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Breathe in, let go (setting aside institutional issues, take one) (#1155)

Topics/tags: Grinnell, Rants, long

Folks who have been reading my musings of late know that I have a new mantra regarding issues at Grinnell College that have tended to upset me, raise my blood pressure, or consume my mind.

It’s not my responsibility.

But that’s not quite true. One of the tenets of shared governance is that everyone has a responsibility to think about the institution and to identify failings. At least that’s part of my understanding of shared governance. I expect others have different perspectives. So what does that say about those issues at Grinnell that consume my mind? Perhaps I should say,

It can’t be my responsibility.

That feels better. It’s not giving up. It’s an identification of acceptance.

To be sure, let me step back a minute and repeat the serenity prayer.

G-d grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the Courage to change the things I can, and the Wisdom to know the difference.

That helps. Many of the issues for which I’m saying It’s not my responsibility are issues I’ve raised already. Perhaps my responsibility under shared governance is simply to raise the issue and trust that others will pursue it. Perhaps if I’ve raised the issue and nothing changes, I should be wise enough to know that I cannot change. I just have to be serene enough to accept them. Wouldn’t that be a concept?

I’m going to try to take the advice of Singer-Songwriter Danika Holmes,

Breathe in, let go.

It’s an experiment. As I breathe in and (try to) let go, I’ll document the things that weigh on my mind, things I’ve complained about and can’t control. I think they are important issues, but I have accepted that I can’t change them. Perhaps someone else will take up these topics. Perhaps not.

Here goes. They appear in no particular order. They have some detail, but less than I’d normally include in a full musing/rant. I’ve generally limited myself to institutional issues, rather than departmental issues. I’ll try to let go of departmental issues in a future musing.

Long ago, when the College instituted a common end-of-course evaluation, the faculty voted to limit the information both the Personnel Committee and the Faculty Salary Committee receive from EOCEs. So why does the [Summary of Reviews] say,

The dossier usually consists simply of this departmental letter, the most recent Faculty Activity Report, and the curriculum vitae of the faculty member, along with course lists, enrollments, and summary quantitative data, as well as qualitative comments from end-of-course evaluations provided by the Dean’s office.

I’ve complained about this through three Deans now. Does no one care that these policies violate the stated will of the faculty?

Originally, the Faculty indicated that the Faculty Salary Committee could use no information from the end-of-course evaluations. About a decade later, the Faculty granted the Faculty Salary Committee access to the data on two questions with the understanding that those data would only be used with appropriate statistical tests against appropriate comparison groups to determine outliers. I know this because I’m the one who wrote the damn proposal (although I’m pretty sure that Eliza presented it). But the Committee has not done the required statistical tests in most years. That’s a problem.

As long as we’re on the topic of salaries, I’ve pushed back against our merit system for, well, as long as I’ve been at Grinnell. By and large, we have excellent faculty. Should we have a system that tells half of them (more or less) that they are below average? It seems like a bad idea. I can tell you it felt awful to discover that I got a lower-than-average raise this year (2.77% rather than 3%) even though I have a high merit score (4.5/5) [1].

At one time, the Trustees indicated that they would give us lower raises if we didn’t have a merit system [2]. But our raise pools have been low in many years. The larger pools were mostly there to catch up for us falling behind our peers.

The merit system takes a lot of time of some of our most valuable faculty members. The Faculty Salary consists of the Chair of the Faculty and the Chairs of the three divisions have to spend a lot of time (at least a week of full-time work, perhaps more) reviewing the information and giving a score. Is it worth it? I think not.

You might be thinking that I write this as someone who regularly receives low raises. But I’ve always had high merit scores. I’d rather we positively supported the faculty with raises, rather than inadvertently using them to indicate dissatisfaction.

I worry about the security of information on campus. My biggest worries have to do with PCards and Proofpoint. We’ve used PCard data to track student movement on campus. We’ve used PCard data to do research studies [3] that I consider unethical. Most of the people I’ve discussed them with have reacted with horror at hearing about them [4]. The exceptions? Some (but not all) administrators. That worries me. I have a lot of faith in Catherine Renner to ensure ethical use. I don’t know who her successor will be, so having faith in that person is difficult. Clear policies protect us. Public admission of failure protects us. Unclear policies and secrecy do not.

What about Proofpoint? I hadn’t realized this was the case, but Proofpoint logs almost every link you click in your email and stores a record of it for some indeterminate time. Members of ITS have access to that information. Is that appropriate? Is that acceptable? As the ACM Code of Ethics suggests,

Computing professionals should establish transparent policies and procedures that allow individuals to understand what data is being collected and how it is being used, to give informed consent for automatic data collection, and to review, obtain, correct inaccuracies in, and delete their personal data.

We need to do better, to come closer to those standards of practice.

