Oct 8, 2010

A Tale of Gubernatorial Debates, University Administrators, Lowly Adjuncts, and Misplaced Priorities

Left: Governor Ted Strickland and challenger John Kasich at the University of Toledo's Driscoll Alumni Center; photo courtesy of AP/Andy Morrison

I did not watch the debate between Governor Ted Strickland and challenger John Kasich last night. The reason, though, had less to do with political disinterest and much more to do with extra work I created for myself by standing up for the rights of my students.

And also, because of my proclivity for being bull-headed.

I arrived about 8:40 am on Wednesday for my scheduled 9:00 am class in the University of Toledo's Driscoll Alumni Center. I am a full time faculty member at Bowling Green State University, but I agreed at the last minute this semester to take a teaching assignment that unexpectedly opened up at UT, the institution at which I earned my doctorate. This is kind of a Yoda-Young Jedi situation of sorts, except that I am more like a middle-aged and graying Jedi whose powers are mostly limited to those involving PowerPoint and dry erase markers.

Anyways, I was immediately bombarded by students who told them that construction contractors were telling them to go to a classroom in the Memorial Field House. The contractors said that the classroom was going to be used for the gubernatorial debate. Neither I nor my TAs received any notice of this. No emails, no memos, no text messages: no communication whatsoever.

Even worse is the fact that I was giving a scheduled midterm exam that day to my class of 240 students. In a logistical sense this took priority over simply canceling class, because it would be a full week before class meets again, and frankly I have never unilaterally cancelled a class in my teaching career.

So I first had to retrieve the 80 or so students mistakenly sent a quarter mile away to the Memorial Field House, and they were understandably angry about the disruptions. Even stranger was the fact that my students were directed to a room that already contained a class in session, so two classes were simultaneously disrupted for the price of one.

I had a rather heated exchange with one construction worker who marched into the class just before the test to tell me I wasn't supposed to be in my own classroom (admittedly my less-than-cordial discussions with the construction workers probably fueled their irritation, and I am a long ways from the sort of Gandhi-esque Satyagraha that might have been a more useful approach, but I digress).

However, what most disturbs me is the repeated interruptions by University officials and construction workers during the exam. Several times UT officials walked into the room and asked questions like "what time are you going to be finished" and "I thought this class was cancelled," while the construction workers seemed to be going out of their way to make as much noise as possible. Saws and drills continued in the hallways and entranceways, bulky equipment kept being noisily dropped, and I could see that a number of my students were irritated at the chaos.

I will pause and point out that the sole exception to the institutional insanity was C. Vernon Snyder, the University's Vice President for Institutional Advancement. He walked into the room, told me that the exam could go on as scheduled, and seemed to be one of the few people in this saga who understood that educating students should be UT's top priority. Unfortunately, the marketing/communications folks and construction workers more than made up for Snyder's voice of reason.

This situation was almost like the Keystone Kops in its unfolding, except for the fact that my students are real human beings who pay a great deal of money for the privilege of attending classes at UT. Surely they deserve at least as much notice of the disruption as the aides to the candidates, and undoubtedly the planning for this event began months ago.

Left: screen shot of a spreadsheet I received several hours after my class detailing the proposed shifting of classes to accommodate the gubernatorial debate

So now I have a class of angry and confused students, and I will inevitably wind up with extra work in trying to make things right (drawing up replacement exams, working with the Testing Center to schedule retakes, determining the statistical effects of the disruptions on exam scores, developing a reasonable scoring adjustment, and manually changing 240 grades). It would have been easier to simply cave in and reschedule the exam, but there were larger principles at stake.

While this is not quite a David-and-Goliath story, I write this post with the full recognition that my words might one day haunt me. Perhaps I might some day seek full time employment teaching at UT, or perhaps on another job search this type of post will mark me as a malcontent. However, occasionally we need to take public stands when we encounter wrongheadedness, and to my way of thinking the importance or teaching and learning at a university trumps the fleeting publicity associated with hosting a gubernatorial debate.

But enough about me: this is a class largely composed of first-year students new to college life, and for many of these students this may have been their very first college exam. I ask what it says about a university when no one bothers to take the time to give advance notice on room cancellations, or when televised political debates are more important than what is supposed to be our principal mission: educating students. In addition, a total of 14 classes and approximately 2000 students were inconvenienced through this decision by university officials, and these problems could have been avoided had the university simply used one of its existing non-academic auditoriums, like the Doermann Theater.

Or better yet, simply passing on the event. After all, other than a few brief mentions during coverage on C-SPAN and local television, the University really received little publicity from this event.

In all my years in academia as a student and as an instructor I have never seen a series of events more dysfunctional and ill-conceived than this decision, and I think the University's half-hearted, after-the-fact mea culpa via email to me rings hollow. It seems that it is more important for UT to garner a few moments of televised publicity than to concentrate on its core responsibilities to students.

Yet to be fair I was in some ways blessed yesterday morning: the teaching assistants assigned to the class - Stephanie Crawford and Emily Ruckel - kept their cool while the course professor fumed and muttered, and they helped brainstorm ways to deal with the chaos. At one point I was reluctant to leave the stage at the front of the classroom, perhaps irrationally thinking that if I walked into the hallway someone from the university would grab the stage and announce the closing of the room. The TAs gave me the figurative and literal muscle I needed to manage a multi-faceted maelstrom, and ultimately the exam happened.



flask said...

hooray for you!

i don't know what they pay you, but it's not enough.

Mad Jack said...

Would you really consider working for a company that prioritized a minor political event above client service? Eventually the clients are going to realize that they have the money, and if UT wants that money things will have to change to make life better for the clients.

Paul Swendson said...

I've never experienced anything quite that chaotic, but I have seen some degree of incompetence and flawed priorities over the years. It's amazing how often the decisions made in our education system have so little to do with education. Even on a day where things go right, putting 240 students in one class does not make a lot of educational sense.