A workplace where people are kind – too much to ask for?

I’ve written about my bittersweet leaving of Longwood – but not about my new adventure in education.   Too busy working, I guess.  And the wound was raw last fall – in ways I didn’t realize until I landed in a new teaching job and found myself looking over my shoulder, reminiscent of a war vet with PTSD.  It was as if I was waiting for an IED to blow, for someone to knock my legs out from under me the way my Longwood colleagues did.

But secondary education is not higher education.   People are kinder to each other in secondary education.  I don’t know why, but I’ve worked for two universities and four high schools and it holds true throughout my work experience.

Maybe I do know why – in secondary education, teachers teach.  Almost all day, five days a week.  K-12 teachers log hours and hours with students, relentless, in-the-trenches.  It’s demanding work, work not well-respected or remunerated in our culture.  There are very few professors from American universities who could hang with the pace of preparation, face-time teaching, and feedback/assessment that effective high school teachers pull off.

University professors aren’t generally rewarded for being skilled teachers.  They are rewarded for doing other things well – but the effective teaching of undergraduates is not why they are hired or promoted.

I think this is the reason American higher education is destined to implode, probably in the near future unless this country deals with unsustainable student debt and undergraduates who wake up to find that their ordinary degrees don’t get them anywhere they want to be.

Kevin Carey overstates his case in The End of College, but some of his points make sense.  Especially that students have to plan for where they want to go.  It’s no longer good enough to simply get a degree and know that meaningful and relatively well-paid work is going to be waiting for you.  A college degree is not a ticket anywhere if you don’t use the time earning it well.

Which is what I told students at Longwood, and some of them disliked me for it.  But better to tell them the truth while they could still do something about it. I do think I helped a few prepare themselves for meaningful careers in communications.  One thing I know how to do is teach.

Unfortunately, universities aren’t especially interested in hiring effective teachers.  They want young scholars who will publish and make them look good.  I wasn’t young enough, and I wasn’t a man.  Despite what was said when they hired me, and no matter how hard I had worked for them and how effective I’d been teaching students, I wasn’t who they wanted around for the long haul.  Sucker punch.

But here’s the good news – and perhaps what the forces of the universe had in mind anyway.  I landed in Chesterfield County, teaching at their largest high school, and I feel valued there. I’m paid better, I have some job security and excellent benefits, my commute is less than half what it was to Longwood – really a better situation all around.  I like my students, I like what I’ve been asked to teach and the way they’ve asked me to teach it, and I like and respect most of the people I work with.

This year, they’ve asked me to take over the school’s journalism program and help students produce a digital-first student newspaper.  It’s going to be great – a digital-first web-based publication with a quarterly news magazine.  I’m excited by the possibilities.  Why not create one of the best high school journalism programs in the country?  Why not at Thomas Dale?

Sometimes people ask if I miss teaching college?  And sometimes I do.  But mostly I feel grateful to have found a teaching home.  A place where I can settle in and do my best without looking over my shoulder, a place to take some risks to see what works, pick myself up if I fail, a place where people are basically kind to one another.


On disembarking the roller coaster

The end of this semester was bittersweet – my last at Longwood University in the Communication Studies Department.

Two years ago, I wrote about getting on the roller coaster – my anticipation of the wild ride that comes with teaching five courses a semester at a university, finishing a dissertation, and completing a grant-funded oral history project at the same time.

I was right about the ride, but  didn’t anticipate how completely consuming it would be to prep and teach five courses, commute over an hour to do it, try to complete any research or creative work, and to maintain my family and personal life.   This was one of those old wooden roller coasters that throws you around and whipsnaps your neck.  The kind that sends you to the doctor.

wooden roller coaster

Courtesy of “The Eggplant”, Flickr. Creative Commons License

To make it more interesting, my department colleagues created a tenure-track position that roughly matched what I was doing and told me to apply for it.  I did. They hired a young white man from another part of the country, and then eliminated the lectureship I’d held for two years.  This is a fairly typical story in academia – so I’m hurt, but not surprised.


