Thursday, March 30, 2017

Why I decided to vote for the union

This is my 32nd blog post and it's the first time I've written about my personal life.  Despite the technical nature of the previous 31 posts (well, maybe the Toilet Paper Apocalypse one doesn't count in that category), this is the hardest one for me to write.

For the past several weeks, my employer, Vanderbilt University, has been at battle with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and a group of non-tenure track faculty who are trying to organize a union.  I have had very mixed emotions about how I felt about this.  On the one hand, after teaching at Vanderbilt for almost eighteen years, I'm relatively secure in my job and it wasn't clear to me that there would be any particular advantage to me to be part of a union (I'm a Senior Lecturer, one of the ranks of non-tenure track faculty included in the unionization proposal).  I've spent a considerable amount of time during those weeks trying to inform myself about what it would mean to be part of a faculty union.  I've been asked to be part of a Faculty Senate panel discussing the unionization proposal this afternoon, and spent time last night trying to decide what I would say during the three minutes that I've been allocated to explain my position on the issue.  As part of my deliberations last night, I spent a couple of hours reading old emails from my first two years teaching at Vanderbilt.  I'm an obsessive email filer.  I have most of the emails I've received since 1995 filed in topical and chronological folders, so it didn't take me long to find the relevant emails.

It's hard for me to describe what the experience of reading those emails was like.  Although I've kept all of those emails for years, I have avoided ever reading them again because knew the experience would be disturbing to me.  It was sort of like ripping a scab off of a mostly healed wound, but that doesn't capture the intensity of the emotions that it raised.

General science class in 1983, Ridgeway, Ohio


I grew up in a rural part of Ohio in a conservative Republican family that was always very anti-union.  So that has predisposed me to have a negative outlook on unions.  After I graduated with my undergraduate degree in 1982, I spent the next ten years teaching high school.  I taught in a variety of schools: a rural school in Ohio for one year, a public school in Swaziland (Africa) for three years, and a school in rural/suburban Tennessee for six years.  The classes I taught included chemistry, physics, biology, physical science, general science, math, and computer programming.
Physical science class in 1985, Mzimpofu, Swaziland
Despite the variety of locations, the schools actually had a lot in common.  When I arrived at each of those schools, they had little or no science equipment and I spent years trying to figure out how to get enough equipment to teach my lab classes in a way that was engaging to the students.  At those schools, I served in a variety of roles, including department chair, chair of the faculty advisory committee, student teacher supervisor, choir director, and adviser of research and environmental clubs.
Physics class in 1991, Kingston Springs, Tennessee
By the end of my time teaching high school, I had amassed a number of teaching credentials and awards, including scoring in the 99th percentile for professional knowledge on the National Teacher Exam, achieving the highest level (Role Model Teacher) on the grueling Tennessee Career Ladder certification program, and being named Teacher of the Year at the school level in 1990 and on the county level in 1992.

In 1993, I decided that I wanted to take on a different challenge: entering a Ph.D. program in the biology department at Vanderbilt.  Over the next six years, I took graduate classes, carried out research, served as a teaching assistant in the biology labs for ten semesters, and had a major role in managing the life of our family while my wife worked towards tenure at a nearby university.  By August 1999, I had defended my dissertation and was on the market looking for a teaching job on the college level.

Being a part-time Lecturer at Vanderbilt

In the fall of 1999, I was writing papers from my dissertation and trying to figure out how to get a job within commuting distance of my wife's university.  By that time, she had tenure, which complicated the process.  At the last minute, there was an opening for a half-time lecturer position, teaching BIOL 101, a non-majors biology service course for education majors in Vanderbilt's Peabody College of Education.  It seemed like this was the ideal class for me with my background teaching high school for many years.  It was rather daunting because I got the job a few days before the semester started.  I had to scramble to put together a syllabus and try to keep up with planning class sessions, developing labs, and writing lectures.  But I'd done this three times before when I had started at my three different high schools, so I knew I could do it if I threw myself into the job.

