Monday, January 09, 2006

 

It Goes Without Saying

I’m beginning to think that much of the conflict I see at work (and in politics, for that matter) comes from different conceptions of what goes without saying.

For example: what constitutes ‘lateness’ for an assignment? As a teacher, I’d say that if a paper is due in class on Monday, it’s due at the beginning of class on Monday. Students will frequently interpret ‘due in class’ as ‘due by the end of class,’ so if they saunter in 45 minutes late they’re still okay.

As a rookie teacher, I didn’t even say ‘due in class.’ I just gave a due date. 11:59 p.m. submissions quickly cured me of that habit.

Within a few semesters, I learned to enumerate all kinds of things on syllabi that I had always assumed everybody already knew: plagiarism is forbidden, late work carries a defined penalty, x number of absences will hurt your grade by x amount, etc. I wasn’t the kind of student for whom these policies were relevant, so I didn’t give them much thought, initially, as a teacher.

From the dean’s office, I encourage faculty to make certain ground rules and assumptions explicit in their syllabi and/or assignment handouts, just to prevent students from claiming that they didn’t know. It works, to a point. But you can’t prevent every wacky interpretation or bizarre assumption, and it’s unrealistic to think that you could.

When the ‘goes without saying’ stuff gets challenged, people are often dumbstruck. It hasn’t occurred to them that challenges were realistically possible, so they haven’t bothered thinking through arguments. I think that much of the vitriol in our politics comes from different conceptions of what goes without saying. Take health care. To a conservative, it’s simply obvious that the ‘moral hazard’ of insurance raises costs, since it insulates consumers from the true cost of what they’re buying. Therefore, if you want to reduce health care costs, you have to make people more sensitive to those costs by making them pay more. Besides, it goes without saying that the government screws everything up, anyway. To a liberal, it’s obvious beyond argument that the American system covers fewer people (by percentage), at higher cost, than any other system in the world; any theory that fails to acknowledge that simple fact of life is not to be taken seriously. Besides, it goes without saying that the market is based on voluntary exchange, and nobody volunteers to get sick. Therefore, the market model is inapplicable, and anyone who says different is either heartless or a moron.

It’s possible to reconstruct rationality after running into the brick wall of goes-without-saying, but it takes good faith and patience on both sides. That’s asking a lot, especially when people can build lucrative careers out of short-circuiting rational argument.

At my college, due to low turnover over the years, there are some goes-without-saying’s that need to change. Since many who work here haven’t figured that out yet, they get upset beyond measure when I challenge one of them. As far as they’re concerned, I’m arguing that gravity doesn’t exist, or that oxygen is overrated. In fact, I’m arguing that the world has changed, whether they’ve noticed or not. They haven’t, so they aren’t terribly inclined to listen. Some folks find it easier just to fall back on ad hominem attacks; they’ve had a lot of practice, and it’s easier than thinking.

Grumble.

It goes without saying that the combination of tenure and ‘faculty governance’ creates a ‘moral hazard’ of the first order; senior faculty, who have the most power, have the least at stake in any decisions made. They’re insulated (bulletproof, really), since even sustained decline won’t cost them their jobs. The folks who would be the most hurt by our failure to grow – prospective hires – don’t even have a seat at the table. So there’s a built-in, structural bias against change, much more so than in other kinds of organizations. Some rational, far-sighted types are capable of seeing beyond their own immediate self-interest, but that will almost never be a majority.

I’m struggling with ways to reach the folks who are, in many ways, immune to the dangers I see the college facing. To them, it goes without saying that managers justify their paychecks with asinine, pointless projects, and that smart faculty avoid buying in. To me, it goes without saying that continued enrollment decline jeopardizes everything the college could otherwise achieve, and that doing more of the same pretty much guarantees more of the same.

Round and round we go. How hard can it possibly be...?

Comments:
somewhat off topic, but we had one of those moments yesterday...
my kids were not raised in snow country. they hadn't even seen it except up in the mountains until we moved here a few years ago. So I guess they don't have that inherent understanding (it goes without saying) that EVERY snowflake is different.

my daughter thought I was crazy. How could I believe something like that?

And neither of us could yield.
 
I like the post. It's interesting, and it frames the issues well. As a faculty member, I get tired of being hectored and badgered by administration to specify x on syllabus or to announce blah or check for specified mountain of dung. I'm also tired of inappropriate attempts to quantify and evaluate the unquantifiable, especially since the prose in which Initiative of The Paniced Minute is conveyed is a stilted patois blending social science, euphemism, business cliches, and bureaucratese. It also is often out of touch with what we see in the classroom.

However, I also try to remember that the audience for much if this stuff is not me but legislatures, accrediting bodies, and grant providers, who seem to thrive on this verbal porridge.

I also need to remember your remark about being the type of student who didn't need the "it goes without saying" to be said. I am the type of faculty member who doesn't need the hectoring, but apparently some do. (By the way..on a digression...we should not abandon the "it goes without saying" in the student realm. Plagiarizing is wrong without the need for a statement, especially since you almost certainly have an honor code. Students know they cannot copy, which is why they never go so far as to tell you that they did copy and, when confronted, their first reaction is to deny. I have colleagues who insist that students sign the syllabus, as the rules are not enough....That strips students of responsibility).

I'd like some more information about the declining enrollment issues and how you are tackling them. We have had stable enrollment in my institution, and we are only going to grow, but I am in Florida, a growth state. What figures are you looking at? Have you created an enrollment management committee? Have you looked at scheduling options (minimesters, etc.), online programs, employer surveys? I'd like to learn more about what cc's are doing when they face these problems.

Peter
 
And this is why my syllabi have 7 pages of clarifications on late policies, plagiarism, outcomes and their assessment ...

not that anyone reads it all, but there it is.
 
7 pages, wow.
 
And I have four pages..all counterproductive, since all we do then tends to be construed as so much blather.
 
yeah ... I give a quiz on the syllabus. Hate it, but there you are.
 
a quiz on the syllabus - brilliant!
 
Great article and insights.

I'm another culprit for having syllabi, 20% of which is about the course and 80% of which goes into microscopic detail of terms like "plagiarism" and "late work". These days, putting in ridiculously detailed clarifications of what "academic dishonesty" means and so forth isn't just a good idea -- it's the law. It's certainly not unheard of or unimaginable for a student to sue the college for having been punished for academic dishonesty, and the only defense against such a suit is a paper trail, which hinges on the syllabus.

Of course the college itself can help the faculty out by making standard definitions of important campus-wide concepts like "academic honesty" which are detailed, understandable, and easily referenced in syllabi.
 
Robert:

That's where the honor code comes in: if the college has a code, then it applies across all classes. It should define prohibited conduct. I really prefer that method since it says "These are common standards of ethical behavior; we are not going to haggle over them." By the way, in a past life, I was a practicing lawyer, and I helped wrote our honor code and procedures, but I don't like the idea of signed syllabi. Sigh...but I do the quiz on the syllabus and include definitions of late work too....
 
Great blog I hope we can work to build a better health care system as we are in a major crisis and health insurance is a major aspect to many.
 
The syllabus stuff aside, the faculty governance issue is absolutely true; if some form of post-tenure review is implemented, untenured faculty should be included on the evaluating committees. Frankly, they should be included on Tenure/Promotion committees, too, but the old guild structure doesn't allow it.
 
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