Retrenchment, Day 45

It's day 45 of my retrenchment journey. I'm wearing my BSU t-shirt. My daughter had absconded with it but I noticed it as my wife was folding their laundry this morning. I said, "maybe I'll wear it ironically for my book club meeting and video". She said, "you were a college professor. How many people get to do that, even for a little while?"

That's a good point, and I appreciate the insight. When I met my wife, I was a retired high tech guy. I wasn't interested in working in technology again, so she suggested when we were living in Mankato that I should go over to the university and take some classes, like I had at the University of Minnesota when we had lived in the Cities. I went and got a Masters Degree in Latin American History and practiced writing in workshops led by novelist Terry Davis. Then, when we failed at living in South America and moved to New Hampshire, I went back to my original alma mater, UMass Amherst. I took a biography writing course because I was planning to write a biography. Then I sort-of forced my way into the PhD program. They actually rejected me at first, but I wouldn't take no for an answer.

At UMass I finished my coursework and my comprehensive exams fairly quickly and had my dissertation prospectus accepted in 2012. I worked as a teaching assistant and then got a chance to teach my own course for the Honors College. When we moved back to (northern) Minnesota, I taught American Environmental History online for a couple of years and wrote a textbook for that course while I was ABD and theoretically working on my dissertation.

I wasn't really working that hard on my dissertation, because I had been advised to slow down. In retrospect, I think that advice had been self-serving, for the person who gave it to me. She was preparing to leave UMass and didn't need the distraction. I got a new dissertation chair and, after a health scare convinced me I really ought to finish it, I completed
Peppermint Kings in 2017. Just afterward, I got an email from a friend in Mankato who had been my historiography professor, alerting me that BSU might be looking for a historian.

I had been sending applications to schools all over the US, looking for a teaching position. The competition, even in 2017, was insane and I suspected that in many cases there was probably an "internal" candidate. Someone who had already paid their dues at the place, but they were forced to do a national search anyway. I was extremely lucky that a spot opened up for me at the university five miles from my home, as soon as I had an actual PhD.

I taught at BSU for six years. At first, I had to scramble a bit because the person I was taking over for (due to illness and retirement) had the non-western world portfolio and taught courses like History of World Religions and Women in World History. I've taught both those courses several times now, as well as East Asia, Russia, Southeast Asia, and Decolonization. Also Latin American History and Modern World History, Environmental History, and finally the US History surveys. Along the way, I also had an opportunity to design my own "experimental" courses, like Gilded Age and Populism, History of High Tech, and Intro to Equity.

I worked with two talented and generous historians, who were always supportive and who made me a full partner even when I was an temporary, emergency instructor. As I developed an interest in open education and creating free textbooks, they gradually got on board. I'm not sure how they're going to keep the history program going once there are only two of them, but I hope they manage it.

"Without BSU, the next greatest thing wouldn't have happened," my wife said. She's talking about the next thing I end up doing. I think teaching at BSU has been a good step along that path, even if it turns out not to be the place I retire from. It's exactly the type of "platform" I knew I needed, when I wanted to communicate directly with the world via the web. So now I have it. Time to get busy.

So here’s a Thank You to Steph, who pointed this out to me this morning. And to Chris Corley at Mankato who told me about the job at Bemidji State. And to Brendan McManus and John Ellis who were great colleagues at BSU. I don’t know what the next thing is, but I’ll keep talking about it here until it becomes real. Thanks for your interest!

Link to YouTube:

Retrenchment, Day 44

It's day 44, so there's a long way to go until my faculty job is over. There's a department meeting at noon today. I wonder whether anything that's discussed will seem relevant or interesting to me. It's a bit strange how we sort of convince ourselves that we're engaged in discussions or with topics that really don't excite us, because it's part of the job. To some extent, I guess I approach this issue in a way that might be considered economic, but that I think of as more social. I'm pretty sure it's important to listen to what other people are saying and try to do something that enhances the well-being of the community I'm in, rather than only following my own "passion". This is not quite the same as "try to find a niche where people are happy to pay you for something", but how it's different might be important.

I see a lot of people on YouTube and Substack who I think are pursuing their actual interests and finding audiences. That gives me encouragement and hope that I can do the same thing. Then I see others who began doing one thing and then gradually morphed into something a bit more...clickbaity. Like, starting by trying to connect what's happening each day with historical precedents, so that people could understand how what's happening today isn't entirely unique. But gradually this became a talking points memo regurgitating current events from a partisan perspective. Maybe the pressure of posting daily was too much? Maybe the economic lure of building a huge following by feeding people's confirmation biases was overwhelming? I don't know the answer, but that worries me a bit because I want to avoid being channeled into doing something only because I think it will get a lot of clicks.
'd like to think that being in a classroom is a bit of an antidote to being able to drift too far afield. There are things I
have to cover in US History I, for instance, whether they excite me or not. I haven't quite worked out what I'll do if I find an audience online, or what I'll do to find an audience. I suspect I'll probably lean into the "I bet you didn't know this about your history" space. Uncovering forgotten people and exploring ignored perspectives fascinates me, and I think it leads to stories that can be novel and compelling, and also can expand our view of the complexity and nuance of the world. Those seem to be the elements that are missing in our discourse nowadays, and I'd be more interested trying to talk about them than trying to support one "side" in a culture war that seems designed primarily to distract us from real problems we should be coming together to solve.

