Friday, December 09, 2005

 

Choosing Not to Look

At my previous employer (a for-profit college), the single aspect of the job I hated the most was on Tuesdays, when a report would show up on my desk (and the other managers’) showing the top 25 class sections that semester for student attrition. I was supposed to ‘ask’ the instructors of those sections in my departments to ‘shed light’ on the high drop rates, and to keep notes about which instructors showed up on the list most frequently. Persistently high drop rates were cause for termination, and both adjunct and full-time faculty were terminated when they couldn’t bring the rates down.

I hated that. I hated it because as a professor, I saw firsthand how much student attrition has nothing to do with the quality of teaching. (Most of it had to do with transportation, work/family hours, money, family crises, or substance abuse.) As the institution started to struggle financially, the squeeze on instructors tightened. Some, I’m told, consciously lowered their grading standards to keep themselves off the list.

(I also hated it as a social scientist. The list would show up every week, with little change from week to week. So the same section would top the list several weeks in a row, creating a perception of ongoing crisis among my colleagues. For all intents and purposes, it created a feedback loop. I tried in vain to explain to my colleagues the concept of horses having left the barn, but they just didn’t get it. Finally, I told my boss I didn’t want to see the report anymore until the last week of the semester. He agreed, more out of courtesy than understanding.)

When I fled to public higher ed, part of the appeal was the established culture of respecting instructors as instructors. I don’t get a weekly (or even a yearly) list here. I don’t know who has high drop/fail rates and who doesn’t. Tenured faculty only have to do student evaluations once every five years, unless they’re up for promotion. Students complain much less here, since their expectations haven’t been inflated by an admissions/sales force working on commission. When they do complain, it isn’t a given that they’re right.

As a faculty brat myself, and a former professor at some fairly rough-and-ready places, the idea that I could manage without having to browbeat or micromanage faculty was incredibly appealing. While I do get frustrated here sometimes, I don’t have a weekly hit-the-roof moment like I did there. I could actually treat faculty the way I liked to be treated, and not be accused of failing to do my job.

In traditional higher ed, there’s a general culture of ‘choosing not to look.’ In most cases, it’s either harmless or beneficial. I like that professors here can dress pretty much as they see fit, as long as they don’t get charged with indecent exposure. (At the for-profit, ties were mandatory for male professors. Women got away with turtlenecks.) Here they can (and sometimes do) look kinda funny. They can dress funny, indulge odd enthusiasms, screw up paperwork, and exhibit a general indifference to most of the niceties of organizational behavior, and get away with it. It’s part of the appeal of the job.

But there’s a catch. All that discretion, all that freedom, is premised on a foundation of professional responsibility. A professor who blithely or egregiously ignores that professional responsibility is much harder to call on the carpet here. At the for-profit, which didn’t have a tenure system, a professor who, say, read his negative performance review aloud to his class during class time could be unceremoniously shown the door. (I’m not making that up.) Here, not. There, a professor who made a habit of simply not showing up could be told never to bother showing up again. (Again, I’m not making that up.) Here, only with outsize difficulty.

Tenure was intended to protect the freedom to do one’s job. It was not intended to protect freedom from one’s job.

In theory, it’s easy to describe extreme cases and then just start the process churning. The problem is that the culture of choosing not to look makes it uniquely difficult to get the kind of information you’d need to make an adverse employment action hold up in court. Do we make a practice of monitoring the start and end times of every class? Of course not. Do we have faculty punch in and out? Of course not. So how do we know that one absentee is actually unique?

Very frustrating.

Choosing not to look only works when both sides act in good faith. When one side doesn’t, choosing not to look makes correcting a problem nearly impossible.

My plea to faculty? Please, please, please, act in good faith. I don’t want to have to start micromanaging again. Let me choose not to look.

Comments:
I love the tenure is not freedom from one's job comment!

Would be interested in your thoughts on the Tulane cuts that were just announced. Do you think other institutions (anywhere) might use it as a model to more gradually cut "inefficient" programs. I'm asking that as someone who is in a program which was under possible consideration based on "final output numbers" that did not necessarily require massive investments of capital or labor.
 
