Tuesday, January 23, 2007

 

Ask the Administrator: Standard Syllabi

A new correspondent writes:

One of my neighbors was hired to teach two courses
as an adjunct at a very large 2-year college. Three days
before the semester began the dean sent her syllabi for the
courses. Of course my neighbor had prepared her own syllabi--but
was told by the dean that she had to use the standardized syllabi
provided by the college. These allow for different book
selections but every other aspect ---grading scale, exams, learning
goals, assignments--- is set by the college. She lost the job
when she declined to use the standardized syllabi. I've never heard of
this before. Has anyone else? Are the terms of academic
freedom set by individual institutions?

It's a great question, but it needs to be addressed carefully. I see it as two questions: is this legal, and is this a good idea? I'd answer 'yes' and 'it depends,' respectively.

Colleges routinely construct course sequences with prerequisites built-in, so that somebody teaching, say, Calculus II has a pretty good idea of what the students will bring with them from Calculus 1. One way that many colleges ensure the relevance of the prereqs is by being very prescriptive about their content. If Calc 1 is whatever any given professor says it is, then students will enter Calc II with wildly varying levels of preparation, independent of their own ability and effort.

Standard syllabi give departments a relatively easy way to ensure that different sections are covering substantially the same material, even allowing for differences in personality or style among instructors. In my experience, this has been relatively common practice in disciplines like math, certain sciences, and foreign languages.

From a legal perspective, I believe the college is on solid ground. The Supreme Court addressed the issue of academic freedom in the Bakke case in 1978, ruling that colleges – note the term – have the right to determine what shall be taught, and how it shall be taught. (Note that it did not say 'individual professors.') If a given college decides that, say, Composition 1 shall consist of five graded papers, it is within its rights to do so.

(I've written before on standard textbooks for given courses, taking the position that they can be a good idea. I got flamed pretty good for that, which is fine, but it strikes me as the kind of decision that should be made on local and pragmatic grounds, rather than theological ones. I don't believe that a college is overstepping its bounds legally in saying 'this is our textbook for General Psych.' Whether a given choice makes sense in a given case is a different issue.)

Because something is legal doesn't necessarily mean that it's wise. In many cases, it may be wiser for a college (or, more frequently, an academic department) to set the 'learning goals' for a given course, then leave it to the instructor to figure out how to meet them. This is probably particularly true once you get beyond the freshman/101 level. One of the quirks of knowledge workers, as opposed to some other kinds of workers, is that you can get better results from (most of) them by not managing them too closely. I've observed professors doing things in class that never would have occurred to me, but that worked. I'm counting on them to innovate that way, to come up with methods for engaging and educating students that make sense for their own teaching styles, disciplines, and students.

(Folks who have taught at multiple institutions, as I have, may also notice that an exercise that works like gangbusters at college A falls flat at college B. It takes a semester or two, in my experience, to get the feel of the local culture.)

Certainly, I've seen some cases of unwise prescription. Since I left Proprietary U, friends there have told me that everybody teaching Contemporary Literature has to use the same novels. This strikes me as insane, since the point of the class is not to be a historical survey, but instead to be an introduction to literary analysis. I'd much rather let each professor pick the novels with which she can do the best job. But that's a judgment call, as opposed to a legal requirement. I think PU is being stupid, but it isn't breaking any law.

I hate to hear of someone losing a job over this kind of thing, but I don't think the college was out of bounds in defining its own courses as it saw fit.

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


Comments:
The adjunct was provided with "grading scale, exams, learning goals, assignments" Egads! What's next? A script? Product placement? It isn't clear what type of course was on deck for the prof, but composition courses especially benefit from allowing the prof room to explore the class dynamic and adjust as the class evolves. Making adjustments on the fly is often critical in helping a class realize its potential. Making a prof march in lockstep to the dictates of a committee is feeblemined, at best. At worst, it sets a dangerous precedent. Departments may certainly suggest texts, ask that profs adhere to certain types of assignments (personal narrative, analysis, compare/contrast, MLA, etc.),and even provide a guiding syllabi for profs hired the night before the class. But taking imagination out of the classroom is straight out of the corporate rulebook. The funny part is that too often the poobahs who hatch these grand plans seldom follow up with profs on the front lines to see what works in order to make proper adjustments. Maybe as long as it looks good on paper. But good for DD for letting me do my job as I see fit.
 