So I think I'm going to try to focus on these issues. I suspect that will include talking about ways of researching, making notes, organizing thoughts, and writing. I think there are some people who have been following me for a while who might be happy if I focused a bit more regularly on these types of ideas. I think there's a connection between note-making and Open Education that I may be better positioned to explore than some others who focus on one or the other. And then I think I may be able to use some of my history skills to expand that discussion of complexity and explore less well represented perspectives. This will almost definitely include continuing to focus on primary sources and it will probably also include engaging with the history other folks are doing online; joining discussions and commenting on things others are putting out there. And also producing my own.

Link to YouTube:

Retrenchment, Day 43

Had a meeting Wednesday noon with the Provost and my Dean. This was the first interaction I've had with the Provost since I was retrenched. He expressed his regret that I had been one of the people on the list and said I am an "icon" of creativity and innovation and exactly the type of faculty BSU needs more of. This is quite true, and I appreciate the acknowledgement. I also understand that the administration had no choice in the matter. Once they decided they had to cut faculty, there were very few options open to them on how to do those cuts.

The limitations that required my retrenchment are part of the contract that has been negotiated between my union, the Interfaculty Organization (IFO), and the system. By the terms of the contract, tenured and tenure-track faculty can only be let go if their positions are eliminated. That's what retrenchment actually is. But the positions have to be eliminated based on seniority. I was on the bottom of my "roster", so I and the person one rung up from me were the ones who were cut.

The purpose of tenure in theory is that it provides some measure of academic freedom, if a professor can't be fired for taking an unpopular position. Or if their teaching, research, or service is on the wrong side of a controversy. There are probably some heroic stories of people who took a stand on an issue or wrote a book that defied authority, and tenure saved their jobs. However, I don't think that has ever happened at Bemidji State. For BSU faculty, it's more about rewarding longevity.

Now I'm not going to say that older faculty are necessarily less active or less innovative or less amenable to change. But I will suggest that
some senior faculty are less open and more stuck in their ways. And, same as newer faculty, some are just ineffective. The difference is, if they have managed to achieve tenure, they can't be penalized. I'm not certain anyone would be let go for being a lousy professor. As I've mentioned several times in this series, BSU is a bit of a consequence-free environment. But it does seem to me like tenure undermines a set of incentives that might result in more responsiveness to student needs. That type of thing is certainly part of the criteria used to decide who gets tenure. It's just a bit weird that once a professor has demonstrated that in year five or so, they're set for life.

I've been getting emails all day from the president of the IFO, noticing that I haven't yet voted on the new contract and urging me to do so before the poll closes this evening. I responded to her that I'm retrenched, so I really have no interest in the 2023-25 contract. Maybe that's short-sighted. But I don't think my vote would really do anything other than swell the "participation" number the union wants to show management. I don't feel an urge to do that, since the contract hasn't really done anything for me except guaranteeing I'll be the one to lose my job.

The Provost and Dean also urged me to do my tenure and promotion application this year. Even though it won't save my job, they said, it would look good on my CV and would give me both "bump" privileges at other universities in the system and "claiming" rights at BSU if they decided in the next three years that they once again need another history professor. This is a bit strange, though. If they decide in 2025 or ‘26, for example, that they need another historian and I'm still living in Bemidji, why wouldn't they hire me anyway? I suppose someone who had been retrenched at another school in the system could "bump" in. Or BSU could decide they'd rather hire an adjunct or Fixed Term instructor. All this zero-sum calculating is a bit depressing. Do I even want to be part of this game of musical deck-chairs on the sinking ship?

And as I think about it, I'm getting the feeling that that's a real question. Do I
want a chance to reclaim a job teaching history at BSU, after they've retrenched me once? Is there a chance that this current situation is really temporary and that in a couple of years the university will recover and put itself on a path of sustainable growth? Or is the universe trying to tell me that it's time to close the book on this type of work and move on to something else. Advocating for Open Ed? Teaching freelance online? It's only day 43. I guess I can devote a few more to thinking it over.

Link to YouTube:

Retrenchment, Day 42

Yesterday I received a broadcast email about a new set of meetings that will be hosted by the Center for Professional Development at Bemidji State. Called "Faculty TBD", it will be something that runs on the third Monday of each month at an offsite building in downtown Bemidji. The topics they will be covering will be "Fostering Belonging in the Campus Community" in September, "Student Engagement and Advising" in October, and "Discussions of Race and Marginalized Groups in the Classroom" in November. The email brochure says these "specified topics" will be discussed in a "specified format". Maybe I'm feeling cynical, but that sounds to me a bit like message control.

The "TBD" part of "Faculty TBD" does in fact stand for "to be determined". They say this is because the topic and format will be "always changing". Ironically, it could also of course signal that the faculty itself is to be determined, as well as programs and majors, as the retrenchment plays out.