I had naively assumed that my job was to teach these students biology, uphold the academic standards that I had always cared about, and enforce the College rules about things like class attendance.  It is striking to me as I look through the emails from that semester how many of them involved missed classes, and complaints about grades and the workload.  Here's an example:
Professor Baskauf,
I am not able to be in class tomorrow because my
flight leaves a 2:30 pm.  Both of my friday classes were
cancelled, so I am going home tomorrow.  However, the later
flights were too late for my parents in that my flight is a
long one and the airport is 2hrs from my house.  I
apologize for missing class.
Within a month, it was clear that the students were unhappy about my expectations for them.  I had a conversation with my chair about the expectations for the class, which I was beginning to think must differ radically from what I had anticipated.  Here's an email I got on October 25 from my department chair:
I had a meeting with the Peabody folks with regard to BSCI 101 and what the
purpose of the course is.  It appears that they have had little or no
contact with any of the instructors for  the course for several years and
really have no idea of the current course content and organization.  At some
point, I'd like to set up a meeting with you, the relevant Peabody folks,
and myself to make sure we all understand why we offer BSCI 101 at all; and,
since it is a service course, to make sure we are all on the same page with
regard to content and structure.  From our discussion last Friday, I think
what they expect is not much different from what we would do, but is perhaps
a little different from the course as it evolved in the Molecular Biology
Department.  I'd like to send them a syllabus to look over, then we'll try
to set up a time for discussion.  Could you get me a copy of the syllabus
you're using this year?
I tried to adjust the content and format of the course to make it more relevant to education majors and pushed through to the end of the semester.  I had a number of discussions with my TA about how we could work to make the labs more engaging and made plans on how I was going to improve the course in the spring semester, which I had already been scheduled to teach.

On January 3, 2000, I found out from my chair that Dean Infante had examined my student evaluations and decided to fire me.  He had never been in my class (actually, no administrator or other faculty member had ever set foot in my class) and as far as I know, he had no idea what I had actually done in the class.  He just decided that my student evaluation numbers were too low.  I was a "bad" teacher and Vanderbilt wasn't going to let me teach that class again.

With my past record of 15 years of excellent teaching, this was a crushing blow to me emotionally.  I'm normally a really optimistic person, but on that day I had an glimmering of what it must feel like to be clinically depressed.  I could hardly make myself get out of bed.  In addition to the emotional toll, I now had two little kids to help support - we had been planning on the income from my teaching and we were also looking at losing our day care at Vanderbilt if I were no longer employed.

Fortunately, my department chair went to bat for me.  Ironically, the appeal that he made to the dean was NOT that I was hard working, or innovative, or that I had high standards for my students.  He took my student evaluation numbers from when I was a TA in the bio department to the Dean's office and convinced them that those numbers showed that the new student evaluation numbers were an outlier.  Although I didn't know it at the time, I was apparently on some kind of probation - the department was supposed to be monitoring me to make sure that I wasn't still being a "bad" teacher.

In the second semester that I taught the 101 class, I took extreme precautions to be very accessible to students.  I emailed all of the students who didn't do well on tests and asked them if the wanted to meet with me.  We did a self-designed project to investigate what it took to build a microcosm ecosystem.  We went on an ecology field trip to a local park and an on-campus field trip to visit research labs that were using zebrafish and fruit flies as model organisms to study genetics and development.  I think the students were still unhappy with their grades and my expectations for workload, but apparently their evaluations were good enough for me to be hired as a full-time Lecturer in the fall.

Being a full-time Lecturer at Vanderbilt

The faculty member who had previously been the lab coordinator for the Intro to Biological Sciences labs for majors, was leaving that position to take a different teaching job in the department.  The chair of the new Biological Sciences Department (formed by the merger of my biology department and the molecular biology department), contacted me about "going into the breach" as he phrased it, and taking over as lab coordinator.  I had actually been a TA five times for the semester of that course dealing with ecology and evolution (my specialty).  So I was well acquainted with that teaching lab.  Having had no success in getting a tenure-track job at any college within commuting distance, I took the offer of a one year appointment, assuming that I could do the job until I got a better position somewhere else.

When I started the job, I really had very little idea what my job responsibilities were supposed to be.  I was supposed to "coordinate labs".  The job expectations were never communicated to me beyond that.  Unfortunately, the focus of the course during my first semester was the half of the course that dealt with molecular biology, which I had never studied and for which I had never served as a TA.  Things did not go well.  For starters, the long-term lab manager discovered that she had cancer and missed long stretches of work for her treatments.  Fortunately, I was allowed to hire a temporary staff person with a masters related to molecular biology.  I spent much of the semester in the prep room with her trying to figure out why our cloning and other experiments weren't working as they should.  A major part of my job responsibilities was to supervise the TAs and manage the grades and website for both my class and the lecture part of the course.  I spent almost no time in the classroom with the students - I wasn't aware that that was actually supposed to be a part of the job.

