Friday, August 29, 2008

Don't Try This at Home... Except Woohoo!!!!!

So I know you're all dying for an update about the Impossible Classroom Fiasco of Fall 2008. Or even if you're not, I'm going to give it to you, because it has turned out to be a bizarre tale of hope and job happiness.

So as I wrote Tuesday, things did not look at all good. This was not because anybody didn't acknowledge my problem or because anybody was uncooperative. My Fabulously Wonderful Administrative Person's lack of enthusiasm when I first presented her with the difficulty had nothing to do with lameness on her part: it was that she had a list of about 20 faculty members who had similar problems (probably about 5 of them with the very same room I was complaining about). The issue is, space on our campus just doesn't exist. We would need something like three brand new academic buildings just to have the same space ratio of other universities in our state, and given the budget situation... yeah, that's not happening. We are also the lowest funded university in our state compared with the others even aside from the problem with buildings, so yes, we run a very tight ship here. Anyway. So FWAP's lack of enthusiasm has to do with the fact that she's a realist. I knew when I brought the problem to her that I was asking for the impossible. She often accomplishes the impossible. Her realism combined with the whole accomplishing of the impossible thing is why she's wicked awesome. She is also wicked awesome because she used to watch All My Children daily in our student center with a person who is currently an A-list celebrity, before he dropped out of college here. But I digress.

But so anyway, throughout the next day, FWAP exhausted all the possibilities she knew of, and then my chair, who'd gone to look at the room for himself, started making calls trying to get something done - at least for one of the two classes. Nada. When I talked to my chair at the end of the day, he endorsed the idea that students should contact upper administration, because all conventional approaches to the problem had been exhausted, though he also promised he'd keep trying. We also discussed Plan B options for the course where the room really was totally unacceptable, and there I was.

That night, I started thinking that I didn't necessarily want a bunch of random emails from my students to litter the inbox of upper admin with no explanation, but I also didn't want to sit there and monitor what my students might write (free expression and all that). And then I thought to myself that maybe it would make sense for me to advocate on my own and on my students' behalf, not demanding a solution, but offering the higher ups warning that they might be hearing from students while at the same time outlining the nature of the problem, both in terms of my practical concerns (safety, being in such an enclosed space) with the room assignment, as well as how the room would affect the pedagogy of the two courses. I thought, why expect students to fight this battle if I'm not willing to put my neck out for them?

Note: I do not have tenure. Note: I've barely met the people whom I was emailing, with the exception of my dean, whom I know enough to greet if I pass him on campus. But again, I felt like it made sense that if I was going to tell students to send emails that I should put my neck out first. This could have been highly stupid.

It could have been, at a university other than mine. I work at a great fucking university, and I have such great respect for the upper administration. Let me tell you what happened after I sent the email.

  • First thing Thursday morning, I received a wonderful reply from my university's president.
  • By Thursday afternoon, my provost was personally making calls and having her staff make calls all over campus in efforts to resolve the problem.
  • Also Thursday afternoon, FWAP and my chair were congratulating me for alerting the administration to this problem, which affects so many faculty in our department, and that as a result of my efforts that there was movement in resolving not only my problem but in resolving other people's problems of a similar nature. Crazy is an activist! Crazy is a hero!
  • By today's end, I've got a new classroom assignment, a room normally not used as a classroom but that has all of the technology I could dream of having and enough space for all of my students, and apparently other people have gotten new classroom assignments as well.
Within 36 hours, the impossible has happened. And my president and provost thanked me for bringing the problem to their attention (I'm hoping that they can use what I wrote to them as ammunition when the state tries to cut our funding further), and expressed excitement about the work that I'm doing in the courses that I teach. And more than that, they fixed the problem. They responded with action, not just with congratulations on my efforts and hand-wringing. And that is because, whether I disagree with some of their decisions or not (and I do, as any faculty member would), what they care most deeply is our students and the education that we offer here. And it's not just talk. That's really the truth. And I believe that more now than ever, because I've seen the direct effect of that caring on me and my students.