Seems to me though, that there's a sort-of deliberate feeling of "let's not look at that". Perhaps the motivation is similar to what prevents some people from rubbernecking when they pass a gruesome accident on the road. But it does seem a bit like rearranging the deck chairs. Do we really need to be talking about fostering belonging in the campus community when 27 people are being ejected from the community? Do we need to be talking about student engagement when we're not leveling with students about what's going on? Do we need to be chatting about how to improve our discussions of race and marginalization when we're retrenching most of the most diverse faculty. Maybe the idea is that once there are only older white professors left, there will be more need to teach them how to engage with these issues in their classrooms. If the sessions deal with these issues
and then begin talking about how the remaining faculty can deal with them, the content might be useful. If it's just the same old messaging and doesn't deal with BSU's slow-motion collision with the iceberg, then it will be part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

In other news, my son received a collection letter from the BSU business office a couple of days ago. It announced that he still owed about $450 to BSU and described the huge troubles he would encounter when they sent him to collection. Literally, it contained a list of about a dozen bad things that could happen, beginning with a 25% surcharge on the $450 "outstanding debt".

The problem with all this is, my son was a PSEO (post secondary enrollment option) student for the past two years at BSU. That means he was a high school student attending college classes. All the costs were supposed to be covered by the state. If that changed we were not notified of the fact. We can't really tell what charges went into the "outstanding debt" because the list of them used terms that were probably meaningful inside BSU's accounting department but made no sense to us. So I can't really 100% say there's no way we owe BSU money. But we have no idea why.

And this collection letter is the first we're hearing about it. Seems to me that for an institution that's desperate to increase enrollment, retention, and student success, this communication was a mistake. the extremely aggressive tone of the letter makes it clear that BSU regards my son as some kind of deadbeat. It was literally offensive. I sent an email to the business office and the person who sent the letter immediately apologized but then her supervisor contacted me to ask my son to call her. He is away at college. I asked if she could email him and she agreed. I provided his new email (he is at a different school now, so if they have been trying to get in touch with him on his BSU email account, that wouldn't have been too successful). I don't know for sure whether we owe BSU any money. What I do know is that the way they have addressed the issue couldn't have been better designed to drive customers away from the university.

Link to YouTube:

Retrenchment, Day 41

Bemidji State's faculty senate met yesterday afternoon. I didn't really feel like driving back to campus, so I joined about a half dozen other faculty and watched via Zoom. I suppose I had an experience similar to that of students who try to tune into a hybrid class. It was abysmal. The meeting was held in the brand-new classroom building (there are no offices in it) that supposedly uses the most up-to-date technology. The camera in the back of the room was working, so I was able to see the faculty association president and mostly hear what he had to say. There are also a bunch of hanging microphones in the classroom they were using (I have taught in that room several times). But they were not working, or the speaker had no idea how to turn them on. So I was unable to hear anything anyone said, other than the president at the front of the room. I can only imagine what a turn-off that would be, for a student tuning in remotely.

The president was apparently aware no one on Zoom could hear anyone but him, because several people mentioned it in the chat. A couple of times he remembered to reiterate the question or comment another speaker made, before he responded to it. But that didn't last long. As a result, it was like listening to one side of an old-fashioned telephone conversation. I think I got the gist of most of it, but I couldn't really tell why some choices were being made.

There were several long discussions that had little interest for me. I won't be around next year, so I'm not interested in how the new executive of the BSU Foundation is going to help departments connect with the community (which mainly means regional businesses) in the future. I was a little bit interested in the ways the communications and marketing department is being reorganized under the VP of enrollment management. They're apparently going to hire an executive director -- I thought there was a hiring freeze. The new position is going to manage communications and marketing for both BSU and Northern Technical College, so maybe they're paying for it. But I'm surprised there was no pushback that I could distinguish. What I did notice was a longish discussion about the best ways to comply with the VP and give her what she needs from the departments. There did seem to be some generalized dissatisfaction among the people I couldn't hear, about the ongoing crappy nature of BSU's web presence (departments used to run their own websites, but this was taken away in the name of standardization and the new sites were never completed). The thing that struck me most was the somewhat obsequious nature of the senate's relationship with the relatively new VP, who in my experience has not delivered any value.

The final big items I was interested in hearing about were the retrenchment and reorganization. There was some discussion of the president's communication with the chancellor's office downstate which seemed to indicate that there would be no more retrenchments this year but that they would be back for more faculty next fall if the financial numbers didn't improve. It didn't seem to me that this fact made much of an impression. The president said something about how that would be when programs would really be eliminated and the structure of the institution would be radically changed. This seemed to suggest the faculty association doesn't believe that's happening this year; I think they might be surprised in January when the administration announces their restructuring plan. Then the response to the Deans' proposal for a restructuring of the colleges was discussed. But not really. I didn't hear much said about the actual proposal, which includes collapsing three colleges into two and twenty-two departments into fewer than ten interdisciplinary "schools". What I did hear was more about whether and how to even respond to the Deans' request.