The students responded with warmth and support when I told them.  And they were stunned.  I mean, why would a university let an effective, well-respected teacher go?

So, I’m disembarking the roller coaster.  I’ll miss my Longwood students, but I get my life back.  Someday I’ll thank them for making me leave the ride.


Revisiting my last post as another semester winds down

College is not wasted on the young.  The student who made me sad in the last post has turned out to have the instincts of a reporter.  He’s not my most disciplined writer – so he doesn’t pull the best grades – but he goes out and finds stories that could be published in any news outlet.  Because they’re newsworthy.

I’ve had so much fun teaching media writing this semester.  We have to be generalists at Longwood; some classes feel like more of a stretch than others.  Teaching Media Reporting and Writing feels like breathing – teaching it comes that naturally.

Oh yeah, it’s a lot of work.  Lots of reading articles and giving specific feedback.  Depending on your perspective, I have the luxury and/or the misfortune of teaching 29 people in two class sections how to newsgather and mediawrite.

Of course, it’s the 80 I teach in three other class sections that brings me to the semester I’ve had.  Media & Society – a range-y course in which we struggle with two questions: how does media affect society?  And how does society create and control media?  Like I said – a range-y survey course in which we cover too much.  My goal, however, is not the content as much as teaching critical thinking, particularly media criticism.  This can be a lot of fun, but it means moving beyond multiple-choice tests and into the realm of blogging and small group presentations and writing.

That’s right – more reading of student writing, more feedback on student writing. And that’s time intensive.   Messier than A B C D.

But that’s what these college students need.  They need practice writing and they need my feedback on how to do it better.  And, like the rest of us, they figure out what they want to say be writing it out.  Epiphanies abound.

And I guess that’s why I’m here, teaching at Longwood U, working so hard that I neglect both my personal life and the rest of my professional life … this blog, for example, and my Eastern Shore Stories Project.

Is college wasted on the young?

I teach media studies at a small public university in central Virginia.  My classes are filled with students from the region – we’re a well-kept Virginia secret – and almost all the students are between the ages of 19 and 22.   I do have one older gentleman in one of my classes and he is excited to be in school.  So excited to be learning.  I understand that feeling, having chosen to get my Master’s and PhD as a “non-traditional” student.

Learning can be fun.

On Thursday during class, we left the classroom and walked the campus.  The course is media reporting & writing. The topic of the day was “where do story ideas come from?”  So much of university work is purely intellectual, but media writing is not.  It involves all of a person’s senses, with their curiosity completely engaged, to become an effective media reporter and writer.  So we walked the campus in search of stories.

Found them we did.  We walked into buildings that most of us hadn’t entered before.  Talked about history that predated any of our tenures at Longwood U.   Back in the day, there was no central pedestrian commons uniting the campus – there were streets that locals used to get across town.  Even after the commons was built, at least one older local resident drove down the sidewalks and flowerbeds – he still thought it was a city street.

In the music building, two professors emerged from their offices to talk with us.  More ideas for potential stories.  One eloquently urged us to explore the basement practice area, to talk with music students sequestered there – “for whom the homework is never finished.”

“It’s not like math,”  he said to us, “where there are right and wrong answers.  Music students have to practice again and again.  And to be self-critical.  Did they get the fingering, the feel of the piece?”  A solid feature profile idea from a chance encounter.  It was better than I hoped we’d experience on our walk around campus.

I also had a student disappear from the walk.  He apparently thought that a walk around campus was his chance to escape from class.   He’s the same student who keeps asking me why we’re doing things – “what was the point of that?” is his general approach.  It makes me sad – his youthful arrogance will cause him to miss so much.  And he’ll likely be paying student loans for years on classes he barely attended.

He makes me think college is wasted on the young.

And now … the rest of my professional life …

Since I started teaching full-time at Longwood University in August, I have had to focus on course preparation, the transition to new job, new routine, new institutional culture, and completing and defending my dissertation, which I did in October over Longwood’s fall break.