At the end of the first semester, I was relieved to have managed to pull of the whole series of labs with some degree of success and was looking forward to the ecology and evolution semester, with which I was very familiar.  However, I was shocked to discover that I was actually going to be subject to student evaluations again.  Apparently, there was some college rule that everyone who is in a faculty position has to be evaluated by students.  In January, I ran into my chair and he commented that we would have to get my student evaluations up in the coming semester.  Oh, and by the way, the grades were also too high for the course.  I was going to have to increase the rigor of the course to bring them down to what was considered a reasonable range for lab courses in the department.

At that point in time, the lab grades were included with the lecture grades to form a single grade for the course.  The tenure track faculty involved in the lecture part of the course decided that a range of B to B- was a reasonable target for the lab portion of the course, so it fell on me to structure the grading in the course in a way that the grades would fall into that range.  At that time, the largest component of the grade was lab reports, which I found to be graded by the TAs in a very arbitrary and capricious manner.  In the spring semester, I replaced lab reports with weekly problem sets, and replaced lightly-weighted occasional quizzes with regular lab tests that formed half of the grade of the course.  I made the tests difficult enough to lower the grade to the target range, but it was clear to the students that I was to blame for creating the tests that were killing their GPAs.

In the second semester, I made it a point to be in the lab during every section to ask students if they had questions or needed help.  That did a lot to improve the students' impressions of me as compared to the fall.  But in late March, I was blindsided by another unanticipated event: fraternity formals.  Students had previously asked me to excuse them from lab on Fridays to leave early for spring break or to go out of town for family visits.  I had been consistently enforcing the College's policy on excused absences, which said unequivocally "conflicts arising from personal travel plans or social obligations are not regarded as occasions that qualify as an excused absence" and made them take zeros for their work on days when they missed class for those reasons.  Obviously students were not happy about this, but the situation came to a head when students started asking to reschedule class to go out of town for fraternity formals.  I had gone to a school that didn't have fraternities, and I'd never heard of a fraternity formal.  When I found out that fraternity formals involved skipping school to go out of town to go to a party, I told them that I couldn't consider that an excused absence under the college's policy on attendance.  The students were furious.  They had spent money on plane tickets and tuxedos and now I was forcing them to chose between class and going to their party.  An exchange with two of the students ended up in us walking over to Dean Eickmeier's office where he confirmed that my decision was consistent with college policy.  In some cases, students opted to come to class.  One student brought me an apparently fake medical excuse.  Others took the zero and went to the party.  One student said that I "did not have any compassion that a normal human would have" and threatened that he was going to write a scathing article about me in the Hustler (the student newspaper).  Another student said that he was going to "get me" on the evaluations.  Alarmed, and given my previous bad experience with student evaluations, I documented the incidents in an email to my chair.

Despite these bumps in the road, my evaluations were better in the spring semster, and I was anticipating being reappointed again for 2001-02.  I did request that my chair include in the request for my reappointment a copy of my email detailing the incidents involving the unhappy students with excused absences.  On May 23rd, I received this ominous email from my chair:
 I have received a response from Dean Venable to my recommendation for your reappointment.  He has agreed to reappoint you, but he has placed some conditions on the reappointment that we need to discuss.  I would like to do that today, if possible.  I have a flexible schedule until mid-afternoon.
I went to meet with the chair, and he gave me a copy of the letter from Dean Venable.  You can read it yourself:
Once again, a Dean sitting in his office pouring over computer printouts had decided that I was a bad teacher based solely on student evaluations.  No personal discussion with me about the class, no classroom observations ever by any administrator, no examination of the course materials or goals.  Worse yet, he chose to cherry-pick the written comments to emphasize the negative ones.  By my count, 11% of students made negative comments about my teaching style, while 24% made positive comments about it.  Here are some of the comments from the spring semester Dean Venable chose to ignore:

