What We’re Taking With Us Part III: Concession and Absorbing Crisis (#ACsurvivalguide)

Dear Kim,

In your last post you wrote about resource sharing as one of the things you wanted to take with you into the post-COVID world.

That world that seems ominously far away as we dive into the third wave in Canada, but I am, nevertheless, picking up on the “carrying with us” thread. This is because I am both optimistic that the pandemic still has a horizon and also because the topic I want to explore here has been on my mind all week: concession.

In academia, “concession” is one of the many formal words (like “accommodation”) used to describe policies and practices that allow students to postpone and/or make-up, redo, or otherwise account for missed classes, assignments, or exams. While concession can apply to predictable absences or missed work (as a result of ordinary things like religious observances or work obligations), it often comes up in relation to crisis.

Thanks to the pandemic, the last year has been an extended exercise in crisis.

In my teaching, I’ve noticed two important things about our year in crisis:

1. All students (and teachers and administrators), even those who are excelling, are living in the middle of widespread societal crisis, whether we realize this moment-to-moment or not; and

2. As a result of #1, I’ve had ample opportunity to engage with concession policies at my university.

This engagement has helped me reframe my conceptualization of concession.

A new approach to an old problem.

In the spring 2020, the spread of COVID-19 resulted in the shutdown of in-person learning at many colleges and universities. A few students had the capacity and means to adjust to the changes: low care responsibilities, stable income and shelter, access to private work space, up-to-date technology, a sturdy WiFi connection. Most students did not, and barriers ranged from childcare and interpersonal responsibilities to technological issues to health and wellness challenges.

As a result of the sudden change, most institutions agreed that online learning in Spring 2021 was a crisis and enacted institution-wide policies such as pass fail options.

Then, in fall 2020, the state of crisis got a bit fuzzy. Colleges and universities acknowledged that virtual and hybrid learning models were not “business as usual” but most reverted to “normal” or near normal evaluation policies. Pass fail options were limited or restricted.

The institutional buffer was gone, but the barriers and challenges remained. By October, 2020 my inbox was filled with concession requests. There were so many, in fact, that they were hard to organize.

I didn’t feel good about only granting concession to the students asking. Certainly, students rarely turn down deadline extensions. But, when over half the class is sending panicked emails requesting them, that signals a larger problem.

So, I took a more global approach: I extended deadlines, shortened assignments, and created alternate options for all the students in a class. I won’t lie, however. I hesitated before each change, because every single adjustment involved additional labour for me. I forged forward anyway, however, because while my fall semester was busy, I was low on care responsibilities and feeling healthy and well. I knew I could take on the work.

This was not true for all of my colleagues and friends. They had to make different decisions.

This helped me identify one of the core facets of concession: the capacity to absorb labour.

Like a sponge, concession is all about absorbing the effects of a mess.

Beyond questions of definition (what constitutes a crisis), concession creates work for people. Sometimes, it creates work for a lot of people: the student who has to send emails and arrange meetings; the instructor who has to decide next steps; the administrator who has to communicate with both the student and the professor.

Who is willing and able to absorb the work of crisis?

Asking this question encouraged me to create concession policies that were both fair and low-labour for everyone. One of my proudest moments of the fall was going to the chair of my department to discuss a course-wide concession, wherein students could opt out of the final assignment and still do well in the course (within limits).

My idea was approved. And you know what? No one “worked the system.” Everyone who used the “off-ramp” needed it, and it was significantly less work for both me and the students as compared to my usual concession processes.

I wouldn’t necessarily use this precise concession again, but I will absolutely carry the principle with me. Concession is not only a question of fairness and evaluation; it is also a question of absorbing the work that crisis creates.

What about you, Kim? Has the pandemic helped you reframe any parts of your thinking?

The Survey Results Are In!

Friends, welcome to September 2020, which I’m sure looks very different to any September you’ve previously encountered. Personally, I’m missing the joy of returning to a campus where the fall colours are beginning to emerge, even as the sun still shines and its heat still warms the grass (while the geese run rampant, pooping all over it!). I’m also missing seeing my students live; I’m teaching a “hybrid” class this term, but it’s not the same, not by a long shot.

Like this. it’s a whole thing. They even have their own Facebook page!

Luckily, as autumn roles in here in central Canada, some things are still shiny and new; this includes the results from our summer readership survey. Thank you to all who participated!

Kelsey and I have pored over the details, and are making tweaks accordingly. From now on, you can look forward to two monthly posts, one of which will be a “practical tips and ideas” post, and the second of which will be a longer, narrative think piece. (You’ve told us both of these kinds of posts are most appreciated by readers.) Occasionally, we may include interviews or other post formats, but we’ll try to stick broadly to this model so that you know what to expect in your inbox.