No time for blogging.  Not much time for anything really, except the job.  But I was “hooded” in a December graduation ceremony – officially becoming a Doctor of Philosophy in Media, Art, and Text.

Being “hooded” sounds creepy, but I found it to be a cool ritual.  I walked into the ceremony as part of the formal procession of faculty and graduates, carrying my academic hood over my arm like a four-star waiter’s towel.  During the graduation ceremony, my name was called, I walked forward, gave the hood to Dr. Kathy Bassard, chair of VCU’s English Department, and turned around so she could drape it over my neck and arrange it behind me.

Because she’s shorter than I am, I had to kneel down slightly – which added to the ritual of the moment.  Being hooded felt like a sort of soft-cloth knighting ceremony – with roots back into the Middle Ages and the birth of universities within monasteries.

My parents, my husband and my daughter were in the audience as witnesses, as well as several professors and some MATX’ers I’ve been in seminars with.

Also in attendance was the chair of my dissertation commitee, Dr. Noreen Barnes, who let me wear her academic tam instead of the standard-issue mortarboard VCU had given me.  Not only was the tam more attractive – the fact that she let me borrow it for the ceremony was a nice symbolic gesture. As an Associate Professor in VCU’s Theatre Department, she knows the value of ritual and gesture.

So now that I’ve completed the MATX PhD program, the question becomes –  how do I stay fresh and engaged with my field so my classes in Communication Studies at Longwood stay fresh?  And, given the interdisciplinary nature of the MATX degree, what constitutes my field?  What journals do I follow and what conferences do I attend?  Is that even the path I will take as an academic?

Those questions are why – although I could have spent the day grading the design projects I took in on Wednesday or working on notes for the Communication Theory class I’m teaching – instead I spent the morning investigating professional associations and journals.

The Oral History Association ?

The Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication ?

One I may join simply because I love the fact that they meet every March in Orlando, Florida, and cover topics like: “Gender and Feminism in Science Fiction”,  “Staging Monstrosity” and “Terrifying Futures: Post-Apocalyptic, Post-Human Dystopias” …  The International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts

Who do I want to become as a writer, media producer, and scholar?

What doesn’t come up in the political debates: “let them eat cake?”

This is the real story – told in Chrystia Freeland’s book Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else.  

In this video clip, Bill Moyers talks to the author, Chrystia Freeland, and Rolling Stone magazine’s Matt Taibbi. I’m going to vote for Obama – no question – I don’t want anyone as wealthy as Romney entrusted with my democracy. Can you say “let them eat cake” ?

This video was posted on Alternet – an independent source of news that I’m going to return to again.

“AlterNet’s Mission: AlterNet is an award-winning news magazine and online community that creates original journalism and amplifies the best of hundreds of other independent media sources. AlterNet’s aim is to inspire action and advocacy on the environment, human rights and civil liberties, social justice, media, health care issues, and more.”

still staring at the trees …

redwood forest in Northern California, summer 2011

I’m not seeing the forest yet – but May is looking more and more like a writing retreat. For which I’m grateful. I’ve got some pressing deadlines between now and May 3, when my semester ends with a stack of ten portfolios, but after they’re graded … woohoo … I can turn my full attention to finishing the dissertation, then working on other writing projects and maybe a book proposal for the Eastern Shore Stories project.

I’ve thrown in applications for many, many positions – mostly university teaching positions – but also a few university admin / communications positions and now a few secondary teaching positions.  Plan B is to adjunct another year.

As much as I like the crafted life I’m living right now, I’m craving the stability of a full-time position with benefits. Or a steady part-time position with stability. The downside of adjunct’ng is that some (not all) departments seem to assume adjuncts don’t need income for anything specific … like we’re just teaching at pathetic wages to get ourselves out of the house for a few hours? For the stimulation? Don’t know … I can do all the budget projections I want, but if I don’t get the classes or they don’t make … well, then I have to find another means to keep my growth-spurting 11-year-old in skinny jeans and eating her beloved mac & cheese.

