I know -- doctors, lawyers, teachers, IT managers, you name it -- works far longer than 9 to 5, either takes work home or is on call, and is not paid overtime.

Incidentally, the local teacher's union is currently making the same complaint -- "you people don't understand: we may have a contractual workday of 6 hours, but we have to TAKE WORK HOME." To which I reply, WHO ON EARTH DOESN'T?
Having now read all the comments, I will express myself as amazed. While I agree that we are all fortunate enough to have jobs that allow us a great amount of flexibility, I have also always (personally) believed thata part of that job is being accessible both to my students and to my colleagues.

I am almost always around for several days after my final final, so that students with quetions about their grades can call me of come in and see me (we have a lot of students for whome email is not part of their culture, some of whom still do not have home PCs). And I'm almost alwasy around the week before classes begin, because we have a huge number of students who register then and who can use some advising help.

And, to be sure, I work better in my office than at home.

I obviously can't go into detail about the particular set of issues in dispute in the situation I mentioned, but I will say it did not hinge on his not being around for those few days. One thing that the insititution does not do (and with which I have some problem) is using registered mail/return receipt notification. I've been told that we don't do that because everyone would know that the news they were getting is bad news, and there is some history of using that method, having the faculty in question refuse delivery, and then claim than they never got anything. In some cases, it's hard to win.

Happy holidays, everyone.
Where I was at, this culture was alive and strong and compounded by teh fact that during summer months, we weren't on contract--our contracts were mid-Aug thru mid-June only and yet if a committee you were on was scheduled to meet, you were expected to be there.

During breaks, hell during WEEKENDS, it was impossible to get a hold of many of my peers. It's the weekend, they don't need to check their e-mail. (Recently I had a challenging classroom situation and my immediate supervisor was completely unavailable from Friday AM-Monday afternoon. If the campus is closed, they don't need to respond??) I have another peer who doesn't even have e-mail access at home, so once he leaves after class he's completely unavailable and we're all supposed to respect that?

There are no easy answers, as we know what ITPF said is true--our jobs lack normal down time.

Regarding having work done--my students were told they could turn in final papers up to the exam day and they all, ALL turned it in the last week of class. Each semester. For some types of classes having a formal final scheduled doesn't make sense.
At the university where I teach (in Canada), there is a contractually mandated number of vacation weeks, and, so long as we don't take them during the semester or the exam period itself, we can take them whenever. There is also a contractually mandated number of hours faculty is expected to be on campus, but the way those hours are scheduled depends on our teaching schedule, office hours, and committees. From my observation, no one really checks, but problematic absenteeism seems negligible from where I sit.

I'd also note that some professional organizations tend to hold their big annual meeting between the exam week and Christmas break or between Christmas and the start of the winter semester. And if membership/attendance are considered for tenure and promotion, then it seems unreasonable to either complain about faculty exodus during that period.

And to the anonymous commenter who disparages those of us who complain about unpaid overtime, plenty of professionals -- nurses, doctors, engineers, architects -- aren't required to bring work home outside their ordinary working hours. Those that do tend to be compensated for it -- either in time off or in higher salaries.

During breaks, hell during WEEKENDS, it was impossible to get a hold of many of my peers. It's the weekend, they don't need to check their e-mail.

You say that like it's a bad thing! What these people are doing is conducive to their mental and physical health. The behavior that you are expecting is not. (Work/life balance is a beautiful thing!)
"One thing that the insititution does not do (and with which I have some problem) is using registered mail/return receipt notification."


You put a termination notice with a time limit for action in an open, publicly accessible campus mailbox after the professor gave the last exam of the semester with a deadline that expires over break, and wonder if the appeal is justified? You can't even prove it was in the mailbox the entire time.

"I have also always (personally) believed thata part of that job is being accessible both to my students and to my colleagues."

They are not my students once the semester is over, and my colleagues and future or former students can reach me better by e-mail than they can by dropping by an office over break. After all, the students went home and the faculty are more likely to be in a lab or at home than in the office.
I find I work better in the office than at home so I normally come in to the office once after finals and once before semester in-service(the beginning of our required on-campus status each semester). But many of my peers don't. I think the faculty member is correct in asserting that leaving a letter in a physical mail box on campus after his finals schedule was concluded and expecting him to get the letter before the start of the next semester is ridiculous.

I also think that I shouldn't have to be available on weekends unless I let the students know otherwise. Doctors, lawyers, vets, and IT people all have services that answer questions or are on-call in a rotating basis. They aren't available every weekend for 15, 16, 20 weeks in a row. At least none of the professionals I have needed to contact outside of normal office hours have been immediately available except in the one case where I was told otherwise beforehand and he immediately took my call.