Dr. Baskauf is very good at instructing the class.  He is easy to understand and teaches the material well so that we understand what he is saying.  I think that Dr. Baskauf would be a better help to the lecture however, since the lecture class is more important to students and worth 3 hours.  I wish I could have had him for a professor in lecture as well as lab.
Dr. Baskauf really puts forth an aire of knowledge.  He was always willing to help with any problems that we were having with our labs, in and out of class, while not just telling us the answers, but nudging us along while we figured it out for ourselves.  Whats more important is that he seems to really love the material and teaching the class which makes the experience that much better and makes it much easer to learn.
Dr. Baskauf was always well prepared for the lab.  This was very helpful because he could always give a concise overview that I could understand.  The powerpoint presentations were a great idea as they really helped me to follow his instructions better.  He is very friendly and always willing to help when I had questions.
Bascauf is very good at explaining and communicating with the class.  he is very helpful as well.
Dr. Baskauf made this lab one of the most enjoyable and challenging classes I have yet taken at Vanderbilt.  He was especially willing to help students to better understand the value of what they were learning.
Baskauf was always very well prepared for lab.  He obviously put a lot of work into setting everything up.  He always had very clear tutorials and lectures.
Dr. Baskauf created a challenging and stimulating environment for learning about biological experiments.  Although many aspects of the lab were tough, Dr. Baskauf was able to understand how difficult is was for the class as a whole.  He opened himself up to adapting to our needs.  His approach to teaching is something I have yet to experience elsewhere at Vanderbilt.  I hope to have him as an instructor at some further point in my career here at Vanderbilt.
The sentence for my crime was:
  • to be mentored by a senior faculty member
  • to work with the Center for Teaching to improve my lecturing style and interpersonal skills, and
  • to be subjected to an extra mid-semester student evaluation

Oh, yes - and no pay raise.  These were all necessary to bring me "up to the teaching standards required by the College", with the threat that I would be fired if I didn't improve.  

So, for a second time, I had been flagged with the scarlet letter of "bad teacher" based solely on student evaluations.  Again, I was angry at the injustice and incredibly demoralized.  I really wanted to just quit at Vanderbilt, but I really needed the job.  So I swallowed my pride and completed my sentence.  I was "mentored" the next year by Bubba Singleton (later my highly supportive department chair), who was extremely helpful in helping me figure out ways to structure the class so that I could maintain my academic standards while also keeping students happy enough that I didn't get fired again.  

Life as a Senior Lecturer

Ever since that time, I've maintained an Excel spreadsheet with a graph of my student evaluations, which I check each year to ensure that I'm not heading into the danger zone.  Despite the fact that I don't really "teach" in the usual sense (most of my work involves curriculum development, wrangling online course management systems, recruiting and mentoring TAs, supervising staff, and handling administrative problems), I've managed to keep the student evaluation numbers to an acceptable level.  I've instituted open-ended research projects into the course (which by the way, caused my evaluation numbers to plunge the year they were introduced), continued to introduce the latest educational technology into the course, and continued to revise and update labs as biology evolves.  In 2002, I was promoted to Senior Lecturer (which comes with a three-year appointment) and in 2010 I received the Harriet S. Gilliam Award for Excellence in Teaching by a Senior Lecturer. 

The Harriet S. Gilliam Award silver cup, with the letter from Dean Venable that I store inside it

So I think that most people at Vanderbilt now think I'm a good teacher.  But student evaluations and the threat of being fired based on student evaluations hangs over me like a Sword of Damocles every time I'm up for re-appointment.  

After I wrote this, I seriously considered deleting the whole thing.  Even after all of these years, for a veteran teacher, being fired and being sentenced to remedial help for "bad teaching" is an embarrassment.  I feel embarrassed, even though I know that I was just as good a teacher at that time as I was before and after.  But I think it's important for people to know what it feels like to be treated unjustly in a situation where there is a huge power imbalance - where a powerful person you've never met passes judgment on your teaching based on student evaluations rather than by observing your classroom.

Do non-tenure track faculty at Vanderbilt need a union?

When the unionization question came up, I have to say that I was pretty skeptical about it.  When I taught high school, I was a member of the National Education Association, which functioned something like a union, but I had mostly thought of it as a professional association.  My upbringing predisposed me to thinking negatively about unions.  Given my current relatively stable position, it wasn't clear to me that it was in my interest to be part of a union.

