October 20, 2017

Success Despite the Odds – AELP Credit versus Non-Credit

There had been a taxi-ride in D.C. rush hour, a two-hour security check and wait, a seven-hour flight to Frankfurt, a six-hour lay-over, another seven-hour flight, and another taxi ride. All in all, about a twenty-four-hour trip without sleep. I feel nauseous and disoriented, but I have to put on my hijab and abaya, the black cloak that women must wear by law in Saudi Arabia. I must continue to be alert because I don’t speak Arabic and I don’t want to commit a cultural blunder that could land me in jail. I feel completely illiterate because I cannot even read the signs.  As if to make the situation somehow okay, I remember that I have experienced this before when I was in China, where I ended up in the middle of nowhere and I had to walk an hour to get back to a place that I recognized because I couldn’t even distinguish four from six characters on the bus – “Just take the bus with the six characters”…… Right. “Dr.” van den Berg, alias Dr. Dummy was completely at the mercy of strangers.

Why do I bring this up? Because this is exactly how our non-native students feel. They have to overcome tremendous odds –culture shock, home sickness, poverty, war and trauma even- and in addition, they have to learn another language in a ridiculously short amount of time. If you have ever lived in another country, you know that even the “standard” seven years in too short to learn a foreign language adequately[1]. Therefore, the fact that the AELP/ American English Language Program of Montgomery College prepares students for academic classes within a few years despite all those extra obstacles is quite amazing. Instead of asking, “How does the AELP accomplish such an astounding feat?” non-AELP folks at MC often seem to ask “How can we make the AELP look better to the outside world regardless of  whether that is beneficial to the students or not?”

There are many enthusiastic supporters of the AELP, who do nothing but encourage us in our endeavors. However, lately, it has become apparent that there is also a group who doesn’t understand the AELP and what it does. I am always surprised by complaints that the placement process is “not transparent enough,” that the students “take too long,” and that AELP classes are merely “remedial tutoring” by another name. What strikes me though is that those who are least in the classroom seem to have the most outspoken and in my opinion misguided perceptions. – I would like to say to those people: Have you ever taken the trouble to see what the placement process involves, have you ever visited an AELP class, or perhaps learned another language from scratch well enough to dream in it? Probably not!

Maybe you should. Maybe that would diffuse the tension that has been building now for quite a while. Wouldn’t it be nice if the storm that has been brewing over AELP country would just blow over? Wouldn’t it be grand if AELP and non-AELP folk (including administrators and counselors) would live happily ever after? I think it would be very nice indeed. The problem is that there is a long history of good AELP folks who have been fighting for their students and possibly equally well-intended administrators and counselors who have disregarded their expertise. 

It all started with a review of the first ESL program on the Rockville campus in 1990. At that time, the college-wide AELP didn’t exist yet, but faculty in the new Rockville department of -what was then called- Reading and ESL undertook a review of the ESL program, looking at what type of ESL classes were offered at other colleges, best practices per current research in the discipline, and per professional organizations with regard to skills, number of levels, length of time needed to master English etc. In addition, ESL students were surveyed whether they wanted their classes to be credit or non-credit. An overwhelming 97.5% of all the students wanted their ESL classes to be credit. Despite some protest from four TP/SS faculty members, the ad hoc committee formed to deal with this issue recommended in March of 1992 that institutional credit (counting the grade on the transcript, but not applicable toward the degree) was the way to go for a college wide ESL-program.

In 2004, after a “battle” of twelve years with AELP folks pitted against an unwilling administration, the much needed Speaking/Listening track finally became a reality when  the course proposal was approved by the Curriculum committee. Why the same people who now often still complain that they don’t understand non-native students had to oppose the very program that at least addresses some of those issues is a mystery to me. Just like I am completely baffled by the convenience of calling us ten-month employees, while I know of two instances when AELP faculty were asked to do AELP placements throughout the year without compensation. I know so because I attended the CAPDI meeting in my capacity as Chair person at the time; I had a faculty member who had been doing AELP placements without compensation. Again, as Chair person, I was and still am fully aware that full-time faculty members have many obligations besides teaching. However, contractually, it is simply not right to demand that a faculty member who is not compensated be available during every break to read writing samples and do placements of non-native speakers. Why the faculty member and I had to “fight” to get the required compensation is beyond me. But wait….these are just minor incidents leading up to the grand finale – The AELP credit / non-credit debacle! And let me be clear; I am in no way vested in the outcome. Whether AELP should be credit or non-credit is almost beside the point; the point is that the AELP credit / non-credit debacle seems to be the culmination of a long history of disregarding the expertise and commitment of the AELP faculty. 