I'll admit, though, I was embarrassed that I sent that email after I sent it. I felt like a whiner, and I felt like I was stepping out of turn. I felt like I was stupid, and that as an untenured person I should be keeping my head down. And even still I'm embarrassed because of the fact that I caused all of this commotion. I'll be honest: I would have just put up with the room, no matter how sucky it was, if I had been able to accomplish the stuff on my syllabus in the second class (showing films) in the room. I've done that before. I've made due with limited or ridiculously small resources, carting technology across campus in rainstorms in order to do what I need to do in the classroom. I didn't want to cause problems for people, and I didn't want to make a stink on a campus where the resources are so limited, and where I understand that those limitations aren't really the fault of anybody here.

But you know what? Certain disciplines often bear the brunt of limited resources, and English is one of those disciplines. Why? Well, because how many resources do you need if you just "read books and talk about them"? And so as much as I do feel embarrassed to have raised such a ruckus in this instance, I'm also glad that I did, because it highlights that people - even in my throwback discipline - are doing things in the classroom that require resources.

Even people like me, who don't do a ton of techie things, because they know that they can't count on having those resources in their classrooms. Seriously: the biggest roadblock to that room for me was that there wasn't space to break students into groups for small group discussion and activities (both classes) and that there wouldn't be room to bring in a DVD player to show the films on the syllabus in the one class. And the class where I didn't have to show films, I didn't have the technology to bring in recordings of the text we're reading over the first half of the semester, but I figured out how to deal with that (I loaded the recordings onto my iPod and brought in the teeny speakers that I own). Sure, when I've got a smart room I do more. I put sample outlines up on screen to show students how to organize papers; I show youtube videos that connect the material of the course to students' actual lives; I will put a poem up on screen so that we can look at it and analyze it together; I'll put outlines of notes on screen or plans for activities on screen so that I'm not spending so much time writing on the board. But I'm, even in the smartest of classrooms, fairly low-tech because what matters to me more than technology is getting students engaged, and in my discipline, there are lots of great low-tech ways to do that.

But even "low-tech" in a discipline like mine requires some tech. It requires more than a tiny blackboard, and it requires enough space to move students around. It requires a room where you don't have constant hallway noise, and where students don't feel suffocated.

The point is, I am so... just ecstatic, really... that my administration read the letter that I sent to them and that they responded with enthusiastic support for what I do in my classroom, and that they demonstrated that support with action, not just consolation and excuses. And so as embarrassed as I am about having complained about my problem, I'm also kind of proud that I did, and proud of the response that my complaint generated.

Of course, this makes me wonder whether I should do more letter-writing when I'm disgruntled. When I last did this, in irritation at some reportage on CNN, I got a series of replies from John Roberts, an anchor on CNN's morning show. Now with this, I've apparently alerted my upper administration to a horrible problem on campus, I've fixed a horrible problem for my students, and everybody thinks I'm great. Perhaps my tendencies to avoid the earnest activism are misguided. Perhaps if I wrote letters more frequently, the world would be a different place. On the other hand, perhaps my successes have to do with the fact that I only take such action when I'm truly impassioned about something. And slightly premenstrual. 'Tis hard to know.

The point here is, the whole Impossible Classroom Fiasco of Fall 2008 has come to a totally positive resolution, and it's left me feeling positively warm and fuzzy about my administration, my institution, and really, about my life as a faculty member at my institution. Who knew something as insignificant as a crappy classroom assignment could inspire all of that?


Sisyphus said...

Hurrah for Crazy the activist! Campaigning to improve things is different than bitching and whining, and the world needs more people to step up and do the former in their local environments.


Susan said...

Isn't it great when administrators see their job as enabling faculty to teach? And good for you for finding a way to present it that was NOT whining.

vague said...

What great news! I'm so glad it worked out for you. I'm also feeling lucky for the tech classrooms our English department has (I actually taught in the business building this summer, and the computer was a relic from the mid 1990s -- significantly under par compared to the English facilities, which was a shock). Anyway, it's great to see that the action you and your students took had such great results!

Bardiac said...

Yay! You rock, and so do some of your administrators! I'm really glad they got on the job and helped!