Openness and professionalism

Why is it so scary to blog and share what we do, as faculty?

Because our job is usually private.

This may sound odd, because we teach in classrooms full of people. But usually it isn’t full of colleagues watching us teach in our disciplines. That tends to happen only during faculty evaluation, and that makes many of us totally nervous. I hate having other faculty “sit in” on my class. What if something goes wrong? That’s the only chance, that one hour, and then they will make their judgement, and that could affect my job, and thus my whole life.

Part of the problem is exactly that — it’s the only chance. If these colleagues were there every day, it wouldn’t be so bad. They’d see the body of my work, the good days and the bad days.

But college teaching is also private for a reason. I am supposed to have academic freedom, the right to teach the subject the way I want to, using my own methods. That’s why I became a college instructor instead of a high school teacher. It is hard to develop innovative teaching methods with narrow-minded people watching my every move and breathing down my neck. I want to try things, experiment, have me and the students working together.

And when I am evaluated, even that’s in private. Yesterday I received a copy of  my evaluation packet from last year. It was sealed in an inter-campus envelope with a “Confidential” label stamped across it. My evaluation meeting was conducted in a small room with four other people: my dean, my department chair, one historian, and one faculty colleague of my choice.  I did a little show for them, took them through my packet, then I left the room. They talked, in private. They wrote my evaluation, privately. It is so private it is kept in a locked file and I had to go over to the Instruction Office to sign my evaluation. Email isn’t private enough.

Now, I consider myself a public servant, since I work at a public community college. But would I want my evaluation to be public? Perhaps the public wouldn’t understand. There is a pretty anti-intellectual movement going on right now in the public. They think I don’t earn my pay, which is the highest of all the community colleges in the state. They think I take summers off and loaf, talk for a living, produce nothing of importance, and don’t do my job when students don’t get high scores and a degree they can translate into a six figure income. Couple that with administrators whose main purpose seems to be to catch me out not doing my job, not following the rules. Why on earth should I share anything I do?

Here’s why.

I’m a professional. Professionals work in peer communities. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, and scientists engage in ongoing education in a discipline controlled by their peer network. Their work is published and peer-reviewed. It is public, but not necessarily evaluated in its worth by the public, and there is an understanding that the profession advances society over time, regardless of the vagaries of public fashion. If I leave the evaluation of my work to my students and my bosses, I am not acting like a professional.

And thus I am not treated as one. Adjunct instructors are treated like migrant labor at many places, disposable and expendable. Corporations and publishers are trying to take over the teaching of our subjects through canned online classes and for-profit “colleges” that can hire anyone to “teach” (or, rather, manage the grading of) our classes. This is not OK with me.

As with any other profession, some practitioners put their heart into what they do, and some don’t. Some want the glory of publication and don’t care about twisting the scientific method or their own morals. Some just want to cash the paycheck and have a beer. Some want to teach online so they can ignore their students, run a canned course someone else wrote because it’s easier, get away with not doing a good job. And as the system gets tweaked to try to prevent these abuses, it gets more closed, more private, more restrictive, and less professional.

If I keep my work in private, with private evaluations subject to the whims of student surveys, hour-long cursory class visits, and administrative traditionalism, my work as a teacher may stay safe and protected, but it can’t grow. Over time I will be unable to articulate the goals of my methods, or develop new ones.

BUT if I put it all out there, I can communicate better with my peers than in a closed system. I can see what others are doing and share my ideas. I can engage in my profession, not just in my discipline (other historians are of somewhat limited help when it comes to teaching issues) but in my calling as a teacher.

We have a right to be treated like professionals, with our approaches and methods respected, debated and analyzed by our peers. I have been teaching as a professor for 23 years. A few years ago, I started to open everything up, until now I put my evaluations online (that “Confidential” seal was truly silly in my case) and publish as much of my work as possible on the web. I am creating a body of work, which my peers can evaluate and comment on. Rising above the private system has enable me not only to grow as a professional, but to insist I be treated as one.

4 thoughts on “Openness and professionalism

  1. Hmmm. I think job evaluations, for most any profession, are generally, if not private, at least not uberpublic, either. But I do see where you’re going, generally. You’re right. As an adjunct, I’ve been evaluated twice, once at one school, once at another. I’ve offered both my face to face classes and my online class up to any administrator or faculty member who wants to join us, but very few people (in fact, 1) have taken me up on the offer. I’m still using Blackboard for my online classes — maybe that’s part of the issue.
    But being an adjunct, the time and effort it would take for me to migrate my courses to an open class…well, let me be blunt…I don’t get paid enough to do that. Although as my frustration level with BB goes up, it may become necessary.
    Perhaps part of the problem is that while after every term, students evaluate us, while our peers only evaluate us once a year, at best, and more likely, once in a blue moon (when we’re up for a step grade change, tenure, as part of accreditation, etc). Maybe we should rethink that model, as well. Our peers can judge our work in a much more useable fashion…after all, what, really, can a student say about the way I teach history after spending 15 weeks with me?

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    1. Melissa, I find it very interesting that you say as your level of frustration with Bb goes up, it may become necessary for your class to be open. I am guessing that the reason you are frustrated is that the technology you’re using isn’t doing what you want it to do, because you care about the effectiveness of your teaching, and the point at which that concern as a professional overrides the problem of doing unpaid work, you will do something to solve the problem.

      Also, I am all for rethinking the models, but am too impatient with slow changes of processes and paradigms, especially when those changes come from above. In this case, the changes I’m seeing are going in a bizarre direction of public “accountability” using criticism of poorly understood processes (i.e Rick Perry’s attack on professors). Becoming more open is an individual way to encourage change.

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  2. Thanks for writing this. I’ve never thought about the value of putting our teaching work out in public.

    I’ve gone more open with my courses because of the freedom to teach the way I want to teach, along with other more philosophical concerns about public discourse (which dovetails into your point), but the recognized but unintended consequence of this is that my teaching work is in public. What kind of conversation can that start? I think just having the example of different techniques is useful.

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