Thursday, October 25, 2007


Bad Job, But Not Malpractice

Sherman Dorn has a thoughtful post up about the difficulties institutions have in dealing with faculty instructional practices that aren't quite enough to get someone fired, but that do result in lousy teaching and valid student complaints. As his post points out – it's worth reading in the original – most of the 'official' policies and procedures deal only with the 'bright line' issues, like “thou shalt not sexually harass thy students.” Issues that aren't as obvious as that one often slip between policies, so deans and such often have to make up responses on the spot.

This is a very real issue.

Any time I'm confronted with a novel situation, I have to balance the uniqueness of the situation with the likelihood that any decision I make will be cited as “past practice” in some future argument. The conflict between 'solving the immediate issue' and 'setting a dangerous precedent' is chronic, and frustrating, and, at some level, inescapable. But a more developed set of policies that would at least put tighter boundaries around no-man's-land would certainly reduce my headaches.

I'll give a purely hypothetical example that would never ever happen at my current college where everybody is practically perfect in every way.

Professor X, who has tenure, routinely takes six weeks to grade papers. By the time the students get their midterm papers back, the 'drop' deadline has already passed. Students who had no idea how they were doing in the class didn't find out they were in trouble until it was too late to escape.

I ask Professor X to return the papers in a more timely fashion. He screams “academic freedom,” threatens to file grievance #478, and storms out of my office spreading rumors about me and farm animals.

Or, I ask the chair of X's department to have that conversation. The chair balks, asking what good it will do, since Prof. X has tenure. I say we have to try. A week later, the chair reports trying, failure, and grievance #479. Now, not only is Prof. X on the warpath, but the chair is feeling put-upon, too.

Or, I tell the students to suck it up.

From my perspective, none of these is acceptable.

In the fantasy world in which some people live, it would be possible to 'coach' Prof. X to better performance. In the presence of renewable contracts and merit raises, that could actually be done, with raises and/or renewal contingent on improved performance. But with tenure, and without merit pay, there isn't much in the way of leverage for dealing with offenses that fall below the level of termination. If Prof. X doesn't feel like listening, I can't make him.

This is where I think Dorn's proposal of more rigorous peer review falls flat. What incentive would a peer have to take on somebody disagreeable? Depending on the mechanism of the review, the peer might not know about the slow-motion grading, since, in practice, peer review often consists of a single class observation. Even if the peer actually did know, and actually did have the integrity and intestinal fortitude to say so, any peer fault-finding – by definition – won't be much more than he said/she said. At which point we're right back where we started.

To make matters worse, suppose that the accusation is of repeated, lengthy digressions that have nothing to do with the subject matter. I'll take politics out of it, and stipulate that the digressions are about the professor's favorite football team. Suppose that it's a chemistry class, and the professor spends more time on the Green Bay Packers than on chemistry.

Will a single class visit catch that? Almost certainly not – anybody competent can behave for an hour, just as anybody can obey the speed limit when the police car is in the rear view. Will the politically aggrieved catch it? Not likely – it's not a hot-button issue. Is it an abuse of the classroom? Yup.

It's tough, because there's no 'bright line' rule about digressions (and there probably can't be). I'd guess that anybody who has taught for any length of time has gone off on something unrelated at least once. I'll even concede that a little of that, carefully and sparingly done, can serve a purpose. So Prof. X here will claim that he hasn't said anything obscene or harassing – which is true – and that he's not the first to digress, which is also true. How do I show that my threshold, which isn't even quantitative, is reasonable? And what do I say to the students, who complain that Prof. X rushes through the material at the end to make up for the time he wasted?

Invoking “professionalism” or “individual responsibility” doesn't get the job done; if Prof. X had any of either, these issues wouldn't arise in the first place.

Rather than making this post #480 in my ongoing series on the evils of tenure, I'll ask for solutions within a tenure-based system. How would you handle the tenured professor who would rather discuss Brett Favre than his course's subject matter?

Your post today is eerily similar to one that I personally experienced. In my case, critical details regarding one of the program's requirements were not provided until very late in the game. More specifically, certain information was not communicated until the end of a particular class, well beyond the time a student could drop the class. Therefore the clock started ticking with regard to completing the requirement in a specific timeframe. Doing this has proved difficult if not impossible due to other logistical considerations, also not fully explained until later on. However, by this point it is too late to turn back or at least make better/different choices, in order to proceed successfully.

Unfortunately this has had very real and significant consequences for many, many students, not just a couple here and there. So far it seems that most of them, as you say, have just had to suck it up, however to the tune of thousands of dollars, to retake a particular class in order to at least have something to show for the great deal of time, effort and thousands of dollars in tuition having already invested in the overall program.

