Friday, December 31, 2004

I am not a fan of meetings. In my former life, as an administrator, meetings were a staple. They took two different forms; the first were staff meetings. These were small, mostly consisting of colleagues in the department. They could be useful (not usually) or a waste of time (meaning just boring, although occasionally tense and even, at rare times, a little exciting).

The second type of meeting is known as the conference. This type generally involves travel, and includes lunch, which is often the only perk, but can be a decent one. Long conferences involve other social time (with a cash bar, public funds are well spent on plane tickets and taxi rides but not on booze), and of course dinner, which is never any good and the price is too high - sitting through a keynote speaker.

I've used this description enough in the years of my freedom (by this I mean I now don't have to attend conferences) that it is almost tired - but it still remains apt. Five years ago I vowed never again to sit through another spring mix with raspberry vinaigrette and pasty chicken a la Marriot accompanied by a presentation on the styles of learning or transition to college or the nuances of Regents' standards or online learning transforming the galaxy or the sensuality of math. Sorry folks, cell phones ringing ain't a learning style, freshman will always party too much, even Commissioner Mills couldn't explain those nuances, transformation is no match for the academic galaxy, and math is not sexy.

Anyway, now that I am adjunct, forget conferences, I don't even have to go to department meetings. I get invited about once per semester, always to the last one, which includes a free lunch, and a minor speech that consists mostly of "thanks." Anyway, when food is involved, my price is fairly low. And, I usually feel pretty charitable at the semester's end, and this being the fall semester, festive over the holidays besides.

So, I went. The chair invited me to share on two subjects, (1) upcoming spring enrollment and (2) the program I took on last spring. So, (1) resulted in lots of faculty praise, especially from the not-yet-tenured; (2) resulted in me giving a brief history, interrupted when I got to the part about the graduate assistants who work on the two undergraduate courses with the question: "where do they come from?" followed by my explanation...and then a long tirade (not really related to my answer) from this German (not German-American) recently tenured faculty member about how indefensible, low quality and just generally awful the courses are. It was probably not intended as personal criticism for my efforts, but due to his less than warm and fuzzy demeanor (OK, that's an understatement, it was downright offensive, and if I was a man it almost would've warranted a punch...make that if I was a man without a PhD) it sure did seem like it...and it resulted in my feeling that I was on the defensive, even if I am an unwilling, and so weak, defender. My situation was not helped by the fact that I was in day two of a head cold, and I am an awful patient.

Of course his outburst sparked much discomfort at the table: the chair was nervous and embarrassed; the young faculty members sat frozen, staring at me with sympathetic eyes; one or two others were doodling in notepads, perhaps bored, or anyway they seemed not to be paying much attention; another parolee from my former place of employment and the retired former superintendent of schools turned faculty member were visibly irritated. The stage had been set; a discussion followed about the awful courses, and the concerns of the faculty. A few questions were directed at me, which I clumsily answered. That was the only time I had any chance to get to what I had intended to be the bulk of my remarks, about the good things in the courses, and the changes I have made since assuming this disaster (um, challenge). Sadly, I don't think I did a good job of explaining any of that.

Suddenly, my former dissertation chair came awake - up until this point, he had been among the bored, though not doodling - and said, in that testy way he sometimes exhibits, "I motion that we make a resolution [or some such word] to recommend to the Dean that she create a committee to investigate the program and these courses" and then the German guy snapped "I second."

I was floored, and the reaction at the table was electric. In administration, such outbursts are less common, unless the audience is tiny. Years ago, I saw a program on PBS during a fund drive. It was by a funny motivational speaker named Loretta LaRouche. She was describing uptight people; she said they have to hold a quarter in their butts at all times, so this is why they are so stiff and cannot express genuine emotion. That seems like a good description of what happens at administrator meetings. It isn't OK to get mad, or laugh too much, or be openly sad, or uninhibited, but my guess is that irrational behavior is the normal atmosphere of faculty meetings - though I don't know really. It is a new role for me, and this is only about the fifth time I have attended. But judging from the "literature," college faculty behave this way. (I am remembering, years ago I made a presentation at a high school meeting, where the reaction was similar. A few sentences into my remarks, a wild-haired guy jumped up and yelled, "I object to having to attend this meeting" and after several minutes of various people shouting, over half the attendees stormed out. Maybe it's me?)

I knew I had to do something, or lose it. I leaned forward and summoned as much assertiveness as I am able, without slipping into rage mode, and said "you can do whatever you want, but it wasn't my intention to spark the department to take some action on this - I was just sharing information - but I report to the Dean's office on this, and I feel I have to brief the associate dean on what happens here. I do not want to create the impression that I came to this meeting to complain about problems in the courses that somehow caused you to make this recommendation."

