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On being a curmudgeon

I was talking to my dean the other day, and he said something like: John Stone took on the role of campus gadfly. It feels like you are following in his footsteps, calling yourself a curmudgeon and then acting that way. But that’s not why I’m a curmudgeon. I was going to send him an email message reflecting on my curmudgeonliness, but realized that since the main purpose of these daily essays is to write in the open, I wrote this essay instead.

My name is Samuel A. Rebelsky [1] and I’m a curmudgeon. No, that’s not a statement for Curmudgeons Anonymous or anything like that. It’s just a statement of fact. What do I mean when I say that I’m a curmudgeon? I mean that I get grumpy about a lot of different things and then criticize them openly (and, at times, with a tone that reflects my grumpiness). It also helps that I’m old and male [2].

Did I choose to be a curmudgeon? No. I seem to have reached that personality naturally. I care deeply about Grinnell and the people at Grinnell. I think it’s a wonderful place, and I think are students are great people. And so I get upset about things that I think undermine Grinnell’s greatness, that interfere with my ability to support our students, or that waste my time. I also get upset when people’s actions suggest that they don’t value me (or my colleagues, or my students, or my discipline, or …).

What are examples? Well, as you know, I think Grinnell’s Web infrastructure undermines our greatness in many ways. We are now much more restrictive in how we allow students to use the Web. (Okay, MathLAN is open. However, the rest of the College has fallen down on its responsibilities.) And we’re bad players with regards to the overall community of higher education, acting as takers rather than givers. Now, I’ll admit that I’ve criticized people who aren’t really responsible for this change, such as when our Registrar talked about the transition of most of the useful material from our open Web onto Sharepointless. But since no one really takes responsibility for the stupid decisions, the people who have to present the decisions end up with my criticism.

I’ve criticized an Associate Dean at a faculty meeting for using the term no requirements curriculum, rather than individually advised curriculum. That’s probably one of my sillier critiques. But since administrators have regularly told me that we should call it an individually advised curriculum rather than an open curriculum, I think it’s equally fair to ask our administrators to follow the same rules.

I’ve raised a host of issues about our new research for all requirement. It’s not that I object to the idea of providing every interested student with a research opportunity in their major or majors. It’s that I think it’s dangerous to assume that we can do so without additional resources. I also think it’s a huge challenge to ask faculty to come up with models, particularly in departments like mine in which we can barely staff the core courses in our discipline. Asking us to consider 12-person research seminars when our average class is about 24 is unrealistic. (It’s also unrealistic to assume that one faculty member can supervise research projects across the many subdisciplines of computer science.) I’ll also admit to some concern over the term research, particularly since I’ve spent much of my career promoting Boyer’s Four Modes of Scholarship and note that the faculty handbook also talks about Scholarship rather than Research.

More generally, I get frustrated about the added expectations that are placed on faculty and on departments. In the past year or two, I think we’ve been asked to have serious departmental discussions about: research for all, globalization, assessment, writing across the curriculum, the role of online education in our discipline, large scale projects for fundraising, how to spend money my department has fundraised, interdisciplinarity, and more. While I think each of these is an important topic [3], having to worry about all of them places a large burden on us, and, in many ways, interferes with our ability to talk about other issues, such as disciplinary issues or how to better support students who are having difficulty in our courses.

A few times in recent years, I found disconnects between what I thought we agreed upon in faculty meetings and what we eventually do. When I raise these differences, I’m told Well, it’s not in the minutes. So I’ve become quite curmudgeonly about ensuring that the faculty minutes include all the things that I think are important. I’m pretty sure that few people appreciate my attempts to correct the minutes, but I think it’s important. It also means that I go back to the faculty meeting minutes when we discuss issues. For example, when an Associate Dean suggested that research for all meant that we provide every student with a research experience, I (and most of the other chairs in our meeting) noted that the faculty vote was that we provide every student with the opportunity for a research experience. It’s one word, but it’s a significant difference.

