Solastalgia
rice bowl journals

There has to be a change, I'm sure
Today was just a day fading into another
And that can't be what a life is for.

— Counting Crows, Amy Hit the Atmosphere

Recent Posts

Tuesday 6 June 2017

A heavy lunch of Whole Foods pizza, courtesy of Heather at the SEIU Executive Committee Meeting, gave me the energy for a long afternoon walk through Rock Creek Park. I entered the park from the Whittier Trail, which I found after trying to circumnavigate the Walter Reed campus. I then followed the Valley Trail upstream until the exit to Grubb Road. The return trip to the Takoma Park campus via East-West Highway reminded me of the four such commutes I made by bike in fall 2011, when for two weeks I rented a basement bedroom in Chevy Chase before finding a closer apartment in historic Takoma Park. Back on campus, I worked in RC111 to prepare a quiz and a lesson for tomorrow's class. It will be nice tomorrow morning to have all the printouts ready to go and not to worry about last-minute misfeeds through the photocopier.

The last of three community conversations concerning the proposed Math Science Center took place tonight in SN100. Once again we heard the local residents lamenting the loss of athletic facilities when Falcon Hall gets demolished. Framing this concern in terms of its detrimental impact on future healthcare workers, who are envisioned as eventually dispensing exercise advice to their patients without having experienced its benefits while in school themselves, neatly protects the local residents from an accusation of narrow self-interest, or as Rupert less charitably put it, their fear of having to swim with darker-skinned neighbors in community pools whose existence is a less well-kept secret.

My own contribution to the conversation—the only written comment I've left after attending the first two sessions as a passive spectator—went roughly as follows:

The aversion to losing athletic facilities—expressed at tonight's meeting and last month's—is predicated on the fact that we remember the past but not the future. The Takoma Park campus was around and providing athletic facilities for decades before the other two campuses were even in planning stage. During those decades did the Rockville or Germantown residents complain about losing the opportunity to exercise on a community college campus? If we could remember the future as well as the past, we might justifiably complain about the loss of a modern space for science and math education, during these protracted attempts to appease a privileged minority of affluent homeowners (who are outnumbered in a ratio exceeding 50:1 by the students we serve on this one campus, not to mention the thousands of other students who commute from upcounty to take Takoma Park's unique course offerings).
Signed, a part-time faculty member assigned to teach a science course next semester in Falcon Hall.

Saturday 27 May 2017

For the second week in a row I've skipped the Hyattsville ultimate game, this time to help dig up the tulip poplar stump that has choked off water and sewer lines to Rupert's house. Last weekend I wasn't as worried about atrophying disc-handling skills, because I had already logged three back-to-back weeknight games (Ray's Meadow, Nolte Park, and Goddard) by the time Saturday came around. Today I had no such consolation, having skipped mid-week ultimate in favor of running and swimming sessions. Also unlike last weekend, where my wrist muscles played the minor role of turning bicycle handlebars and gripping brakes along the hills of Rock Creek Park, today I'd be exercising them more vigorously with a trowel in the rocky soil of Rupert's front yard. With any luck, this one-day deviation from the usual range of wrist motion will not have affected my muscle memory the next time I try to toss a disc.
[Carlos and J.T. digging
stump roots]

Rain came through our region just as we finally got a rope around the stump and tied to the hitch of Barry's pickup truck. The reduced traction under the tires gave the stump at least another day's reprieve, but we'll be back under sunnier skies to see it pulled out completely. After that, we'll still have to dig a ditch for the new water and sewer lines before Rupert is able to quit his 19th century lifestyle.

Upon returning home, I took a couple naps to prepare for the first breaking of the daily Ramadan fast at 20:30, to which I had received an invitation from Caroline on Thursday. This sumptuous feast would keep us non-Muslim guests awake until at least midnight, while the practicing Muslims would stay and celebrate until 2 a.m. I tasted for the first time this evening not only the main course of jofor rice with grouper, tamarind, cabbage, and West-African-seasoned yucca, but also some delightful beverages: hot spiced tea and a sweetened sorrel drink. The cable TV connection brought us a Wolof-language talk show and a serial drama, of which the latter was easier to follow by reading body language and recognizing snippets of courtroom French. Caroline, Luna, and I made our exit shortly after midnight, thanking our hosts for their hospitality and amazing cooking. Despite this late bedtime, the incoming rays of sunlight during the 5 o'clock hour are almost certain to wake us up at the usual time tomorrow, necessitating at least one more nap this weekend.

