Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Individual Income Tax Revolution: Coming Soon to a State Near You

Lately, my partner and I have been looking at property in states that have absolutely no individual income tax.  So far, we've found that Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington and Wyoming, New Hampshire, and Tennessee fit the bill (though Tennessee's system isn't exactly tax free to all citizens but would be for us). Then, I came across an article today that discusses the growth of this thought-process by several other states including Oklahoma, Missouri, and Kansas.

Why, you might ask, would this matter? And, how does this relate to online teaching?

Well, I'll tell you why and how it matters to me, at least. In my almost six years of online teaching, I have become rather efficient at my job. And yes, I use the word efficient for a rhetorical purpose - because as far as I'm concerned a bulk of online teaching is not really teaching at all especially within the purview of the widespread facilitator metaphor in distance education. But, I digress.  As a bit of background, the first few years in online teaching were slow, but the recent economic recession has led to an almost tripling of my income in the last two years. The result: I am being taxed at an extraordinary amount and even though this level of income will likely die down, it has made me realize how much money I actually give away - no correction - how much of my money is actually stolen from me throughout the year by various government entities.

Don't get me wrong, I love online teaching. It is near and dear to my heart and I will always hope, and continue to try, to change it for the better. But for now "it is what it is" as they say, and I have to work with what I am given.  So, as I find myself settling into the haphazard, insecurity of an online teaching career, I am also wanting to do my settling in a state that will allow me to keep as much of my own money as possible, thus, explaining my interest in states that offer no individual income tax.

There are other things that interest me as well with these states such as the possibility of owning acreage and the cost of living to name a few, but no matter how many requirements I come up with, just about any of the states presently on the no-income tax list or those currently working towards that model would fit the bill. In fact, there are states on the current and proposed list that I would have never even considered living in at all until recently. It makes me wonder how many other self-employed individuals or even just average, ordinary citizens might consider moving across state lines (or several state lines) in search of greater economic freedom and mobility? It's too bad my state isn't on the current or proposed list and I've lived in my state long enough to know that the voters aren't concerned with such issues. In fact, when I ask around or randomly discuss my career relocation plans with others, many of my fellow state residents look at me in a state of panic and confusion - no, its not breaking the law to live in a state without individual income tax. No, it is not somehow wrong or immoral to want to avoid greater tax burdens.  And, no, I won't feel bad about it either. It is my money, plain and simple. Texas and Florida are about the only states most people know about on the no-income tax list, so I am spreading the word about this growing individual income tax revolution: it exists in more than just Texas and Florida and it's hopefully coming soon to a state near you.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Panopticon - Always Watched in the Doorless, Windowless Online Classroom

Well, there is one thing about online teaching: As lonely as it feels, you are never quite alone.  We online instructors are always being watched and observed.  If you forget to log in every other day, you get an automatic email from the system and your immediate supervisor (whom you never talk to except for when something goes wrong) is also notified.  If your student doesn't like his or her grade, they can complain to their adviser or your own supervisor and you are required to respond. Those emails are always the worst because you can tell that they just want the problem to go away which typically means giving the student what they want - I don't and won't stoop to that level in my teaching. The academic institution may have no integrity, but I do.

The ultimate panopticon, however, is when your dean or supervisor emails you about something going in your classroom. This drives me insane - they log-in, view something in snapshot view (typically not understanding the full context nor trying to understand it) and then they shoot you a rather annoying, judgmental, and misplaced email. Recently, my experience went something like this:
Supervisor: I noticed that you modified the grading rubric to penalize students 5 points if they don't submit their papers to Turnitin. You cannot penalize them for not using Turnitin since use of the program is optional, but you can still submit the papers on their behalf if you suspect integrity issues with their work.

