Friday, January 13, 2006


Ask the Administrator: My Colleague Isn't Very Good...

A new correspondent writes:


We are a decent sized community college, but my department is
relatively small. I teach the same basic courses as the two other
full-time people. The problem is that I've noticed a distinct
pattern of student complaints about the way a colleague teaches one
of our common courses. This colleague is off of probation and is
generally well-liked by faculty etc... I will be off of probation at
the end of this semester.

My colleague insists on teaching two sections of this course every
semester, probably because she has it all prepped. She won't
consider changing books and seems resistant to faculty mentoring or
other pedagogical suggestions. She maintains she has high standards
and refuses to compromise. I suppose she sees the way I teach as
requiring lower standards.

Since the first day of my first class here students have voiced
consistent problems with her teaching style and significant
complaints about the textbook she uses. It also seems that her
completion rate is significantly lower than mine in that course and I
often have significant numbers of students who finish the course with
me when they don't with her.

To compound the issue, the counselors seem to be telling students not
to take this course with her and rather to take it with me. I
finally brought this to the attention of my dean this week, because a
student had just come to me with the issue after recently being
advised.., I framed the problem more as an issue with the
counselors, rather than a problem with the way my colleague teaches
the course itself.

My problem is twofold...

First, what should I say to students when they want to complain about
my colleague? I try to be positive and to tell them that I think she
is good with the material as well as a good teacher. I tell them
that the students who have problems with her don't follow her
directions. This feels dishonest to me, because I think that I would
recommend close friends avoid her course.

Second, should I bring this to the attention of my dean? I'm sure
she knows there are complaints about my colleague -- and she also
knows that there are very few about myself or the other people who
teach this course. I can't honestly say that I don't have concerns
about the way my colleague manages her classroom. I don't think the
problem is in the material itself, rather it is the way she relates
to her students creates the problem.

I would also love any suggestions as to how I can tactfully help my
colleague become a better teacher. I am sure she would be
significantly happier if her students were happier.


To answer the first question first, don’t criticize a colleague to your students. I’ve dodged a few bullets like that by simply not saying anything. “How is professor so-and-so?” “He’s been here a long time.” “That didn’t answer the question.” “Hmm.” They figure out the gist of it, but you haven’t actually said anything that couldn’t be repeated. Don’t be falsely positive – that does active harm to students and to your credibility – but instead use carefully-selected silences.

(I’m constantly surprised at how many students at registration honestly expect me to say ‘don’t take professor X, he’s awful.’ Not gonna happen. I give honest praise when it’s called for, but I don’t air dirty laundry to students. They don’t have the framework or context in which to interpret it, and I’d be absolutely livid if I heard that a colleague was talking me down to students.)

How to mentor her? Honestly, I wouldn’t, at least not yet. If she’s either work-avoidant or simply untalented, nothing will help, and you’d probably just get her hackles up. If she’s basically okay but just doing a couple of (fixable) things wrong, I’d wait until you’re off probation before bringing them up. You’ve already (cleverly) raised a flag with your Dean, which is smart; now it isn’t your problem, at least until you’re in a position where it wouldn’t hurt you. I wouldn’t repeat the issue to the Dean for a while; you’ve raised it, the ball is out of your court, move on.

In a perfect world, of course, constructive criticism would be gratefully received, she’d be eager to improve, and all would be well. But it’s as likely as not that spreading bad impressions of her would hurt you, and leave her unchanged, a bit defensive, and increasingly unpleasant.

Once you’re off probation, if the problem is still gnawing at your conscience, you could always gently ask the Dean for his/her advice. It’s a little passive/aggressive, I admit, but it makes it harder to brush off your complaint as simply a personal vendetta. “I’m concerned that students aren’t succeeding as much as they might. Have you seen the numbers? What do you think we should do?” Something along those lines. If you present it as a student issue, instead of a faculty issue, you won’t look petty. Once that discussion gets going, large differentials in attrition rates by instructor should become hard to ignore.

(That is, depending on the data gathering at your college. My previous college made a fetish of data-gathering, for better and worse. It was much better at gathering data than interpreting it, which led to some very frustrating meetings, but at least it had data to discuss. My current college doesn’t collect that kind of information by instructor, making it hard to judge at all.)

One of the privileges of faculty (as opposed to administration) is the prerogative to not notice when your colleagues aren’t doing their jobs right. There are times when that is a good prerogative to use. Sometimes, that’s the single part of the faculty role I miss the most.

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

Great advice, Dean Dad, as I've come to expect.

I especially second the advice to never talk down a colleague to students. Not only for the reasons you suggest, but also because you're getting the student "read" on the situation, and that's always biased, sometimes in ways you can't readily see.

I'd also suggest that when we hear from students that teacher X isn't doing something right, we consider our own teaching methods. If one's colleague would consider one "too easy," is that perhaps valid?

Numbers can be deceptive. Some students should fail a course; some learn better with some teaching methods rather than others.

Like Dean Dad, I'd suggest you keep your head down at least until you're off probation.
Yeah, I think this is very good advice, Dean Dad. It is always really hard to gauge what's going on based on student complaints--I mean, I know what students say about me on evals or sometimes it gets back to me what they say to others, and fairly often their take on a situation is just not particularly close to the truth.
I have to disagree with the idea that we should look the other way or be silent about colleagues who are bad teachers. I'm not advocating that the writer who is on probation do anything, but those of us in a more secure place have a responsibility to not harm students, and when we know a colleague is incompetent, or worse, abusive to students, we should steer students away and let our department chairs/deans know what is going on (if they will do something about it). One student complaint may stem from unhappiness about a grade; when numerous students over the course of several semesters/years report on the same problems, they should be believed.