From the student's perspective the administration apparently stands by and does little or nothing to intervene in order to rectify or improve the situation.

However, you seem to be saying that administration's hands are pretty much tied in addressing this type of a situation.

I can tell you that's very distressing to hear!
I have less of an answer than a continuation of the complaint. I remember one older tenured male professor who got bad evaluations every semester about his course. Students complained that he was unclear: in his assignments, his lectures, and his "clarifications." Worse yet, he was unbelieveably sexist and racist, voicing a paternalism that grew more unbearable every day. His response? Oh, the topic was challenging to students and they would realize all they had learned later in their lives. So, the evaluations didn't count and were easily dismissed.

The administration talked to him, but nothing could be done. He knew the truth of the matter, and evaluations and feedback be damned.

And while I would criticize his interpretation, one might argue that there are other classes, with other teachers, where I think that kind of interpretation could be correct. It is challenging business.

While people make fun of professors and say all we want is to be liked by students, perhaps that is sometimes useful! At least, if you pander to get higher student evals, you might actually be trying to teach and reach your students. Of course, not if your pandering is spending 20 minutes handicapping the football team with the class. Sigh. Hard to know.
"How would you handle the tenured professor who would rather discuss Brett Favre than his course's subject matter?"

Peer pressure and the appearance of collegiality. I would surmise that "top-down" pressure would, as DD suggests, elicit professorial mulishness.

But (pace the institutional culture at a given school), I have observed that colleagues' observation and mediated commentary on a professor's classroom management can have a behavioral impact which upper administration's remonstrances may not. At our institution, we have a triennial post-tenure review--once every three years, tenured faculty are reviewed in a fashion roughly similar to the tenuring process (observation, student evaluations, research & service tally, etc). These post-tenure reviews essentially have no immediate consequence, except in the case of an individual who is seeking "full" rank.

But even in the absence of a direct carrot-and-stick, the observation and commentary by faculty peers tends to elicit positive effort from the person reviewed. Maybe it's just ego, or the contrasting collegial versus supervisor/supervisee relationship, but, typically, senior professors tend to pay more attention to critical feedback from other professors than from upper-administration.

Even in the absence of a formalized post-tenure review, is it possible to build in some permutation of such peer observation & review?

Could you institute a practicum for graduate students, as a product of which students training to be teachers could be scheduled to guest-observe senior faculty's teaching? I've observed that even observation by a junior-not-yet-colleague (grad student) can push seniors to clean up their acts.

Could you turn the tables, and put the problematic person(s) in a moderated situation as a mentor? I'm thinking of a twice-monthly "teaching round-table", or maybe brown-bag lunch, during which faculty members could be asked to give of their wisdom in response to students' questions and commentary? Stick the problematic person up in front of an audience and ask him/her to describe what makes for effective classroom- and topic-management. Sometimes the best way to approach an individual's professional errors can be to present him/her the opportunity to discourse on professional ideals: this can sometimes force introspection.

Summary: it's about people management, and self-image management (and the address to and modification of these) more than it's about supervision. And that means it probably comes better from peers or juniors, and probably indirectly.

Maybe I just don't get the situation fully, but so what if the prof files a grievance against you? Isn't that the nature of the beast? Doesn't being in admin mean that someone is angry at you pretty much all the time? Not saying it's pleasant or fair, but isn't that basically the deal?
Different schools, different cultures. We have apost-tnure review process with teeth. If a faculty member receives an "unaccpetable" rating two years in a row in any of the evaluation categories (teaching, research/creative activities, service), s/he trggers a post-tenure review process. The purpose of the process is to remedy the problem. If that remediation fails, the professor can lose his/her tenured appointment and be fired.

This process was developed jointly by the faculty and the administration, and agreed to by the faculty. (We're not a unionized institution, btw.) One consequence is that, at least at my campus (multi-campus institution), faculty performance has improved and no one has yet triggered the process.

Now, this does require that the relevant administrators (chairs, deans) do their jobs, and if they don't--they don't want to appear to be being nasty, for example, then the process is toothless.
Do you have end-of-semester reviews by students? At my SLAC, at the very end of each class there was a mandatory review period. The professor handed out the forms, designated someone to turn them in to the registrar, and then left the room so they couldn't see what was being written.

There were three forms (minimum) given out.

One was a standardized scan-tron-y sheet that asked students to rate how they thought they did in the class, how they thought the class compared to other classes at the school (too much work, not enough work, too much reading, not enough reading, etc.), and how the professor did on a number of axes (preparedness for class, familiarity with the material, respect for students, prompt grading, and some others that I can't remember). That one was mandatory and anonymous, though it did contain demographic information about the gender, age, and academic level (how many semesters spent at the college) of the student.