My response: Thanks for emailing. I wasn't aware that this was not allowed since I borrowed this announcement and procedure directly from my last supervisor at this very institution. If you recall, we were encouraged to use Announcements from other instructors, which is what I did. I have no problem changing it, but I'd just like you to keep in mind that I did not just come up with this procedure of my own accord.
The above exchange is paraphrased, but you get the general idea.  I was a bit upset because everything at this institution is given to instructors, the weekly announcements, the grading rubrics, and even discussion responses (they come up with the questions, of course, and then expect you to imitate or reuse another instructors responses in order to have consistency in the classrooms).  You are allowed to deviate from the materials, but only as they see fit; in other words, don't get too creative or you will be shut down. I mean, you are after all, just a facilitator - not a credentialed expert in your discipline or anything.

Less than a week later, I had a repeat of the same kind of exchange.
Supervisor: I love that you are posting weekly announcements and communicating with your students, but in the Week 2 Announcement (it is now Week 3), you mentioned that you would penalize students for not meeting the length requirements for essays. Our grading rubrics don't have anything built in for this, so you actually cannot penalize them.

My response: I modified the announcement and my file that contained all of my announcements for the course so that this 'penalty' wouldn't show up in any future course communications.  I did not email the supervisor back.

Oh, the watchful eye!  At least when I am observed on campus, it is more constructive because it includes praises and areas needing improvement but not because of some standard or rubric of any kind. Instead, the areas needing improvement in the face-to-face environment are suggested based on an innate sense of teaching, pedagogy, and people skills (i.e. "You may find that it would work better if you did this..").

In my almost six years of online teaching, I am not sure if I can recall a conversation - which is almost always via email assuming such an exchange can even be called a conversation - that was not a complaint or some type of objectivist evaluation feedback (either from the supervisor or students).  The feedback in the online environment is almost always used to measure how well you met the expectations of grading turn-around, frequency of discussion activity, frequency of announcements, proper application of grading rubric to essays, etc. Notice how none of these activities have anything to do with a teaching evaluation, including how to improve upon the good qualities that you already have. Instead, the online teaching evaluation focuses on the ability of the hired help to meet deadlines and play the "good little facilitator" role. It is rather degrading and so, in my opinion, my supervisor's last comment wasn't worthy of a written response.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

A Cog In a Machine

As the hired help, I am just a cog in a machine.  Online teaching is run like an industry, and I am just one of several thousand indentured servants caught in the perpetual trap of imaginary change for the better: "they value their students" "they value us - the instructors" "they are fighting to get us paid more". In a sick kind of way it is like Stockholm syndrome - I even hear myself telling my fellow on-campus professors how I balance my online teaching obligations and that the pay and conditions "aren't so bad..." What? Really?

To be quite honest, I actually used to believe such stories, but I don't anymore. As I settle more into my campus teaching life and all of the traditions that it represents, I feel myself distanced even further from my online teaching 'false' loves.  In fact, at the start of this blog, I had five online institutions that I taught for (rarely at the same time, but it did happen occassionally) and now I am down to three online institutions with plans to end my at-will contract with another by the end of this calendar year.

I do recognize, however, that I will still be a cog in a machine even once I transition to teaching mostly on-campus. It is just a different type of machine. One that, quite frankly, seems to be much easier to work within the given industrial constraints.  Bring it on...

Monday, May 16, 2011

Admin Jobs Anyone? The Online Teaching Burnout

I have been teaching online for five years and while my interdisciplinary background does afford multiple teaching opportunities, it is just getting old.  The same student problems, student email or phone call excuses, the same issues with acquiring text books (for the schools that don't have ebooks yet - get with the program already!), dean interference, etc.  In short, I do not feel challenged anymore. I do not feel valued - heck, I never have been valued. Who am I kidding? I mean, if adjunct instructors are on the bottom of the rankings at the academy, then just imagine where online adjunct instructors rank. We are like the chewing gum stuck to the bottom of your shoe in the parking lot - you know, the piece that is still wet and yucky and happens to ruin your best pair of heels.  But, online institutions need us online adjuncts (maybe you needed that gum stuck to your shoe so you would pay closer attention to your surroundings).  As much as they step on us and want to discard us, they cannot.  We are the glue that holds the entire online teaching and learning infrastructure together - but we are also a nuisance - just like that sticky gum from the parking lot.

As you can tell, I am feeling the "blues" some kind of way about my job and my life right now.  It comes and it goes, but when it comes.....well, you know how it is.

