my point exactly

Wednesday, August 02, 2006


Sometimes I think I need to make the injustice I was subject to more public. I believe this is not just ranting, but a claim to a group of people's moral dishonesty, the arrogance of power. One can survive of course, but then, if there is no justice, what regulates human behavior?

Saturday, July 29, 2006

a bad ending to a nice adventure

Who am I? More importantly, why am I posting these notes?
I feel I have been treated unfairly on my job, I feel some people took advantage of me, I feel that I can not do much about it.
Let's see: I have been working for a public University in Southern California for four years, as a part-time instructor or, put more nicely, Adjunct Faculty. I have a Ph.D. obtained at big private University, still in Southern California, a high GPA, a decent research record and a very good teaching record. I started teaching while I was still a student, almost six years ago.
In these years I taught classes at all levels, from general education ones to labs, from senior level classes to graduate level seminars. I feel I have done very good. Some students who did poorly or I have failed might not feel the same way, but general comments from classes and, let's say it, from the faculty that got to know me, are largely positive.

What is the problem then? The University that employed me in these last four years is not a first-tier one; to be sincere is not even a second-tier one. My department struggles to get funding; some tenured professors do some good research, others instead have found different ways to get money. Most of the money that finances the functioning of my department comes from federal grants devoted not to pure science but to increase the percentage of minorities in science. Noble intent. What happens at my University though? If you are a minority member (and the term "minority" is very loose in this Department) no matter your GPA or your record, you are admitted and everything is paid for you. Still, noble cause, maybe some people have really been disadvantaged and deserve a chance to try and get a degree. Fact is, if the student does not go through with the degree, there will be no more funding. So the faculty is somehow under a psychological drive to pass as many students as possible. Even those who do not deserve it.

Here enter I. Having been a good instructor for a few years, at this and another institution, I was very much appreciated by our Chair. Over time, the Chair trusted me with more and more advanced classes, that were more pertinent to the core of my curriculum but that also put me in contact with major students. Last year, a tenured professor got one year of sabbatical leave and what better occasion to find an in-house replacement as me. So I was assigned three senior level classes (notice that a tenured professor rarely teach more than two or three classes, while every semester I have taught four to five, and I was also assigned two more general education classes back then; of course, but that is part of the game, for a fraction of the stipend). When I started teaching these three classes, some, not all, of these students made clear from the beginning that they were expecting to pass my class without major obstacle. Many things were said to me, and I will detail them in future posts, but I just went straight on my path. I informally talked to the Chair, and he generically said to be "elastic" but to do what I considered fair. No faculty member thought I needed advice on this. Eventually, in an advanced class of seven students, I soon found out that one was essentially analphabet: they were required to write reports, and sentences did not make any sense, grammar errors were all over the place, class material was not studied; another student claimed that she worked 10 hours daily at Robinson-May and she did not have time to study, so I should have given her a break; another student recently obtained a Bachelor in another discipline and, even if she had no clue about the subject, felt she was superior and she was wasting her time; a fourth student was already working in the field and plainly said she was in the class only because the Department made her take it, she had no interest in it and she already knew what she needed; a fifth student, finally, spent most of the time caring about how she looked, in class, on the previous night, at the last weekend party. Only two students were actually interested in the class, and they expressed concern to me about the atmosphere that was developing.

I come from a world where study is taken seriously. To me these people were wasting their (and my) time, but it was their business. I am not responsible for how you spend your time outside the class. So I kept teaching, to me rather satisfactorily, unaware of the fact that these five persons started complaining about me with the Chair. The Chair is an extremely nice person, a gentleman, who was stepping down from his position (that will happen on Monday, July 31) and was as surprised as I was when I knew about this. A good scientists, he is not very happy to find himself in confrontations and suggested that I do something; I showed him the written reports of some of the students, he started to read them and he shook his head, and said "I do not know what to say". In the end, I was pressured to give the students higher grades than I felt they deserved; I gave a D to the student who could not write a sentence; another student did not show up on the last day of classes, when a final report was due. I had a week before having to turn in final grades with the College; so I contacted her asking for explanations and she agreed to turn the report in the following day; it was not turned in; I gave her a few more days. No report seen. We arrived on the final day, and I wrote her an e-mail. She assured me that it would have been turned in on time that day. It was not. I had to assign grades, and I gave her an F. The student then went to the Chair; she also appears to be in a strange good relationship with an emeritus professor, who apparently called our Chair to complain about me too. My chair was subject to such a great stress that he begged me, while not of course forcing me, to change the grade to the student, a thing that I have never done in my life.

