Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Contracting Temperament

A couple approached the front door of our house this evening. Ding-dong! I opened the door. "Oh, you're moving?" Uh, yeah. I explained: The place is listed. Call the realtor on the sign. Then they said they weren't interested in buying. They planned to call our LaLo about renting it. ORLY? That's right. Come to find out, the same LaLo who slammed us with an imperative to move back in April has posted this very house for "sale or rent" at The rent he's asking is $100 bucks more per month than we're paying now, but it looks like the lackluster real estate market has motivated him to rent again. The prospective renters who stopped by this evening weren't especially won over by my look of surprise (a genuine look...come again?). I showed them around and explained that we were happy enough with the place, that we would have stayed longer had we not been, in effect, forced out to appease some impulse of greed. *sigh*

Yesterday I called the *new* AT&T to check on upping the minutes on our cellular plan. We're land-line free and using a few more minutes than our current plan can bear. I climbed and swung through the number tree and arrived, much to my misfortunate I would later learn, on a "Sales" branch of the tree talking with someone called Betty. I told Betty I needed more minutes. Can I switch to a plan with more minutes? She answered back: "It says here you would have to upgrade your account and pay an upgrade fee of $18. If you upgrade, you would be voiding your current contract, so you would have to pay market value for new phones. You would also have to agree to a two-year contract." What the? Say, Betty, I like the phones we already have, and I just need more minutes. Betty and I talked past each other for several more minutes. Having gone through something like this before, I was fairly certain there was a way to do what I wanted without handing over an upgrade fee and shelling out for new phones. In the afternoon, I tried again. Talked someone called Lance who took care of everything in only a couple of minutes.

Here's the most striking irritant by far: a bitter pill from P.U. regarding the course development and upkeep work I've done over the past few years. Received word a couple of weeks ago that the existing royalty structure is being scrapped in the new contracts that have been foisted on existing developers. Developers of high-enrolling (mulitple-section) courses stand to lose a fair amount of money. The new development/maintenance contracts pay out $150 per term for courses with just one section and a flat-rate of $200 per term for courses with two or more sections. I got involved initially because the royalty structure at the time scaled according to the number of total sections of a given course. At the time (right after 9-11), everyone was in a clamor about deployed enrollments (an exodus of on-site students who would be TDY to Afghanistan or elsewhere). There was a rush to attract developers of high-enrolling courses, and this was done with the snake oil of two-year contracts which paid royalties of $3 per student (also, there were evil grins and promises to make decent pay for the work involved). Once the high-enrolling courses were developed and in place (all work-for-hire), there was a change in program leadership and a new contract. This one, around 2004, paid $60 per section to developers for ongoing maintenance (answering emails, writing new course materials, responding to inquiries from instructors, and so on). Again, two-year contracts. Only with these, because I knew I would be enrolling in a PhD program where the stipend, generous though it is, wouldn't be enough to do much more than pay rent, I met with then-director of the distance learning program and was given verbal reassurance that the contracts would be renewable, that I could count on that income provided P.U. thought highly of the design of those courses (this has never been raised as a question, for what it's worth). The new contracts depart radically from the former system. I talked to the new interim director by phone today and was told plainly that the contracts were a strictly legal matter, that the new contracts were all that was available, and that they understood some developers would lose out. Unfortunately, I happen to be one of them. If I don't want to continue as a developer, I was told, I have the right of first refusal. Noted.

They're making a lot of loot on the online courses. What's happened, as I see it, is that demand for the courses has shifted into the long tail of the curriculum--those courses that need to be developed even though there will only be one section. Redistributing the royalty structure gives the U. ways improve incentives for developers of low-enrolling courses. Another factor: the U. has brought "instructional designers" on staff who will collaborate with the less tech-savvy among the faculty. I could go on and on about this, but I'll stop. Nothing I can do about it, given that my energy must be directed elsewhere. What irks me the most? An institution stands to gain from these [adjective] employment practices that thrive when institutional memory is short (use of part-timers, work-for-hire, contingent staff and instructors, and also high turnover in administrative posts related to the online program). Part-timers, those whose contracts, like light bulbs, are good for about two years, have no union, no bargaining unit, no collective voice, and, in effect, not an ounce of leverage in decisions that position them as expendable labor. The contracts were never negotiable, not even up for discussion (difficult, even, to get a phone conversation in which I could ask questions).

Bookmark and Share Posted by at June 20, 2007 10:15 PM to Slouching Toward