So, this got me to thinking.

As part of my random thoughts about online teaching, I have decided that I'd like to land an administrative job. Preferably, I'd like to be able to utilize my experience with online teaching or online writing lab (OWL) development in some capacity or another.  It would be ideal if this position could be done from home, but I don't mind going into the office a few days each week either. (I already teach on campus at a large state university in my area, so I am up to the driving, socializing, and change of pace; I also happen to have a bit of administrative experience and loads of corporate experience.)

Is this a dream? Yes, it probably is, but I have come across a few administrative roles that fit the bill. Two are not remote/distance based, but I think that they would keep me engaged. That is my main concern at this point since I am tired of the monotony of teaching online, but I digress. The other is distance-based but it is for a proprietary school and requires sales - not as interested in landing this position, but I am curious about the "sales" aspect.

Where does that leave me? I want to make a visible, recognized contribution to an organization. I don't want to be in the shadows, and I want my job to mean something to more than just me. Also, maybe, just maybe, an administrative role will put me in a position to change working conditions for future adjuncts - a long stretch, perhaps.

Frankly, I am tired of being the gum on the bottom of someone's shoe.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Weekend "Ball and Chain"

As much as I'd like to say that I have weekends off, that couldn't be any further from the truth. In actuality, I have more "free" time during the week than on weekends because my online students do their work on the weekends - and so must I.  On the one hand, it doesn't seem so bad. I mean, who wouldn't give for a job that really only demanded 24-48 hours of his or her (nearly) undivided attention?  The problem is that often times, this time is so concentrated that I feel burnt out the rest of the week.  I mean, I do some grading during the week as required - return papers by Thursdays at one school and Fridays at the other - but no matter how much I try to "spread" the time around, I still find that most of my time is concentrated over the weekend on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

While I know other online instructors, I have never really asked them what their process or schedule is like.  So, I have no way of comparing my own schedule to that of my associates (if that is the right term).  And then, when I think about it more, I suppose that what really burns me out is the excessive amount of emails, frantic phone calls (often late at night), and questions in the "Ask Your Instructor" forum or general class discussion because these are the items that I deal with mostly over the weekend.  And, even more so, since papers are usually due on Sundays or Mondays (depending on the school), there are always the last minute rush emails or discussion posts made by students who waited until the last minute to read their assignments and begin brainstorming about their papers.

The more I write this blog post and ponder about this feeling of a being tied to my computer via a ball and chain, the more I am stumped as to the source of my discontent about weekends.  Why do I feel as if my weekends are never long enough, never productive enough, and always so busy?  Is it just my nature or does it really stem from online teaching?  Quite honestly, I don't know.  All I do know is that I prefer my week days to my weekend when it comes to my profession, and it has been this way for quite some time now.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Natural vs. Mediated Ethos in the Online Classrom

In the online classroom, the text is the only way to be present.  We are all word-finders; we seek to interpret texts and we seek to be found within our texts.  In a recent piece I came across, Lynn (2000) wonders if she is in attendance in her online class.  She asks, “In our pursuits as word-finders is ethos both ‘lost and not.’?”  Socrates act of covering and uncovering of his head signifies the complexities of ethos and its tangled relationship with language and self. Lynn asserts that there are ethical concerns with such separation of speaker from text; Isocrates addresses ethics by directing attention to the rhetor (based on the manner in which one lives). Aristotle believes it is not about being good as much as it is about appearing good to the audience; ethics grows not from the person’s life but is created in the act of speaking.   This makes rhetoric the act of constructing ethos.

Similar to death of the author debates, Lynn asks if the teacher even exists.  She provides a working definition of her own ethos as “a flexible conception of discourse relationships between writer and text and the character revealed within that relationship.”  In online teaching scholarship, this is much discussion about maintaining a student-centered classroom and being a “guide on the side.”  So, a new instructor might wonder if the instructor even exists, or more importantly, should the instructor exist.  Lynn asserts that students read and construct the instructor’s ethos in the classroom, but she questions the attempts by students to represent themselves as a different gender or race in classroom interactions; she believes that it is an ethical issue that requires more research into the concept of a natural ethos.