I happen to be in a department where a number of the faculty--part and full time--are either incompetent or abusive to students. For a long time, I played the " good professional" and didn't say a word to students about to register for their classes or made neutral comments when they brought their complaints to me. However, the problem has gotten worse, and my department chair refuses to discipline or fire anyone, regardless of the size of their student complaint file. We have people teaching whose class I wouldn't put my worse enemy in, so no, I don't keep my mouth shut anymore when a student asks, "Should I take Prof. X?"
Pi makes a good point -- there's a difference between weak/uninspired teaching and actual abuse. If a colleague is abusive to students, then of course you should step forward. I interpreted this situation to be a case of weak/uninspired teaching, rather than abuse.
From a student's perspective:

I have one professor (who is also my advisor) whose classes basically consist of him rambling on about things only tangentially (if one is generous) related to the class. AHe frequently doesn't return assignments until the end of the semester, so you never really know what your grade is. It's widely suspected that he doesn't actually read our papers, but just checks to see if we turned them and are formatted correctly (he's a Chicago-style Nazi.) You can miss basically the entire semester and still get an A in the class (he always shows up for class). He's a poor teacher in those respects. On the other hand, he's an awfully nice guy and is always available to students, in and out of posted office hours. It's easy to come out of his class feeling as if you haven't gotten much out of it.

I don't doubt he knows his material: he was a 'guest' lecturer in another class and was funny, gigressed occasionally into appropriate (and interesting) tangents, and stayed on point for the entire lecture. It shocked all of us who'd taken him in other classes. What to make of this?

On the other hand, there's another professor in the department who's regarded as being the 'best' history professor (by students). He's always nattily dressed in suit and tie, is high energy, and can be counted on to do what he says he's going to do, when he says he'll do it. He's considered 'hard, but good'. He's not as approachable as Prof #1, but is much more dependable.

In many ways, I prefer #1. His ongoing theme is that 'I'm not here to tell you what to think, but to teach you how to think for yourselves.' (There's a lot of lipservice paid to this ideal; he's one of the few professors I've had that actually means it.) Prof #2 is much more along the lines of 'these are the facts, and although we may debate them, there's really only one conclusion that's correct'. (I'm a history major.)

Is Prof #1 a 'bad' teacher? By some metrics, he's terrible. By others, he's great. I don't think that Prof #2 is very 'hard' (he just gives a lot of work); in fact, I think Prof #1 is more difficult in that he expects us to actually consider our opinions and paper topics and be able to defend them clearly and responsibly. He expects us to be adults and do the work assigned without being spoonfed and hand-held. So in his classes, you actually do get out of it what you put in, because you are in many ways held responsible for your own education.

What do you professors think about this? Why do you teach/handle students the way you do?
Here's what I think about the comment by Anonymous:

I wish my classes were filled with students exactly like him or her! What a perceptive, logical, caring, thoughtful student.

Anonymous, you do us proud. As for your question, Anonymous, you have framed it perfectly yourself. My take is that the ideal may well be Professor 1.5, part of both Prof 1 and 2, but that is up to you to decide. You are in the best position to judge this.

On other matters, I agree with Bardiac and careful about accepting too ingenuously the World According to Student Complaints.There may well be another, parallel but vastly dissimilar universe here. And perhaps being open to examining whether one is too easy is a necessary gut check before going further. Students have complained to me, sometimes as a group, about other profesors. When I ask for details, I find they are complaining about what may be a very good teaching practice.

At the same time, If I felt in my heart that a professor were doing an unprofessional or abusive job with students, I for one would wait to be off probation (does that mean "tenured"?) and then have a very candid conversation with the chair.

I think Prof. #1 would probably be a great teacher if he'd only hand back work in a reasonable timeframe and with useful feedback. If he really challenges you to think for yourself, he's a good teacher. And btw, I second Peter's comments about having students like you ;-)

I'd agree, Dean Dad, that there's a difference between weak/uninspiring and abusive, and unfortunately, I really was talking about the latter at my school. The weak/uninspiring tend to bore but not damage, and I'd agree that there's not a whole lot to be done about that. My sense was that the writer's colleague was a little worse than that, though. Maybe I'm wrong.
I'm with Peter and Pi. Come study at my school, Anonymous! and bring all your thinking friends and colleagues with you!

I don't promise not to be boring, though...

Pi, I took the initial problem to be "not very good" rather than "abusive" or damaging. I agree that even a junior faculty member should talk to a chair or mentor about another faculty member who's abusive or damaging.

My graduate department had as its graduate advisor for MANY years someone who regularly sexually harrassed female students. Students complained to their professors, but were basically told it wasn't their business to do anything, same for the chair. But in that case, it really IS one's business.
New Correspondent wishes to help a colleague to
"become a better teacher" and increase her colleague's degree of "happiness". These fervent wishes are based on a perceived degree of "unhappiness" in the colleague's students.

Unhappiness is measured by:
a) more students fail the colleague's class
b) the text book is....something.

Is New Correspondent kidding?

My colleague has the same problem.
Her selected textbook is "not good".
Other teachers give "better grades".
"Due today" doesn't mean tomorrow.
Students want to know how to get into
the "easy class", and want me to offer opinions about my colleague perceived toughness to reinforce their decision to "just take it online"

(but that's a separate rant.........)

But....she is highly professional, vastly competent in her subject (anatomy and physiology), an interesting and funny lecturer, and an asset in all ways to our small community college math and science department.

Sounds like she "isn't very good" either.

I guess all the nursing students who grew up
with their Talking Anatomy-Barbie saying
"Physiology is hard!!!"
need to have me intervene and attempt to increase someone's happiness in a compensatory manner.

Strange how the "A" students rave about my colleague, though. Guess they are just happy people.
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