Wednesday 17 May 2017

Facing the imminent departure of my long-time colleague Nancy, who has often given me a ride to the Germantown campus for previous college closing meetings, I took up the offer of a different carpooling arrangement from a part-time English professor who would meet me in Silver Spring. This way I would begin to sever the mental association between college-wide meetings in Germantown and riding my bike to the Forest Glen Kiss-and-Ride. So today I took the more familiar route to the Takoma Park campus, from whence I walked across the bridge to Caroline's apartment building after stocking up on sections of newspaper from the recycle bins of houses next to Pavilion 3. The printed stories therein, concerning the latest fallout from the firing of James Comey, would only be needed as diversion for the ten minutes between my early arrival at the Galaxy apartments and Caroline's appearance at the door. After that, the newspapers merely added bulk to my bag, since conversations with colleagues could be counted on to provide better entertainment.

We walked to the Silver Spring Metro station and then boarded a Red Line train for its long journey to Shady Grove. As we approached the terminal station, Caroline called her mom to finalize the handoff of the car she would be borrowing for the last leg of this multi-modal commute. From the backseat of this car we helped ourselves to the granola bars left behind by its previous driver, in case the food options at the Germantown campus would be scarce now that classes and final exams had wrapped up.

We arrived at the Germantown campus after Dr. Pollard's opening address. The faculty and staff had already started to break off into their smaller union meetings, so Caroline and I found our way to the SEIU meeting in HT 122. There we heard from Anne McLeer about the newly-ratified collective bargaining agreement. This new contract contains good news for Alan Stover and other long-time adjunct II professors, who can now receive an additional 1% salary increase in recognition of their long service and ongoing professional development.

Tango Thomas spoke at the SEIU meeting to share some of the insights he's privy to as a member of the college administration. One of the new programs he's ushered into existence will help adjunct faculty who are interested in making the transition to full-time faculty, by providing advice on which catchphrases to use during interviews and which skills to build while still an adjunct. Tango also corrected some misconceptions on how the college deals with the vacancies that appear when a full-time faculty member leaves.

Bill Primosch took his turn at the front of the room and plugged a new one-day study skills program for incoming students, starting this summer and staffed entirely by adjuncts. For some disciplines the only professors who teach the courses are adjuncts, but for other disciplines this segregation will allow the part-timers to be seen contributing in a role they aren't usually assigned.

Rounding out the meeting were brief remarks by Seth Dietz, who talked about recent collaborations with other unions (especially the People's Climate March), and Heather Brown, who summarized the activities of our TPSS union forum this past year.

Throughout the meeting, Harold Williams divided his attention between the speaker at the front of the room and the notes he passed to me about the Spitz summer institute in Chadds Ford, PA, where I can acquire formal training on the software that controls our planetarium projector. I'm supposed to meet him in his office tomorrow to fill out the EAP form so that the college will spend professional development funds on my attendance.

On the original schedule, the union meeting was supposed to be followed by lunch on our own, with discipline meetings beginning only at 14:00. Because of the STEM student conference taking place this afternoon, both the Math/Statistics and Physics/Engineering/Geosciences discipline meetings were held starting at 12:15, with lunch provided by the respective dean. I opted to attend the Math/Statistics discipline meeting, which included a fun backmapping activity to clarify the dependencies between college-level skills and the skills taught in the prerequisite course. There might finally be a counterpart to MATH115A and MATH117A for the survey course that I've been teaching, if one of the proposals that emerged from this backmapping activity pans out.

I got a ride back to the Takoma Park campus with Mazen and Sharon, as I had suggested might happen when Caroline and I parted ways to attend our respective discipline meetings. I rested from the oppressive afternoon heat in the comfort of RC111, then took a swim at 17:20 and joined the Nolte Park ultimate game around 18:00.