This is a very insightful piece and it brings up a perspective of online education that has yet to be explored.We all have multiple personas and conflicting identities, but if there is a “natural” ethos, how can it be defined?  And when we get into the classroom how might our “mediated” ethos appear and how should it appear?  I see some serious implications for those English instructors, like myself, who are caught teaching pre-packaged course content.  In this sense, it may be difficult to align our natural ethos with our mediated ethos which likely has a great deal of unknown pedagogical and ideological implications as well.

Smelser-Gackler, Lynn. (2000). Looking for the Teacher: Ethos in the Online Classroom. Journal of Literacy and Technology 1(2): Spring 2001.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Getting Past the Technology in Online Teaching?

The primary argument that I have been trying to “suss out” has to do with theorizing DE as it exists beyond the technology.  And, as you can well imagine, I am asked in response – how is it possible to discuss DE without the technology?  To be frank, I still haven’t really figured out a response to this question. All I know, a gut feeling really, is that there has to be more to online teaching than the technology (this coming from someone who calls herself a "virtual desk jockey").  Of course, as it is with all research, I am not the only one with this mindset – Kimball (2001) is touting this exact same argument and even though her focus is on identifying aspects of DE culture (where I am concerned with online instructor’s occupation identity), her argument is useful for one main reason: it identifies DE as a field with a body of knowledge and theories – only some of which should be centered on the technology or medium.

In “Managing Distance Learning – New Challenges for Faculty,” Kimball (2001) points out that DE programs are more impacted by teaching strategies and style than anything else.  As an extension of this idea, I am arguing that such consideration, management, and negotiation hinges on the delicate balance struck between one’s own pedagogy and the institutional constraints (often learned through the hiring and recruitment process including online instructor training).  For Kimball, DE courses are effective based upon how well online faculty manage “metaphor, meaning, culture, roles, time, awareness, and collaboration.”  Whether we are teaching online or on-ground, we should be asking the same questions of our teaching and learning process: (1) how to properly balance presentation and experiential activity; (2) how to balance individual and collaborate learning; and (3) how to balance teacher-driven and learner-driven assignments (p. 27).  These same questions should be asked of all teaching and learning environments because teachers should be constantly questioning and testing the environment, making adjustments when necessary.  That is why I really *dislike* canned course content - it goes along with my complaint about the facilitator metaphor and the main premise of teaching, generally speaking.

But to get back on point, Kimball also asserts that a new mindset must be used in DE as compared to face-to-face models, and she makes a very good point in stating that “Learning to manage distance learning is about understanding more about the learning process” (Table 3.1 Shift in Mindset) and the metaphors used to describe online teaching.  The premise of her argument about metaphor is that we should not attempt to take old teaching methods/models and map them directly onto DE. This is what many teachers, programs, and DE designers attempt to do because they think it will “ease” students into the DE environment. However, as Kimball points out, this should not be done because with educational models or metaphors, there are built-in expectations.  “It is important to signal to participants that they are not entering a traditional classroom where they would expect to wait for the instructor to tell them what to do” (p. 30).  Much like Kimball, I agree that metaphor is the key to changing perceptions of DE and for truly developing effective DE courses.

The raves, and rants, of DE technology has been a topic of discussion for far too long and my sense is: When teaching on-campus, is there not more to teaching than how “hip” or “savvy” an instructor may be with his/her use of technology? The focus should be on student learning and producing the optimal learning experience for that particular group of students, which can be accomplished just as easily regardless of the degree, or level of technology, used in the classroom. We should not allow the technology or learning platform to dictate how we teach online, such as "canned courses" and other restrictions on instructor course mods. If we are to build an understanding of the DE field and a complete, robust body of knowledge, we must truly analyze, or separate, all aspects of our field for closer examination.

Kimball, L. (2001). Managing Distance Learning - New Challenges for Faculty. In R. Hazemi, & S. Hailes, The Digital University: Building A Learning Community (pp. 27-38). London: Springer-Verlag.