Friday, November 05, 2010


Ask the Administrator: Apologies

An occasional correspondent writes:

I'm an adjunct at a local CC. This semester, I haven't been very good about grading assignments in a timely manner. One particular student has been constantly asking for an update on his grade. I finally caught up with everything last night, but came in this morning to find out the student had gone to my department head, his department head, and my department dean to complain about me. When my department head came to me with this information, he was very supportive about being on "my side" and letting me know the student didn't come across as very credible. I responded with "Well, it's too bad he went to this extreme, but it's reasonable that he would want to know his grade and he had a legitimate reason to be upset. I'm sorry about all of this." At this, my department head give me something of an incredulous look, sort of "I'm throwing you a line here, why are you doing this?"

So here's my question. Should one deal with student complaints the way one deals with a car crash? i.e. You never say "I'm sorry, it was my fault" because that admission can come back to haunt you. Is it better to reply, "Oh, those wacky students. I'll take care of it." I think this question applies to anytime one is blamed, justly or unjustly, for some workplace SNAFU. Is "I'm sorry" always an admission of guilt that automatically weakens your position?

I hate to default to “it depends,” but it actually does.

Smart managers will reward truthfulness. In a setting in which people are secure in the knowledge that messengers don’t get shot, people will be much more willing to come forward with uncomfortable truths. That’s a good thing, since it will bring hidden problems to light and make it easier to address them. It will also save a great deal of time and work decoding messages, since people will be likelier to deliver truths unencrypted.

However, not all managers are smart. Some of them, I hate to admit, will tend to either shoot the messenger or “solve” problems by finding someone to blame. In a pin-the-blame-on-the-donkey environment, admitting a mistake can be terribly costly.

I’ve worked in both settings. (Happily, right now I’m in the former.) Which more accurately describes your setting, I don’t know.

If you’re in a “find someone to blame” environment, the safest thing to do is to say as little as possible. There, if confronted with a partially true accusation, the prudent course is a noncommittal but dismissive expression, with as few words as possible. You’re essentially acknowledging receipt of the message, without even addressing its merits.

(In a really toxic setting, if you run out of other options, you can always resort to “HOW DARE YOU, SIR!” I should warn you, though, that anyone with experience will take that as an admission of guilt.)

Some people will try passing the blame on to someone else, but I don’t recommend that. It just makes an already toxic setting that much worse. You can also resort to blanket denials and/or webs of self-justifying lies, but again, you’re just digging yourself in deeper. The right to remain silent should not be underestimated.

Depending on the severity of the accusation, if you have a union, you might want to have your union rep with you. In most areas I assume this wouldn’t apply to adjuncts, but if you’re lucky enough to have an adjunct union, this can be a productive approach.

Interestingly, the strongest “pin the blame” culture I’ve seen was actually in a heavily tenured setting. Shaming was the weapon of choice for maintaining order. Over the years, it led to a beaten-down, hangdog culture. No, thanks.

One of the ways to tell if a local culture is functional or dysfunctional is by seeing what happens when someone actually does admit fault. Does it lead to problem-solving or blame-pinning?

I suspect plenty of wise and worldly readers have had experiences with this. Readers, what would you advise?

Good luck!

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

Most administrators are going to appreciate truthfulness. On the other hand it sounds like the correspondent went a little overboard on the mea culpa. I would have simply told the Dept Head that this student had been very insistent about knowing his grades and that I had gotten a little behind, but had responded to his request by catching up.

I have received numerous complaints about faculty not turning back assignments/tests in a reasonable amount of time. It is a common problem among faculty, and it is easy to start sliding down that slippery slope if one procrastinates for a short period of time. Most of us have been there; I certainly have.

If there is one lesson I've learned in my 10 years as a Dean, it is that many students are inappropriately angry or lack some level of veracity when registering a complaint, but there is commonly a grain of truth behind the bluster and whining. It is important to tease out that truth despite what one thinks of the style of delivery.

This reminds me of a faculty member who taught an online course that always seemed to devolve the same way: He would get way behind on his grading and did not respond to student messages to that effect. It was only a matter of time before some student flamed him online in a most inappropriate way (why students think they can do this is a whole 'nother topic). The faculty member would then discipline the offending student, whose next stop would be my office. I initially discounted such students, particularly when the faculty member showed me the offensive messages, but I eventually got it through my thick head that just because a student can't appropriately verbalize a complaint doesn't mean that a complaint-worthy event did not occur.
I'd like to echo the previous comment about student complaints. Mostly, students only complain to higher up's (deans, dept chairs) if something is wrong/negative in a class. Sure, maybe they use colourful or inappropriate language, or don't quite follow due process, but usually there is something to their complaints. Students are busy, after all.

That being said, it's also worth pointing out that things are different from the student's perspective here. A professor who has fallen behind in their marking might think it's unfortunate, but no big deal since it can be worked out eventually; a struggling student who needs to make some relatively big decisions about courses, prereqs and financing sees it as not getting badly needed feedback and almost fatal.
Why in the world would you legitimize a spurious student complaint like that?

Separately, why didn't you just give that student an estimated grade a half-step higher than you were expecting and leave it at that?