When in 2008, Federal laws changed, jeopardizing Financial Aid for AELP students due to their non-credit bearing courses, the administration took no action, which impacted over a hundred students. By fall 2009, this issue –which could have been fixed by a small editorial change in the catalogue- as well as the fact that TP/SS students raised a concern about the negative impact of institutional AELP credit on their GPAs was brought to the attention of the AELP faculty members. As a result, the AELP/IC (American English Language Program Institutional Credit) workgroup was formed, consisting of faculty, counselors, and deans to address these concerns.

From the summer of 2010 till the release of its report in April 2011, the AELP/IC met many times. Looking at overall and “adjusted” grade point averages of all students who completed EL104 in FY2007 (and were tracked for two years), it turned out that when AELP courses were removed, the GPAs increased only by .017. However, 64% of EL104 TPSS students would have benefited from the removal of institutional credits from the calculation of their GPAs compared to that of students completing EL 104 at the other campuses. Therefore, the AELP/IC Workgroup recommended institutional credit be maintained, but further data collection and analysis was needed regarding TP/SS. 

Late October, 2011, V.P. Paula Matuskey sent out an e-mail to AELP faculty members asking them to come to a meeting at 5 p.m. on November third, at Germantown. Since no agenda was provided, no one knew what the meeting we had been summoned to was about. We only knew that the deans, provosts, and AELP/IC workgroup was supposed to meet an hour before all AELP faculty were supposed to meet. When we were kept waiting in the hallway for half an hour, we decided to walk in. The mood was adversarial to say the least. To show my allegiance, I sat down next to a highly-respected faculty member who was irate and very vocal about the fact that the recommendations of the AELP/IC were disregarded. She pointed out that it was not only demoralizing but also simply a waste of resources and time. To my utter shock, in response, I heard things like “we must fix this broken program” and “council members wonder why we take so long to teach international students English.”  Had I missed something because we had been forced to pace the hall for 25 minutes? Since when was the program “broken”? The last Outcomes Assessment report I had read had indicated that AELP students did very well in subsequent classes….. Whatever council member it was, must have been joking. I speak four languages of which I speak two fluently, but to get to that point took me about 25 years. Talk about unrealistic expectations and not being well informed! This was a very strange meeting indeed, which made me feel slighted. Before I had to leave to go teach my evening class, it became clear that V.P. Matuskey was planning to make the AELP non-credit despite the recommendations from the work group. Before I left, I glanced over at my colleagues who had spent a year apparently on a wild goose chase. They looked distraught.

The next few days, the halls of MC were abuzz with whispered conversations about how people felt physically sick, sad, or at least ill at ease after the meeting. Then V.P. Matusky sent out an e-mail stating that she supported the “recommendations of the task group with the exception of the recommendation relating to institutional credit” and that “by the end of this academic year…courses [would have to be changed] from institutional credit to no credit” by a small subgroup led by AELP lead dean Hawkins and Professor Berman.   The same day, Professor Berman answered this e-mail confirming he would form a new committee that would gather more data and then, “based on the data, recommend a system that serve[d] students best…”

 On November 16, Laura Gardner, a TPSS counselor, sent an e-mail stating that “the decision to eliminate credit for the AELP program ha[d] been made,” and that “twenty years ago the English department abrogated the curriculum process to put [the AELP] in place” and that “this travesty [needed to be] rectified.”  On November 17th, Rick Penn (AAUP chair) met with Dr. Pollard to express concern not with the decision itself, but with the processes by which these decisions were made and communicated. Dr. Pollard answered that no decisions had been made. 

After that, the AELP credit versus non-credit issue kept surfacing in e-mails zinging through cyberspace, floating in whispered gossip behind closed doors, and drifting aimlessly down the hallways poisoning our working environment. 

What is the end result of this debacle?

We don’t know yet, and honestly, in my opinion, the end result cannot be more earth-shattering or devastating than the way this was handled. I am a reasonable person who can adapt to circumstances and even a flawed system, so I am sure that I will learn to live with whatever the decision is. What I find much harder to live with is that a growing sense of discontent -of a feeling that those who do not teach don’t respect me or value my professional opinion – has been growing deep inside me like a cancer, weakening me and sapping me of the energy and strength that my students deserve. 

What was that again?

I remember something vaguely of the students “being the center of our universe,” or that our mission was to “empower students”….. Forgive me if I forgot what I was here for; my mission was buried in a quagmire of paper-pushing, busy-work, and committees that apparently don’t always matter. No, joking aside now; the only reason that someone in his or her right mind would invest a tremendous amount of time and money to obtain a Master’s Degree or Ph.D., teach at a community college, and put in 60+ hours every week for a salary that is far below what anyone with those credentials would make in other fields is because that person loves students.

