Saturday, September 22, 2007

Please release me!

On second thought, no

In academia, among the most coveted prizes is a reduction in one's teaching load. This makes sense in a university context where research is rewarded above all other pursuits. A reduced teaching load could accelerate one's publication rate and bring tenure or that full professorship just a little closer. It makes less sense, however, at a community college, where teaching is the paramount mission (and research, if any, is not even an explicit part of the rubric for academic promotion; you may be able to find it in the list titled “other services to the academic community”). We who teach at such schools want to teach, right? Nevertheless, release time is the carrot that administrators like to dangle before us.

It was more than dozen years ago when the Vice President (for instruction) ushered me into the office of the College President. I knew the VP fairly well (who, in an earlier campus incarnation as math dean had been the person who hired me), but the CP was relatively new to her job. I didn't really know her and I was certain she knew little about me. Clearly it was at the VP's instigation that I had been summoned.

The use of technology was burgeoning on campus, and I'm not referring to the overdue replacement of our dial phones with push-button units. Some departments had personal computers on push-carts that were being rolled into classrooms by the more savvy faculty, but tech support was extremely limited. The campus did not have a network and faculty offices had computers only if the faculty member had schlepped one in from home. Student registration was in person or by mail; on-line enrollment did not exist. Many department clerks and secretaries were still using typewriters rather than desktop computers, although the business and computer science departments were considering renaming their Introduction to Typing classes; Introduction to Keyboarding was the front runner for the new designation.

The CP and the VP were agreed that the college needed a formal technology policy. Some administrators were putting together an ad hoc tech advisory committee and it was considered important to get faculty involved. The VP had singled me out a likely faculty participant because he knew I was technology friendly but not fanatic. A small working group in our college district had already labored mightily and produced an absurd “blue sky” report that proposed committing ourselves to “24-hour on-line instruction” in all of our academic disciplines. It contained, however, no specifics on what that meant or how it could be achieved (or whether teachers would still be needed). The VP knew my opinion of that working group report and figured I would be interested in coming up with something more workable.

The VP did most of the talking: “We need a faculty member who knows something about technology and would focus on practical approaches to using it in instruction. The president can assign point-six release time to the instructor who takes it on.”

That rocked me back in my seat.

“Point six? If you're talking about sixty percent release time, then the tech committee job must be a full-time gig!”

A small smile played on the VP's lips as he glanced sidelong at the CP. The CP looked slightly taken aback that a faculty member would openly state the school's big open secret: Release-time projects were always dramatically low-balled. If you were granted point-three for some campus undertaking, you could be pretty certain of spending at least half your time on it. (You understand, of course, that I'm assuming you actually do the job instead of merely generating some half-assed work product like the tech report from the district working group.)

My next remark shocked them even more.

“I won't take more than point five. Although this is important and I want to help out on it, it's not the main reason I'm here. I don't want any assignment that allocates more than half my time to non-teaching duties.”

We reached an accommodation. I had limits on the amount of time I was willing to take away from teaching and the VP understood that, even if the CP regarded me with bemusement. Yes, the release time I got was less than the time I actually spent on the tech policy committee, but it was scaled proportionately down to something I considered manageable. We labored diligently, sometimes against unexpected obstacles (like the faculty member who volunteered for the committee for the specific purpose of trying to sabotage it), but ultimately successfully. The result was a technology policy complete with a support system to manage, maintain, and update it. The ad hoc operation gave way to a standing committee of the college, chaired by one of my colleagues, and the tech policy has evolved—mostly successfully—in supporting today's wired campus, where the network is routed into each classroom and office, computers sit in each faculty and administrative office, and training is routinely provided to faculty and staff. On-line registration has existed for several years and some of our courses are available by Internet-mediated distance learning. And, yes, our typing classes have been replaced with keyboarding classes.

Release time at a community college is different from release time at a university. My own encounter with it probably did not go quite the way the CP and VP expected, but it suited me just fine. There is, however, one thing that continues to nag at me just a bit.

Why did the students at my school choose me as Teacher of the Year during the year I did the least amount of teaching?


Anonymous said...

Why Teacher of the year? Obviously because it's more fun to teach if you don't have to do it all of the time.

Zeno said...

More fun for the students, too?

Jokermage said...

(like the faculty member who volunteered for the committee for the specific purpose of trying to sabotage it)

I'd love to hear that story sometime. Since most of my recent work has been in organization technology development, it sounds like something I could relate to and learn from.

Scott Hatfield . . . said...

Interesting story. Now I have another question for you! How can somebody be a best-selling author of college math texts, and yet (ahem) also think that the evidence from mathematics(!) points to God's existence.

Still puzzled? Me also. But, if intrigued, you might want to check out this post on my blog. I should would love to hear your thoughts on this either at my blog, or yours....Scott

jonathan said...

Teaching is exhausting. Teaching less is less exhausting ... I'll go with commenter #1... we are often better when we are trying to do a bit less.