Sunday, September 7, 2008

My "Angry and Accusatory" side

I've made it through the first two weeks of classes this semester and they have been anything BUT routine. Yesterday (September 7) was the final day to add or drop classes and so only then was my schedule finally complete. Well, at least I HOPE so. We can still drop classes after the 7th (until early November), but a "W" (withdrew) appears on our transcripts. Don't ask me why (I mean really, who cares if I withdrew from a class?!?), but that's the way it is. This semester has already been an adventure not only in getting registered but in getting straight answers too. First, just registering for the music classes I needed to take took several e-mails and finally a meeting with my advisor to get the necessary overrides to even register. As part of the Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program, there are a few music classes I need to take that weren't part of my undergrad sequence at BYU-Idaho. Though I am a graduate student now, I am no longer a music major, so the system wouldn't let me register. I finally added all four of the music classes I needed to take last Friday after meeting with my advisor. She's been pretty helpful, but I am the first music student to go through the MAT in 10 years, so she and most of the people in the School of Music aren't too familiar at all with the requirements associated with the MAT and how they fit with the existing program.

The real issue that really has me ticked has to do with the College of Education and a credit issue. As an undergrad at BYU-Idaho, I took a class called "Reading in the Content Area." This is a class required by pretty much every state that helps teachers be aware of and help students who either can't read or have low reading comprehension. It is irrelevant which content area one teaches in as students need to be able to read in just about everything. This class is also part of the MAT sequence that is going on right now. I had mentioned to the MAT director at the very beginning of the summer that I had taken this class as an undergrad and she was surprised, but said "I don't see why you'd need to take it again." It was a welcome relief and I thought that was the end of it. Unfortunately no, though little happened until these last two weeks to begin the Fall semester. Part of the problem was my music advisor was out for the summer, so I didn't really have anyone to sit down and talk with to clear it up. The issue isn't if I need to take it again, but how the credit worked. Because the class was an undergrad class, it doesn't count towards my masters degree even though it is essentially the same class. So yes, it's good enough that I don't need to take it again, but not good enough that I can use it as credit to graduate with. As I've gone about trying to get an explanation, I'm running into the same lack of explanation I was faced with just over one year ago when I left BYU-Idaho.

This started this past week when I e-mailed the contact in the College of Education's Office of Graduate Studies for the MAT. I e-mailed her a three-paragraph letter which included questions about my credits (did I need to take an additional class?) and also several concerns I had regarding overlapping classes both this semester and last as well as concerns about the lack of communication between the School of Music and the MAT. The response I got to my three e-mail was a one-liner: "You need a total of 44 hours taken during the MAT and 39 of those hours MUST be at the graduate level." That was it. No address to me, no signature, and certainly no acknowledgement that the person even read or thought about my other concerns. I responded back that, OK I needed to pick up an additional graduate level class but also that in adding up the graduate credits built into the MAT, I came up with 38. I also stated my opinion that simply taking an additional class to fill time was a "waste of time" since I would be taking it not because I needed that specific class, but because I need the graduate hours. I also stated that I felt like I was being penalized for having taken the class earlier than everyone else. Well, this person and the director of the MAT didn't like the fact that I referred to taking an extra class as a waste of time and also stated that the MAT has 41 hours built in (only if you count the methods class as a graduate class and my methods class is not at the graduate level...which incidentally is a question I had in my responses that hasn't been answered or acknowledged). The contact with the College of Education OGS also stated she was "sorry I was unsatisfied with the MAT" a statement I never said in any communication.

The director of the MAT, a person I also have for two of my classes, tried to give me some class ideas to take and to lend a sympathetic ear to my situation, but in the end gave me much of the same response that this OGS contact gave me: no real substance in the answer, just "that's the way it is." I expected answers like that at ultra-conservative BYU-Idaho, but apparently that way of thinking isn't limited to conservative areas. I decided to include my final responses to both below. The first was to the OGS Contact:

"I want to make sure we're on the same page here:

First, I am certainly not unsatisfied with the MAT nor have I ever stated such. What I am unsatisfied with is when I send a relatively detailed e-mail with questions and concerns, I expect a response that reflects that. While your initial one-liner indirectly answered one question- how many graduate credits I need- it did not answer the question as to why my previous credit taking Reading in the Content Area cannot be applied to the MAT as a substitute. It also failed to address other concerns spelled out in the e-mail regarding credit, advising, and overlapping class issues. If you don't know, that's fine, but at least acknowledge that you read it.