Friday 12 May 2017

A week of sleep deprivation has finally come to an end! The work week started off easily enough, with a morning visit to the office on Monday and what seemed like plenty of time to make last-minute corrections to the final exam questions in my two classes. So relaxed was I about the upcoming days that on Monday evening I scheduled a home movie screening of Live Free or Die Hard, extending in an escapist direction the themes that had appeared in the serious movies Mom and I saw over the previous two days (Snowden and Inequality For All).

The sleep deprivation began to accumulate on Wednesday, when I had to wake up many hours before the first exam. I had scheduled a session of scaling and root planing with my dentist for 9:00, which would leave me numb from novocaine injections until the first exam was wrapping up at 14:30. I ate a big breakfast to prepare for this ordeal and to help recover from the physical exhaustion of an unusually active Tuesday (biking to Rockville and back for two engagements with local politicians).

Not having packed a set of bike lights for my Tuesday adventures, I found a place near my dentist's office to secure the bike before attending the City Hall meeting that lasted until well after sunset. Thankfully the bike was still in one piece when I left my dental appointment around 10:00 Wednesday morning, so I made it to campus with plenty of time to set up the exam room for my afternoon section of MATH 110.

I went home immediately after the first exam to correct some typos that had come to light in the testing room itself. Returning to campus to print a new batch of revised exams could be delayed even longer than my usual Wednesday schedule permitted, thanks to an exam start time of 19:15 rather than 18:30. Unfortunately that meant I wouldn't get home from the Wednesday evening exam until almost 22:00, yet the following morning I had be back on campus by 8:00 for my Weather and Climate section.

Steady rain began to fall Thursday morning, just after I arrived to set up the exam room for Weather and Climate. I would have liked to go home right after the exam ended to catch up on sleep, but I worried about exam papers in my backpack getting wet and unreadable. I stayed on campus until early afternoon, wandering between the Math Pavilion and the Resource Center as the mood dictated. On one of the later visits to the Math Pavilion, I spoke with Kim Fouche to learn about the Piazza platform, a locally-developed alternative to the Google Hangouts that I began to use this semester for online interaction with my math students.

I graded the second half of my MATH 110 exams Thursday night, fueled by a black-eyed pea soup whose preparation provided just the right amount of ocular relief in the middle of a long day of close reading and computer work. The only grading I left for today was the evaluation of my students' ePortfolios.

Tuesday 9 May 2017

I began my last free day before envigilating final exams with a long session at the computer, editing the exam for Weather and Climate to include a new version of the mini-case-study problem that has featured prominently in previous exams. Inspired by the successful review session last week (in which the students showcased their artistic talents by drawing weather concepts for their peers to guess, Pictionary-style), I decided to eschew the usual practice of providing surface analyses, satellite imagery, and upper-level charts, all of which require costly amounts of color toner or ink. Instead I would provide a copy of the scientific forecaster discussion from the Storm Prediction Center, and have the students draw the isobar geometry, surface conditions, and fronts consistent with the forecast.

Also on the agenda today was a 12:30 meeting with Councilmember Tom Hucker, which I volunteered to attend along with two other Takoma Park adjunct faculty and four MCPS paraeducators. The mild weather encouraged me to make the trip by bike. I hadn't done this particular commute since last semester, and I was worried that I'd be out of practice climbing the hills of Veirs Mill Road. This worry was compounded when a convenient stopping point in my morning exam revisions didn't appear until 11:15. Despite the 11:20 departure time, though, I still arrived with plenty of time to catch my breath and chat with my MC colleagues about what we'd say at the meeting.

After the meeting with Councilmember Hucker, I biked south on Rockville Pike to enjoy a late lunch at the Indian restaurant to which Rupert had brought us one weekend last fall. On the restaurant's television was the press conference where Donald Trump might have been announcing the firing of James Comey, but with the volume turned down I couldn't make out what was being said. Instead I paid more attention to the delicate flavors on my plate, and the "escalator wit" that would be needed for a written follow-up to the in-person meeting with Councilmember Hucker.

