Saturday, January 26, 2019

A Letter to a New Adjunct Professor

Congratulations on your new job at Enema U.  You were one of my favorite students, and I have no doubt you will be a great teacher.  I am positive that your enthusiasm for the subject will be readily apparent in the classroom. 

Before I give you a few words of advice, I want to make it clear that I loved teaching at Enema U.  Teaching was rewarding, the pay was good, and the retirement system the state gives us is, perhaps, too generous.  I worked with many remarkable people and have made close friendships with colleagues that will last the rest of my life.  Working at Enema U was a great privilege for which I will be eternally grateful and benefits far outweighed the negatives that I am going to warn you about.

Decades ago, when I came to work at the university, one of my favorite professors told me that the biggest mistake a new professor could make was expecting loyalty from his colleagues.  At the time, I wasn’t sure what he was talking about:  I couldn’t see how heated departmental politics would become or how desperately people would fight over trivial matters.  In the beginning, I naively thought that working at the university was similar to any job:  hard work would eventually be rewarded (but it's not).

Remember that the majority of the faculty have never had a real job in the private sector, and a large number of your colleagues now have tenure for life.  Not surprisingly, the work environment at most universities is a fantasy world, bearing little resemblance to work environments off the campus.  Since you are coming from the private sector, it will take time for you to adjust.

For me, it took years realize the obvious—almost no one on the university faculty (and absolutely no one in administration) actually cares about hard work or good teaching.  They chatter incessantly about it, but if you listen carefully, what comes from their mouths is just platitudes, mantras, and slogans, each of which has been said so often that you can no longer hear the spaces between the words. 

No one that I know can remember a single case of a faculty member's being tenured on the basis of teaching, nor can we remember anyone's being denied tenure for bad teaching.  Frankly, the administration just believes that having an instructor in a classroom is a fixed cost of doing business—a necessary box on a routine check list that is no more important than the requirement of having fire extinguishers in the hall.  You have to have them, but no one really gives a damn if they are any good—No one, that is, but you.

This means that you will have to be self-motivated and be proud of meeting the commitments you make with your students.  Their tuition checks have cleared the bank, so they are depending on you to give them their money’s worth.  I used to wonder how dramatically the quality of teaching would improve if dissatisfied students could demand their money back at the end of a bad semester.  What would happen if every time a professor canceled a class, the university was forced to refund a portion of their tuition?

Remember that each student is paying roughly $30 an hour to hear you speak.  (Well, that’s the cost at this state-run ag school, and that is before the football team gets its sizable cut.)  If you have thirty students in your class, that’s about a thousand dollars per class period.

No one in administration will notice how hard you work.  They expect adjunct professors to work as hard as an ugly stripper while being paid like a Dickensian orphan—and they are not interested in improving the system for anyone but themselves.

Ignore the university system of teaching evaluations:  the sole purpose of the charade is to convert what should be a qualitative discussion into a meaningless number so that administrative bean counters can use on useless reports. 

“Look, since we started the Quality Matters Participatory Learning Program, student interaction is up 11.3%!”

Both you and the students know if you are doing a good job.  Frankly, the students don’t believe the university evaluation system is truly private and they fear retaliation.  (And the students are correct.)  If you really want to know how you are doing, look at one of the online services like RateMyProfessors.Com.

Avoid committees and faculty meetings.  These are nothing but soul-sucking wastes of time.  Invariably, the least qualified person in the room will chair the committee, turning every meeting into a total waste of time.  The same people say the same things at every meeting, so after you have attended one, there is no need to attend again.  If you must attend such a meeting, it helps to pass the time by imagining which of your colleagues to vote off the island first.   (And, by vote off the island, I mean feed to hungry hogs!).

You should also avoid all the various departments scattered around the university that claim they will help you teach or design classes.  These are easy to spot, they usually have words like ‘quality’ or ‘excellence’ in their names.   Whichever noun they use, just assume the opposite is true.  In the unlikely event that any of the people staffing these offices has actually taught in years, it was probably some fluff course about ‘Social Justice’ or something equally inane in the College of Education—the elephants' graveyard of incompetence.

It won’t take long before the university will start asking you for donations, pleading a severe lack of funds.  Yes, most of the good programs at Enema U are perennially short of funds.  But, there is a difference between not receiving enough funds and spending them wisely.  You might remember that the same week that Enema U shut down the employee health center—for lack of funds—they bought the golf team a new bus made by Mercedes Benz.  If the current rate of growth in administration continues, it is only a matter of time before every man, woman, and child in the state will have to be hired as an Associate Dean.  There won’t be any room left for students, but the administration has never been very fond of students, anyway—only of their money.

Remember, it is never wise to give a wino a hundred-dollar bill—that much alcohol all at once could kill him.  If you feel compelled to donate, contribute to an academic scholarship fund. 

