Thursday, November 03, 2005

A mini breakdown

I am currently sitting in my office, crying inconsolably. And I have a meeting in 15 minutes. Great.

Every once in a while, something happens that makes me think that I will never get tenure here. I don't know how realistic this is, but in the absence of anyone giving me anything more concrete, I speculate.

Today's latest is my registration numbers, which by all accounts should be high for one particular course, but are instead much lower than I expected. (And I should clarify by saying that registration numbers don't usually send me to tears...this was just the last straw in what has turned out to be a very long and trying week, in which I've really felt unsupported in various ways.)

This tells me that one of the following is true:
(1) I am a crappy teacher. This could be the case. However, this would fly against all evidence: my student evaluations are in the very good to excellent range, and have been since I've been here, and my colleagues, who have been observing my teaching for several semesters/terms, have all said that my teaching is excellent.

(2) The students prefer the teaching styles of my male colleagues. This seems more likely to me. In which case, this sucks because if I want to be a "successful" teacher here, I will have to adopt their style, even if it's totally not me at all. To me, this is wrong on so many levels.

I guess the reason that this is bothering me so much is that I really like to believe that I will be judged on my own merits, by my colleagues and by my students. I sort of see this as a message that I will be less favorably judged the less I fit the "mold" established by my colleagues. And frankly, I don't want to fit that mold, or more specifically I don't want to modify my entire personality to fit some ideal that is just not me.

OK, writing about this has made me feel a tad better---at least the sobbing has stopped. Thanks for listening! Must go run to the ladies' room to remove all traces of despair before my meeting....


ScienceWoman said...

It sounds trite but maybe you could look at the low class numbers as an opportunity. Are there things you could do in a class of say 15 that you can't do in a class of 50?

Hate to see you down, so I'm sending you good thoughts virtually.

Alfred Thompson said...

I would be careful about assuming that you are the issue. It could very well be that there is some conflict with this course (or several) that is attracting other students. Perhaps a course that many of them need that is at the same time. Or perhaps there is a cycle going on that you are not aware of. Or it could be that there are a bunch of immature idiots who are making a poor decision. You have to do the best job you can do and that means teaching your way. Don't give up on that easily.

BrightStar said...

Jane! I'm sorry you're having a rough day. I don't know the whole situation about the course numbers, but I also wonder if there are other reasons to explain the low numbers, such as maybe the time the course is offerred?

Anyhow, like you said, it's been a rough week for you, and this on top of everything else must be frustrating. We think you rock, and I hope things look up soon.

Jane said...

Thanks for the kind words, everyone! I'm feeling a little better about things now (less fatalistic, anyway), but the whole thing still bothers me---mainly because something like this has happened a couple of times already. And there are explanations for some of it (scheduling, etc), or maybe even most of it, but when this happens time and again, you start to think that maybe it is you, or how the students are reacting to you.....Anyway, I am going to make myself feel better by contacting one of my senior colleagues in another department---a woman who was the lone female in her dept. for a long time--and seeing if she'll meet me for coffee. I'm guessing that she may have encountered similar situations, and she might be able to provide some perspective.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I'm sorry it's been such a crappy week. I agree that there may well be things going on that you don't know about, but I think your idea abount having coffee with your senior colleague is a great idea.

FWIW, I know that in past tenure reviews (I was at a place previously where I got to hear some of the tenure stuff even though untenured myself - don't ask) senior faculty were fully aware that there are a variety of reasons for low registrations and they aren't all the faculty person's fault. For instance, there was one prof who was an absolute research god (especially in the context of the small school this was), and was a dedicated and congenial campus citizen. He didn't quite connect with the students, for reasons that were largely not his fault - his area was slightly less popular than some, but more relevant to your situation perhaps, he wasn't from the US originally, spoke with an accent, had a very quiet personality, and didn't quite fit local rural kids' ideas of what an authoritative male prof looked like. So he ended up with lower enrollments than many, but at his tenure review, one of the points that senior faculty made was that while his student numbers were low, he served those students incredibly well and the students whom he did connect with valued his help and expertise highly and gained a lot from working with him, which was what the senior faculty paid attention to. Just FWIW.

Ms.PhD said...

Well, I don't know anything about tenure, but I do know a little about how students pick classes.

First, yes, as a couple other people said, it could be the scheduling issue. But the next step is to ask: is there anything you can do to get a coveted Good Time Slot? Do you have to make friends with the registrar, or get your class listed early? Who decides these things? You have to learn more about the process to discover whether this could be the source of your troubles.

Second, what is the title of your course? Can you do anything to market it better? For all we know, the male professors are going around having the career counselors all recommend that the students absolutely take their course, when they actually should be taking yours. Obviously I'm just speculating wildly, I have no idea about the content or names of these courses, but a little behind-the-scenes work can be a huge help sometimes.

Also, as the New Kid suggested, perhaps you're not connecting well enough with the students- so maybe it would help to try to ask the students themselves? They're not aliens, they're just younger than we are.

Finally, as the New Kid also reminded me, perhaps it has to do with reputation. I've known students who deliberately took classes with professors they knew were terrible because they also knew their recommendation letter would help them get into their professional/graduate school of choice. Students are not stupid- they pick classes and mentors as much based on Name Recognition as on the quality of the course. So maybe you need to do a little more self-promotion.

