This post will resume the narrative of the episodes that eventually led to the filing of a lawsuit against UT Austin. As I noted back in early August, the rest of this narrative is very painful to recount. Indeed, after reading through many of the documents we obtained in discovery, I needed to take a mental break. I am not entirely sure why it continues to be so incredibly painful to revisit these events, except that, in retrospect, I can see so many places where there should have been an intervention that put an end to the harassment and retaliation. I also see places where I wish I had been more savvy and quicker to recognize that my department, and especially my department chair, were never going to support me or my career.
Especially as I make my way through my chair’s deposition, I realize that I took her willingness to sign off on my work on the Online Rome class (as well as substantial other administrative work for my College and then the Provost’s office) as a sign that she was supportive of the project if not of me. It never occurred to me that she would so seriously misrepresent my many contributions to the department between 2013–2015.
To take just one obvious example: there are repeated claims that the Online Rome class was an unwanted burden, because it would require that sections of the course be staffed. My chair’s personal view that online learning is inferior to in person learning meant that she felt it was a waste of resources to offer the Online Rome class. Repeatedly, I am criticized for imposing this burden on the department — a burden that has earned UT significant money in tuition dollars and that has helped to prop up department enrollment numbers in a period where students were increasingly turning to online instead of in person classes.
My chair had (and perhaps still has) the flawed view that, if we did not offer online versions of these historically high enrollment courses, the students would simply enroll in the traditional in person sections. No. The students would go to another department to find what they are looking for. From about 2015–2018, Classics had very little competition and these courses always capped out quickly. Yet my Chair refused to invest anything in the Rome class. It was not revised and updated. Even the staffing of the class did not follow my recommendations as the course creator. This meant that graduate students were being asked to do a very difficult task without any sense of why different parts of the content looked the way it did.
I could understand my chair’s decisions, to a point, except that I had indeed created a plan for the long-term. I had worked closely with the Liberal Arts ITS people to get a permanent lecturer position to go along with the Online Rome class. This position was funded in part by LAITS and in part by the College. LAITS was willing to spend this money because they had an investment in the success of my class. This plan was deliberately blown up by my chair in May 2015, when she opted to use this lecturer hire for something else. I assume that she protested to then dean Randy Diehl that I should not be able to make such an important decision on behalf of the department; and that, in her view, I was usurping her authority to determine the direction the department would go. Randy gave in to her, but with the condition that she still had to staff six sections of 100 students for the Online Rome class. Despite my chair’s claim in an email to the department that the dean had approved HER request for a position, it was actually a position that I had arranged so that she could not claim that she lacked the resources to staff the online class.
Of course, nobody in my department knew what was happening behind the scenes — even I did not know the whole story at the time. They were happy to give my chair credit for getting a permanent lecturer position and had no idea how this would create problems for the Online Rome class’s success once I was not involved with it. I am sure my chair’s presentation of things was perfectly plausible to everyone, especially because I opted not to call her out at that time. I still wanted to believe that she would not deliberately undermine this asset I had spent two years creating as a gift to my department, in place of producing scholarship that only benefitted me.
As it happened, for several reasons outside of my control, an admin job that I had been hired to do in April 2014 disappeared with the arrival of a new UT President. President Fenves was invested in trying to build up UT’s stock of online courses. He understood that we were decades behind other universities and that it was costing the university precious tuition dollars. Unfortunately, President Fenves opted to invest in the creation of very expensive live streaming lecture courses rather than in funding an institute that would serve all instructors.
As a result of this decision, UT instructors were largely unprepared for the demands of Covid era teaching. In addition, the project that Fenves invested in, Project 2021, ended up losing most of its funding rather quickly and before it had done anything. I often wonder how different things might have been if Fenves had simply followed the plan in place and supported the spread of digital pedagogy around campus. In the end, Covid has done what no UT administrator could manage to do.
With me back in the Classics department, my chair could dump the instruction of the Online Rome class back on me. It helped that she claimed she had no other classes to assign me and, of course, would not make any effort to figure out a way to shuffle teaching assignments a bit. I had never taught the online version of the class and never intended to. Building it and teaching it are two completely different activities. I worked closely with the instructor I hired, a former grad student with expertise in Roman history, to revise the class. But it mattered a lot that I had never taught it. Suddenly, I found myself in exactly the situation I worked so hard to avoid: three instructors (me and two advanced graduate students) who had no experience in online teaching. This was far from ideal. Fairly quickly, I realized that I would have to make changes to the staffing model I had designed with the expectation that an experienced teacher would be overseeing and advising graduate student instructors. For the sake of simplicity, I had all of the sections collapsed into one. I informed my chair of this and she responded that she would have our course coordinator change the instructor of record for all of the sections. This never happened and, these days, my chair insists that I had such an easy teaching load because I was teaching two sections of 50 students. In reality, I was doing all of the work to teach 300 students. Anyone who has taught online (not Zoom teaching) will understand what an impossible work load this was, especially back in Fall 2015 when our students did not have much if any experience of taking an online class. In addition, Canvas was new to all of us.