I have done many things for my Chair: not only I changed that grade, I also listened to him about increasing others, I made exceptions for student who did not respect the rules, I allowed for more students to be in my class, I have volunteered to teach classes at strange hours - classes that nobody wanted, I have used my personal money and vehicle to research conditions for a class before taking them out on a field, and I have never asked for a reimbursement for live expenses. The Chair was happy that I was working out with him on many things and I believed that his way of saying thanks was to give me classes. Over time though the Chair became less friendly, or better, friendly but trying to avoid contact; he started calling me in because "students were complaining"; so I asked him, what is the complaint about? The answers ranged from "There are too many chapters in the exam" to "the professor does not let me go to the restroom during the exam"; none of these complaints has ever addressed my professionality, expertise or knowledge. Still, we were troubled by this sudden increase in students' complaints; finally, major students dared to advance the idea that I "did not know anything"; a friend signaled me a now notorious comment on "" where the students stated that they knew more than me and I should have given them all an "A" (Ratemyprofessor is an anonymous site where everybody can write everything about every professor). After a while, the Chair called me in again, this time because somebody apparently made some comment to him about my personal hygiene; evidently, the situation was getting desperate. Some other faculty members, who do not go along well with the Chair, were heard to say in public how the students did not like me, and how probably I was not that good of a professor, and as soon as they would have been in charge "I would not last long". One of these faculty members is the new Chair, starting on August 1, 2006.
The following semester, Spring 2006, one of the trouble-maker students of my previous semester is now my teaching assistant: I teach the class, she teaches the lab; not once she came to me for advice, to agree on a calendar, or anything else; she had a desk in an office where I was too, she never used it. I taught four classes last semester, she was the TA in one of them. She is a student of one of the faculty members heard in the corridors. Statistically, her students had a 10-15% lower grade than ANY of my other students; this class starts to challenge me with "too much material, exams are too difficult", interrupting me during lecture to complain about things not pertinent to the class; some of them eventually made their way to the Chair office; essentially all of the complaints came from students sitting in the class my former student was a TA for; the Chair was exhausted by this continuous knocking at his door, but there was nothing new at that point. Eventually one day a student started an argument in class; I asked him not to interrupt the class and he went on bragging, so I asked him to leave; he slammed the door and remained outside, yelling in the corridor but looking at the class throughout a window. When class was over, this student waited to be alone with me and started yelling in my face. I had enough and I asked him to let me go at that point; he put himself between me and the door, so I tried to move him away from my path and get out, this guy was a big, muscular one, he appeared out of himself and he was scaring me. When I tried to bypass him he hit me, saying that I dared touch him and I should not touch him; he hurt me on my shoulder and arm, but I was able to run out of the classroom, in the corridor, in front of witnesses. At that point he reached me outside and said he would have gone to the Chair too and make me pay. I was still shaken, but I went to my office and wrote immediately an e-mail to my Chair, detailing what happened. After a while the Chair came to me saying that the student was claiming that I used a racial slur. While he was complaining, for some strange combination, two of the people that said I would not last long at that school, were in the main office, waiting for the Chair, or maybe waiting for something to happen.

Of course I never used any racial slur but the Chair, frightened by the student's threat of going to the Dean, forced him to have a meeting with me; a meeting where I denied everything of course, and where the Chair asked me to be reasonable; the student was sort of taken aback, he expected me to give in to his threats. The Chair panicked, he was so close to stepping down and to retirement; he did not want trouble, because the Department was already under observation (an evaluating commission from Sacramento had recently come to our premises, and again we were gently pressured to meet in groups, so that nobody could speak freely, and to give enthusiastic comments on the Department). So I textually said " I did not say those things, but if all you want from is saying that I apologize, even for something I did not do, I am saying it now". That formula made the student partially happy, saying "I have to talk to my friends". The Chair himself thought the behavior of the student was very strange, and felt like somebody put "words in his mouth", essentially the Chair said that this incident was artificially built. I could not talk about being hit because I had no witnesses of course. The Chair was so afraid the student was going to the Dean that he did not realize how close I was to going to the Dean and the police too. So the student eventually came back to class, got a B-, asked me questions in class, and came on the final day of class to shake my hands.