Second, my total of 38 graduate hours built into the MAT comes from not counting my fall methods course as a graduate class since my methods courses are at the junior (30000) level. If that counts as a graduate class, I have not been made aware of that.

Third, when simply taking an additional class involves the investment of extra money and time, taking classes to just fill time IS a waste of time to me, especially in light of the fact that I have to take not because I'm missing credits, but because I already took a required class earlier than everyone else. I already have some $30,000 in loans to pay for school; I don't want to add anything to the debt I don't absolutely NEED. According to the MAT program, I already have the classes I need to be successful. Also remember that time is at a premium. If adding another class were free and easy, yes, it would be a great opportunity to find something extra to help me out. But don't forget, you have the security of a job and an income, I don't, so it's far easier for you to tell me to just "take another class" than it is for me to actually pay for it and then do it. It's far more than just asking me to pick up an extra class; it's asking me to pay hundreds of extra dollars in tuition and invest significant time and effort.

I don't want a war here; I want solid answers that have as much backup and justification as you would want from me if I were writing a paper or presenting an idea. If there is a policy that an undergrad class absolutely cannot be substituted for a graduate-level class (even though they are essentially the same class, just a different course number), then I first need to be made aware of that policy as well as the reasons and justifications behind it, specific to this case. For the enormous amount of time, effort, and money I am investing, it is not out of the question to ask for thorough and professional explanations which involve that time, effort, and money."

The second response was sent at the same time to the director of the MAT:

"I found the available workshops on the Office of Professional Development's website. It says I can register for them on Flashline, but so far no luck. Also, do you happen to know if the cost associated with them is included in my tuition or in addition to it?

I appreciate your advice the other day. I understand you're kind of in the middle of this and that wasn't my intention. I just wanted to let you be aware of our communication. Do know that I am not unsatisfied with the MAT as [the OGS Contact] seems to think. I am unsatisfied with the answer she gave me after I sent an initial e-mail with both questions and concerns. I expected a little more than an impersonal one-liner that indirectly answered one of my questions. Even something as little as "I don't have all the answers, but these people might..." or something of that nature. At least acknowledge that she actually read the entire message. It's not that I didn't get the answer I wanted, but more I didn't get much of ANY answers. For the amount of time and money I am putting into this program, I don't think it's out of line to expect thorough explanations, especially explanations which involve me spending more money and time to pick up an additional class.

As you have shared several personal experiences and how they've shaped you, let me share one of my own. The main reason I'm in the MAT is because at the end of last summer I transferred back here from the school I did most of my undergrad work just before I was to student teach. The school had certain policies regarding housing while I student taught (I wouldn't have student taught anywhere near the campus, so I needed to move) that I felt were not only discriminatory, but out-dated and unjustifiable. Indeed, the biggest struggle wasn't getting permission, but getting any sort of justification beyond "that's the rule." No one could explain why those were the rules or even how they were better than the way I wanted (the university wanted me to live in an "approved" apartment complex nowhere near my school and I had found a place to live right near the school and they refused to let me live there even though I was 25 years old). I'm seeing the same lack of explanation with this credit issue. If a logical justification can be made, by all means I want to hear it and I'll abide by it. But right now, no one has explained why I need to take an extra class and how that will benefit me other than the blanket "you need at least 39 graduate hours." OK, then why can't the three hours from the class I don't need to take be substituted since it's essentially the same class with a different call number? These are the answers I'm looking for and when I ask questions and state my opinions, I feel like I being I'm treated like some criminal. And yes, I do consider it a waste of time when I'm being told to take a class that costs me extra money and time (both are already at a premium) when the reason is not because I need that specific class, but because I have to fill time. I already have some $30,000 in loans; I don't want any more debt that I don't absolutely NEED. Sure, if "picking up an extra class" were that simple, I don't think I'd have much of a problem. But we all know "picking up a class" isn't that simple or inexpensive.

So, that's my side. I will pass along a message to [the OGS Contact] as well so that she and I are on the same page. I don't want a war here; I want solid answers that have as much backup and justification as you would want from me if I were writing a paper or presenting an idea. Perhaps too, not being able to have ready explanations for set policies like that (if such a policy even exists) to me is a red flag that maybe they need to be re-examined and critiqued."

Now, I felt like I was being assertive and firm (none of this weak "if you have the time maybe you could answer these questions and concerns..." kind of BS), but hardly letting my emotions take over or being unreasonable. In the end, I am after a solid, logical explanation and I gave valid and thorough reasons for wanting one. Maybe there are some rules or regulations that exist that absolutely forbid substituting an undergrad class for a grad class, but maybe there aren't. I don't know, which is why I'm asking. No one could even answer me is there even WAS such a policy. If a logical defense can be made for the rules, I will abide by them even if I don't totally agree. It's only when there either isn't a logical defense or the one provided just doesn't sit well with me that I will challenge a rule or policy (like I did at BYU-Idaho).