In other words, it was a s*&tshow from the beginning, with nothing I could do except put my head down and try to survive. I also made a point of emailing my chair regularly to assist her in making future staffing decisions. Those emails were, of course, never acted on. In addition to learning on the spot how to teach the class and managing the enormous email traffic from students who had a range of technical problems, I was teaching one voluntary in person session each week, where students could come, ask questions, meet me, and generally feel more connected to the course. We also gave three midterm exams. This was complicated because the class did not have an assigned meeting time or classroom. With 300 students, it was impossible to find a time that everyone could take the exam. In the previous year, we simply scheduled the exams in the evenings. I assumed that I could do this again but, as it turned out, many other faculty suddenly started scheduling exams for their large classes in the evenings, presumably in an effort to not take up class meeting time. As a result, large rooms were in short supply and many students had conflicts with exams for other classes. We had to break the class up into smaller groups, with the three instructors plus other volunteer graduate students proctoring these rooms. We had to give 20+ makeup exam times to accommodate everyone. UT’s failure to build infrastructure for online classes like mine created enormous problems for me. Once again, I found myself putting in 60+ hour weeks, with absolutely no time or energy to do anything else.
Of course, nobody from the Classics Department, including my chair, was interested in seeing the online class in action. Despite my repeated requests, the class had not been evaluated by an external expert in online course creation and pedagogy. At the time, I was so overwhelmed with the work of keeping the class from blowing up that I did not insist that, at the least, my Chair visit an in person session and meet with me to discuss what was and was not working, so that adjustments could be made in the following semesters. I had thought that the high enrollment numbers would be appreciated but, instead, they were viewed as “stealing” from the in person sections.
At no point did it occur to my chair that, by offering the class online, I was reaching a set of students who never would have taken a classics course in the first place. There was not some set pool of students who were choosing between in person and online. Online Rome was allowing us to reach an audience that we would not have otherwise reached, especially back in the early years. Given how well the course did with barebones support from the Classics Department, I can’t help but wonder what it might have looked like with support and investments in training instructors in digital pedagogy.
For the first few months of the fall semester I was keeping my head above water, but barely. The workload was exhausting, especially after two years of a similarly exhausting workload. Teaching the class felt a lot like herding cats, with students who needed a lot of attention and help that only I could provide. It did not help that one of the graduate students who was assigned to the class had already decided to leave the program and was not interested in investing the time to learn the basics of online pedagogy. Eventually, she simply disappeared, leaving two of us to do all of the work. The remaining graduate student worked his tail off but he was in the process of finishing his dissertation and had strict deadlines from his advisor. I am sure he was assigned the course because, in my chair’s mind, teaching online meant pushing a few buttons. She assumed she was giving him an easy assignment when, in reality, she gave him the most time consuming assignment possible. I felt terrible for him but also desperately needed his help.
By Halloween, I started to experience some very concerning symptoms — I was extremely nauseated and often vomited; my blood pressure was often so low that I could not even sit up; I had terrible sores in my mouth. I had overwhelming fatigue. I wasn’t just tired, I had the fatigue that people with chronic illnesses know so well. Extra naps was not going to solve the problem. At the time, I felt like I was falling apart. The previous year had been rough, with an unexpected surgery and then a massive AS flare, severe anemia, gastroparesis, and some other things. But, by June, I had started to feel more like myself and assumed that I had finally recovered from the surgery and aftermath. I started the semester feeling strong.
In early November, I realized that I was not going to make it all the way to the end of the semester. I could barely sit up. At the same time, I was the only one who knew how to run the course. I had to be the one to write all of the quiz banks (an incredibly taxing task for those of you who have never done it) and deal with revisions to the course content. I made it my goal to get through to Thanksgiving, at which point the graduate student could deal with administering the final midterm (I graded half of them); and calculating final course grades. It was a lot to dump on him but the total workload of the course was so high at that time that it was a small percentage of what I was doing.
I made it to Thanksgiving. I took two weeks of medical leave to cover the end of the semester even though I never fully stopped working. I could not leave this graduate student, who was desperately finishing his dissertation and applying for jobs, to clean up a mess that resulted from my Chair ignoring the need for an experienced instructor and graduate assistants who had the time and interest in learning about digital pedagogy. We ensured that the students had a good experience and that, from the outside, everything was running smoothly. This effort left both of us exhausted and a bit broken.
I had gone to see several of my MDs during November and December in an effort to figure out exactly what was going on. The symptoms were bountiful but odd. Everyone was puzzled. Finally, my rheumatologist did what rheumatologists often do: she put me on a fairly high dose of prednisone. It took several weeks for the symptoms to abate, but I finally started to feel like I could function in mid-December. We all assumed that I was having a flare-up of autoimmune issues or had developed something new. It never occurred to any of us, including me, that this was the beginning of my Addison’s going from controlled to completely out of control.