Speaking of Proofpoint, do you wonder how it can be that Proofpoint has access to student data under the protections of FERPA? That’s right, Proofpoint, like Microsoft and perhaps dozens of other companies, is designated as an Officer of the College, permitting Microsoft to access all sorts of data. Shouldn’t students be able to know what companies outside of Grinnell can access their data? I think so, but we don’t make that information available.

Note: A colleague raised this concern with me, I’m just passing it on to someone else, although perhaps filtered through my sensibilities.

Then there are the ITS policies. As I’ve noted before, I’ve had excellent experiences working with ITS staff. But the policies created in the last two or so years, particularly at the start of the pandemic, are onerous and problematic. After I spent too much of my fall pushing back on the ones that interfered with academic freedom or my or my department’s ability to do our work, the advice disappeared, with a promise of discussions and clarifications. Those haven’t happened. They need to.

On a related note, I’d like the College to be honest about the transfer of responsibility. It used to be that when a faculty member chose software for their class, the College assumed responsibility. Now we need explicit permission to choose software and, if we don’t we assume responsibility for anything that happens. Sounds like a shifting of burden, doesn’t it?

Here’s the thing. For a long time, Grinnell did not have clear policies about procurement. With no clear policies, anyone could act as an agent of the College. And it’s natural that faculty act as agents of the College. That’s why the College assumed responsibility for the software we choose. A few years ago, the Trustees decided that it was irresponsible to employ an anyone is an agent model. I don’t disagree. So they added clear (or clearer) procurement policies. I’m not quite sure what those are. In any case, one implication of those policies was that faculty were not acting as agents of the College when they chose software. The College could have chosen to retain responsibility, but it chose not to. That’s when the burden shifted.

So the new policy, that provides a pathway for approval, is a step in the right direction. It provides a mechanism under which the College once again assumes its appropriate responsibility for the software we use. But the claim that it protects us more than the older policy? Patently false. **

I remain frustrated that amidst all of our calls for care in language for diverse students, we still have the damn banner that says Live Vocally. How does it feel to read that if you don’t or can’t speak, either because of physical or political limitations? I’ve asked the parent of a brilliant non-speaking autistic, and they agree that it’s offensive. Let’s get rid of it.

Speaking of diversity, I wish we’d stop discarding our policies regarding diversity when they are inconvenient. That’s happened too much this past year. **

Writing anything more will likely get me in trouble. I’ll just stick with that.

It’s not my responsibility.

Grant me the Serenity to accept the things you cannot change.

Breathe in, let go.

Moving on to other institutional priorities, let’s take on wellness. If we value wellness, why does the Wellness committee remain on hiatus and why is it scheduled to do so for another year? If we value wellness, why haven’t we hired a successor for Jen Jacobsen? If we value wellness, why haven’t we made hiring a permanent Rabbi a priority?

Whoops. I appear to be moving to more rant mode rather than just explanatory mode. Time to say it again.

Breathe in, let go.

So let’s consider another of those long-standing wellness issues: Student workload. A few years ago, the College decided to classify all of our four-credit as requiring twelve hours of work per week [5]. Since a normal student workload is between sixteen and eighteen credits, that represents forty-eight to fifty-six hours per week. But our students learn from extra-curricular and co-curricular activities, too, and most work a job. We should not normalize a workload that is at least sixty hours per week.

At least I have confidence that some amazingly talented [6] colleagues are working on this issue.

Of course, there’s also the intellectual integrity of the issue. I have yet to get an answer to

Twelve hours per week for whom and for what grade?

Policies without underlying meaning are intellectually vacuous.

Speaking of intellectual integrity, I wish we’d stop referring to Grinnell’s campus as the ancestral homeland of the Meskwaki. It’s fine if we call it the homeland of the Ioway, and perhaps other tribes. But the Meskwaki did not reach this part of Iowa until a little before the white settlers and they, like the white settlers, drove off the tribes who were here. The ancestral homeland of the Sac and Fox tribe (tribes?) is in Wisconsin or even east of there.

Why do I care? Because inaccurate claims undermine the broader goal of acknowledging native lands and considering appropriate responses.

Continuing in the vein of intellectual integrity, let us revisit once again my opinions on how Grinnell assesses the quality of a liberal arts education, such as when we have our Higher-Learning Commission review. Even though a Grinnell education draws upon the individually mentored curriculum, we count beans to determine its efficacy: most typically, how many people take how many courses in each of the three divisions.

But the divisions are not even a sensible way to split things up. At most institutions, History is a humanistic study. And our humanities division includes three very different ways to approach the world, which I might phrase as The Arts (Studio Art, Theatre and Dance, Music), The Languages (Russian, Spanish, French and Arabic, German Studies, Chinese and Japanese), and The Traditional Humanities (English, Philosophy, Religious Studies, Classics, and, as I’ve suggested, History). If we’re counting, we should count those separately!

As we’ve continued to count, we’ve made counting more complex. We wrote some course tags [7]. We thought about ways to count experiences that aren’t captured in coursework. Things like that.