Apparently the faculty association considers this "hail Mary" proposal by the Deans to be just another "ask" from management. There seemed to be some talk about how it's really not faculty's "job" to do this kind of planning and management couldn't force them to do this type of work, especially without compensation. There was some discussion about whether the Academic Affairs Committee should be the group to respond, but it was decided they had other important work on their plates and so an "Ad-hoc" committee should be created. So I guess that's what will happen (I left the meeting before they got around to taking a vote). The senate will establish an ad-hoc committee and then issue a call for volunteers to fill it. They will "report" to the senate, not the Deans or other administration, because "you can't make us" or some such logic. When this will happen and how effective it will be, I can only guess.

Link to YouTube:

Retrenchment, Day 40

It's day 40; 238 to go. This is also week four of the fall semester at BSU. In the afternoon today the faculty senate will be meeting. On Wednesday the Provost and Dean have set an appointment to talk with me about the Z-Degree proposal. Friday I have a department meeting. So I'll be interacting -- or at least observing -- quite a bit on campus this week.

One of the things that strikes me, lately, is the subjective nature of time. I think my days are much more full this semester than they have been in previous semesters. I suspect I'm a bit more awake. Although I typically worked pretty steadily in the past, I think I'm doing more now. I used to be keep track of my work hours using an app called Tyme 3. I was pretty proud when I would get beyond sixty hours in a week, and I began observing that my work would often come in big blocks that didn't really conform to a typical Monday to Friday 9 to 5.

Ironically, I have not been using the app since the retrenchment. But I still think I'm staying pretty busy. And as I've mentioned before, the daily discipline of posting a Retrenchment diary entry has kept me focused on the need to be thinking about and doing something about my situation daily. I'm a bit concerned that for others, the issue is not quite as high on their daily list of priorities.

The faculty senate meets on the first Monday of the month. That means they will have about eight or nine opportunities to discuss the retrenchment before it actually happens. Similarly, they mapped out the four "meet and confer" dates between now and when the administration needs to announce program changes, to respond to the Deans' proposal for restructuring. While I assume people will be working on those issues in preparation for these meetings, I still wonder whether they will get done whatever it is they want to do, in the time they've allotted?

I suspect they don't feel quite the urgency I do. And I wonder whether part of the difference in the ways I imagine our perception of time differs, has to do with being active or reactive? I feel like the clock is ticking, because I think I need to do something. Yes, I'm reacting to what has happened to me. But the way I've chosen to react is to do something different, and I'm trying to figure out what that something should be and begin doing it. I think the folks who used to be my peers are thinking more in terms of only reacting. Saying something, rather than doing something. Although they may take the statement they'll be planning seriously, I don't think planning to say something is as empowering as planning to do something.

Or maybe I'm just impatient. In the past, I've often rolled my eyes at the ways bureaucracies grind along like glaciers or turn like aircraft carriers. I've been frustrated by slow, incremental changes that groups I've been in have celebrated, when I thought they should be focusing on problems they agreed to table in order to get the increment. When I attend the senate meeting I'll try to listen with an open mind, but I really hope I see some movement toward action.

Link to YouTube:

Retrenchment, Day 39

This morning I listened to a podcast attached to a Substack post, which I think will influence my thinking about my retrenchment and career prospects. It was a conversation between Caitlin Chin of This Does Not Compute and Jason Steinhauer of History Club. Steinhauer wrote History Disrupted: How Social Media and the World Wide Web Have Changed the Past. I bought that book a few weeks ago but have not started it yet. However, based on this interview I think it bears directly on my current situation, so I'll probably begin it immediately.

The interview was only a half-hour long, which I actually found a bit refreshing. While I enjoy what has come to be known as "long-form" podcasting, sometimes it's a bit much. I don't mind listening to Lex or Joe spend three hours talking with someone really interesting like Eric Weinstein. But I don't think they should necessarily stretch every conversation out that long, especially if they run out of things to talk about. This chat was only a half hour, but it was crisp and had enough in it that I actually queued it up for a second listen, since I was still outside doing chores when it ended.
One of the big takeaways from it, which convinced me to start on the book immediately, was the discussion of the ways particular
social platforms such as Facebook "privilege nostalgia". The point is that this type of reverence for a very personalized (possibly even fictionalized) version of the past is just a stones throw from (and can easily be turned into) the type of historical "understanding" that can become a foundation for bad social or political choices in the present. And these fuzzy, subjective, perspectives on the past are not that amenable to evidence to the contrary. The Lost Cause in the South, for example. Or MAGA, suggesting that there was a time when America was better and we need to get back to those values, so we can...what? How was America better in the 1950s? For whom? Were the things that were going well caused by the factors we think?

These were all interesting ideas, hinted at in the interview (Steinhauer was circumspect enough to not actually say MAGA, I guess I'm not). The other fascinating element of the discussion was the speculation on what it means for people to "get their history" from their iPhones. In what ways does the medium affect the message? How should people who want to talk about the past (historians, but also social activists, politicians, educators) respond? How do we learn to meet people where they are, and use the technologies they are actually using, to communicate with them.