We also want to introduce as many, and as many diverse, new voices as possible: this means platforming people of different backgrounds, ages, career paths, abilities, and so on. Because we know that contributing to a site such as this one is a commitment of time and energy, and because we know lots of folks are very overworked right now (especially folks who tick “diversity” slots at work…), we are aiming to make guest contributions as not-onerous, and as fun, as possible.

To that end, we are planning to curate “hot topic conversations” – perfect for the COVID moment, but massively useful for all the other teaching times, too. The plan: to convene roundtables on Zoom, record the discussion (with everyone’s permission, of course), and then share both the transcript and an audio-described video of the roundtable in this space. This format will allow us to gather and learn from a range of voices, but the time commitment will be manageable and the physical labour minimal. What’s more, we will gather “hot topics” (the themes of the panels) and potential panelists (to talk about those themes) separately, so that nobody feels they need to make themselves vulnerable around an issue they’d rather not discuss in public.

This is of course, like all our experiments over the past fourteen months, a work in progress, and to actualize it we need your help!

SO…

If you’d like to participate in a Zoom roundtable over a “hot teaching topic”, if you’d like to suggest a “hot teaching topic” for a roundtable, or if you’d like to contribute to the AC in another way, please let us know by heading to this link and filling out this VERY VERY VERY short form. (It’s really short.)

 

As well, if you indicated on our summer survey that you’d like to contribute to the AC in some way, we’d be very grateful if you’d click the link and complete the form too, so we know who you are!

Many thanks for your support of the AC, friends. We’re looking forward to growing in a healthy way and supporting you in turn through this very strange new school year.

With gratitude!

Kim + Kelsey

End of Term Evaluations & Student Feedback – Part I

This is the first part of a two-part post. As an end of term treat, next week will feature a roundtable post with more evaluation hacks from instructors across the teaching spectrum!

Alongside stacks of unmarked essays and the promise of candy cane flavoured lattes, the final weeks of November mean the end of classes. And, the end of classes mean it’s every instructor’s favourite time of year: it’s course evaluation time.

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As anyone in higher education knows, teaching evaluations have conventionally played a significant role in hiring, promotion, and tenure processes. Theoretically, they provide students the opportunity to report on their experiences with an instructor, giving institutions key information about what happens in courses across university campuses.

Practically, they are far murkier.

There is plenty of evidence (see: here, here, and here) that suggests that teaching evaluations are frequently inflected by biases and gender biases in particular. To boot, they are designed like standardized tests (often complete with institutional grey and blue colour schemes). And, frankly, the questions are usually, ahem, unhelpful in terms of actual pedagogical feedback.

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I find all of this annoying.

I’m currently a postdoctoral researcher and contract instructor, so whether I like it or not, evaluations matter for my career. At the same time, I’m at a point in my teaching where I genuinely want feedback. And, I really want feedback about things that course evaluations aren’t designed to gather, like assignment creation and the success or failure of specific activities.

So, last year, I decided to solicit end of term feedback from students in addition to their course evaluations. This isn’t super radical. I, and many other teachers, do mid-term check-ins. Nevertheless, I thought I’d share the process and list of questions as a resource.

These questions were for a small, seminar-based performance studies class. The class was comprised of upper year students and took place once a week for three hours.


  1. What reading did you enjoy the most/get the most out of this semester? Why?
  2. What reading from BEFORE reading break (so, Kelsey selected) did you enjoy the least/get the least out of this semester. Why?
  3. What worked for you about the co-facilitation project?
  4. Was the co-facilitation assignment a better or worse experience for you than a traditional individual or group presentation? Why?
  5. Was there an element of the co-facilitation project that hindered your leaning?
  6. Did the reading responses support your learning? Why or why not?
  7. Was there an in-class activity that you vividly remember? Which one? Why?
  8. Is there anything else you’d like to share with me?

On the final day of class, I paired my usual speech about course evaluations (they matter) with my introduction to this set of questions.

Wanting to give my students the same freedom to respond to these questions as their course evaluations, I also arranged for one of my students to collect the informal evaluations, put them in a sealed envelope, and to hand them off to a colleague to keep until after grades were submitted.

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When semester was over, I collected the envelope and was both pleased and surprised with the depth of feedback I received: the co-facilitation project was generally helpful for learning but also a bit complex on the ground; there was one too many historiography readings, and students took away unexpected nuggets from the class.