The second was also mandatory and semi-anonymous (since it was hand-written, and the professor eventually saw it, there was a certain amount of identification that could be possible). It asked more open-ended questions about the course. What did you like best about it? What did you like least about it? Do you have any suggestions for change or improvement? (and maybe one that I'm forgetting, but I think it might just be those three.)

The third was optional, and went to the Committee on Advancement and Tenure. It was a very open-ended prompt... something along the lines of "is there anything you want the Committee on Advancement and Tenure to know about this professor? Remember, everything you say here is reviewed and taken seriously by this committee."

It was a good system, since it ensured that information about the professor went to pretty much every source that could help. The administration got numbers on professorial performance and specific (and usually detailed) feedback on everything they did, the professors got direct feedback on each specific class, and the committee got to hear from every student that was pissed off or elated by their professor.

From your end, of course, you'd need to implement some kind of mechanism to give it teeth. (I think our CAT was the teeth, in our case... even tenured people need raises, occasionally.) My first thought was about hours, actually... if he's screwing up his teaching hours, then make him do hours of something else. (Ask for more research, bust him down to teaching intro classes, give him more advisees, etc.) Which, I think, probably directly contradicts the whole 'tenure' business.

Alternately, you could try the 'assistance' route. If he's a slow grader, assign him a TA to do the grading. (If you don't want to pay for it, you can always give volunteer hours, course credit, or some other incentive.) If he digresses a lot, make that TA an adjunct or 'co-lecturer,' preferably one with actual material to give.

Of course, then you'd face an issue where people who didn't want to do their grading might go this route, but... I don't know how likely that is.

At the draconian policy end of the solution spectrum, you could just require that every course have at least one assignment on-books (and therefore available from counselors/advisors/registrars, if not directly from the professor) before the drop deadline. Most courses would pass effortlessly, and for the few that wouldn't (those that, say, were of the 'two big essays and nothing else' variety) would probably still be able to do it pretty easily (a one-page journal entry, an in-cass oral presentation about the previous night's reading, whatever). If a course doesn't have at least one assignment by then, it can't count as a real course, or whatever. (That is, it has to at least be on whatever pre-submitted material required in order for you to be satisfactorily convinced that it is a class, and not just a waste of time.)

I can really sympathize with the problem, though... if largely from the other side. The only course I ever failed was a high-level Philosophy course where the professor loved to pick on people (and, granted, most of them loved it... but I hated it, and was terrified of him and had a very hard time dealing with the course), and where he was kind of unclear about what was needed. I did okay (passing, at least) on the two tests, but couldn't produce even a line of the final essay (which was partially my fault for not talking to him more, but partially also a result of the way the class was set up. I couldn't come up with a topic that would satisfy him, and he refused to give any help on it that would have made sense to me), and thus 'automatically' failed the course. Only... I don't remember there being anything said about that.

Ah well. One learns.
As magniloquence says, "Ah well. One learns."

I don't want to argue that laissez faire is acceptable, but we've all suffered through more than one bad teacher, and we managed to survive relatively whole. We're imperfect people living in an imperfect world, and no system is going to work every time and all the time.

At my unionized SoCal CC (if it hassn't burned down yet), a possible scenario involving someone who doesn't hand back student work in a timely fashion could go something like this.

Given numerous student complaints, the Dean could go to the college President who could initiate an out-of-sequence evaluation. If Professor X were judged to "Need Improvement," he'd be frozen on his current salary step and wouldn't get another step raise (which is worth $2000/year) until he improved. Of course, if X is already at the top of the salary schedule, a negative evaluation wouldn't have any financial impact.

If this were the case, and I were an administrator and not a union guy, I'd say something like this to X: "Our collective bargaining agreement--the rules that we all agree to work by--specifies a 35 hour work week. That means 15 hours in the classroom, 15 hours for preparation and grading, and 5 office hours every week. Because you're doing very little grading, you're in violation of the contract and are liable for discipline up to and including suspension and dismissal."

Sure, X could file a grievance--but that's one way to get this kind of problem resolved. I've been the grievance chair at my school for 15 years, and I'd tell X that the college President was correct, that students have a right to timely feedback from their teachers, that grading is part of his job, that his behavior is absurdly easy for management to document, that the union will represent him through the grievance procecure including binding arbitration, but I couldn't imagine that an arbitrator would see anything differently. Then I'd put X in touch with the absolutely expert legal representation our statewide organization provides, and they'd tell him the same thing all over again.