I returned to the Takoma Park campus by way of Rock Creek Trail, Capital Crescent Trail, and Georgia Avenue. Filling up my afternoon was a long session of exam revisions and photocopying, plus a walk around campus with Caroline, who needed to pick up a packet of English compositions from another professor. I didn't end up going for an evening swim, despite having packed the requisite gear this morning, because my exam revisions continued straight through the 18:00 hour until it was time to leave for another Community Conversation at Takoma Park City Hall, where residents and other affected parties would discuss the construction of the proposed Math Science Center.

Friday 28 April 2017

The Myth of Individual Thinking

I enjoyed discussions with colleagues this week on the divergent goals of instructors and students. Based on reports of how students approach the math learning center, it appears that their primary objective is getting all the questions answered, in time for the submission deadline. From the instructor's perspective, this objective is only a means to an end: that the student learns mathematics.

How do we reconcile the breadth of our established curricula with the constraints on our students' time that prevent them from ruminating on the rich mathematical content long enough to attempt an unfamiliar problem with confidence? If a problem is too offbeat, we've seen them throw up their hands in frustration, bringing their homework to the math learning center and making it "somebody else's problem". Even for a question worded exactly the same as one of the worked-out examples in the textbook, I got the impression from Professor Anderson that the approach of making it "somebody else's problem" is still common.

Perhaps our students are just more aware of the inheritance they're received from generations of thinkers before them, as a new book reviewed this month in the New York Times points out:

Sloman and Fernbach take this argument further, positing that not just rationality but the very idea of individual thinking is a myth. ... No individual knows everything it takes to build a cathedral, an atom bomb or an aircraft. What gave Homo sapiens an edge ... was not our individual rationality, but our unparalleled ability to think together in large groups.

Students who acknowledge this debt should not regard it as a license to abdicate their individual ownership of the knowledge our courses seek to impart, although many of them seem to arrive at that conclusion. The instant availability of so much knowledge online has made our individual ignorance so visible that the generation of digital natives has internalized drastically reduced expectations of what any one person should commit to long-term memory.

A solid long-term memory, with which we hope our students will be armed when they face unfamiliar applications, is difficult to establish in the time frame constrained by their patience and financial means. To compensate for this gap, some instructors give open-note exams, so as to test understanding rather than memory. This novel approach to mathematics exams is an idea I might be tempted to explore in upcoming semesters.

Wednesday 26 April 2017

It feels frustrating to look at the student responses to the exam I just gave in MATH 110, and see almost no ability to express themselves in writing. Forget about mathematical notation. I'd be delighted if they could label a probability tree correctly and draw the distinction between a set and the number of elements it has. But I could lower the bar even further, merely asking them to answer in complete sentences, and still only half the class might meet that expectation.

I wonder how much of this observation can be ascribed to the domain-specificity of their previous training, and our failure as instructors to insist that skills in one class be practiced in all other classes. Are we not educating a whole person with our efforts? Why should one part of their brain shut off when they enter the math class? My former colleague Jana Asher (who was ABD at Carnegie Mellon until late last year, when sensitive international data was finally released and her dissertation could be defended, just days before her adviser passed away) always used to tell her students to "put on their outside thinking-caps" and cast off the silo-mentality that sees mathematics in isolation from everyday experience.

Looking at the fall 2017 schedule across all three campuses, I see that physics professor Kris Lui is scheduled to teach a section of calculus 2 at Germantown. It's a testimony to the collegiality at the Germantown campus, and the lack of a silo-mentality, that the math professors aren't pushing back against an "intrusion" from another department. At one of the Rockville math department meetings last semester I got the impression that the faculty preferred stronger policing of the boundaries between disciplines. The presence at Germantown of such interdisciplinary thinkers as Sanjay Rai seems to have promoted a culture of fuzzier boundaries, and more willingness to deploy the vast store of in-house talent in creative ways. I wonder whether this tinkering spirit can penetrate to the other levels of administration and inspire a return to the older practice of rotating administrative duties among the faculty rather than having dedicated positions for the non-classroom functions of the college.

