Thursday, January 22, 2009

Ask the Administrator: The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight

A new correspondent writes:

The letter about the horrible adjunct struck a cord for me, but for a very different reason. I am an adjunct at a local community college and it while I have enjoyed it, and learned a lot about what works and what doesn't in the CC classroom, I can't help but wonder if there aren't more 'horrible adjuncts' out there. I can imagine there are, because although I believe I am competent and capable, I have never had an official evaluation (in fact, no one has ever come to watch me teach), nor are there official student evaluations of courses. And that doesn't even begin to address the issues with the dean, who has told instructors that students shouldn't be called out for texting in class and has accused others of racism for questioning the removal of basic English language competency requirements, or for failing students who stop showing up to class.

So I guess my question is, where does one go when it seems the whole college is one giant lump of incompetence? And yes, this is partly selfish, because the school I'm teaching at is on the brink of losing its accreditation, and how does that look on a CV? But more than that, I worry about the students who pay good money, and think that they are getting an education, when what they are getting may or may not be.

Been there.

The short answer is, you go someplace else.

Back at Proprietary U, at least toward the end of my time there, there was a single-minded focus on finding excuses to pass students. Since the place was tuition-driven and enrollment was dropping, the idea was that anything that encouraged attrition – like, say, failing students – was bad for business.

(In fairness, that attitude wasn't there when enrollments were growing. It was a stupid response to a crisis, rather than a stupid philosophical position.)

For a while, I tried fighting the good fight from within. I argued up the chain that graduating incompetent people would permanently devalue the degree, thereby precluding the possibility of recovery. I tried to shift the focus from 'punishing faculty' to 'supporting students,' even going so far as to do a PowerPoint presentation (and I hate PowerPoint presentations) to senior management about the effects of inappropriate 'cut scores' on student success. And I grabbed any extenuating nugget I could, and used it until it just couldn't be used any more.

And I lost. The direction was set from on high, and the direction was to retain by any means necessary.

When I got wind of some particularly objectionable directives that, had I stayed, I would have had to implement, I knew it was time to go. The organization was a lot bigger than I was, and its leadership had a clear, if mistaken, sense of what it wanted. So I sent out c.v.'s, and took the first reasonable offer I received.

Put differently, this is what a bad 'fit' looks like from the employee side.

The top brass at PU was wrong, in my view, in some pretty fundamental ways. But it had the right to be wrong. Those calls fell within its purview. If it wanted to hollow out the organization's reason to exist, it could. I just didn't want to be a part of that.

Adjuncting is a lousy gig in any number of well-documented ways, but at least it's an easy gig to leave without having to have some awkward conversations.

Depending on how bad the place is, though, you might be able to salvage some useful nuggets before you go. If you can find a thoughtful (or at least reasonable) person there with some kind of title, you might be able to swing a decent letter of recommendation. I've had adjuncts request class observations specifically for that purpose, and I've gone along with the requests I've received. If you're leaving, others probably are, too, and some of them may land in interesting and/or useful places. Maintain the positive contacts you've built, if any.

I wouldn't worry overly much about resume stain from having adjuncted there. In this market, it's widely understood that academics in evergreen disciplines generally take what they can get.

For the record, hearing of deans who treat faculty this way really grinds my gears. The stereotypes of emptyheaded administrators are bad enough without providing empirical confirmation. And memories of bad behavior linger much longer, and more strongly, than memories of good. If we had a deans' union, I'd want these folks kicked out of it.

The good news is that not all community colleges are run this way. The grass really is greener.


Good luck with your situation. I don't envy you.

Wise and worldly readers – how have you handled situations in which it seemed that everybody else drank the Kool-Aid?

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