If you are provided with all of that ("grading scale..." etc) you aren't teaching, you are delivering content much like a Teaching Assistant does. You have all of the responsibility and none of the freedom - nuts to that!

I teach at two Unis. At one I have carte blanch in terms of the syllabus, what I teach and how. At the other I have a little less freedom in that there are some texts that are 'traditionally' taught, but if we (the teaching team, 2 instructors and TAs as needed) wanted to teach the same concepts with different texts no one would really mind. I have some restrictions, for instance you can't dock for lateness above 5% per day and the final exam can't constitute a certain percentage of the total grade, but mostly it is up to the individual instructor.

At both Unis we are given a portion of the syllabus that remains the same from course to course; all of the standard Uni stuff about plagiarism etc. That seems reasonable to me, and it saves me from writing it up myself.
 
My department (math) has standardized syllabi for most of the low-level classes, especially the courses that serve as pre-reqs. We started doing this in response to problems that we were having. To limit the amount of time spent grading, some of our novice instructors didn't assign any homework and didn't give any quizzes in remedial classes. The "two midterms and a final" model is not one that leads to improved student success in Intermediate Algebra. (Secret message to the administration: the math department is doing something to address the problems with low rates of student success!) We had widely divergent grading schemes in precalc: in what was nominally the same class, the same level of performance might be worth very different letter grades in different sections.

Currently the rule is that you have to use the official departmental syllabus if you are a grad student, a fairly new adjunct, or have not successfully taught the class before.
 
The biggest problem I see here is more of a courtesy problem. Why didn't someone tell the adjunct in advance that there was a standard syllabus? I'd be pretty darn annoyed if I had prepped my own syllabus just to find out three days before the class that I had done all that work in vain.
 
I can see the warrants for a standard syllabus, especially since the book sections weren't included. Many places I've taught have said that my course was "writing intensive" which serves to dictate assessment methods to a certain extent... I could have more than X number of revised papers -- but I had to have that. Other places have had common texts, also a reasonable expectation. They also said that X time needs to be spent in Y period... also reasonable for a class that is part of the core curriculum.

I suppose that the non-hired instructor would find out that the standard syllabus was created so as to satisfy college requirements and probably to deliver the course outline as passed by a curriculum committee at the college. Since it was at a CC, there may also be transfer agreements to consider.

I'm all for academic freedom and letting knowledge workers do what they do best -- but, it also is the case that if a course is often taught by over-worked and underpaid adjuncts, it should have a standard syllabus to make sure that the requirements are met for every student.
 
I never feel more exploited as an adjunct than when I am preparing syllabuses. Why? Well, to quote Beckett, because "it's human, a lobster couldn't do it."
 
Slightly off-topic, but I just have to say that as an instructor, I hate using textbooks to teach. They're dull to read, which can quell interest, and too often they're written poorly and approach the material in a way I can most courteously describe as "bush-league." Thus, far, I haven't been forced to use one, but we'll see...
 
Agreed that the syllabus issue should have been mentioned at the outset. But I've got no problems with the rest. I can see good reasons to set a standard syllabus as you've described for adjuncts. Yes, it sucks for the adjunct, but I think it's in the students' interests. It's also not clear whether all faculty teaching comp have to teach to the same syllabus. I'm willing to bet they do. I think there can be plenty of standardization without giving up academic freedom.

My department just decided that we would set some basic standards and requirements for each level of course -- nothing really stringent, but x number of pages of reading and writing, number of exams, etc. It helps us all stay on the same page in terms of what we want our students to achieve and also helps to avoid the impression that some faculty require substantially more work than others.

I should say that much of my opinion might be affected by the fact that some of my closest friends are academics in the UK, where exams are normally read by 2-3 readers (often including ourside readers from other institutions), and course content and standards are generally decisions born of consensus.

These friends are not threatened by interaction in the way that I think many US academics are.

On the point of departmental textbooks? One CC where I taught mandated them, and chose to use a given book for three years at a time, or until a new edition came out. This was primarily a financial decision -- using the same textbook means more used books and lower prices for the students. But it also guaranteed that adjuncts would be teaching something pretty much like what FT faculty were teaching and helped make transitions easier.
 