Most importantly, unlike my teaching evaluations, which are generally written about me, the feedback was written to me. This meant that it was phrased so that I could read it constructively, and in combination with my evaluations, the students’ insights offered a really helpful perspective for moving forward in my teaching practice.

 

 

A present + a favour

Friends,

It’s been seven weeks since my last post – what’s going on?

I think I’ve decided to take a small summer hiatus (and tell nobody, apparently).

I’ve been doing some challenging (and at times discombobulating) thinking this summer, about where I am at personally and professionally and about what I’d like the second half of my life (I’m about to turn 44, so let’s call it ballpark) and career (ditto) to look like.

That can take the mickey out of you, that kind of exhausting reflection.

I’ll be back in the saddle soon: I’ve got some thoughts I’d like to put down about what it means to become “senior” in your field, as a woman and as a teacher (something else that has dawned on me this summer OMFG), and I’m also eager to reflect on my (in-progress, along with a number of my other stellar colleagues) process of decolonizing my Theatre Studies syllabi for this coming school year. What does “decolonizing” a syllabus mean? Please tune in soon to find out. (I’m working on it.)

Meanwhile, though, I have a present, for those of you missing the blog (and if you are missing my writing, goddess bless you and many, many thanks): please click here to read a recent post from elsewhere on WordPress about me getting back into another kind of saddle, as part of that summer project of self-reflection. (As a bonus, find some snaps from the post/the journey it chronicles below.)

But: I also have an important favour to ask you all.

If you typically visit my blog because you are notified on Twitter or Facebook, note that new rules kicking into effect on 1 August mean posts from The Activist Classroom will no longer automatically be directed from this site to FB.

I’m also planning on shutting down my Twitter account soon, in an effort to boycott a medium that is, to my mind, spreading increasing violence, hatred for democracy, and lack of faith in the hard and ethical work of many traditional media outlets and their (trained) reporters.

What does this mean FOR YOU? It means, if you aren’t already a “follower” of the blog ON WORDPRESS, I’d be grateful if you could click the “follow” button now.

That will ensure you’ll be notified directly by email whenever I post new material, and will allow you to bypass my forgetfulness when I (inevitably) forget to alert my FB friends to new writing. (If you decide you’d rather not, down the road, get these emails, of course you can unfollow anytime.)

Thanks in advance, friends. And very best late summer wishes to you all!

Kim

Thoughts toward a sustainable future inside the neoliberal university

When I started commuting in January between my new house in Hamilton, Ontario and my job in London, Ontario I asked Facebook to tell me what podcasts I should be listening to along the way.

I got a lot of amazing suggestions, and tried many of them. There have been two standouts.

The first is the gorgeous Ear Hustle, a storytelling podcast conceived, created, and produced inside San Quentin State Prison in California. If you are not already a listener, please click on the link just above and remedy that immediately! It’s a fantastic body of work committed to making the not-visible, visible.

The second is Reasons to Be Cheerful, hosted by (the best prime minister Britain never had!) Ed Miliband, and Geoff Lloyd. Reasons to be Cheerful is an “ideas” podcast, which is another way of saying that it thinks about hard stuff to do with being alive in the (mostly, anglo-western) world today and doesn’t shy on the nuance. Enjoy that, mates.

It’s summer so I’m not commuting much (THANK THE GODDESS). But last Thursday I headed up to London for a meeting and another meeting and hanging out with my folks for a bit. And en route I heard a fantastic discussion on the latest Reasons about Donut Economics, with Donut Econ guru Kate Raworth.

WTF?

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(This post will contain a lot of photographs of amazing donuts. You are forewarned.)

Donut economics is a way of rethinking the way growth works in the existing neoliberal capitalist marketplace. Instead of imagining uninhibited, constant growth (aka cancer), Donut Econ aims for a) reasonable prosperity for all humans, within b) earth’s sustainable limits. In the wash, nobody ends up in the donut hole.

Which is a terrible place to be, if you ask me, because it contains no donut.

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(Sorry. But I warned you.)

This podcast would have resonated with me only privately had it not been for a piece I read the same morning in University Affairs about the role that tenured faculty might play in improving working conditions at universities across North America. That piece was adapted from a now-viral Twitter post by my colleague at the University of Waterloo, Aimée Morrison.

Dr Morrison is asking, I think, about how we might implement a version of Donut Economics at our universities, right now.

In other words: she wonders what it would take for us to figure out how to manage prosperity for those less immediately fortunate than We The Tenured are, within the limits of the current university climate.*

Note: this is not the same as wondering about the revolution required to fix the current university climate. (And, if you are reading this in Ontario after last week’s election, that’s a whole other post. Bear with me.)