Steinhauer also made some interesting points about how the present tech is different from the past. Your newspaper or book didn't spy on you. This is an important difference. Add to this the message customization the web can enable, and boom! Filter bubbles. Lots of new challenges, in other words, to understand and address.

Link to YouTube:

Retrenchment, Day 38

Friday morning I had a good Zoom conversation with an Instructional Designer at the Minnesota State system office who is starting to work on Open Ed. She got involved via a grant-funded project to create OER for five high-enrollment teacher education courses, for use not only within the system but nationwide. The grant that funded this was from the US Department of Education and totals nearly $1 million over three years. The savings for Minnesota State students preparing to be teachers is projected at about half a million annually, so it should pay for itself quickly. The Minnesota State system trains nearly half the teachers in the state.

It only seems natural, as this project nears completion, to think about extending it into other areas where there are lots of students served by the state system. Fields like nursing, where 60% of Minnesota nurses are trained by the system. Or criminal justice (90%), agriculture (45%), information technology (46%), or business (45%). Then there are high-volume majors that typically have high textbook costs like psychology and biology. This is where the model the system office has begun to create for the education OERs could converge with the work I and others have been doing to promote textbook affordability at campuses.

But as I said yesterday, there's a suspicion on campuses of initiatives coming from St. Paul. So how do we reconcile local autonomy and academic freedom for faculty with the value created by a system-led program to develop modular OER offerings that are aligned with course outcomes within the state-wide transfer pathway agreements? I suspect, as I began to say yesterday, that it will be about selling rather than telling.

Resistance generally begins when instructors feel they are being dictated to. On the other hand,
there are some things that are required, in our system. There are transfer guidelines and Liberal Education or Core Curriculum goal areas to which we all adhere. If we were assisted in meeting these requirements, by system office folks who could help align new content with these requirements, that assistance might be welcomed.

As faculty begin thinking about Open Ed, there are a lot of questions. Where do I find quality OER? How do I curate it, remix it, and insert it into my course? How do I keep it "fresh" and make sure the content I link to doesn't disappear or develop broken links? When I redesign my course, can I get some help making sure I've correctly documented the ways activities, assessments, and content line up with student learning outcomes? Oh, and along the way, can you help me make it accessible and culturally inclusive?

These are exactly the types of things I'd welcome help with. I'm perfectly comfortable writing content and "owning" the material I teach. And I think I can handle making sure I represent diverse perspectives (after all, a lot of my work in history has been about just that!). But I don't think I'm that good at making sure my ebook checks all the accessibility boxes. For example, I'm not that interested in keeping up with the latest tricks about how to make a multi-column page useable with a reading app. And it would be
great to have one place to search, to find content I could use, post content I've made, and just to know who else is doing stuff in my field!

I think it's good the system is starting to think about how to facilitate all this. A few years ago, when I co-wrote a
Modern World History OER with a professor from southern Minnesota, I began asking some questions about how the system might do a bit more (gentle) coordination. Maybe it was too soon then. But now we have eleven campuses offering Z-Degree AAs and we're starting to talk about universities doing zero-textbook-cost bachelors degrees. Seems like the time has come. But I think it will need to be a meeting-of-minds and a combination of campus-led and system-led work. So, in addition to instructional designers, we'll need some faculty like me who have done it and can sell it to our peers. That's going to be my pitch.

Link to YouTube:

Retrenchment, Day 37

Today the president of Bemidji State University is going to have a combined campus budget update virtual forum at 11:00 AM. That will be right after my class, so I will try to watch it from my office on campus. Before my class I'll be meeting with a colleague on Zoom who is an instructional designer working out of the system office. She has been doing some Open Ed related work recently, so we're going to compare notes.

It's interesting that in a system like ours, with over thirty colleges and universities, there are a lot of siloes. People in different places may be working on similar projects and pursuing similar goals, but don't necessarily know that there's someone else. This limits opportunities to share ideas, support each other, ask and answer questions, and talk about our projects. Not to mention collaborate! We end up reinventing a lot of wheels. Concurrent independent development can be useful. In biology it creates adaptations that can reinforce each other when they ultimately do meet. It can create a set of local optima: little hilltops that we can then look at and see which one is higher. But it can also add time and a lot of duplicated effort.

There's always a tension, in a system like Minnesota State, between centralization and campus autonomy. Partly this is due to history. The campuses weren't established and built by the system. Bemidji State University, for example, was a "Normal School" or teacher training college when it opened in 1919 with 124 women students and six men. It was the sixth of its kind chartered by the state legislature. The teacher's college became a university in 1975. The Minnesota State system was created by legislation proposed in 1991 and finally implemented in 1995. Before the merger, there were the seven universities, 34 technical colleges and 21 community colleges. Many of the technical and community colleges were consolidated over time. The seven universities remain, along with 26 colleges.

So there's a long tradition of financial and academic autonomy. And there's a lot of sensitivity at the system office, trying to avoid giving the impression that they are dictating to the campuses from St. Paul. I'm not suggesting that campuses and faculty shouldn't have some measure of academic freedom and license to customize their programs to meet the needs of their particular region. But it does strike me that we're not taking nearly as much advantage of opportunities to coordinate and enhance local efforts. So I'm going to try to sell people on this idea and I'll let you know how it goes.

