Monday, September 07, 2015


Ask the Administrator: Smuggling in Improvements

Ask the Administrator: Smuggling in Improvements

A new correspondent writes (abridged and slightly disguised):

I have a PhD in English and have been teaching all levels of undergraduate English as an adjunct or on one-year contracts for (more than ten) years. You know how tight the job market has been. My evaluations have been favorable, but the FT, TT positions just have not been there. I've taught successfully at many different institutions and levels. All that experience has served me well, as I have learned how very different campuses approach similar instructional issues. I have just accepted a one-year contract teaching developmental reading at a small college. I am the only FT developmental reading instructor. The developmental chair is at another campus in another town, and I have yet to met her, although we are two weeks into the term. I was hired shortly before the term began, after a phone interview that only addressed my availability. 

I love the location (and the pay), and my students and colleagues are wonderful, but the textbooks, syllabus, and pedagogy are about 20 years out of date. The two required books are $120 drill and kill workbooks ($120 each!), and the subject matter is, well, not relevant to the student population. The students tell me they can't get interested in the texts, because they are so boring. I don't blame them; I was alternately appalled and bored by the essays in the books, too. The books are really designed for 6th graders, but even 6th graders would find the essay content trivial, and the 75 pages of drill and kill per chapter are mind-numbing. The reading level of the texts might be suitable, but the subject matter and the over-reliance on drill and kill are serious impediments for the students.
I am supposed to follow an overburdened syllabus, but I have received no information about the pedagogical reasons for any of the requirements, and I have serious questions. (lists several) The department chair, I am told, developed the syllabus and chose the texts perhaps 20 years ago, and aside from new editions of the same texts, nothing has changed in those 20 years. I was told everything would be on Moodle when I arrived; nothing was on Moodle, and I had to call the chair twice to even get a copy of the syllabus I am supposed to follow.  

This methodology conflicts with everything l have learned about teaching developmental reading and writing. I am only here on a one-year contract, although I would be happy if it turned into more. Should I teach using pedagogy and content that I know from experience and training will be ineffective, or should I sneak in as much of my own content as I dare? I thought I might volunteer to search for more affordable texts and to develop a new syllabus, but I have no idea how that might be received, and I would have to ask permission of the chair who developed this course in the first place.  


There’s a lot going on here.

Given how lightly the department is staffed, and how casually the hire was made, I’m guessing that the existing curriculum guide is more a function of neglect than of conscious decision.  Your estimation that it’s about twenty years out of date strikes me as plausible; it may be that long since anyone has paid attention.  If that’s true, then perversely enough, you actually have more freedom to innovate than you might think.

First, a caveat.  Check the name of the author of the workbook against the staff list of the college.  If it’s written by someone on campus, you may be stuck with it for a while.  That shouldn’t be true, but sometimes it is.

If the author isn’t on campus, though, then I’d go with the “neglect” hypothesis.  

If the college is relatively indifferent to what’s actually taught, it’s probably attuned instead to some version of results.  Ideally, that would involve tracking student success in subsequent courses; in less ideal cases, it may boil down to hoping for few or no student complaints.  Although going only by complaints is generally a bad thing, it actually creates some space in the interstices for you to do better than the official plan.  If you’re able to generate good outcomes among the students -- however defined at the local institution -- you’re likely to be in good stead.

I did something like that at DeVry.  The curriculum guides for the classes in my field were pretty awful, so I made an executive decision and exploited my relative obscurity to teach them the way I thought they should be taught.  It worked for me; the students were generally happy, the administration was happy with the lack of complaints, and I could sleep at night knowing that I was doing a good thing, albeit below the radar.  (Eventually, I got to rewrite the guides themselves.) That was before everything was online, so I had a bit more room to move, but it sounds like your college isn’t quite up to speed with technology.

Before chucking it wholesale, though, I’d recommend combing through the existing materials to see what you could salvage in good conscience, and then using that on the day of your official observation.  

If you’re able to parlay your short-term position into a longer-term one -- and good luck! -- then you could try tackling the issue more directly.  But in the meantime, I wouldn’t advise committing educational malpractice on students for the sake of your career.  The ethics of that just don’t sit right.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Is there a better way?  

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

A few years ago, I was in a similar situation - being asked to teach a drill-and-kill version of a course I had taught many times elsewhere. I did exactly what Dean Dad suggests to you. The class went well, and also like him, I also got asked to help re-write the curriculum afterwards, which was a lot of fun and very confidence-inspiring.

By all means, step up into a leadership role within the course, but don't draw too much attention to your activities until it is all over or at least until you get better guidance that they are open to new ways. Better to ask forgiveness than permission. Ideally, have some pedagogical research and/or examples from your own experience at hand for your methods should a question arise.

That said, a strong word of caution: I recently taught a completely new course (for me) that came with a similarly awful syllabus and book. This time, with encouragement of the administration who were looking for someone to "liven up the material", and bolstered by my previous success making a more interactive and engaging class, I confidently launched into a shiny new program of critical thinking, project-based learning, etc. Due to some misinformation on the class composition (I was told upperclassmen, they were freshman, I was told science majors, they were non-science students looking for an "easy" science credit), numerous technological issues both in and out of my control, and my own lack of time to really rework things on the fly, we crashed and burned. I'm still horrified with how badly and quickly the class went downhill. I've never gotten such horrible, scathing reviews in my life, and I really can't take issue with the validity of their complaints.

Being armed with some pedagogy backing up my efforts, and the fact that I had been misinformed about the class level, I think the administration feels equal parts responsible, but still, it doesn't reflect well on me and has really sapped my confidence and enthusiasm. Tread carefully and don't get in over your head like me!
Ask if there is an official course document.. Every college I've taught at has one.

It's possible that the course document Is going to be more general and. Flexible concerning methods, materials, and techniques.
God (or whatever higher power you believe in) is continuing to tell you to leave academia and these crappy adjunct or contingent jobs where you are doing the equivalent of flipping burgers at Wendy's. Use your brains and talent outside of the cesspool that is higher education where you'll have a happier life and get more respect and money and won't have to put up with so many fools (and I don't mean the students at all). If you are still doing this crap in ten years, you'll be wanting to kill yourself.

I am giving you better advice than Dean Dad or any of the other full-time faculty and administrators here, who are mostly the same kind of jerks you're dealing with at your school.
Sometimes, faculty members that have been at their same institution get too comfortable with course material, but other times (as what happened to me), they simply don't know what direction to turn to in revamping curriculum especially if it's not in their field of expertise. Try looking for a master syllabus or course document. Also, try to find a list of best practices in your field. Since you are in developmental studies, you may want to look at NADE.
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