However, as I started investigating where non-tenure track faculty stand in the College of Arts and Sciences at Vanderbilt, it was clear to me that we are actually just as powerless as I had always considered us to be.  Although non-tenure track faculty constitute 38% of the faculty of A&S, they are banned from election to Faculty Senate and have been improperly disenfranchised from voting for Faculty Senate for at least ten years. (I have never been given the opportunity to vote.) See Article IV, Section 2 of the CAS Constitution for details. Non-tenure track faculty are not eligible for election to the A&S Faculty Council, nor are they allowed to vote for Faculty Council representatives (Article II, Section 1, Part B).  At College-wide faculty meetings, full-time Senior Lecturers have a vote, but all non-tenure track faculty are only allowed to vote on an issue only when the Dean decides that the matter is related to their assigned duties (Article I, Section I, Part C).  The Provost's Office insists that non-tenure track faculty participate in University governance through participation in University Committees, but my analysis shows that appointment to University Committees is greatly skewed towards tenure-track faculty, with only three non-tenure track faculty actually sitting on those committees (one each on Religious Affairs, Athletics, and Chemical Safety).  The Shared Governance Committee, charged last fall with suggesting changes and improvements in the future does not include a single non-tenure track member of A&S (only one non-tenure track member at all - from the Blair School of Music).  We really have virtually no voice in the governance of the College or the University.  

We also have no influence over the process of our re-appointment, or how much we are paid.  Prior to our reappointment, we submit a dossier.  Then months later, we either do or don't get a reappointment letter with a salary number and a place to sign.  If we don't like the number, we can quit.  In a previous reappointment cycle, I suggested to my chair that it would be fair for me to be paid what I would receive if I were to leave Vanderbilt and teach in the Metro Nashville public school system.  At that time, with a Ph.D. and the number of years of teaching experience that I had, my salary in the public schools would have been about $10k more than what I was getting at Vanderbilt.  I think that at that time I actually still had a valid Tennessee high school teaching license, so it would have been a real possibility for me.  They did give me something like an additional 1% pay increase over the base increase for that year, but I've never gotten parity with what I would receive as a public high school teacher (let alone what I would earn teaching at a private school).  That's particularly ironic, given that the number of students and teaching assistants I supervise has gone up by about 60% since I started in the job (with no corresponding increase in pay), to over 400 students and 12 to 20 TAs per semester, plus three full-time staff.  This is a much greater responsibility than I would have if I were teaching high school.  The reason that I was given for not being granted parity in pay with the public schools was that the college couldn't afford that much.  I like my job and I enjoy working with my students and TAs, so I probably won't quit to go back to teaching high school.  But it seems really unfair to me and I'm powerless to change the situation.

Currently, I'm up for re-appointment with a promotion to Principal Senior Lecturer.  That might result in a pay increase, but there is no transparency about the decision-making process in the Dean's office.  Some day later this year, I'll probably get a letter offering me an appointment with some salary number on it.  Or not.  

The Provost's Office website has a list of frequently asked questions whose answers insinuate that the union will probably lie to us, and may negotiate away our benefits without consulting with us.  I will admit that I was a bit concerned about the negative effects of unionization when the issue first came up.  However, I contacted some senior lecturers at Duke and University of Chicago to ask them how the contract negotiating process was going at their schools.  It was clear to me that the negotiating teams at those schools (composed of  non-tenure track faculty from the schools themselves) were very attuned to the concerns of the colleagues they were representing, and that they had no intention of negotiating away important benefits that they already had.  Mostly, it just looked like a huge amount of time and work on their part.  But it definitely was not the apocalypse - for most people at those schools, life goes on as normal.

Now that I'm now a relatively high ranking non-tenure track faculty with reasonable job security, it seems unlikely that personally I will derive a large benefit from unionization.  But given that I have virtually no influence or negotiating power within the university, it is very hard for me to see what I have to lose by being part of the union.  More importantly, as I re-read the emails from my first painful years of teaching at Vanderbilt, it was evident to me that part-time faculty and faculty with one year appointments are particularly vulnerable to the whims of upper-level administration.  I have always been fortunate to have department chairs who supported me vigorously and went to bat for me when I needed it.  But there is no guarantee that will happen in the future, or in other departments.  For whatever faults there may be in having a union, it will provide a degree of protection and transparency that has been completely lacking for non-tenure track faculty at Vanderbilt.  And that's the primary reason why if offered the chance I'm planning to vote "yes" on unionization.


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