Link to YouTube:

Retrenchment, Day 36

Several unrelated things happened over the past 24 hours that struck me as interesting. First, I attended a Tech Council meeting that lasted about three and a half hours over Zoom. There's a lot going on, lots of committees had reports and things to discuss. One thing that struck me was that the retrenchment at BSU wasn't something everyone was aware of. It's one of the top things on my mind, of course. And I'm keeping it there by writing about it daily, to remind me to do something positive to keep moving toward my goal of having something to do after this academic year. But it was news to some people in the meeting yesterday. They weren't aware that BSU was in trouble, much less that it was cutting 15% of faculty.

Next surprise came when I went out for a beer and some wings with a friend who teaches at Red Lake Tribal College. While BSU is retrenching tenured faculty (including his wife who has been there for decades!) because enrollment has fallen to half what it was five yers ago, the tribal college's enrollment is exploding. They're having problems of growth while we are shrinking. Maybe we should be looking very closely at what they're doing.

Then the final surprise when I got home was that my father has COVID pretty bad and in the morning is going on Paxlovid. This concerns me, although when my mother-in-law had COVID pretty bad, that drug seems to have done her good and she didn't have a rebound. As I think about it, the reason I'm concerned is because I no longer trust big pharma, the CDC, or the media to tell the truth about anything COVID-related. This is not the way it's supposed to be. The situation we're in, where information has been weaponized to the point where our choice is either to believe "conspiracy theories" about regulatory capture or to believe corporations known to be the most egregious liars, on the basis of the fines they've actually paid for lying and then shrugged off as the cost of doing business.

Often in the last couple of years I've heard people mention "the good old days" when our institutions and the media could be believed. When Walter Cronkite was voted the most trusted man in America. When the business plan of news organizations was not to polarize and find a niche. We miss that. I'd argue that there were problems with the consensus of the 1950s and early 60s, and we shouldn't be too nostalgic about what amounted to a great extent to manufactured consent. Now at least we know there are dissenting voices and the center is trying to hold on by suppressing them. But it's uncomfortable and exhausting and it extends beyond the media to cause distrust of everything. We need to figure out what to do about it.

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Retrenchment, Day 35

This is day 35 of my retrenchment; 243 to go. Yesterday I wrote to the student governments at both BSU where I work and at Mankato, where I'll be speaking at the end of the month. It may seem silly, but now that the thought has occurred to me that students could be uniquely effective advocating for themselves on issues like reducing textbook costs, I really want to test that theory and see how effective they can become. We wouldn't have had the legislation in Minnesota that led to the Z-Degrees without a lot of lobbying by the statewide association of the two-year students, LeadMN. The four-year students have their own organization, Students United, which has said it supports decreasing student expense, but hasn't really acted yet. I wrote to them this morning, to see if a former professor could become a member, If I took some courses? (It's weird that we never think of professors as students, don't you think? But that's a different topic for a different day)

The other thing that will be happening today is the first system-wide Academic and Student Affairs Technology Council meeting. This will be a 3.5-hour meeting beginning at noon. It'll be interesting and a bit more relaxing to attend as a participant rather than as Chair today. I'll also be curious to see how things are going at the other colleges and universities. I've been very focused on Bemidji, for obvious reasons. The Council has members from both the colleges and the universities, as well as spots for representatives of the two student groups. It will be interesting to see whether student reps attend. If not, I may volunteer to get in touch with each group and encourage them.

Yesterday I also bought another domain so I can build a website more directly addressing the Open Ed work I want to do. It's going to be called, and I'll be working on getting it set up over the next week or so. I'm going to choose a slightly more modern, video-friendly theme when I'm building it than the one I used for That one was the one I used a decade ago, so I used it out of nostalgia and because I'm reusing a lot of the content I had posted before (for example, I've added blog archives that go all the way back to 2009). This new one will probably focus a lot more on audio and video, since I do a lot of that nowadays. It will begin with a section on OER, a duplicate of this retrenchment series, because I think that's relevant to the theme of how education has been disrupted; and finally a section on note-making and writing. I imagine I'll add more over time. I'll announce here when it's ready to visit.

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Retrenchment, Day 34

I spent Labor Day working on Open Ed, partly with a colleague in the Library and partly on my own. We talked about a lot of ways faculty in classrooms and in the library can work toward reducing student textbook expense. It's interesting to me though, that a lot of this seems to be driven by teachers and librarians who want to do something to make life easier for their students (although several aspects of it are resisted by our union). Not so much support (although often a lot of talk) from administrators who it would seem would want to attract more students to their institutions. And not as much support as you might expect from students themselves. Not, I think, because they don't want to pay less for course materials. But because they believe they have no agency on the issue.

I heard from a student of mine who is an officer in the student government that when the Student Senate met last semester with the Provost and his AVP for Academic Affairs, they were told they really couldn't do anything but adopt a non-binding resolution
requesting that faculty and administration explore ways to reduce textbook costs. I didn't see a transcript or anything, so I don't really know what was said by whom, or in what context. But I think it's significant that the message the student received and repeated to me was, your organization has no power.