I also get furious about Grinnell’s support (or lack thereof) for students who have counseling needs [4]. We did a review of our student health and counseling services (SHACS) about five years ago. As far as I can tell, every recommendation in that review was immediately ignored [5] and, not so surprisingly, we had significant turnover, turnover which damaged SHACS’ ability to serve students. And I’ve seen too many instances of the College’s unwillingness to pay what is probably necessary to provide an adequate level of counseling, represented most recently by an interview with our VP for Finance who said that we would not offer more than our peer institutions for mental health care professionals, even though there is a dearth of such professionals in Iowa [7,8].

What else? I get very upset when people schedule things in conflict with community time and convocation time, or schedule things that should be in community time at other times. We made massive changes to the Grinnell schedule [9] to ensure that everyone could attend convocation on Thursdays at 11 or other community events on Tuesdays or Thursdays at 11. Part of our agreement in setting up those times was that nothing would be scheduled in conflict with community-wide events. But I regularly see people, particularly people from the Dean’s office, scheduling conflicting events. That makes me angry, since it violates something that we all supposedly agreed upon. It makes me equally angry when the president decides to schedule a campus-wide event outside those hours, since it inevitably means that I have to reschedule a department event. And since one of the points of those community times was to ensure that we had times appropriate for all-campus events, I really wish the president’s office was more careful.

Wow! That’s a lot that upsets me. And that just scratches the surface. Is all of this because I love Grinnell and think these things undermine Grinnell? Mostly. However, as I wrote this essay, I realized that I just naturally get grumpy about a lot of things.

As I’ve said in a separate essay, I think I have awesome colleagues (and colleagues includes not only faculty, but also staff and administrators). But boy, some of them do a lot that frustrates me. I think even if I focus on the many things I appreciate about these colleagues, all of these things will still frustrate me. As I said at the beginning, I don’t choose to be a curmudgeon. I just am one. I don’t think I can change.

This essay is clearly much longer than anything I should ever send to my Dean, or at least contains more complaints than anything I should send to my Dean. He doesn’t need to know most of this. Maybe I should just send him the second paragraph of this essay. I’ll think about it.

[1] Yes, that’s right. My name is Samuel A. Rebelsky. And, as I tell everyone on campus again and again, that’s how I like my name to appear in writing. Not as Sam Rebelsky. I’m happy to be called Sam to my face. (Okay, I even prefer it.) I’m okay in a casual written reference, such as My curmudgeonly colleague, Sam Rebelsky. But for more formal documents, such as candidate schedule and press releases, I very much prefer the more formal name. How many people acknowledge this preference? Almost none, even after many reminders. Maybe I’ll just assume that they’re talking about someone else.

[2] Not all old males are curmudgeons. Not all curmudgeons are old males. But there is correlation between the two.

[3] As one of the primary donors to my department, I don’t think I should be asked to come up with a one-year plan to spend have of my department’s endowment, but that’s a separate issue. I now make sure that all of my donations to the College include a line something like intended for the department to use in the manner and time frame it deems appropriate.

[4] It looks like we may be doing much better this year. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

[5] I’m happy to see that we are now following one recommendation - that we provide opportunities for people getting degrees in counseling to serve as counselors for our students, since that will help us diversify our pool of counselors [6].

[6] Note: The SHACS model is generally for short-term counseling. I would not want rotating counselors if the primary model was long-term counseling.

[7] Of course, this is The Scarlet and Black, so you should take any quotation with some very large grains of salt.

[8] Note: I think very highly of our Vice President of Finance and I feel very fortunate to have her at Grinnell. But I’m frustrated that we have financial guidelines that have made it incredibly difficult to bring in the people we need.

[9] This new schedule caused significant difficulties for CS, since it provides only one morning slot that we can use for first-year students in the fall. (The old schedule had two.)

Version 1.0.1 of 2016-09-22.