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.

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