I suppose that might be literally true, in a limited way. If the administration was telling them, "you cannot pass a motion that will legally
compel us to explore OERs", they may have been technically correct. But I don't think that is the end of the story and in any case I don't think students should try to force the university to do anything. They should simply act as consumers and vote with their dollars. If there are two courses that meet a requirement and one uses an expensive textbook while the other has no textbook expense, the students are certainly free to choose the less expensive course. If the zero-textbook-cost course doesn't happen to be on our campus, the system has transfer guidelines insuring that courses meeting the transfer requirements "count", wherever a student takes them. I think this will go a long way toward creating some incentive for people on a particular campus to get moving on reducing cost.

There was some controversy, over the past couple of years, when the Minnesota State system office added a capability in the online course selection system that allowed a student to search for courses without textbook expenses. This was necessary, of course, in order to implement the Z-Degree programs at the community colleges. If students couldn't see which courses were zero-textbook-cost, how would they be able to choose the right ones? The problem was, the universities were not at that time implementing Z-Degrees, so there wasn't a similar need at four-year schools.

To make matters more complicated, the union that represents university faculty was dead set against the feature. They argued it was a violation of "Academic Freedom" for faculty to have to disclose whether they used expensive textbooks or not. I disagreed with my union's position, because I don't think it violates my academic freedom to be asked to tell the truth. The union was trying to protect its members from the
consequences of acting in a way that was less desirable to students. I thought they had a point that often there's more going on than just textbook cost. But if that's the case, instructors ought to explain the complexity to students and convince them. Not hide from the question.

In the end, though, it doesn't really matter whether the union allows or prevents the system office from disclosing to students how much a textbook costs in a particular class. Students can't be prevented from discussing those details among themselves. Or from publishing a list of courses and textbook costs. They're the consumers and they have a legal as well as a moral right to consider and talk about any factors that may seem relevant to them. The only thing that's stopping them, I think, is their lack of awareness of how much power they actually hold, if they choose to use it.

It's entirely possible I won't end up working for the system at all next year. If that's the case, maybe I'll take a course, join the statewide student organization, and make some suggestions.

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Retrenchment, Day 33

Although it's Labor Day, I'm not going to take the day off. Instead, I'm going to meet with my colleague in the BSU Library and work on the Z-Degree exploration project I received a $25,000 grant to pursue. I posted a half-hour video yesterday, based on a presentation I gave at the OE Global conference in Milan a few years ago. In it I had talked about my plans to write Open textbooks and advocate for zero-textbook-cost programs at BSU and throughout the state system. That's pretty much what I've been doing since that meeting in late 2019. I'll elaborate more on each of the details in the coming weeks.

Happy Labor Day!

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Retrenchment, Day 32

I'm going to begin this post by stipulating that for most Americans today, what I'm going to describe is not the norm. Almost everybody I know, from my wife to nearly all the people in my little northern Minnesota town, work "regular hours". Many of them also have second jobs or side hustles as well, though. And since COVID there has apparently been a growing sense of dissatisfaction represented (although probably this is overstated by media alarmists) by people opting out of just going back to work in the same types of situations. So perhaps this won't seem as strange as it might have, a couple of years ago.

When I worked in high tech, there was a little flexibility, depending on the job. If I was a manager or an inside (over the phone) salesperson or a systems engineer, then I was in the office all day. When I was an outside sales rep, I made my own schedule, but I was typically seeing business clients during business hours. The big difference as an outside salesman was, I was judged almost entirely on my "production" of revenues, rather than on the amount of time I had to devote to achieving those results. Inside sales was sort-of the worst of both worlds, since you were only paid on what you produced but you were still under the thumb of management who could count the number of calls you made, listen to what you said, and even hassle you for getting back a few minutes late from lunch.

As a grad student after my retirement from high tech, I sort-of considered myself to be self-employed. There were things I had to do to get the "A"s in my classes, but I got to choose the classes and I was typically overachieving; so I typically felt a lot of "agency". As an Assistant Professor at BSU the past six years, I've similarly felt like I was easily fulfilling the job requirements and so I was pretty free to come up with ideas for new experimental courses or for initiatives like the Open Ed work I took on.

But there were some requirements in the faculty job, related to things that could be measured to document job performance and "professional development". There were minimum requirements for office hours and there were course "caps" (capacity maximums). Faculty was expected to be in their office available for students to visit on a walk-in basis, and courses were supposed to be as fully-enrolled as possible. Neither of these were really useful measures, in my opinion. I generally went into the office pretty early in the morning and spent way more than the required office hours in my very comfortable space on campus, with my view of the lake and coffee maker. Students rarely visited, with or without appointments. And although I used to get attractive posters made and put them up all over campus, announcing my electives and especially new courses, I'm not sure how much enrollment I gained from this -- although I have to say, it was better than nothing and there was really no one else promoting courses on campus.

