Tuesday, November 06, 2007


Murder By Numbers

A new correspondent writes:

So here it is: I teach (adjunct) Anthropology and Cultural "Survey" at a local art college that awards a BA in Visual Communication. I taught Anthro. last semester, and it was well received by both students and faculty (they asked me back.) We have a new "academic advisor", who has decided that all syllabi will follow his "meta-chart", including course content, goals, learning objectives. The problem is...there is no Anthro. committee or other faculty. This advisor teaches Design, and has never taken an Anthro class in his life.

The meta-chart, which I am expected to use verbatum (sic) has verbage in it that is not only unprofessional (ie. misuse of anthro terms, etc.), but inaccurate, and (truth be told, badly written.) I cannot in good conscience...or professional ethic..use this stuff.

Briefly: I've been in this business for over 30 years. I have excellent degrees from (prestigious places). In other words, I've been around the academic block.

I have tried the diplomatic approach. So, I guess my question is..what would you do?

I feel your pain. I've recently been on a committee on which chemists have been opining about the content of history courses and vice versa. It ain't pretty.

I'd start by getting a sense of just how much clout this guy has, and just how much of what he suggests is actually binding. At PU, for example, faculty were mandated to include several different categories on syllabi, including such oddities as "Keys for Success." However, what we put in those categories was largely up to us. I wouldn't be surprised if there's something similar going on here, with mandated elements and discretionary elements mushed together in a well-meaning, if embarrassing, 'sample.'

One of the dirty little secrets of higher ed, as I'm sure you've noticed by now, is that words like 'mandatory' have different meanings. In some cases, 'mandatory' means just what it means in any other context. Sometimes, it's more of an opening bid, like a speed limit -- post 55 in hopes that most people won't go over 70. Sometimes it's honored in the breach, like when professors claim that attendance is mandatory but don't take attendance or give quizzes.

Sadly, there are also some folks out there who fundamentally misunderstand the quantitative turn, and mistake micromanagement for rigor. These are the folks who believe that there's no whole that can't be made greater by itemizing every little part. It's murder by numbers, like trying to analyze a joke. (For example, I've seen course outlines in which time allocations per topic show up as single percentage points. Absurd, yet distressingly common.) It sounds like your instructional designer is one of those. (For my money, the proper use of the quantitative turn is to look at major outputs, not minor inputs. Breaking down the minor inputs into smaller and smaller pieces is, at best, a distraction.)

In the short run, I'd try to gauge the size of the interstices. Does this guy actually have the full support of the people who actually hire you, or is he bluffing? Is there actually an expectation that you'll use every single word, or was he just trying to give examples of what the categories might look like? (That's my guess, but I could be wrong.) What would happen if you ignored the input? Does anybody check?

Worst case, your college is actually run by morons. If that's the case, then you can either work for morons, or leave.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers -- have you found a productive way around something like this?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

I don't know if it is productive, but you could invoke the plagiarism scandals at various universities and insist that the document have its author's name on it rather than yours. "I'm sorry, but I can't legally or honestly pass off someone else's work as my own."
Oh, Dean Dad, your training is showing. "Interstices"? Oh my. Not something you normally hear in an administrative blog, I would bet you that! ;-)

I agree with all of your comments. I have struggled even when I was working with a syllabus bequeathed to me by a departmental committee, especially when I disagreed with the approach and/or the material was old.

You can try forgiveness, not permission, and do as you will. You can send the offender a better version before you teach and tell him you made some changes based on your disciplinary expertise. You can go above new advisor's head and ask that person how much of this crap has to be included. Or you can move on to another school.
I’ve been in a similar situation, so I, too, feel your pain. I think Dean Dad and CCPhysicist give excellent advice (CCPhysicist’s advice really is worth trying!). In my experience, as long as you state the “required” info on your syllabus, no one will bother checking to see if you actually did anything with the info beyond giving it to students. Put in on the syllabus, noting that it’s not your work, and then on the schedule you give students write “tentative.” That gives you all the room you need to actually cover what’s worth covering.

One more note. In my particular situation, I was able to work out a deal with my supervisor to cover “at least 80% of the required material.” I always figured that if I was ever asked to explain why I didn’t cover something on the required sheet, I would simply claim that that was part of the 20% I elected not to cover.

One other option is to talk to the advisor and offer your assistance. Diplomatically explain that you’d be happy to contact some anthro folks at other institutions and find out what’s considered typical in an intro course. He might be happy to have you do it.
I was going to say "ignore it" but mean essentially what Liz said. Many times I have included wording, terms, topics in the paragraph description of the course because they have been 'required' and then I just don't teach them, or I teach them in the way that I think is appropriate for that particular course, or those particular students.

A variation on Liz's approach to talking to the offending administrator is to sit down and say something like "I want to get this right. In Anthro we use Term X to mean this, but you seem to be using it differently, can you please explain?" I caution, however, that this can be time consuming and possibly contentious; I prefer the first way (possibly passive agressive I know, but I've learned to pick my battles!).
Hand it out. Make sure and tell the students that you are required to give it to them, and who wrote it. Then hand out your own syllabus, make sure you say that this is additional and what you will be going by. Then never refer to the other again. You did give it out.
I say, LEAVE! There are enough indignities bestowed upon us adjuncts. The sooner and the more widely we all simply refuse, walk away, the sooner the institutions will change their policies, and respect the expertise of those hired to teach the courses. As long as we stand up for abuse, the abuse will continue.
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