We don't have a formal attendence policy and I wouldn't want to see that changed. I routinely leave later than most of the other faculty because I teach a science and we have labs that count as only one contact hour but take two or three in "real time". The music faculty are also on campus longer hours than others. As jealous as I am that some of the faculty get away with giving multiple choice tests, never taking work home, and sometimes even ignoring student emails, I still don't want a mandatory attendance policy. And anyone that expects me to come in multiple times during a semester break to check my office mail box, office voice mail, and/or deal with administrative tasks that could have been taken care of during my "normal work hours" is mad. I do all of that but the point is that it is my choice. I would really resent being told I had to and when.

Just an aside, I did the math my first year as a full time CC faculty. If you average out the time I spend working over just the number of weeks in a semester, I made an hour almost what a factory line worker would start at. If you average it over 50 weeks, I made less than minimum wage. Don't expect me to be in the office during the "breaks".

Maybe I am a little peevish about this topic but it has always distressed me that I make now with a Ph.D. about 80% what I made as a B.S. in industry 15 years ago. The only saving grace to the terrible wages are the holiday breaks and flexible schedule.
milo, when it's the last week of class, the campus is closed twice because of snow days and I can't contact a SINGLE PERSON to find out how to reschedule class, because effectively it was my last day of class, that's ridiculous. Students had work due, it's a CC, exclusively commuter college and I live 45 minutes away, so I can't just pop in. People should be available. Yes there is a balance and you shouldn't be working hours on end during the weekend, but it won't kill you to check your messages or e-mail to see if something requires immediate attention--especially when those are the only means to get ahold of anyone anymore.
There's avoidance and there's circumstance. If DD and the visitor who made the original query expect us to "spank" the professor in question for them, well, we're likely to look at it from the other perspective.

I have students who drop things off in my department mailbox or shove them under doors at random hours well after the due date and then email me demanding that I confirm that I received their work. I can't always do that if the university is closed down by the time I get their message.

I do my best to check in on campus but I won't guarantee to be in my office (especially open door) all day. It encourages a whole bunch of random stopping by and I can't talk now because I'm grading 235 students' work, thankyouverymuch. I'm getting tonnes done at home with just a few short visits in and out to the campus.

That said, some people play well by these rules. Others don't. To the original query: if your colleague is known to pull this crap regularly, then you have to up the ante and either send things to this individual as registered mail at home (or have the chair drop by in person/on phone with a follow-up). I would certainly hope that the institutional response isn't "let's just mandate more office hours" as if that will solve matters.
At our SLAC courses are required to meet during the scheduled exam period, even if no exam is being given. The main purpose, it seems to me, is to prevent students from purchasing airplane tickets for early exits (and then asking to take the exam early). I actually think this policy is a good one.

However, there is a catch. Final exams start on Saturday, with the exam period corresponding to 8am classes scheduled for 6-9pm! I have no words to describe what a bad idea this is. And since only math classes meet that early, the curriculum committee (which, naturally, schedules the exam period and is laden with humanities profs) has no reason to change it.
I was wondering when salaries would come up.

Yes, the faculty member is completely in the right; academic salaries are so low that expectations of professionalism are absurd. The colleges should consider themselves fortunate that grades get turned in on time for most classes.
At my uni, the mail room with our boxes is closed from Christmas until after New Years. Faculty can get into the outside entrance door and the door to their office, but not into the separate mail room.
Oh MAN do I love academe. This whole situation made me run the range of emotions from self-righteousness, to hopelessness, to nihilism (if that's and emotion?), to just completely joyous laughter. Well done everyone.

As for the mythical professionals out there doing 40 hour work weeks? Yes, I can confirm their existence. You are thinking of non-exempt professionals. They are not like unicorns! Try http://www.bls.gov/oes/2008/may/figure2.pdf, which shows that about 25% of US employed folk are in 14 occupations. All of which are "boring" hourly-type jobs. Now my little family is proudly (and partially) supported by the illustrious food service trade. Bringing work home means smelling like chicken grease. Mmmmm! (note the sarcastic "mmm" sound.)

Look, here's my thought and experience. In every job there are responsibilities. Sometimes they clearly state that the responsibility includes being present, in person. Sometimes it doesn't, but the job responsibilities can't be met any other way. Sometimes the job doesn't specifically require physical presence, and the tasks can be done without it. If that's the case, then rock on in your coffee shop/bus/house/island getaway. If not, then get a new job.

I have no problem with faculty doing more or less work than 40hrs/wk, nor do I care where they do it. My problem is when they are not meeting basic responsibilities for the position ("No, I can't meet with my dissertating student between Nov and Jan, because I don't come to campus.") This is the exact same problem as, "This on-campus office is my private workspace, and I simply hate taking emails or calls during the workday. So I won't. Ever."

Just do the freakin' job. Yes, for all of us who go above and beyond, it would be cool if we were paid for it. Or noticed at all. But for the rest (and of course it's none of YOU reading this), quit whining when you can't get your fried deli chicken. I'm working from home today.
I have been adjuncting for year and work in a department that is project based and the traditional written exam is not that applicable. An exam can be written, but it is mere formality that anything else. That said, whenever possible I have final projects due the last official class. Some colleges change their finals so that they are not scheduled during regular class time and this is problematic for adjuncts that work at other colleges or in non-academic fields.
Students don't want to be there during finals week either. The only problem is when more exam time is needed than class time.