Anyway, I'm sorry to hear you had a crappy day. I hope today was better- I'm haivng a crappy week myself.

bitchphd said...

I'm sorry. It's just b/c the whole "getting tenure" thing makes people feel so powerless. They can't deny you tenure because of enrollment numbers for ONE class.

Turtle said...

I agree with those who suggest that you are likely not the issue here. Or certainly not you, as Jane. It might be you, as a Female Computer Scientist, which you can't (and don't) really want to do anything about.

It may not even be anything as straightforward as "preferring" the teaching style of your male colleagues, but the kind of almost invisible, hard to get at, subtle sexism at work.

Or maybe you're known for being a tough (but excellent) instructor and people are feeling a bit lazy in the spring? I'll confess to a tendency to want to take easier classes in the spring so that I could spend more time outdoors after a long winter.

Regardless, I think there are many more than 1 of 2 options. And, also, quite likely a combination of some, or all, of the above. Which is maybe the one thing I learned from taking multiple choice tests :-).

That said, I'm sorry that you're feeling such a lack of support. That's just rotten. And I think you're right to get yourself some time with a mentor who is in a similar location within her department.

Going back to my own experiences with an unsupportive department, I used to think that I was the problem, until I got outside of my department and saw that other departments and faculty were interested in, and supportive, of my work. Getting accepted to conference and getting published all helped me see that I probably wasn't the real problem, it was the department -- and I would say the embedded sexism -- that was the larger problem.

I would encourage you to refuse to even consider that you are the problem!! Not to take that to an arrogant extreme, but I would encourage you to look for structural reasons 1st, 2nd, and 3rd before looking for your possible contribution.

Anonymous said...

Hang in there! As a (new) department chair this year, I've had some, shall we say, challenging weeks. Tenure is a lot of things put together, and one thing rarely makes or breaks it. For some perspective on fitting in and not, ry reading Ms. Mentor's Impeccable Guide to Women in Academia, it has lots of good advice and will make you laugh (a necessary thing).

Crying is not so bad either...I'll admit to having broken down last night in the 43 spare minutes I had between a thesis defense and an evening class (in which space I was to drive home, eat dinner with my kids, change into jeans and drive back) -- and here I am department chair and 20+ years in the academy!!

Astroprof said...

I can relate. My registration numbers for a course this past semester were TERRIBLE. That was true for my summer session of the course, too. I was pretty down, and thought about how depressing it was. After all, I work SO hard to teach a good class, and I am POSITIVE that I do a much better job at teaching than Professor X who has such and easy class and so many students get A's and B's. Of course, only half of his students can pass the second semester class if anyone else teaches it, and virtually all of mine pass it no matter who teaches it.

I chear myself up to think that I do have some student "groupies" who arrange to take any class that they can with me. They like my style, and they like the fact that I set high expectations. Of course, these are the students that are in college to learn something. I console myself that I am getting quality students, not quantity.

Still, looking at how few there are, .....

Chear up!


Jane said...

Wow, thanks again everyone! Time to catch up on my responses...

NK, I totally agree with your point (and Astroprof made this point too): I shouldn't be thinking of this as a "popularity contest", but should think about how well I'm serving the people that *are* signing up for my courses. And, at the same time, try to figure out how to reach out to more students (which Ms. PhD also brought up).

(And Astroprof, I do have some "groupies" too---and it does cheer me up to think about that! It sounds like we have similar teaching styles.)

Ms. PhD--marketing may be an issue here too. Will see if Senior Female Prof From Another Department has any tricks I can use. (Hope your week got better!)

BitchPhD: I agree that one class does not a tenure denial make, but there are so many ways you can get dinged for "collegiality", and I worry sometimes that this might be one of them. It is all about powerlessness, particularly when the tenure standards are so vaguely defined.

Turtle, thanks for your insight! You're right that it's so easy to blame yourself when you're in a bad situation---and I did get some perspective from people outside my department, and feel better about the situation.

Anonymous, thanks for the book suggestion---and I guess it's strangely comforting to know that even women who have "made it" feel a bit overwhelmed from time to time---it makes me feel like less of a weirdo.

Phew! I should have just written a new post!

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Just a quick addendum - I didn't mean to suggest that you (or my former colleague) weren't connecting with students through any fault of your/his own, but based on students' expectations/prejudices. Students may not incline to a woman computer scientist b/c it doesn't fit their idea of what a computer scientist "should" be in the same way that they didn't know what to do with my colleague - but that was DEFINITELY not the colleague's fault (nor yours). I mean, yeah, there are ways to work around such assumptions, but if they're really pervasive, there's not much that one person on their own can do (especially if it's not backed up by the dept. etc.).

Anonymous said...

My husband is in an engineering program and is taking Dynamics this quarter. His advisor, who is the department head, advised him against taking the course from a woman who was teaching one of the sessions, not explicitly, but he rolled his eyes and said, "She's a tough one," when my husband asked which session he should sign up for. Turns out, she has been the best prof he has ever had. She's demanding but she actually teaches and offers extra help when students ask, unlike several of his other (male) teachers. Not to say your colleagues are like this, but who knows? Maybe you expect more from students and your colleagues suffer by comparison. Don't abandon your teaching style. You won't last long if you have to work in a way that feels false.