Friday, July 28, 2017

Campus deadzones, and creepy hallways: where did everyone go?

Found image on Google
(not actually a photo of me)
Happy Friday dear readers! (umm...anyone still there?  I swear! I am alive! 😆)

I've been attempting to write a blog post all week (and trying to do the 10 minutes of writing per day), but I've been failing on that account...I guess Fridays are a better day as things wind down from the week.  In any case, there is an article from the Chronicle that's been on my mind this week titled "Our Hallways are too quiet". Our department chair sent this to us (everyone in the department) as a thought piece, perhaps something to ponder and discuss in the fall - probably because our department is also like the department that is described in the article.

I had a variety of cognitive and emotional processes go off, and get gears grinding while I was reading this.  I actually hadn't noticed that the author was from MIT...who only recently "discovered" online learning (like Columbus discovering the New World).  Yes, I am a little snarky, but I also think that your frame of reference is really important.  If you are a Bricks and Mortar institution what you consider "community" might look different from an institution that is focused on distance education (or at least has a substantial DE component).  But I think I am getting ahead of myself.  Let me just say this:  My job title is "Online Program Manager" - as in the person who runs the online components of a specific MA program.  Having been on campus for close to 20 years now, in a variety of roles, I can see both sides.  I think this particular article is really biased, in ways that their author doesn't even get.

Let's start with this:
Entire departments can seem like dead zones, and whole days can pass with only a glimpse of a faculty member as someone comes to campus to meet a student, attend a meeting, or teach a class. The halls are eerily quiet. Students, having figured this out, are also absent. Only the staff are present.
This excerpt, as well as the rest of the article, is very faculty-centric.  As if the faculty (or this particular faculty member anyway) are the only ones who suffer any consequences from creepy hallways.  In my most recent job (headed into my 6th year soon!), and my first in an academic department, I've experienced the demoralization that comes with absence of colleagues.  In all of my others jobs on campus I've always had colleagues around (with the exception of vacations and such).  Whereas in an academic department I didn't (don't) always see people.  In my induction period (when I was getting the lay of the land and doing a SWOT analysis of the program I was managing so I could be more effective) Mondays through Thursdays I'd at least see my fellow program managers and faculty here and there, but on Fridays it almost felt like being in the movie I Am Legend.  Granted, this didn't bother me back then because there was a lot of paper records to go through and make heads and tails out of everything. Being busy meant that I didn't really mind being alone.  Once all paper was organized, made sense of, and work could be done remotely, the big question that comes to mind is this:  Well, if I can do my work remotely, and I don't have to deal with the x-hour commute, why would I need to go in?  especially for someone who manages a distance learning program.  If one group of employees (faculty) can work remotely (effectively) why not another group whose job duties are conducive to it?  I do agree with one point made above:  students having figured out that faculty aren't there are also not there; but there is a big caveat here:  who are your students? Students in my department are (by and large) working adults, so even if faculty were around it doesn't mean we'd suddenly have students sitting around in semi-circles, drinking their dunkies coffee (local affectionate term for Dunkin' Donuts) and discussing Derrida.  If you think that way, you're living in a fantasy.  Student demographics matter.