One last word of advice:  The words above are fairly critical about your colleagues, and deservedly so.  But, among them, you will eventually find lifelong friends, usually in the most unlikely places.  There are some incredible people working at Enema U, and now that you are there, their ranks have increased.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

You Can Count On It

My purchase was $1.17, I handed the clerk $20 and she promptly told me my change was $17.83, while handing me $21.83.  When I told her she had made a mistake, she gave me a blank look and pointed at the display on the cash register display.

There were no customers in line behind me, so I spent the next couple of minutes attempting to teach her how to count back change, an arcane skill that seems to have vanished a generation ago, along with manners, common sense, and the ability to use turn signals.

My attempt failed.  It became apparent that whatever amount the cash register told her to return, she would trustingly count it out as best she could.  I gave up, asked her if she could give me two tens for a five, collected my money and left the store.

The problem is that most people today have a horribly declining sense of numeracy—the ability to understand numbers and to use simple math to solve problems in everyday life.  (Or, to use an analogy, numeracy is the math version of literacy). 

A basic general understanding of numbers seems to be slipping from our society, and there is ample proof of this.  Take, for example, the latest internet meme rapidly spreading across social media—that a recent audit revealed that the Defense Department had misplaced funds.   I’m not going to give any detail since I would hate to inadvertently spread this nonsense any further, but the amount mentioned is more than the total budget for the Defense Department for the entirety of the 20th Century!

Anthropologists have recorded many societies whose entire number system was limited to ‘one’, ‘two’, and ‘many’.  These were societies whose levels of technology had never advanced to the point where larger numbers were ever needed.

For some reason, lately the idea that ‘one, two, many’ societies ever actually existed has become politically incorrect.  According to a few nagging nitpickers, such notions are not only factually incorrect, but are proof of some form of racism or cultural insensitivity.  I would apologize…were it not for the fact that a few of these cultures can still be found.  The language of the Walpiri of Australia have no words for numbers higher than two, while the vocabulary of the Pirah√£ of the Amazon Basin contains no words for any abstract concept.  They have no words for numbers, colors, or any way of discussing the past or the future.  (As I write this, it occurs to me that this describes my interactions with both my grandchildren and my cat.)

Most languages, including English, contain linguistic evidence of a time when our own number sense was also limited to ‘one, two, many’.  Consider the words for our cardinal numbers versus our ordinal numbers:

one – first
two – second
three – third
four – fourth
five – fifth
six – sixth

Obviously, after the first two, the words for the ordinal numbers were based on the words for the cardinal numbers, indicating that these words were developed later.  This example remains valid for several other languages.  Here are the same words in Spanish:

uno – primera
dos – segunda
tres – tercera
quatro – cuarto
cinco – quinta
seis – sexta

Despite our expanded vocabulary, we still have trouble understanding and using numbers, particularly large numbers.  You can prove this with a simple experiment that will annoy your friends.  Ask them to tell you how many miles away the moon is from the earth.  Then ask them how much further the sun is from earth.  There is almost no chance that anyone over the age of ten has not heard the correct numbers, but do they really understand the answer?  (The answer is roughly a quarter of million miles to the moon, and about 400 times that to the sun.)

A better way to illustrate our uncomfortableness with numbers can be illustrated with Mt. Everest.  As soon as the British learned of the mountain, originally named Kangchenjunga, Nepalese for Five Treasuries of the Great Snow, the curiosity to measure the height of the mountain drove the British crazy.  Starting in 1840, George Everest began the arduous task of actually measuring a remote mountain.

Note.  George Everest was opposed to renaming the mountain, and in part, got his wish.  His pronunciation of his last name, "Eve-Rest", is used today by absolutely no one.

Carrying a 1,200 pound theodolite (think of a big telescope merged with a compass) up and down the frozen Himalayas eventually ruined George’s health, but his work was continued by Andrew Waugh and John Armstrong.  After taking careful measurements from multiple locations, in 1852, they were able to accurately calculate the height of the mountain—that Waugh insisted on renaming after his former boss—as exactly 29,000 feet above sea level.

29,000?  Exactly 29,000?

Waugh and Armstrong knew that no one would believe their measurement was anything but an estimate.  If you have spent over a decade in the freezing cold of the Himalayas, waiting for the weather to clear just long enough to take a telescope reading, all the while living in a rotting tent with spoiled food and contaminated water, the last thing you want is for the entire world to take your work as a crude, rough estimate. 

If the world will not believe you when you say the mountain is 29,000 feet tall, you simply add two feet to the number and report it as 29,002 feet above sea level.  No one at the various geographical societies that sponsored the expedition ever questioned the number.

While the height reported may have been bogus, the number remained the official height for more than half a century.  Even today, it is not uncommon to find books or articles that still report the mountain’s height as 29,002 feet.  And slightly altering the official record had another real advantage:  Not only is 29,002 feet a more believable number, but technically, it means that Andrew Waugh and John Armstrong were the first men to put two feet on the top of Mount Everest.

Eat your heart out, Sir Edmund Hillary.