What Kelly said, and I sometimes wonder, DD, if we are at the same place (though I know that we are not). I have a colleague who has tenure and never, ever does much more than turn on the VCR to teach her WRITING classes! Gah!!! And when she's not using the VCR, she's calling in sick with some hypochondriacal illness. And when she's not doing that, she refuses to answer student e-mails from Thursday afternoon until Monday afternoon. She sees her tenured position as a job; it drives me bonkers because I see what I do as a career with responsibilities -- not a place to punch in and out. I hate to suggest it, but sometimes I think that tenure creates demons rather than giving security to worthy teachers.
 
This kills me, too -- especially because one of my classes had an immense and ginormous arrtition rate -- only 12 people out of the initial 36 were still there for the final!
But the students who dropped who had the courtesy to ask me to sign their drop forms (they can withdraw for a 0.0 that doesn't figure into their GPA trough week 8, no signature required) all claimed either work/transport problems or said they weren't doing well and didn't want their GPA affected. Many of these students could have earned low B's to high C's had they started coming to class and doing the work. I'm deathly afraid I'll get nailed for it, though. Many of my students complain about the difficulty level of the course -- the survey -- but the reading load averages between 60-80 pp. per week and I give out exam questions in advance. The truly difficult part is that I expect them to have done the readings because they form the basis for whatever we do in class. If students don't do their part, my part doesn't go as well ...

Still, I'm happy to be observed at any time. And I hope that my colleagues are. But then, I support post-tenure review wholeheartedly. There are far too many of us out here who *do* do our jobs to allow faculty deadwood to sit on their asses and do their jobs badly.
 
I was demoralized by my colleagues in the English department because

1.One of them gave his creative writing students "a month off to write." (no class, no nothing)

2. Another colleague gave MATCHING exams where you draw lines between the terms/names/dates that belong together.

3.No one but me ever had their students use the MLA bibliography or had them write a full length (8-10 pp.) research paper. I learned this in my third year.

4. Meanwhile, I, the only woman and youngest faculty member in the department by 20 years, was asked to resign, for poor student evaluations. I also just happened to be pregnant with my second child.

The two years of this painful process, in which I filed a grievance against the dean,had my teaching observed many times (it was always fine, service and scholarship deemed excellent) were the most agonizing period of my life.

THIS is why I never want to be a professor again. Ever.
 
Lauren:
That sounds like an outrage. I know I have a a hard time beating in the MLA research paper, and I have sophomore students with 6 credits of English under their belts already.

It's so odd...I always presume my colleagues to be doing an upstanding job. And then I hang out with some administrator friends and hear these other weird stories. I spend so much time cranking on work, I cannot imagine doing the job otherwise.

The email comment from russianviolets gave me a guilty twinge. I'm sometimes horrid with email, simply because I have so many students fighting for my attention and so many grades to complete. I prioritize. This semester, with a minimester overload (an additional seven-week class tacked onto the second half of my regular semster load), I have been really bad about it, but I try to tell myself I am doing the best I can using the triage method. Basically, students need to get me on the telephone (they have my home number as well as office and cell).

But...now that I am done accusing myself, I don't think it unreasonable not to respond to student emails during a weekend. Typically, whatever issues they raise could have been dealt with during the week if they had been prompt or could be dealt with in the following week. Students should not think of us as a 24/7 help line. During weekends, I am grading or prepping. I often deal with email then as well, but that is a bonus to students, not an entitlement. And, it is not unreasonable to expect that some profs have lives outside student email.
 
I'm currently teaching seven classes next term at a for-profit... have to say I look forward to tenure some day. :)

We're supposed to try and keep students enrolled of course, but our measure is getting students to enroll for the next term. I've heard that if 100% of your students do you win like a $300 shopping spree at the campus store. With seven classes the chances of that happen to me = none, but it's a nice thought and a couple English teachers win it every term or so. They recognize that there isn't bupkiss we can do about students dropping, but getting them to come back is seen as important.

~Annie
 
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