The desired result was better than I expected. A professor who is shared with another department said, "does anyone want to object to the motion?" and the fellow parolee said, yes, he did, followed by the former super. My former dissertation chair withdrew the motion, and instead they decided that the department chair would (reluctantly on his part, I think, though he was mostly taking notes and not saying a lot) recommend it for the agenda of a chair's meeting instead.

At this point, I had changed into my alter ego, from professional circumspect best to irreverent, borderline sarcastic. That was probably ill-advised, but it is my biggest reason for liking being a nearly invisible adjunct - unlike all others present, I am free, I do not play the game, I already cashed in, and I don't have to sit through these meetings once a month.

Afterwards, the German guy made a point of walking with me to the luncheon. I thought maybe - fantastically - unbelievably - he was going to apologize, though, being married to a watered-down 3/4 German-American I should have known that was wishful thinking. He was pleasant enough, in his cold way. I figured maybe he was going to at least bring it up in some way. But, he did not. Instead he peppered me with things about my other class. Later I realized it was under the ruse of being interested in online classes, but I suspect his real interest is somehow calling into question my competence.

At the luncheon, I sat with the other parolee, two new faculty members, the secretary who runs the department, and a professor who has now retired. Strangely, the retiree immediately asked me about the program I took over, and I responded, briefly, but much more in the way I had hoped to in the departmental meeting. The conversation centered around the campus presidential search, latkas (they were on the menu), the retiree's upcoming trip to somewhere exotic, one of the youngster's law student boyfriend, and the secretary's athletically amazing daughter (now a high school senior and college-bound soccer champ). But there was a bit of palpable tension surrounding me.

I left to go sew up one of the low quality, indefensible, just plain awful classes - it was about to be over for the semester, and on the way I resolved to blow both the meeting and the luncheon off at the end of next semester.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The latest on the Home Depot bird poisoning outrage. Oh, and surprise, surprise - they did not answer my letter on the subject.

Speaking of answering letters...I received only four responses to my letter about another outrage, although of a very different sort - the Large Parcel. That would be two emails: one from the sole "no voting" school board member, one from a "no voting" county legislator, one very brief paper letter from a state senator, and a phone call from a state agency (referred by the governor's office).

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Grades are all - finally! - submitted. I even responded to the 50 angry emails.

Yes, the students missed the deadline. I had the grades for one class on Thursday - for the other yesterday (I was told they were ready last Monday, but no one bothered to email me the files, and I had to go to campus and retrieve them from a computer) but I took off Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and then I needed some time to check them over.

By the way, my Christmas was great!

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Well, I entered the grades for five classes in the online system. I would be officially done for the fall semester, except that two of the graduate assistants, each one for a different class, have not sent me spreadsheets with their evaluations. The deadline is 12 noon, although I can still enter the grades in the system later than that, but I have to call the registrar for them to be posted. Since both of the GAs are now teaching school during the day, and it is pretty clear that is the priority and the obligation to me is not, I am not optimistic that I will get anything until this evening. I am not prone to panic, but I am pretty irritated. I want to be finished and enjoy the holiday too! I hope I get something from them before the grades become accessible to students, and I am the recipient of 50 angry email messages.

Some brighter news, I received an email that a post I wrote about plagiarism may be printed in the letters section of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

I didn't mean to let so long slip by between posts. My cold is better. My discomfort over my last day of the semester on campus has faded. I may get a short story out of that episode. I am beginning to see daylight on end of semester grading; it is a good thing, because they are due at noon on Wednesday! (And rest assured I will be done at exactly 11:59.)

I had many things to write about, but was focused on evaluating students, and arranging enough space in the house so we could get a Christmas tree, which we did, on Sunday. A beautiful fresh cut Scotch pine. I tipped the two cute little boy scouts $1 each for their handiwork, and they skipped off, shouting, "we got a tip! We got a tip!"

It snowed a bit yesterday. Rudy is, as always, thrilled, that nine-year-old puppy of mine. Sophie and Edna are considerably less thrilled; the former because she has no hair! And the latter because cats hate getting wet. Now it's cold, cold, cold here.

One story I wanted to comment on that I heard on the news several days ago was that one of the local Home Depot stores hired Orkin to put out poisoned bird seed to kill the many birds that are always flying around those stores because some customer complained. I love those birds! They are the only good thing about Home Depot, they sure beat dodging forklifts.

Why do people hate birds? Case in point: the most obnoxious, stuck-up, conceited, plastic, shallow, fake girl in my high school class listed "birds" in the yearbook as something she hated. Why do I clearly remember this 25 years later? Because it happens to be one of the captions they chose to re-print on the program of the reunion last summer. And, in the three times I saw her since high school (10th reunion, 20th, 25th), she has only increased in being obnoxious, stuck-up, conceited, plastic, shallow, and fake. If she hates birds, then logic dictates that I must love them.