Oh well … still wandering among the trees … hope I emerge in a clearing soon.  Today I’ve been working on a grant application. Which is going very, very well.   Work is the cure.

The future of universities: a virtual reality?

This morning. I stumbled across a line of questioning about the future of universities that I find unsettling, probably because I’ve invested a lot of time and have developed quite a few skills as a writer and teacher and would like to land on  solid ground in the near future. Specifically, a March 7 “Wired Campus” blog in the Chronicle of Higher Ed asked the question: Could Many Universities Follow Borders Bookstores Into Oblivion?

The question is a bit doomsday-esque … but bricks and mortars organizations are proving to be at risk in the digital revolution.  The blog post is an interview with Richard DeMillo and Paul Baker, director and associate director of Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities, who consider their center an equivalent to a Silicon Valley garage for higher education.  I  don’t know about that – seems like an officially run center located in an institution could never be the equivalent of an entrepreneur’s garage.

Still …  in a February 22 blog post for the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, DeMillo writes that “incumbents” misread new technologies and become “relics” before they even realize what is happening.  He uses the newspaper industry as an example, which does support his point and makes me hyperventilate a bit.

The Center for 21st Century Universities (C21U) is supposed to encourage innovation in university teaching and research … incubate risk-taking to figure out what best practices in the 21st century digital universe would look like for higher education.    They’ve got lots of good ideas – which may get lost somewhat in the doomsday language – and yet it’s the crisis language that got my attention and probably a lot of other people’s attention too.

Jeff Selingo, editorial director for The Chronicle of Higher Education, devoted his Sept 27, 2011, blogpost to the opening of C21U. He called it “If Engineers Were to Rethink Higher Ed’s Future.”  At the end of his blog, he writes: “At a kickoff event for the center … I moderated a wide-ranging discussion with some leading thinkers on the future of higher ed, and among my questions was this: If you had a chance to run this center, what one project would you put on its agenda?”

Some of the ideas he found most interesting are ones that I agree with as directions for universities:  Improve Social Engagement, Create Incubators, Interactive Learning, and Stop Teaching Subjects.  Luckily, I’m studying and teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University – a public university that is exploring these in pockets all over campus.

Put in this context, perhaps it’s a future to be embraced.  Is the old version, based on medieval monastic training, really working that well for most people?

I’d be sorry to see a business model applied, however, since there are research questions – especially in the humanities – that need to be asked and there does need to be a place of reflection to do so.  That’s what universities have provided a space for and I’d hate to see that disappear – the same way I treasure a brick & mortar bookstore – for discovery.  I don’t always know what I’m looking for until I stumble across it and I’ve found the same thing to be true in education.   Algorithms can be too smart for lucky accidents and that’s not a world I want to live in.

money in the new year

Staying positive while I work on fellowship applications is a challenge. I had to call and verify what I already knew – that my troubled bank sold its stock to another bank for a fraction … my 250 shares are now 56 shares in the new bank. And the value has dropped more than $5,000 in less than a year.

Meanwhile our personal debt climbs and what little equity we had evaporates as I go to school to get the credentials to teach at the university level for a living wage. Adjunct salaries aren’t a living wage – they’re a joke. What I don’t understand is where the money for the course I teach goes – the 25 kids sitting in my classroom have each paid about $1,000 to be there, some have paid more. That’s $25,000. Of which I’m paid a tiny fraction. It doesn’t cost that much to run our share of the lights or the library.

For some reason, however, writing down what I know to be true – how little I have in the way of wealth – is a comfort. It feels like coming off a binge, like coming up for air after swimming underwater, like walking out into the light and warmth of a spring morning. There’s so much I’m grateful for. We have a safe, warm place to live. My daughter goes to a safe and well-run school. My husband and I have educations that continue to enrich our lives. We all have health insurance. We have extended families who love us. We have friends who like spending time with us. Our lives are free of addiction and domestic violence. Both my husband and I like what we do. There’s more than one way to count wealth on a balance sheet.