I do.

I stayed at Montgomery College when life almost took me elsewhere because I love particularly those non-native students I started my story with. I want to teach precisely those brave, unique, intelligent, diverse, and amazing human beings from other countries who teach me so much each and every semester about myself and the world I live in. If Montgomery College would just let me. 

I appreciate the efforts of Deans who make sure that we comply with MHEC. However, I do think that ultimately, AELP people should make the decisions that affect them and their students. The person who was so angry when I walked into that infamous meeting said it best: “Why cannot the AELP, as a discipline, be left alone to make its own decisions?”

Why indeed?  

By Jorinde van den Berg, Ph.D.
AELP / EN – Germantown

February 5, 2012


 

[1] ESL-expert J. Cummings states that children need five to seven years to develop Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency. Adults, however, take much longer.  

 

Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

As a faculty member who, during the tenure of four administrations, has served at various times as a department chair, a representative on many campus and college-wide committees, including Faculty Council and Academic Assembly (RIP), and a member of the Executive Committee of AAUP, I have some thoughts on not only the actual changes that have occurred and are continuing to occur at lightning speed, but also on the current culture of change that now reigns at our institution.  If one were to examine the evolution of Montgomery College over the course of our history, one would discover that the college certainly did not remain stagnant; changes occurred in vision, guiding philosophy, mission statement, staffing/administrative organization and infrastructure.  And most often, these changes occurred after careful consideration, analysis and collaborative discussion among faculty, staff and administrators.  Never before, however, has almost every aspect of the institution been so dramatically altered – and each change accomplished in a matter months, sometimes weeks, regardless of the importance of the issue or area.  One has to wonder how the college managed to survive, albeit flourish, for so many years. 

The mechanism for change in most of the areas of the institution that are being upended seems to be recommending committees, consisting of forty to seventy people, including individuals who have little to no experience in, or knowledge of, the particular area or issue(s).  Similarly alarming is the lack of knowledge about the history and context of the areas and operations that these committees are so cavalierly changing, as well as the reticence to consult with those who have the experience and background knowledge.  In this age of information bombardment, it is difficult to keep current even in one’s own field.  Moreover, the recommendations of these committees frequently have little to do with the ultimate decisions that are made at the upper levels.

We seem to have abandoned the notion of relevance (as in: “Do the folks involved in making decisions about an issue or over an area have experience and knowledge relevant to the issue/area?”) for the sake of inclusion.  Wholesale inclusion simply does not work.  Programming within academic and counseling areas needs to be accomplished by faculty and deans who are educated and experienced in the specific area(s).  One has to wonder what has happened to beginning change with meaningful conversations among those individuals and groups of individuals who have some meaningful knowledge of the particular issue/area to ascertain a history and understand what currently exists (what is working and what is not working) in order to conduct a meaningful evaluation on which to base a meaningful discussion of what needs to change, what the end result might look like, and whether/how that change would promote meaningful benefits and opportunities to students.

This lack of interest in expertise and knowledge, particularly that belonging to the faculty, goes well beyond the myriad of the deconstruction/reconstruction committees; it seems to permeate most every undertaking of the institution.  I have served on several of these giant and time-consuming committees.  I have been asked to weigh in on topics about which I know little, if anything at all.  I am a chair in a department that has only ever had one chair, college-wide.  I have designed, implemented and operated a program that is nationally recognized for excellence and best practices.  I have not once been invited by any senior administrator to engage in so much as a five-minute conversation about the discipline I lead or the program about which I am regularly asked to speak outside of the institution.  I am certainly not unique.  Many of our faculty and staff members are recognized authorities in their respective fields.  We serve as officers in state and national academic organizations and consortiums; we are invited speakers and panel participants at seminars and conferences; we are members of advisory boards and think tanks.  And yet, at our own institution, we have become invisible.  This relatively new practice of ignoring the expertise of our faculty and staff diminishes the morale of the entire institution; perhaps more importantly, it seems a tragic and irresponsible waste of resources and often results in changes that fail to serve the needs and best interests of the college and, most importantly, our students.

In addition to the mega restructuring committees, we are gearing up for the new governance structure, one in which there will exist not one single entity comprised only of full-time faculty members.  Many of us felt that our governance structure needed to be examined and reorganized; In fact, faculty members with a great deal of experience in governance had already begun that process.  This faculty-driven initiative was terminated and a different group altogether was charged with creating a new system of governance.  Although the chairs of that committee have made every effort to explain the new structure, I must say that the epic proportions are such that I simply cannot get my mind around it.  Moreover, considering the sheer numbers involved, let alone the complexity of the parts, one is hard pressed to image how anything might be accomplished.  I hope that is not the goal.  Of course, given the fact that each so-called “decision-making group” is actually advisory to the senior administration, the body that, we have been told, will actually make all of the decisions — the issue of accomplishment may well be moot.  Nevertheless, one would hope that we are all keeping an open mind regarding our new structure of governance.