The Chair then started to put down a calendar for this coming semester, Fall 2006. He put me down for four classes; after a faculty meeting, apparently three faculty members said that he was giving me too many classes. So he put me down for two and in parentheses for the other two. After a few days, end of May 2006, he comes in my office, almost crying, saying that he did not know how to say this, that I did not deserve it, but there had been a reduced faculty meeting (most of the faculty was not present) and the majority told him (not even asked him) not to give me any class anymore. Why? Because "the students do not like me", "we were this close to having been sued", "because I give real grades to the students, so that I interfere with the main reason while this department has funding". Among these persons, the future new Chair.

So, I have not been offered classes for the next semester; by the way, I have legal entitlement to teach, I have letter from the Department where they state they want to hire me up to Summer 2007. I have been encouraged not to take advantage of my legal rights because I would endanger possible letter of recommendation; the new Chair also laughed at me, he said "Go ahead, it is your right, but you know how these things end, you spend a lot of money and we win"; while this last phrase only add insult to the damage and does not worry me, because it is a union contract that states my rights, the other is unfortunately true: my good Chair wants no trouble and he agreed to write me good letters if I do not create trouble. Other professors, even the ones that liked me, are incredibly scared and do not want to fight for a part-timer: it is so easy to hire somebody else, maybe with a M.S. instead of a Ph.D., more manageable than I was.

I have always believed in education; it is sad when a whole department compromises on educational skills because it is easier to get money through a program originally thought of with good intentions. Some professors have taken some of this money for their own research, travelling to different continents but always dragging a student with them, so that they could justify their expenses. Other professors close one if not two eyes, because of the difficulties of finding another job, because they are already in, because in the end "we do not really interact with them".

It would be easy for me to say that I am better than these people. It is not enough; morally, economically, socially, this is so not right. They did not even care to tell me in person, they sent the old Chair to tell me, because "he is the intermediary between me and the faculty". One of the faculty members twice asked me in the main office "why the @#$* do not I apply in Kansas or Oklahoma". As they say, from an injustice I will try to get a new start. But these people, how sad....

Friday, May 19, 2006

in the garden

I have a little garden in the back of my building. Actually, I do not really have it, it is common property and the when I moved into this building I asked the landlady to use the narrow strip of land that was there, abandoned, dried up. She said yes and I started putting vegetables and plants and trees in it. Over time, many things have changed, the landlady died, my neighbors changed and an evil gardener, with a policy that sounds like "the more I cut and destroy now, the less I have to work later, no matter how it looks" has been hired. Well, the gardener should not really be in the back, but nobody will listen to my complaints anyway, and when I asked him to please not cut my plants (he cuts, he does not trim!), he grinned and went on destroying.
Still, nature is fantastic and here and there patches of my old flowers are now blooming. My ivy hedge is putting out new buds; the badly shaped avocado trees are putting out new young ready-to-say-hi-to life leaves; the jasmine smells like never before; the rosemary is strong and its smell pungent; lavender is colorful, geraniums are blooming. I love it.

Why do I like plants so much? Maybe because of my parents, my father in particular. When I am there I always see him; he died 12 years ago, and he left me these memories of him working in this vegetable gardens that was the envy of our neighbors. A few months after he died, I left Europe and moved to America; when I think of home my family is still all there, even if for my mother and sister the reality is different, they see every day that my father is not there; to me, they are all back there. So when I go in the garden I see the flowers and the plants and see him potting or watering here and there, giving me advice or criticizing me for some silly fundamental error with exposition or water or soil; and I always like it out there, and i smile even in the darker moments of my life. I wish he were still alive but I am happy he left me memories of this kind

an end brings a start

So today I learned that it does not matter to work hard, to be honest, to be sincere. What matters is that you do not annoy the big players, that you possibly bring in money to share, that it is better to do your job badly but so that nobody complains, rather than be thorough and honest and make the bad guys actually look.. well.. bad!

I would not want to start one of those blogs where people rant about something or someone. But at times I feel like Don Quixote, and when you finally pay the price, you are only left with the satisfaction of having done the right thing. Is it enough?