Over the past year or two the college I am currently teaching at is requiring my department to bring the students in during finals week. Apparently other departments were annoyed that due to our project based system we were getting away with not working during finals week.
I enjoy reading your blog...
My two cents.
I find it absurd that such an important, time-sensitive communication wasn't done by email. I'll go days without checking my mailbox even when I am in campus, but I check email every day of my life.

I also find it perfectly appropriate for a tenure-track professor to tune out distractions outside of research - this means students too. Tenure is based on research (at least where I am) and a professor's on-campus day is filled with a minefield of unnecessary distractions. No, I won't read your third re-write. No, I won't discuss how you can put together an independent research project in Africa in the next three days before you leave. No, I won't discuss women's cinema in the Balkans next Monday. Sorry. None of this counts, and until I get tenure, I have no interest.
Sounds to me like whoever posted the notice in the mailbox knew what they were doing. If you want to avoid an appeal, post a notice when peole won't get it.
I wouldn't think the faculty member were responsible. If exams are done, and there is no written obligation to be on campus? As long as the grades are in on time, and the faculty member is checking email, I think that's enough. I'm hugely offended by people who can't be arsed to be on campus except when they are teaching or in meetings, because I end up taking care of people looking for them and that eats into my time. But when the students aren't around, I don't expect to be expected on campus unless told to be there.
I agree with RJ; the more I think about it, the more I feel like there was a plan all along.
Slightly off topic, but owing to the fact that airfares shoot up a week before Christmas or so, a number of us have take to giving two finals. One early and one at the usual late time. Students can choose which one they take, but they can only take one and we hold the grades until the second final is taken
The professor met his classes, including his finals. He went home on his break. He did not come back until work expected him. I do not see why anyone would think this was unprofessional.

I think sending him a notice with an expiration date after his finals and before his first on-campus responsibility for the new semester is unprofessional.
At our SLAC courses are required to meet during the scheduled exam period, even if no exam is being given. The main purpose, it seems to me, is to prevent students from purchasing airplane tickets for early exits (and then asking to take the exam early). I actually think this policy is a good one.

We are also required to meet during the scheduled exam period, and we tell the students this. I get frequent emails from parents, though, saying that if Madison has to stay for my final, the flight home will cost $200 more, so Madison is leaving on the last day of class, and I will allow the final to be taken early, because, damn it, they're paying my salary. I just pass these along to my department chair. Madison usually shows up for the final, angry and resentful.

Parents of these adult students are the worst part of my job.
Someone made a comment about professionalism and the 40 hour work week. I completely agree -- and, for professors, we don't have to be in the office to be working.

A follow-up comment was made about the notice being a physical notice in the faculty member's mailbox. This seems to be really poor management -- it isn't a safe assumption that faculty members will check their mailboxes between the submission of final grades and the first day of class -- especially in the spring. Heck, I have a hard enough time getting them to do it during the semester.

I've seen versions of this kind of administrative incompetence -- for example a schedule that got rotated once while I was out of town for work reasons and then again after the end of finals week in Spring semester. I missed TWO chances to make corrections and had to live with those corrections.. and I'm still bitter about it.

Bottom line is that administration needs to consider the norms of faculty life. We do lots of 'invisible' work -- often at home. The semester + finals week should provide enough time to get responses to "critical" things.
Just to pile on, 'break' means 'break'. Another word for it is vacation, as in vacating, going away and not being here. A few scant years ago that might have meant actually going somewhere where there wasn't a phone and availability was not possible. (Even now it may involve going somewhere where a little trip to the campus mailbox is, um, inconvenient.) Somehow there was muddling through, usually I suppose by realizing that there was nothing so urgent happening that it couldn't be tackled when everyone got back.
Every professional I know -- ... teachers .... Incidentally, the local teacher's union is currently making the same complaint -- "you people don't understand: we may have a contractual workday of 6 hours, but we have to TAKE WORK HOME." To which I reply, WHO ON EARTH DOESN'T?

The problem here is that only 1/3 of Americans have college degrees, so the other 2/3 have no idea what a professor does. Heck, most of that 1/3 doesn't know what a college professor does! They think the only actual "work" done by a professor is done during the 3 hours a week ze is in the lecture hall.

Worse, since K-12 teaching has devolved from a profession to a unionized job where decisions on curriculum and instruction are made at the district or state level, most people don't think that teachers are professionals. They think teachers are unionized hourly workers, and overpaid ones at that.
It's definitely true that professors don't seem to be around campus much, and they still get paid a lot of money. That's probably what makes being a professor such an appealing job though in the first place.
Interesting post.Enjoyed reading your article and like to read more from your side.

Good Job.
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