The Employee Engagement Advisory Group (EEAG), while having put forth a valiant effort for several years to enhance and track the engagement of our employees, may be heading towards obsolescence, or hiatus at the very least, during this current era; most everyone at the institution seems to be at some level of furious regarding the elevation in status and appointment of what is in the minds of many an overabundance of vice presidents, none of them academic and with no discussion or input from the college community.  Possible exceptions to this rather widespread irritation may be the newly anointed vice presidents themselves. 

Less than a year ago, the college employed nine vice presidents, including two senior vice presidents, two permanent special assistants at the salary of a vice president, and a scattering of other high level administrators at that same grade/salary.  At that time, all of the employees of the college, with the exception of part-time faculty were being furloughed.  This year, a third senior vice president has been added in addition to an associate senior vice president.  Because of the economy, currently and for the past several academic years, no salary enhancements have been negotiated, the college has labored under a hiring freeze and very limited travel funds have been available, which clearly affects professional development for faculty.  And yet – the administration has, during the last few months alone, added a Chief Compliance Officer, along with a project manager and an administrative aide (all new positions), and a Deputy Chief of Staff and Strategy (new position).  Less than one week later, despite the fact that no other employees were reclassified (a result of the abandonment and reconstitution of the Reclassification Study), eight high level positions have been reclassified to the status of seven vice presidents and one to associate senior vice president (a new position altogether).  The juxtaposition of an institutional imperative to create a less bureaucratic and more welcoming environment by changing the very name Central Administration to Central Services, as well as the entire reconstruction of the Central Services’ Building (nee Mannakee) in order to make the facility more friendly, at any cost — and the addition and/or status elevation of a surplus of high level positions, resulting in approximately twenty vice presidents, seems ironic, at best.

Change is necessary to the health of our institution.  My concern is that the urgency to change every aspect of our institution precludes the opportunity for relevant input from the college community and shared decision making.  My hope is that we will engage faculty and staff in meaningful dialogues, respect and rely on our collective and individual expertise, evaluate the merits of each decision in terms of direct benefits to students and use our history as the foundation for change.  The many initiatives and wide-range reconfiguring of our institution within this current culture of change are confusing, frustrating and in many ways destabilizing.  Experience tells us that over time top-down initiatives and restructuring come and go; faculty, on the other hand, tends to remain fairly constant.  We continue to teach our classes, we continue to advise and counsel our students – although it is becoming more difficult to find time to actually interact with students, given the growing number of nonacademic, non-student-focused committees and meetings we are expected to attend – we continue to impact our students in positive ways and to serve as catalysts in their changing lives.  For the faculty and staff, students really are the center of our universe.  And in the end, while we may be distracted by and speculate on such trivia as the need for a new Montgomery College-wide mascot, the real question is: where is the Board?

I have written this post as an individual faculty member, not as a representative of or for any group.  I have been guided by the notion of Martin Luther King, Jr that “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”  I believe that Montgomery College matters and that the things about which I have written matter.  Moreover, I have written this post within the context of Mahatma Gandhi’s perspective on dissention and whose contention it was that “Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress.”  My hope is that what I have written is viewed in the spirit in which I have written it, as a step towards thoughtful conversations and meaningful progress.

Rose Sachs
Chair, Disability Support Services
Coordinator, Combat2College
Immediate Past President and Governance Liaison, AAUP

 

Move to Online Evaluations?

Colleagues,
As you probably know, the deans have expressed an interest in replacing the course evaluations that students currently complete with an online tool. Presentations were made to the faculty councils and the Academic Assembly earlier this term, and the AAUP was also asked whether it would support this change. At the first meeting of the AAUP-Management Collaboration Committee this issue was brought up, and we agreed to bring the question to the faculty.

In brief, the advantages of this change, according to the administration, include:
> Large savings in time and resources needed to administer the evaluations,
> Much cheaper processing costs
> More classes could be evaluated
> The evaluations could be completed later in the semester and the results made available sooner following the term.

Some of the concerns we have heard raised include:
> Online evaluations generally receive significantly lower response rates
> The students may not take the evaluations as seriously (think RateMyProfessor)
> Concerns about the security of collected data

Should such a change be piloted, the deans have stated that they would explicitly recognize that a new baseline for interpreting the feedback would be needed, as the data may not be directly comparable to data collected in the current format. The language in the P&P could also be strengthened in its indication that personnel decisions are not to be made on the sole basis of student evaluations.