All of these adjuncts killing themselves to make minimum wage . . . it's so foolish. Nobody cares. Put in a vague minimum and grade gently so your students like you. If the college didn't want just that, they'd pay you or give you health insurance.
But don't actually SAY you're doing that. Just maintain the polite fiction that you're getting paid less than half as much, minus benefits, to provide the same level of commitment and expertise.

The whole system is irretrievably corrupt. Either you accept this and act as a professional, giving people what they're paying for, or you don't and you perpetuate the abuse. Smile pretty, grade gently, and forgawdsake realize that every single one of the students would prefer timely grading to well crafted grading. This is your wakeup call. Accept it!
Wow. I hope that I never find myself to be that cynical.
I am the only full time instructor in my area. I received a complaint from a student about an adjunct. After some research, it turns out that this was about 25% an instructor issue (kinda slow to grade/respond to emails) and 75% a student issue. The student was an obnoxious, threatening bully who was obsessive about hir grade. So you gotta consider the source of the complaint.
Al -- you'll find yourself a lot worse off if you're an adjunct and don't take a step back.
I would appreciate hearing the truth--then, as far as I'm concerned, the issue has been resolved and I'm not going to think about it again. The problem is when it happens again, and again . . . and the instructor just keeps apologizing and offering excuses.

As a note, the vast majority of the part-time instructors at my school hold themselves to a very high standard of integrity, including thoughtful grading that reflects the students' actual work. And this despite the the fact that they are, indeed, underpaid for the work they do compared to the FT faculty. (Yes, I was an adjunct at one time, too.) They are professionals and they act that way; those that don't, don't usually last.
I actually am harsher on my estimated grades than my final grades. Mostly, I have various chances to drop or replace low grades that I intentionally don't factor in until the end. It often doesn't make a difference, and when it does, it's usually a fraction of a letter grade.

I occasionally get a complaint during the semester that I might have avoided had I followed the other tactic, but those are usually lesser complaints than the ones I get from students at the end of the semester who thought they were doing better than they were.
As something of a passing thought, I'd just like to add that if a professor (FT or adjunct) in a teaching role falls behind on his marking, then I would think that's a poor performance of that professor in that aspect of his job.

In most professions, that would result in a reprimand from a superior, a performance review or even consideration of firing. If I just decided to not finish some code late, for whatever reason, it would look poorly on me and I'd have to face the consequences. In contrast, it seems that when a professor falls behind on grading or marking, it happens and then everyone moves on. Sure it could contribute to an adjunct losing their job, but what about a tenured FT prof? Probably nothing. And if the adjunct is well liked by students and staff, it might not even matter that much in the scheme of things.
A new and interesting issue emerges from this post:

What constitutes “falling behind” on grading in a college classroom and what are the consequences? I would love to see a blog post from DD and reader comments about that subject.

It strikes me that there are two parts to this issue:

1. Pedagogically, timely feedback is crucial, most would probably agree. But what, exactly, constitutes “timely”? ASAP is far too simplistic an answer. I teach English FT at a CC, and I have between 120 and 150 students, depending on the semester. What is a reasonable amount of time to take with grading given such a workload? And on the other side, what constitutes “poor performance”? Where is the line?

2. Realistically, FT professors, at least at the CC level, often need to balance the demands of the grading and teaching workload with commitments outside the classroom, including committees, student clubs, faculty senate etc… Often, both inside and outside my particular institution, I hear that the path to tenure and promotion for CC profs has more to do with visibility to admin outside the classroom than with effectiveness inside it. I would love to hear about the ways others have managed these parts of the job in ways that allowed them to continue to be successful inside the classroom.
To anon 1:20, those were the questions I kept asking about this post and the comments, too. And, pedagogically, I really do think that the answer is "it depends." As a rule of thumb, though, the way to avoid these complaints is to set clear boundaries and guidelines for when students can expect feedback on their work. So, for example, state on your syllabus that major assignments will be graded and returned no later than 3 weeks from the date of submission; minor assignments no later than 1 week from the date of submission, or something like that. Make it part of the course contract, and then stick to it.
I hate to say "ditto", but there it is. My attention was focused on "This semester" and "in a timely manner" along with "constantly asking for an update". However, without details on the scope of the slackitude -- or even a clue what discipline -- that is involved here, it is impossible to pick sides or give advice.

If the case is that this person is a punctual grader year after year, the exceptional case is just that, particularly if a remedy has already been implemented and every student now knows their grade on all assignments in the course.

It also matters if work is being returned regularly, but slowly, rather than not returned at all. Did the student have SOME graded work, just not all of it, when filing the complaint, or was the student complaining that nothing had yet been returned? I have seen cases where students had not gotten any graded work back as the middle of the semester approached, but only one student bothered to complain.

My comment to Anonymous at 1:20 PM is similar to Dr. Crazy's, but I would add that time management plays a role when it comes to exam grading. You schedule the exams (or projects), so don't pile them up around each other and/or other demands on your time, but also don't promise what you can't deliver. Even when I know I can get the exams back the next class day, I don't promise it. Grading time can increase dramatically if students do an impressively bad job on the test.
I basically agree with PunditusMaximus. Grade gently while maintaining the appearance of rigorous standards -- it's not hard to do. There's no incentive for an adjunct to grade any other way. What would they get for grading "truthfully" The answer is poor evaluations, and after a semester or two of those, they'll be fired.

Depending on the field, it's quite possible to conduct an intellectually and academically rigorous class but grade gently.
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