She writes:

A lot of us with tenure are watching PhD students leave their programs without finishing, go into debt, suffer lousy adjunct jobs and destroy their mental health. We are watching our undergrad programs turned into scaled-up piecework, our administrative structures turn managerial. What can we do?

Because we, the tenured, are the ones to do it. Who else? Marginalized scholars? Contingent workers? Trustees and boards? No. If anyone has the footing, power and safety to push back, it’s tenured faculty. What are you going to do?

Yes, yes, I know: you are just one mid-level associate trying to finish your book, get that grant, grade those assignments. You’re a nobody. Except you’re a nobody with very strong job protection, a stable salary, benefits and institutional access. That is not nothing. Now what?

(There’s lots more. Please click here and keep reading.)

I read Dr Morrison over coffee and toast. I listened to Kate and Ed and Geoff in the car while drinking my smoothie.

Then I put two and two together.

What if we thought the political economy of university labour through Donut Economics?

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(Me and this kid are hungry. No donut holes will do.)

What if we believed, really believed, that we could get everyone out of the university donut hole. NOW. How? Obviously a better provincial / federal / etc funding structure would help (duh). But in the meantime we can do way better (I know I can do way better) advocating for fairer work and compensation structures within our schools, which might go some way toward mitigating the existing mess.

I get why this is hard. We get stonewalled a lot by administration / the culture / expectations about business-as-usual. We are all overworked: it’s a fact. What can those of us up the chain actually do? Our to-do lists are full!

This is, in fact, Dr. Morrison’s central question – and it’s not rhetorical. It’s the thing that I started thinking about, while driving.

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(I also think about donuts when I’m driving. My amazing local is Donut Monster. LOVE THE MONSTER!)

First, ask yourself this. What’s your position of privilege within the existing structure?

I’ll start. I was promoted to full professor with tenure two years ago at Western University. That means I have as much privilege as there is going. Unless I do something illegal and/or unconscionable, my job is secure.

I don’t actually need to publish anything else, ever.

I could perish, literally, before I perish from “publish or perish”.

Nevertheless, every year I get a small salary bump from being rather productive on the publications front. I’m good on teaching evals and service commitments, too. Together, my scores on those metrics amount to roughly $3500 added onto my base salary annually.

Not much to me.

But lots – LOTS – to somebody else.

So: what if we rethought this workload and compensation structure to be more fair?

What if, for example, permanent, tenure-track and tenured contract allocations (the standard 40/40/20 in North America) differed based on where you are in the seniority ranks?

I’m now at the top of the tenured heap, and let me tell you, I have no fucking idea how that happened. Hard work and gross luck, that’s it. That doesn’t make me special.

It makes me lucky.

So, what if we rethink 40/40/20? For those of us snuggling in the cream, I mean.

What if 40% teaching, 40% research, and 20% service shifted, for those of us already sorted, to 25% teaching, 25% research, 25% service to communities inside and outside the university, and 25% to mentorship and support of younger colleagues?

That 25% could be literally ANYTHING that supports the work of the next generation. It could be helping new colleagues find their feet in the workplace culture. It could be grant application support and mentorship for those who have never won external funding support. It could be devoting actual time, energy, and resources to those who don’t have the existing support to get the work done on time and on spec without us.

It could be advocacy work for sessional and part-time colleagues, both inside and outside union structures.

But the crux is that it would need to be incentivized in the contract, built into the labour and reward structure we currently have. (I don’t see it as “just more service” – it can’t fit into the existing 20% allotment for that. There’s too much to do.) It would need, this way, to be legitimized as essential, valuable, university labour.

This is just one potential model of Donut Economics @ Neoliberal University.

I find myself asking myself these questions:

  • do I really need more merit pay?
  • am I far enough along / up the ladder? Do I really need to get further along / up the ladder?
  • could I advocate for better / fairer metrics with the administration at my school? Could I help convince them that supporting younger colleagues deserves recognition in terms of merit scores and/or pay, as much as and/or more than another publication from me?
  • could I help a younger colleague, by actually, materially helping a younger colleague? If so, why shouldn’t I?

I find myself asking: who helped me get it done, the first time out? How were they compensated? (WERE they compensated?)

Personally, I’m profoundly grateful that I got a job. In this climate, I don’t think I’d be all that competitive.

I think I might get some interviews. Maybe.

If we have tenure, are secure, let’s actively remember our good fortune. Let’s remember that we were not that special, once.

We just had amazing timing.

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Kim

*Friends in the UK and Australasia, I get that this is a bit outside your wheelhouse. Please adapt as you see fit!