Goin' onto the next point. The author writes about faculty avoid the office for a variety of old fashioned reasons, such as not being able to get work done, avoiding feuds, and avoiding time-sinks like watercooler talk, but then she turns her attention to the perennial foe: technology!
A big reason for decreased faculty presence in their campus offices is technology. Networked computers that allow one to write anywhere also allow us to have conversations with students and colleagues that used to take place in person. Creating new course materials and ordering books is easily done online. Cloud software has made pretty much all our work processes easily done from home, a vacation cabin, a foreign conference hotel. For many scholars, this has been a very liberating occurrence, giving them wondrous flexibility.
Pardon me, I don't know you, but I call 💀💢🐄💩😡 on this argument.  Yes.  technology has facilitated certain efficiencies, like not having to fill out a form in triplicate, or not having to wait overnight for a journal article query that only returns title and abstract of potentially relevant articles to you.  Technology has not caused faculty not to want to come to the office.  Other organizational factors play a major role in the day to day decisions on whether or not to work remotely.  When research productivity is sought more, then people will do what they need to do to be more productive in their research.  If community engagement, service, teaching, or other aspects of the professoriate are valued more, than people will gravitate toward those.  I basically comes down to incentives, and when there is little incentive to be on campus to meet those objectives, then you will undertake them at a place that is most convenient for you.  I think a lot has to do with the expectations set forth by the institution, the institutional culture, and by extension the departmental culture.  Sure, you can have a department chair (the head honcho in an academic department) mandate that everyone (yes, including faculty) have to be there 3 days per week, and put in at least 10 hours of  'face time' into the department during regular business hours (9-5).  That's really only 3 hours per day. Does 3 hours per day really build community?  Nope.  Does 3 hours per day guarantee that people will be there on those same days and hours?  Nope.  This is the equivalent of butts in seats, for no good reason.  It's as anachronistic as forcing students to endure a long lecture just because you haven't through of your pedagogies.  First you determine what your root goal is (and no, more face time isn't a worthy goal), and then you hatch a plan to get there, while at the same time taking into consideration the various local variables, norms, and expectations (heck, maybe those need some rethinking too!)

Every time I hear about technology as the "big bad" I am reminded of the rebooted (and cancelled) Thurdecats.  From the fan wiki article (with my own annotations in brackets):
Most citizens [of Thundera] abhorred technology, denying the existance of machinery entirely and leaving thoughts of such things as fairy tales. This belief was a major contributing factor to their destruction as the lizards [their enemy] attacked them with advanced bipedal war machines Warbots while the ThunderCats fought with bows and arrows.
Just an interesting side-trip - take it as you will 😂

Anyway, moving along, finally, I see a conflation of the sense of community with face time, and they are not the same thing.  The author writes:
Some would argue that worrying about departmental community is ridiculous. After all, professors aren’t hired or promoted on the basis of departmental relationships, or civic engagement, and most faculty members desperately need quiet time in which to do research and write. True enough. As my colleague, Sherry Turkle, has argued: Conversation matters. Personal contact matters. It is very hard to build relationships with people we do not see in person, and such relationships are the bedrock of so much else that matters on any campus.
I think community is important.  However just because someone is not in their office at the same time YOU are in your office doesn't mean that you can't have community.  And just because you re not meeting face to face doesn't mean that you aren't communicating.  And just because you aren't meeting face to face doesn't mean that you aren't having personal contact! I've had lots of meaningful conversations, and personal contact with my many distance friends, family, and colleagues over the year.  From my doctoral cohort, to vconnecting friends and colleagues (sorry I've been a ghost - dissertation is sucking my mental energy), to colleagues who are geographically dispersed.  Every time I hear of Sherry Turkle I can't help but roll my eyes. Yes, face to face is nice.  Yes, I like face to face sometimes, but face to face ain't the end all be all of conversations, connections, communities, and work.  Yes, we do need community.  Without it we are just a loosely joined confederation of people maybe striving toward a common goal (maybe not), but with community we become stronger, and we get smarter.  But community can be achieved in a different ways (look at vconnecting for example).

To wrap up, I am reminded of a joke, or something that one of my mentors (Pat Fahy) kept saying "It's the parking, stupid!".  This was the response to the question "why do students pursue distance education?".  Of course, this is just one piece of the puzzle; others being things like mobility issues, health issues, childcare, elder-care, working two (or more) jobs, and so on.  I think in an era where we are offering some really great distance education programs (oh yeah...welcome to the party, MIT), and we've seriously considered what makes a good online program for our disciplines in order to get here, it would behoove us to also look at what makes our jobs effective and how we can effectively build communities of various modalities.  Forcing grown human beings to have face time so that they form community is the equivalent of having your kids forced to stay with "weird uncle mike" or grandma, because you feel like your kids need a connection with the rest of your family, but you haven't bothered making them part of your family in the day to day, except only on holidays.  Both kids, and adults, resent such forced actions.  We can do better.  Just sayin'

OK, now that I've ranted on 😏 - what do you think? 😃


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