But we shouldn’t be counting. We should be looking at outcomes that better represent what we expect of our students. Can they write clearly? Can they articulate an argument, even amidst opposition? How do they plan to make the world better? It’s much harder to assess such things, but it’s the intellectually honest thing to do.

As folks may recall, I’ve suggested a better approach would be to require at least one curriculum defense in each student’s career. I still think it’s the right thing to do. But I’m not going to spearhead that charge any more.

Speaking of academic planning, wouldn’t it make more sense to have them record their plans directly in software designed for that purpose, such as SelfService, rather than on pieces of paper (real or virtual) that are not integrated? I’ve made this suggestion recently, and at least one beneficent and brilliant [8] person has commented favorably on the idea.

There’s the whole Faculty Handbook issue that was (necessarily) pushed aside during the pandemic. My contract says that the Handbook is made part of my contract by reference. The Faculty Handbook says that it is not intended as a contract. The obvious solution is to consider it part of our contract when included by reference, but not as a separate document. I don’t think that’s our lawyer’s interpretation. But the issue needs to be resolved. And if it’s not our contract, what is?

I’ve recently written about the College’s treatment of staff and library faculty in summer workshops. I know others have tried to pursue this issue and have failed. But it’s an issue that we should continue to pursue. Value our human resources!

Then there’s the question of where Staff Governance fits within Shared Governance. Traditionally, the answer is nowhere. But that’s not appropriate. Let’s find a place for our staff in Grinnell’s notion of shared governance. Grinnell can be a leader in expanding that notion! Grinnell should be a leader in expanding that notion.

I’m done challenging the notion that representative governance is shared governance. It should be clear that the two are different. I’ve seen too many cases at Grinnell where the faculty as a whole disagreed with a committee’s recommendations. The right way to address that is not to do an end-run around full-faculty discussion.

I’m glad to see that Dean Marzluff was able to break through the resistance to increasing the number of tenure-line faculty. That policy was getting close to putting departments in conflict with each other. I don’t have to try to argue that issue any more. And perhaps I should take it as a sign that someone with a cooler head was more successful. Or maybe it’s just that Raynard left. Who knows. As you might expect, I hope that the institution will use the lifted cap to support CS. But I hope it will also pay attention to the demand in Studio Art, restore the lost position or positions in Theatre and Dance, and address the host of other staffing issues that have been at play.

I think that’s enough for now.

Wasn’t that fun? Did you appreciate yet another peek inside my curmudgeonly mind? More importantly, did you find an important cause to take up? I hope so. It doesn’t hurt to try, or at least it doesn’t hurt to try taking on one or two of them.

Did thinking about these contribute to my heart attack? Not all of them had a major impact, but some did. Some, such as the ITS policies, made my fall overwhelming. A few sent me into the high blood pressure that seems to have triggered my heart attack. But that’s done now. Remember,

Breathe in, let go.

Getting these out one more time seems to have helped me let go. I’ve certainly been less upset than when I posted them as rants.

Nonetheless, I’ll probably pause a bit before writing the departmental ones. And I’m sure a few more institutional ones will arise in the future. But I’m going to try to be done with these, for now and forever.

I’ll say it one more time, just to be sure.

Breathe in, let go.

Postscript: Two important issues up while I was writing this. Come to think of it, it may be more than two. Okay, certainly more than two if you include comments like Brathe in, let go. Nonetheless, two others stood out.

Most importantly, as that last example suggested, my way of approaching things doesn’t always make a difference; there are more successful approaches.

Less importantly, I should accept that I won’t ever win the fight to suggest that we should take our words seriously. Oh well. Change what you can. Accept what you can’t. Figure out the difference.

Postscript: This musing is the second for which I’ve used the title of a Danika and the Jeb song. I’ll probably do others. The Trouble with The Truth sounds like a good one. I’ve already written about my quest to drive US 6 from coast to coast, so I’m not sure what topic Cruise would introduce. No Home Town could be about parts of Iowa, so that might introduce something. I’m not sure what I’d do with Concrete Dragons. We shall see.

[1] Michelle reminds me that I’m well compensated. And I am. But getting a below-average raise (and a below-COI-increase raise) makes me feel less valued.

[2] Yay trustees! Such confidence in the faculty!

[3] At least one research study.

[4] Do you want to recoil in horror? If you are a faculty or staff member at Grinnell, I’m happy to share what I know.

[5] The idea was proposed by an administrator. It was voted on by a faculty committee and then brought to the whole faculty with the suggestion that it was a necessary evil. So, while I say The College, it is equally accurate to say The Faculty>

[6] The initial letters are a hint. It’s also an accurate description.

[7] Tags whose definitions are often too narrow, such as a quantitative reasoning tag that is really about statistical reasoning, and therefore ignores both Math and CS.

[8] See the prior endnote.

Version 1.0 of 2021-05-30 .