Free at Last! I Leave On-Line Teaching

This week I ended a two-year stint with an online university. I'm not going to name the university; after all, I did teach courses for this educational institution (and taught them very well, I might add), and I did accept money from the Powers-That-Be. And I did gain some useful experience. Criticizing the institution directly seems rather tacky.

However, I would like to say a few words about teaching for exclusively on-line institutions (as opposed to teaching for institutions that are mostly campus-based with some on-line courses).

To start positively, although the course material was not written to my standards, I was impressed with the design for moving students in and around and out of the individual courses. I liked the automatic grading (you put in the numbers, and it calculates the percentage!) and consequently developed my own "self-grading" Excel documents for my campus courses. I learned some useful techniques for teaching composition, and I learned a lot about communicating with students. But, as with any job, there comes a time when you realize you are no longer tolerating bad days or bad students or even bad material; you are enduring, with gritted teeth, a bad experience and need to get out.

So what changed? Why did I go from saying, "Well, that unit or semester could have gone better; I'll work on that" to going, "Only 2 more weeks. Only 1 more week. Tomorrow! Tomorrow! Tomorrow!"

There were three factors:

(1) I was being asked to do things I wasn't comfortable with.

All colleges face retention issues--students dropping out, students not doing the work and failing and dropping out. All colleges worry about retention issues. Only desperate and morally bankrupt colleges believe that retention can be solved by softening the grading process.

My superiors at this institution would say they didn't ask me to inflate grades. Yeah, well, pigs fly, and my cats clean up after themselves. What do you call it when you are asked to accept late projects without penalization? What do you call it when you are encouraged to brainstorm ways to eliminate/soften course requirements in order to make the process of education easier, friendlier, and less overwhelming?

I do believe that instructors can make the learning process positive and comprehensible in the sense that instructors can invite questions and explain things clearly. I'm also an advocate of a grading system that does not destroy a student's grade based on one missed week of class or one late project. My late policies are never so detrimental that students CAN'T make up work if they really want to.

But I do not advocate in any way, shape, form, suggestion, or thought, lowering standards, making things "jolly" (sitting back/shooting the breeze instead of doing formal work/projects), and/or softening the hardships of education in order to keep students in a program/college/university.

Newsflash, people: Education is hard! Education is VERY hard. (Real) learning is HARD.

Personally, I think students usually leave the college environment because they aren't prepared to do the work. (And they often return when they are.) Telling them their educational experience will or ought to be a painless process only sets them up for disillusionment.

(2) I was asked to do things non-commiserate with my pay.

Adjuncts aren't paid that much. It's a fact of life. I taught six courses for four institutions this Spring. I will be teaching seven for three in the Fall. I accept the conditions of being an adjunct because I know that the jobs exist in part because these institutions can only afford cheap labor. (I am completely opposed, for instance, to adjuncts forming unions: more about this in a later post.)

But that doesn't mean I should be treated like a slave. And I have never been asked to do so much for so little with so little appreciation by a single employer as I was this Spring by my on-line employer. Not only was I expected to monitor and contribute to the course "classrooms" every day, grade students, give extensive feedback on projects, prepare and teach a live class--all of which I was willing to do--I was expected to be the students' advisor, counselor, troubleshooter, nanny, babysitter, pep rally coordinator, entertainment committee all while attending meetings and educational courses (It's Fun! It's Engaging! It's Not a Complete Waste of Your Time!). All this for a sum of money that REQUIRES that I work elsewhere to pay my rent and eat.

Of course, there are instructors who do all those things--who love doing all those things, bless their sycophantic/camp counselor hearts. But I'm one of those instructors who wants to teach--just teach--the material (yes, I actually do find English Composition fascinating) to students who want to learn it. I am continually amazed at how often my employers want me to do everything but teach.

(3) Difficult students.

Difficult students are par for the course when you are an instructor. You get mean students and high maintenance students and in-your-face students and students who annoy other students and poorly disciplined students and all the rest. It's part of the challenge. It's one of the things I had to work at accepting when I entered the (college) teaching environment. I honestly thought, "I won't have to discipline anyone at the college level!" (Yes, I know, I was naive.)

I've had to learn to be more assertive--more "this is the syllabus/these are the rules"--and to even walk away from certain situations. Occasionally, I've had to learn to give a student another chance. It's a balancing act!

Now--don't get me wrong. Most of my students, campus and online, are wonderful: hardworking, dedicated, courteous, good listeners. Unfortunately, like with so many social situations, it only takes a few self-entitled, unmotivated, rude, disruptive people to make things difficult and, sometimes, even horrible for everyone else.