Saturday 8 April 2017

After diving enthusiastically on Thursday into my new role as lobbyist for full funding of the Montgomery College budget, I took a few steps back in time to revisit some of my old haunts from graduate school. Yesterday's outing, under the partly cloudy skies that still lingered from the supercell thunderstorms of Thursday night, took me down Paint Branch Drive in a half-baked plan to buy a new LCD monitor from Terrapin Trader.

The monitor I had been using with my desktop computer upstairs also had the rare property of not throwing error messages when connected to the downstairs TiVo player through an HDMI-to-DVI adapter. Rather than subordinate our household's TV viewing options to my personal computing schedule, and lug a bulky screen up and down the stairs several times a week, it would be easier to invest in a second monitor. I looked up the Terrapin Trader inventory that morning on a tiny smartphone screen. Without the aid of corrective lenses, I didn't notice in fine print that the storehouse of UMD surplus goods had moved its location to the Severn Building on Greenbelt Road. Instead I took the shuttle bus to the College Park Metro Station, thinking that the old location on Paint Branch Drive was still valid. All I encountered there was a half-empty warehouse, where the fledgling business JavaZen was staffed by a lone individual crouched over her laptop at a folding utility desk.

Taking the shuttle bus right back to the Stamp Student Union, I inquired at the front desk where the Terrapin Trader was now. I got the address on a yellow post-it note and then took my bike in that direction. Knowing that my backpack would probably not offer enough room to hold a decent-size monitor, I locked up the bike on the Rhode Island Avenue Trolley Trail and prepared to take the C2 bus back to Takoma Park. I had lived on both sides of that bike rack location for many years (2003–2006 near Berwyn Road, and 2006–2009 on Fox Street), but never had the need to lock up a bike overnight so close to Greenbelt Road. As I went to sleep last night, I wondered whether my $30 monitor investment would be turned into a $500 outing by bike thieves working under cover of darkness.

Today I took the C2 bus back to Greenbelt Road. There the bike was still secure, tires still sufficiently inflated, so I set off for the Hyattsville ultimate game by way of Northeast Branch Trail. Supposedly this game got started around 2007, when I was still living near the College Park Trolley Trail. I sometimes wonder whether a different set of housemates back then might have gotten me into the game five years sooner, so that the direction from which I came this morning might now seem more like a long-lost friend than a novel prelude to this Saturday sporting tradition.

Thursday 6 April 2017

Reflections on a Day of Civic Engagement

I find it revealing to compare this morning's opening meeting of the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Student Success with the afternoon meeting at the office of Councilmember Marc Elrich. Rather than level such serious charges as hypocrisy or arguing in bad faith, it's probably a safer generalization to say that all of the parties in these negotiations could afford to be a little more self-critical and to question their assumptions about the other parties' motivations.

At the Blue Ribbon Task Force, music professor Heather Brown put forward the suggestion (originating with Alan Stover) that courses taught by part-time faculty could remain on the schedule with more relaxed minimum enrollment standards than apply to the courses taught by full-time faculty. This suggestion met immediate resistance from Jim Sniezek, dean of chemical and biological sciences, who said it would get "nasty" to mandate different enrollment thresholds based on the cost of employing the instructor. I've run into Jim at several recent civic engagement events, including the Craig Rice/DeRionne Pollard/Jack Smith town hall at Blair High School (concerning MCPS and MC budgets for FY18) and the community meeting with Takoma Park residents (concerning the plans for a new Math Science Center on that campus). His broader point was that course cancellation decisions are made section-by-section rather than by rigidly enforcing an 85% enrollment target (which actually applies to each discipline in aggregate: for instance, a few 50%-enrolled biology courses can still run if most of the other biology sections exceed 90% enrollment). When deans meet to decide which sections to cancel, Jim says they generally do take into account the overall cost of keeping the course on the schedule, including faculty salary and the cost of restocking supplies. This section-by-section discretion obviates the need for any uniform enrollment target based on the rank of the instructor.