Next example. Every year, there are newspaper articles about some obnoxious, stuck-up, conceited, plastic, shallow, fake town, neighborhood or facility (like the race track or a golf course) with interviews of people who are complaining about crows, Canada geese or pigeons. Why can't people leave the birds alone? A murder (isn't that a delightfully descriptive word) of crows often flies around and perches in the trees in Castleton. The racket is reminiscent of the Hitchcock movie! I am fascinated when they arrive, and I rush outside to see (and hear) them. Canada geese are a common sight in Samsonville; sometimes in the spring they have adorable goslings trailing behind. How carefully the parents watch them! And I have always appreciated the pigeons in Albany, those scavenging city birds so many people think are disgusting. I wonder as I watch them, how would they like to be transplanted to Samsonville? But they wouldn't much care for it, I'm sure, as there are no McDonald's french fries to score. In Samsonville, our nuisance bird is probably the barn swallow. They build nests everywhere, and have batches of five or six that do make a mess. But still I love them, feel joy at watching those hungry little beaks, keeping the parents so busy.

About the awful Home Depot report. This isn't an isolated incident. My first wish: May a bird crap on that customer's head, repeatedly, every time he or she goes outside. My second wish: A massive boycott of Home Depot. There are so many reasons to do this, but the bird atrocity is the best yet. May the whole chain burn slowly in big box he-l.

Thursday, December 09, 2004


I have a cold (picked up either from Bob [who came down with one last week] or at Cherry Hill, where I volunteered on Sunday. There were 189 visitors!).

I also had a very unpleasant day yesterday...professionally, although not student-wise.

Friday, December 03, 2004

It turns out that the student from the latest plagiarism case has a serious genetic disorder. However, she is not registered with Disability Services, apparently because she does not want to be labeled. I have a feeling that the student has had her symptoms managed in a medical way, but perhaps not received psychological counseling or academic assistance prior to this.

After reviewing her work, the judicial affairs rep (a great guy, btw) asked her how she has managed to get to her senior year, and write acceptable papers for her history courses [her major], and she reported that she has not had to do very much writing before this!

After meeting the student and consulting with her parents, the judicial affairs guy does not believe she intentionally plagiarized, although he said it clearly is a plagiarism case, and that if I decided to have the university pursue it, she most likely would be suspended. He shared with her parents my evaluations of the student's assignments, as well as her status in the class (missing almost all of the work, so that she is failing regardless of the plagiarism), and they agreed that is the grade she has earned, and they have no intention of disputing it.

I told the judicial affairs officer that under the circumstances, I have no objection at all to withdrawing my referral to them, but that I am concerned that the student is not getting the academic or emotional support she needs. He agreed with my perspective, and he is going to tell the student and her family that she has failed the course, but the plagiarism charge will be withdrawn, provided she registers with Disability Services. He is going to discuss the case with that office, and follow up to be sure that the student and/or her parents do this.

Strange how things work out. I feel bad for the student - the nature of her condition is heartbreaking. But I also feel that I did the right thing, both in terms of upholding academic standards, and in detecting a student who is in need of intervention, and immediate help. And, both the department chair and the associate dean agree.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Yesterday, the associate dean came to see me. The latest cheating student contacted him. She did not attempt to see me, and she also did not attend class. Then, last night, she sent me another email. There was no message, just a duplicate of something she had already submitted, her third written assignment. There were no changes, it also did not meet course expectations, and it included instances of plagiarism from at least two websites.

This morning, I received an email from her father, who apparently is an attorney (it was from AOL, but he had an e-signature with his title). He was seeking to meet with me tomorrow. I did not respond, but instead called the Judicial Affairs officer. We discussed the circumstances at length, and I decided to refer the case to his office. He explained that due to confidentiality, I cannot discuss the situation with her parents if she is not present, without written consent from the student. So I emailed the father and told him that I had referred the case to Judicial Affairs, and that the student should contact them directly.

I sent Judicial Affairs copies of all of the work, with my evaluations, copies of the various assignment guidelines, as well as links to the websites from which she cut and pasted the well-written parts. I went through my grading spreadsheet, and determined that she has missed 6 (of 23) classes, including yesterday's. She never handed in a journal, and she has not met expectations on any of the three written assignments. I won't be evaluating the groups until the end of the semester, but although she has been in class for many of the group activities, as far as I can tell, she has not been an active participant. (I use partial peer evaluation to determine group grades as well as a brief essay and my observations of student and group participation in class. Students hand in the written materials at the last class.) She has made no posts in the online discussion board (students are required to post 14 times throughout the semester).

Judicial Affairs understands that she is failing the course, even without the plagiarism. Although it is now a university matter, he said one possible outcome may be that he convinces her (and her father) to not dispute the failing grade, because otherwise, the result may be that she is disciplined with suspension in addition to course failure.

I am relieved it is now out of my hands. Too bad it has taken so much of my time, during the very busy end of semester.