I find this aspect of teaching the most emotionally draining. (I'm not alone in this; many women educators will leave tenure track positions because they are expected, unlike their male cohorts, to "mother" their students and everybody else's! These women educators get burnt out.) You would think on-line teaching would be the answer to my prayers!

Not so. From my perspective, there's little difference between a student who badgers you after every class, and a student who sends you emails every single day. In fact, the classroom confrontation is usually more productive: it's easier to explain things, to point (physically) to the syllabus, and, with friendly steeliness, emphasize the course requirements. Students also communicate better face to face.

On the other hand, long, scattered, emotionally charged, unintelligible emails can really ruin your day.

There are other differences between difficult campus students and difficult online students. Most difficult students are difficult because, quite frankly, they want something for nothing. Their difficulty stems from a feeling of outrage: HOW DARE YOU NOT GIVE ME STRAIGHT A's WHEN I ACTUALLY THOUGHT ABOUT DOING MY HOMEWORK TODAY!

The difficult campus student, however, has to show up on-campus to be difficult. And even a really difficult campus student knows it's kind of stupid to argue I DESERVE TO PASS when he or she has never or rarely appeared in class (I've had one student make this argument).

Also, if the difficult campus student does show up, he or she is immediately exposed to the wonderful world of peer example: the student sees other students taking notes, handing in stuff (on-time), getting stuff back, signing up for meetings. If the student isn't completely self-absorbed (and some are), the student will register, "Oooh, this is how students who actually want to pass behave."

Neither of these factors--showing up in a physical classroom; seeing other students physically hand things in--works on-line. The difficult online student can go on believing in his or her self-entitlement for an entire semester without experiencing any "get a grip on reality" epiphanies.

Consequently, difficult online students tend to be difficult all semester long (rather than in spurts like when a project is due or at the very end of the semester).

As you can imagine this gets very wearing.

Now, I will grant that part of my problem is that I get invested. You tell me your great uncle is dying, I'm going to feel bad. Really bad. I won't pass you. But I'll feel really, really bad; in fact, it will ruin my day. Consequently, I'd rather you didn't tell me.

It would be better for me (and for my students) if I could disengage: not take every complaint, emotional upheaval, whine to heart. That much investment isn't healthy. And it really doesn't help the learning process.

But disengagement is not encouraged by the employers of adjuncts, particularly online adjuncts. Disengagement does not correspond to the image of the instructor as advisor, counselor, sister, buddy, etc. etc. etc. It is hard to disengage when you know it will make you and your (accurate) grades vulnerable. It is hard to disengage from a student who sends you five emails a week arguing that he shouldn't have to take English Composition, and he shouldn't have to use good grammar, and he shouldn't have to do research (and who won't stop complaining even after you explain the necessity of English Composition and encourage him to complete the required work) when, at the same time, your department chair is being pressured by the administration to tell instructors to be more nurturing with their students.

True incident, by the way.

It is very hard to disengage when the majority of instructors in your online department (at least, the most vocal ones) agree with the department heads that low retention numbers are due to instructors being too hard in their grading and/or not laid-back/indifferent enough to unprofessional behavior and poor work.

Side note: Blaming retention numbers on instructors is quite frankly, bull. Instructors are not to blame for administrators placing students in their courses, which courses the students cannot pass because they do not have the necessary skill sets. Blaming the instructors is a clever (and nasty way) for online institutions to pressure instructors to inflate their grades and then deny direct culpability. (By the way, approximately 70% of my students passed my online course--30% with A's--and my integrity is still intact, so I'm feeling pretty proud of myself.)


The issues that caused me to leave my on-line employer exist in all colleges to an extent. But I believe exclusively on-line institutions run the risk of pushing these issues to the point where . . . they might as well be selling diplomas.

It hasn't reached that point yet--at least not for my ex. But I decided to get out before it does.



mike said...

can't blame ya for leaving! Last we spoke I was considering teaching college, but now I think I'm gonna explore my current career a little more, as I've been offered a position in the Local school. Anyway, have fun!

Check out my new blog site!

Kate Woodbury said...

Good luck in your new position, Mike!

I should state that I love teaching on-campus. The same issues still exist as do on-line, but they are less omnipresent/annoying/depressing.

On campus, the compensations far outweigh the drawbacks. This past semester, for instance, I got to teach two history/literature courses on-campus. I love researching and planning lessons that combine visuals and lecture and discussions (although I'm still a novice at getting discussions going). It's a lot of fun!

a calvinist preacher said...

There's an incident in Heilein's STARSHIP TROOPERS where the CO of a recruit training battalion is chewing out a senior drill sergeant. In all the teaching I've done, I've remembered it: "Like is a luxury a teacher cannot afford. We must not like them. We must not hate them. We must teach them."

Hard, though. Hard.