• Home
  • About Us
  • Guest Posts

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Is California K-12 Our UC Destiny?

I love steadily declining educational resources as much as the next person, and very much enjoyed this report just out today, which shows that California after years of striving now has successfully achieved the worst schools in the nation, 44th in this, 46, in that, 50 in librarians pet student - all numbers that make us special.  We are also 50th in class size, having the most students per teacher in the United States.  In 2009-10, California classes were 50% larger than the national average.

California higher ed is now following the Way of its K-12.  The most reliable path to a bad education is a sudden, massive increase in the number of students per instructor.  UC is stepping up here. Unpublished data from several campuses showed increases in the number of large lectures in the previous downturn.  The numbers aren't in for 2009-10, but tales of class size increases are legion.  One department in my division at UCSB tried all of the following experiments this year:

* The new departmental 10 lecture course
* The departmental 15 lecture course without sections
* New large lecture courses with half the normal ratio of TA's
* 38-student courses expanded to 70-90 students with a reader
* "Hybrid" graduate/undergraduate seminars
10 used to be small groups for 1st year students, to give them the kind of detailed feedback that would set them up well as college writers.  15 used to have sections and now it doesn't. Other courses have half the sections while still others double or triple in size. Let CA high schools be our destiny.

When I was a graduate instructor at Cornell University, I had one section of 17 engineering students each semester.  The semester writing requirement was 30 pages over about 12 weeks.   Each student wrote an essay each week, and the total number of pages was for most students closer to 60 by the time the term was done. Each student received a marked-up essay back from me after the weekend, getting 200-300 comments over the course of the term.  I still get email from Cornell engineers from that period  thanking me because they have remained among the best writers and communicators in any workplace they've been in since.  This was not because I was such a brilliant writing teacher -- I was learning on the job -- but because elite schools provide the conditions to instill elite-level skills.

The UC Idea was mass access to this elite quality.  That is what is being taken away.  A typical UC teaching assistant already has 50 students a quarter in the humanities, and 75 in the social sciences. If a lecture is taught with half its TA load, each TA will have 100 students.  A reader is not paid even to show up to lectures, and will have in the above case 50-70 papers to grade.  The loss for educational attainment should be obvious to all.  Though everyone is trying to mitigate such loss, the decline in outcomes are not being estimated with any precision.

In keeping with reductions in instructional services, departmental offices have got to go - at least for the humanities.  Why should individual departments have offices for staff working for that department, its faculty and its students?  Why not create large staff pools organized by building and given names like "Humanities South Administrative Support Center"?  Faculty will grumble for a while, and write emails about why the printer has be one floor below in the Phelps Humanities Administrative Support Center.  But they will get used to it and go back to their work.  There was a temporarily outbreak of email around the question of whether faculty should post on their office doors a sign that said something like "private office" in order to ward off the large numbers of wandering undergraduates who, unable to get into classes, may stalk the halls trying to find a professor to talk to, or, failing that, rest in an Administrative Support Center.  "Private" signs were finally discouraged.

These stories prompted an email to me from someone who has been through this before:

Wow, this reminds me of the good old days of the Dwinelle cluster.  The Dean's office waited until a manager said that she was going to be moving away, then, knowing there would be a vacancy, sprung it on us.  It was also very top down.  They talked it up and implied that as we staff would be taking on more duties our pay would be adjusted accordingly.  Then they left us to do the very difficult work of creating systems that worked for multiple departments without destroying departmental traditions, physically moving our offices (twice) and establishing relationships with a new set of faculty who had no input into our hiring.  All that for not a penny more and they resisted reclassifying us for an additional 6 months.  They put a vastly unqualified personal favorite of the dean in charge of our clustered unit.  The faculty and staff fought this tooth and nail, except for those who became convinced that their personal star was hitched to this clustering.  It made for an ugly, stressful scene for several years.

Here is something people should watch for: people who analyze staff positions from up on high tend to want to simplify what staff actually do in order to make the reorganization easier to theorize about.  So, while in my old job I had been 75% Student Affairs, 25% department library supervisor, in the new regime I was "only" 100% Student Affairs for 3 departments.  Ultimately I became library supervisor for the 3 small department libraries.  I did web design for all departments, set up database tracking systems for all departments.  All things requiring knowledge and effort and all things that didn't fit into their calculations.  The Dwinelle clustering was built on the theory that fewer people could accomplish more if they spent more time on similar processes.  I have asked people in the Dean's office how that eventually turned out and they said, as each department came to them and told them that it was impossible to accomplish what was required of them without more staff, that the staffing of all the clustered departments eventually came back up to the original levels.  You can't make work disappear to any significant amount just by shifting around people.  Plus there is a steady stream of new work being handed down to the academic departments by the central departments.  Once you get done paring staff down the the bare minimum, there is nobody left with any time for the new work.

Staff have been outraged by the recent Bain report because it looked only at payroll titles and declared that there were a bunch of "supervisors" on campus who were only supervising 2 or 3 people.  The report made it look like these people did nothing else but sit in their offices and make daily rounds to make sure their 3 employees were doing all the work.  Again they have simplified what people do and left out the complexities of each job and the fact that "supervisors" spend the vast majority of their time processing things alongside their fellow staff.

I've been concerned that Berkeley faculty have not spoken out publicly about this misconception.  I'm concerned on the Berkeley front that faculty will be effectively separated from staff by being told that their future salaries will suffer if they keep their staff.  I guess, at this point, if I were asked to accept a future cluster rather than be laid off in these miserable times, I would say "bring on the clustering and I'll do my best to make it work."  But it's guaranteed to cause a huge amount of disruption in the near future and may not achieve any where near the savings that the higher ups expect.

Just a few more years and I can retire to write another "Moo", western version and maybe get rich.  Meanwhile, good luck with your clustering.  If anyone wants advice on how to cope, there are people at Berkeley who could offer some.


Life's Too Short For that Kind of Stress said...

Ah, clustering! I remember those days. A complete cluster cuss, not to mention a waste of time. But those on high will not be satisfied until those down low take on the work of two, three other people. With no raise in pay, of course.
I thank the stars each night I'm no longer working at UCB.

Join the Conversation

Note: Firefox is occasionally incompatible with our comments section. We apologize for the inconvenience.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.