My own suggestion, which received a fuller response from Jim after Heather left, was to reduce administrative bloat by examining full-time staff positions (such as the programmer analysts who keep our cloud software going, including Banner, Blackboard, and MyMC) and soliciting bids from faculty with the right skill set to perform those duties on a part-time basis. This suggestion was inspired by a Washington Monthly essay and my own experience working for a department chair who also happens to be a Banner guru. If the college is willing to rely so heavily on contingent labor for their core function of teaching, why would they not also use temporary contracts to fulfill a non-core function of supporting IT infrastructure?

Jim's fuller response to this suggestion held that AAUP contracts prohibited "exempt" positions from taking on additional compensated duties with the same employer. The circular shifting of blame—administrators blaming unions for cluelessness about unintended side effects of their demands during the bargaining process, unions blaming the county council for not exerting enough leverage over the administration in setting budget priorities, and county council blaming administration for not delivering on promises even during years when the budget is fully funded—undermines the commitment to accountability featured prominently as a concluding sentence in the college mission statement.

In private conversation after the task force concluded their hour of listening, Jim rephrased his objection as the more general observation that unions approach negotiations with insufficient awareness of what it takes to run a college.

In the afternoon I attended a 90-minute meeting with Marc Elrich, accompanied by MC adjuncts Carol Hinds, Bill Primosch, and at least six MCPS paraeducators who responded to Travis Simon's invitation. Because of the imbalance in numbers, most of the discussion focused on the anticipated repercussions of not fully funding the MCPS budget. However, the three MC representatives managed to make Marc aware of the similarly dire consequences facing adjunct faculty in the event that the council makes a counteroffer $5 million shy of what was requested. Marc seemed unimpressed, saying that the council regularly underfunds other agencies with union representation (including the fire department, police department, and waste management), all of which are able to maintain their commitment to the union contracts by making cuts to non-core areas of their operations.

As a former teacher himself, councilmember Elrich is probably the most sympathetic to the concerns of employees teaching classes and supporting the learning environment. He's the only councilmember who scheduled more than one listening session with educators in MC and MCPS. These upcoming sessions with councilmembers offer the perfect opportunity to make them more aware of the hardships facing part-time faculty.

As Marc pointed out, throwing more money at a set of problems will have little impact if that money is not spent wisely. These spending decisions can be influenced through the channels of communication that the administration has opened for us, including the upcoming BRTF listening sessions and the accompanying online suggestion forms.

Friday 3 February 2017

I'd like to follow up on one of the economic negotiation issues mentioned at yesterday's union forum meeting. Victoria said the union has been trying to secure hiring preference for adjuncts interested in full-time positions. This request dovetails with one of the points I raised in my letter to the Classification and Compensation Committee after wandering into a management training session several weeks ago. Our discussion yesterday, along with recent coverage of immigration policy, inspired me to make the following analogy. Just as American companies who seek to hire foreign workers supposedly have to prove that the needed talent cannot be found domestically, perhaps Montgomery College should be required to prove that its internal candidate pool is insufficient to fill an open full-time position, before widening the search to external candidates.

In the first part of this analogy, the attempt to balance the interests of citizens, foreign job seekers, and the companies themselves is mediated by federal government, supposedly a neutral third party but one that in fact exhibits varying degrees of bias toward its citizens, depending on how much the reigning administration subscribes to the globalist agenda. In the second part of this analogy, which neutral third party might enforce the desired balance among internal candidates, external candidates, and the college?

Certainly SEIU is a possible third party, to the extent that its advocacy for adjuncts parallels the federal government's interest in its citizens' welfare. If the federal government is run by an admittedly globalist administration that pays lip service to its citizens but then pursues policies to promote the interests of multinational companies, then the analogy is considerably weaker. The case for getting a hiring preference concession during the economic negotiations must appeal to an administration more receptive to homegrown talent than the multinational companies who now show no patience for in-house training and prefer to poach talent from other firms. I hope Dr. Pollard and the rest of the Board are willing to prove this latter description an unfair characterization of their approach to hiring.


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