These two were met with one brief response which is probably as close as I'll get to a "solid" answer, which came from the director of the MAT: "This requirement is necessary because, at any university, a specific number of credits reflects the work required for an advanced degree. As you recall from our second day in class this summer, the masters degree, among many other implications, ensures you of a higher salary in education. It also indicates, or should indicate, a higher level of learning and cognitive sophistication." OK I can buy that, but it also implies that the class I took as an undergrad at BYU-Idaho isn't at the same level of learning or sophistication as the graduate version here just because it was an undergraduate course (FYI, BYU-Idaho doesn't even have any graduate programs or courses). Maybe it isn't, but the only way to know that is to actually compare the substance of each class and that has hardly happened. Just for my own sake I'm planning on asking my classmates what their class entails. I'm willing to guess that like most graduate classes it involves a fair amount of reading and higher level thinking and discussion, as well as writing. My Reading in the Content Area class involved a fair amount of that as well, but also involved real-world experience. Not only did I learn about how to better teach reading comprehension and its importance, but I actually had to do it. I personally tutored a ninth grader as part of the class and then worked in groups with my classmates to tutor and help eighth graders. So I wasn't just reading and discussing about the subject, I was actually learning how to do it better. I had to have lesson plans, keep notes, draw conclusions, make adjustments, and generally apply what I had been learning. Even then, the answer I got still doesn't answer the question of if my undergrad class was good enough to not have to take it again, why isn't it good enough to count towards my degree? It also makes me wonder why taking the class I did pick up (a graduate online course in exceptionalities) will put me at that higher level I wouldn't have been at otherwise.

The real kicker in the response that just irked me when I read it and has bothered me all weekend was: "As in your previous email to [the OGS Contact], this recent one carries an accusatory, angry tone." I am ALWAYS careful that what I say is not overwhelmed with emotion. It is why I usually won't respond right away because I want to give myself a chance to calm down and logically sort things out. Both of my response e-mails posted above were written after much thought and revision and even waiting until the next day to send them. I defninitely felt my responses were assertive and firm and had my concerns and main points backed up with relevant and valid reasons. I even re-read them and read them to my mom to see what she thought and I just didn't see it. It's like they were using that as an excuse to not really answer me "well, he was being so angry and accusatory..." that kind of thing. So, in the end, I picked up the extra class and have not responded further. I do plan on asking the dean of the College of Education for an explanation on the credit issue. I'm not trying to rock the boat or get anyone fired; I just want a reasonable and logical explanation. I think it's a sad reflection on any organization or program that doesn't have ready justifications for its policies, particularly ones like this that end up costing someone extra time, effort, and money. I would like to know what any readers think of my responses. Did they come across as angry and/or accusatory? If so, what parts did and why?

So right now I'm not in the best of spirits and have lost a lot of my motivation for teaching. I just want to get school done and over with so I can get on with my life. Sometimes I just wonder what exactly I'm doing too. Do I really want to deal with all this for the next 35 years?? I feel like I'm going through the ordeal with BYU-Idaho all over again. Ugh. What a nightmare that was! On the bright side I did get my placement at Rootstown Middle and Rootstown Elementary schools, though I haven't been given any details, including the teachers' names. My questions regarding that have gone unanswered as of right now, so I don't even know if they know I'm coming! Looks like I'm just going to have to take things into my own hands and find out WHO I'll be working with at each school and when I can come.


Becky said...

Maybe it's just because I know you better, but I didn't think your letters came across as angry or accusatory. I think these punks who work for the university just haven't had to deal with any students who had balls before and so they're not used to someone talking to students who actually have thoughts and opinions and state them. I'm a lot like you--if I don't understand a rule, I want someone to explain it to me. I will ask questions and I will challenge rules that don't have a real purpose. This got me into trouble when I worked for--what a coincidence--Kent State. Good Luck with least you aren't looked at weird for being single.......:)

Try not to stress too much, it sounds like you're working with a bunch of people who are used to having all the answers and can't handle being questioned.

familysizelarge said...

any one versed in the art of sarcasm could easily conclude that the missives smelled strongly of it. even to the point of feeling you were accusing the school, and one representative specifically of being rather like a "Vogon". (Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) unfortunately, not every one knows that your particular brand is about as blunt as a bull elephant.