I agree with disenchanted--- why didn't the professor know a syllabus was coming? If that was the school's process, the dean should have made that clear up front.

And I agree with second line-- leaving the responsibility to an adjunct to develop syllabi is not fair to the adjunct who will receive no compensation for their time spent.

A good standardized course plan delivered by the college to adjunct should leave enough flexibility for the instructor to use their own teaching style. There should be room for on the fly adjustments. There is a lot of gray area between an outline of what needs to be covered for the course and step-by-step choreography of what to cover and how. The college's attempt to standardize the curriculum is really just that--a basic, laudable attempt. Because professorial styles will still vary, students will not receive the exact same instruction, but the standard syllabus can be a starting step to ensure that all students receive comparable instruction. The course should be designed in a way the prepares students for the rest of the program's curriculum, and most newly hired adjuncts would not be attuned to how their course fits into the rest of the program.
 
The part of the story I find most amazing is that they were ready to can the adjunct with only three days available to find a replacement. I wonder what they did!
 
I can certainly see setting some standards across the board, but I've seen cases of this going too far. I have a friend who taught the U.S. history survey course at a CC last year, and she had essentially no freedom. She was not allowed to assign any readings outside of the textbook (so NO primary sources) and she was not allowed to assign papers...only a midterm and a final. She also had to focus on lecture and not on discussion. For her (and for me too), a big part of our job as instructors/historians is to help students construct a sound historical argument, and that makes paper writing necessary. She had only wanted to assign two very (3 pgs.) short papers in addition to the exams, and she had originally wanted to assign around one brief primary source per week, so it wasn't like she had an overwhelming reading load. I have a difficult time understanding how her institution expected their students to get anything out of the history course, if all they were doing was listening to lectures and reading a generic textbook. What makes history come alive (pardon the trite expression) is to read documents created by the same historical figures you are learning about in lecture and discussion. Needless to say, my friend left after a year...I think in the case the CC took it too far.
 
There's a strong argument for the department mandating some of the content of the syllabus. There's no reason I should have a different official policy on plagiarism than the rest of my colleagues, or on whether and how missed assignments/exams can be made up. The learning goals for service courses or courses that are prerequisites for others should be set by the department. They're the reason the department offers those courses. There's much to be said (in the social sciences and sciences) for common textbooks and, where there are a lot of sections taught by scratch faculty, common exams. This commonality can be agreed or imposed. Imposition has the merit of requiring fewer meetings.

But some things are intrinsic to teaching style. Some of us a behaviouralists and use (points towards) grades as rewards for right conduct, behaviour that facilitates learning. Others are judges: grades reflect only achievement. Some of us stress individual aspects of our subject through many short papers; others want to stress its unity and assign a single long paper.

I do wonder, too, why the standard syllabus came from the dean.
 
Jim... the syllabus more than likely came from the dean because, in many CCs, the dean acts as department chairs do at other schools.
 
I've taught history and geography classes at a CC with a set syllabus, textbook, "learning goals," and part of the final exam. It worked like a charm because the faculty, including adjuncts who cared, got together at intervals (once or more a semester), suggested changes, and reworked things for the next semester.

But I was told that this was how things worked at my first interview, and given a copy of the current version of one of the syllabi to see if I felt I could work with it. If it weren't for the crisis of losing the income for teaching two classes, and at the very last minute, I'd say that the adjunct in this case is well out of a bad situation. Three days notice? That's a clear sign that important information is not being communicated.
 
Its not just adjuncts. At our CC, every person (ft or adjunct) teaching a certain math class gets the same pacing with an expectation that most all of it will be followed so the kids are not totally screwed in their next math class.

It also ensures that the course matches the master syllabus that details the hidden meaning of the catalog description.
 
Having had to spend over 1/3 of a course teaching material that should have been taught in the pre-requisite course, but was omitted because the instructor decided that a standard curriculum isn't for them, I sympathize with the dean.

(I nearly failed undergraduate chemistry myself, because one teacher didn't pace a prerequisite course correctly and ended up omitting the last 1/4 of it -- which was organic chem. Having to catch up two months of instruction in a weekend, on my own, turned out to be impossible; I didn't really catch up until the week before the final exam. Not a fun experience...)
 
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