Before the retrenchment, there was some talk about how the administration was going to begin looking much more directly at tuition revenues and class enrollment numbers in determining whether BSU could "afford" instructors. The details are a bit blurry to me now, but I think we were supposed to be able to "pay" our salaries with 2/3 of the tuition revenue represented by a student. BSU tuition is $313.55 per credit plus fees. So each student in a 3-credit course is "worth" about $900. Two thirds of that is about $600. Getting judged on something you can't really control is a bit messed up, but that was the bright idea.

I have 90 students this fall, so that 2/3 total comes to about $54,000. My salary for this semester is substantially lower than this, so I was apparently "paying my way". Of course, the contract enforced by our union doesn't allow for anything as crass as tying employment
directly to revenue generation as if we were salespeople. I imagine the administration is frustrated by this impediment. I sure would be, if I was a manager responsible for aligning employment with financial contribution. It's a little more complicated than that, of course. There are other valuable things faculty do, beyond filling seats with paying customers.

But now that I've been retrenched, the situation for me is different. I don't think I'm working any less. If anything, I'm doing more now because I'm using this countdown to remind myself I need to solve this problem and find myself a job that will pay the bills after next May. It's interesting though, that I'm thinking much more directly at the problem of creating value that people will be willing to pay for. When I think of courses, for example, I ask myself what I have in my portfolio that I can put into a format I could offer it to people outside the university? I think there are some things I teach, like my American Environmental History, that are unusual enough that they might attract an audience even if I wasn't offering three college credits in return for completion. Lacking the three credits, I think my price would have to be a bit lower than $900. But it might be doable.

I have a friend who has a consulting and training business where she works with regional (and increasingly national) non-profit institutions. She suggested that I offer services around helping academics prepare their research for publication. I'm pretty good at that, so I'm considering how that might work. I've bounced around the idea in the past of creating a note-making and writing course -- maybe having it focused on an academic audience might differentiate it a bit.

Ideas like these will take some time to work out. It's interesting to me, that most or all of them are pretty much the opposite of the old-fashioned jobs. Nothing but the result matters, but deciding when, how, and how much to work is entirely up to me. I think it's a new paradigm -- or it will be if I can make it pay!

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Retrenchment, Day 31

There's a persistent urge in American society (and among many historians) to avoid at all costs saying there's such a thing as class conflict in America. Yeah, sure, maybe this has existed in other places and maybe even still does. But America is the land of "We the People" and every four years we elect a president, so surely that's not a feature of our existence?

Of course, wherever there are people in the mainstream, there are folks on the fringes who seem to feel compelled to poke at that "Master Narrative". For whatever reason, I am one of those people. As a result, it's probably natural that one of the things I wonder about, when someone like a university president gets up there and says, "I feel your pain and I wish there was another way, but we're going to have to let 27 faculty go." My immediate thoughts are along the lines of,
did you really try all the alternatives before you decided on this one? And, do you really feel our pain?

There's an interesting website in Minnesota (maybe other places too) that lists the salaries of public employees. It's not completely up to date, but it says, "In 2021 Bemidji State University (BSU) reported 47 employees making more than $100,000 per year; by comparison the average salary was $68,823. The highest reported pay was $10,818.77/Bi-Weekly for FXXXX HXXXXXX [the former president]" (I'm not going to mention names in this, just to talk about positions).

A couple of years ago, the former president made $281 thousand dollars. The provost made over $200 thousand. The VP of finance and administration (the one who made the $2.5 million "mistake" with the budget) made over $190 thousand. The other members of the administrative leadership made between $140 thousand (the average for Admin levels 8, 9, and 10) and $110 thousand (Admin levels 6 and 7). That means the president and the nine people in the his cabinet probably pulled down about $1.456 million. I'm guessing because, like the president, several of these people were not employed by the state in 2021 and thus are not listed on the website. However, it's difficult for me to believe they're making less than their predecessors, so I've gone with the previous numbers as a conservative estimate.

There are another dozen or so managers of departments who are not cabinet members who probably get Admin level 6 through 10 paychecks. So let's estimate another $1.5 million. And for balance I should note that there are probably two dozen or so faculty who earn over $100 thousand. Most of those folks have been at BSU for between 15 and 40 years. Also, for the record, my salary is less than the average. Although I'm sure there are a lot of people (instructors, staff) getting less than me and probably under even more uncertain conditions as far as job security goes. I don't claim to feel their pain. My wife works too and we're doing alright.

Now $281 thousand is only four times the average income of a BSU worker, which is a whole lot less than some of the horrible multiples we've been hearing about executive pay vs. worker pay in American business today. So maybe we shouldn't be concerned? But still, I wonder whether a group of people who each make more than they can easily spend in Bemidji, when they get together in a third-floor conference room overlooking campus, are really able to see what's going on, on the ground. On campus and in the community beyond it.

I've said a couple of times before that management ought to take a pay-cut until things turn around. Not only would that show solidarity, but a $10% haircut on $3 million in management salaries would save a couple of faculty jobs. The administration is so interested in getting closer to regional businesses and emulating their cultures and practices. In a lot of businesses, executive pay is tied to performance. Maybe management should share our pain, rather than just claiming to vicariously feel it.

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