X would either start grading papers, or he'd get fired.

Tape the following and put them on YouTube:

1) The professor going into Brent Favre at length.

2) Your conversation with the professor about grading papers.

Then link to both from the online course description when the professor's name is mentioned.

Okay, fraught with peril and totally undoable, but having some way for students to have information would seem the best approach.
For the record...

My subject is Math, not Chemistry, and I rarely spend more than about 1/3 of any given lecture talking about the Packers. (OK, a little more during the season, but that's only one semester per year.)

Since this was an example mentioned...

How long are instructors allowed to take to grade papers? Six weeks seems a bit long [but then again, we don't know how long the papers were]. Some of my students seem to think I'm supposed to grade 50 3-page papers in 2 days...

I write in the syllabus that I will take up to 2 weeks to grade, which seems to be a standard. But, well, syllabus policies are routinely ignored by many undergrads [and over-ruled by administration when a student complains].

Last Spring, I was sick and took one extra week to grade. So, I took 3 weeks to grade the rough draft of a paper for which the largest majority of the students didn't even meet the minimum page limit [since when is 2 pages a good draft for a 5-7 page paper???].

Some students complained I took too long. I suspect it was primarily the students who expected to get their 2-pagers back with feedback before finishing the final version for 1.5 weeks later. What did they do for the intervening 3 weeks?

This is my problem with student evaluations. Many [not most...some are quite insightful and articulate] students are unqualified to evaluate pedagogy. In any instance of an accusation of instructor malfeasance, it would be remiss for an administration to take the word of students without making their own personal, professional observation and investigation.
I don't really think it's about hard numbers so much as it is about consequences. If your students don't get any feedback at all before the drop date, that can cause huge problems for students (like, say, myself in the earlier example; although I had gotten some feedback by then, I given the information that I needed to know whether I should stay in the class until well after the course was over. I didn't even hear it from the professor; I heard it from my advisor, who had talked to the professor since the grade was out of character for me.).

If you assign work and the students need your feedback in order to proceed with the next part of their project, but don't get it back in a timely manner, then that causes problems. I know that I would be unlikely to do any serious editing or additional work after turning in a draft for grading, since I wouldn't know what a professor would want. It seems a reasonable assumption that a professor will give you back your work in time to make the next logical step.

Obviously, this varies by class and by professor. I had professors who were extremely slow graders (in that way that meant that papers got mailed back to you after the term ended, rather than being given to you at any point during the class), and it wasn't a big problem (okay, it was slightly awkward), since we got feedback in other ways, and the papers weren't necessary to other work.

I've also had professors who, rain or shine, returned all work graded in detail the next day of classes (which was usually every other day)... whether it was a one-page problem set, an unquantifiable data set (the course I'm thinking of was a Statistics course, for this one... so it was stuff like "assemble a data set using the Census and these subscriptions, then set up some relationships and run regressions, so we can talk in class tomorrow."), or multi-page papers. (I hear teaching at a very small school works wonders for this; when none of your classes exceed 20 or 30 students, you can get a lot more grading in.)

Both of these modes (and anything in between) are fine... as long as there is consistency, transparency, some planning involved. Professors need time to grade (and have personal lives that don't involve grading), and students need to have feedback and time enough to prepare for their next steps. I'm pretty sure Dean Dad's job only really gets headachey when those two things are wildly out of balance.
My question would be, "what can you do?" For example, administrators at my CC have the right of assignment, and if one of my instructors consistently took a very long time to return papers, I would have to ask myself if they might need to teach a different course or if s/he needed not to teach the overload coure s/he was requesting. And if I'm asking myself such questions, I would tell faculty that they really don't want to force administration into such actions by putting off their responsibilities.

Again, though, this depends on your relationship with specific individuals. For some, the above action would be enough to effect behavior changes. For others, more formal action might be necessary.
"Some students complained I took too long. I suspect it was primarily the students who expected to get their 2-pagers back with feedback before finishing the final version for 1.5 weeks later. What did they do for the intervening 3 weeks?"

What did they do? Probably the work for their other classes. If I were in a class and the professor asked for a draft of my paper, I'd expect feedback before I did further work. What else, I would reason, is turning in draft for, if not to get feedback? For that reason, I might turn in a two page draft for a five page paper, figuring that if I were on the wrong track entirely I shouldn't write the entire paper.

Obviously you have a different conception of the purpose of turning in the draft. Perhaps you want to make sure that the students start the paper in a timely manner, or perhaps you want to verify that the work is indeed the students' and not plagiarized. I think you should make this clear to students beforehand. Let them know that they have to turn in drafts, but they shouldn't expect any feedback.
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