Friday, April 15, 2011


Ask the Administrator: Speaking Truth to Power

A new correspondent writes:

I am a doctoral student at State University, a university founded on the principle that college and continuing education should be available to everyone. We began as a college for night students, students of color, and students returning to school in hopes of a better job; as a result, we are still known for being a teaching college and many of our students are public school kids or returning students. I have been a TA or instructor of record for my entire graduate career, and I enjoy teaching quite a bit.

However, my university is trying to advance in the rankings and lately we've been hiring research-driven faculty. All of them are very nice and collegial folks, and are powerhouse researchers. This is great for us graduate students, who now get to learn from rising stars in our field. But many of the new folks do not seem to be very good at, or even interested in, teaching the undergraduates. They often expect the undergrads to turn in Harvard quality work and when the students struggle, the professors dismiss the students as lazy. In a conversation today, one of my professors was stunned when I pointed out that most of our undergrads work part-time jobs, as though such a thing had never occurred to him. As an adjunct professor myself, I've had some students complaining in my class about tenure-track professors in my department and the way the professors speak down to the students as though they are stupid.

In the short term, should I say something to my tenure-track colleagues about the way they are perceived by their students, even in a laid-back and sensitive way? And in the long term, must teaching always fall by the wayside if a university is trying to amp up its research faculty? I realize that many of the new faculty are young, and may not have much teaching experience, but the lack of interest in undergraduate teaching troubles me.

Until just now, I had never made the connection between faculty attitudes towards administrators and the way that grad students are treated by senior faculty. When your socialization into a profession is basically abusive, you start to imagine that that’s just how academic hierarchy works. In some settings, it probably does, but many of the most petty tyrants never manage to rise terribly high, precisely because they’re petty tyrants.

Anyway, back to your question. One of the blessings of working at a community college is that we’re banned, by state law, from “raising our academic profile” by offering higher degrees. That means that we’re blessedly free from the identity crisis that occur when an institution that was one thing historically is in the process of trying to become something else. When a college or university that was historically focused on teaching decides to try to move up the ladder to the big leagues of research, it can’t just jump all at once. Tensions between earlier hires and newer hires are understandable, since the two groups were recruited for different reasons and understood their employer in different ways.

In my doctoral program at Flagship State, the faculty were bracingly blunt about how they viewed undergraduate teaching. While they agreed that, all else being equal, it’s better to teach well than to teach badly, they also agreed -- and told us directly -- that spending any more than the bare minimum amount of time and effort would be self-defeating. Good reputations for teaching would result in higher enrollments -- meaning more time spent grading -- and higher student expectations, meaning more time spent advising. Since there are only so many hours in the day, “excess” time spent on teaching represented a deadweight loss from research. We were told, in both word and deed, that teaching was something to minimize; be just good enough to not get fired, and spend the rest of your waking hours publishing.

I took offense at that, of course, but I also knew that nothing was to be gained by trying to argue the point in any serious way. The graduate faculty were notorious bearers of grudges, and their treatment of grad students could be mercurial. I took the measure of the place, did what I had to do to get my degree, and forged a career path on my own terms.

It’s possible, of course, that your new graduate faculty are uncommonly enlightened beings with self-awareness and strong ethical compasses. But I doubt it, based on experience, and the downside risk for you in taking them on is significant.

My advice would be to be diplomatic, get your degree, and not try to be a hero. If that’s simply untenable, then either decamp for more congenial pastures or be prepared to. Once you have the credential and can make your own way, you can choose whichever path makes the most sense to you. But based on personal observation and experience, I would not encourage a graduate student to “take on” the graduate faculty. Grad school is not about being right. It’s about being disciplined, in every sense of the word.

I suspect that my wise and worldly readers will have a range of opinions on this one, which is good; my own grad program was famously contentious, even by graduate school standards. So, wise and worldly readers, what would you advise?

Good luck!

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

I second DD's recommendation. Grad students are lower than TT faculty on the totem pole, and so my advice would also be to just finish up and move on. If the correspondent is planning to stay in academia, he/she should realize that many smaller unis are trying to be research wannabees - my university included. In fact, many of these places want TOP teaching AND TOP research, all with a high teaching load. With that climate, the paucity of TT positions, and the climate of politics trumping idealism, academia just doesn't look as promising any more. I'd advise any grad student to expand their job search and future career plans to include the private sector.
Absolutely not. There's nothing you can gain here, either for yourself, or for your students. It wouldn't even be unheard of for some faculty to try to figure out which students you have in common, and take out any anger on them.

The other side of this is that, the longer you teach, the more you will hear from students about your colleagues (where ever you work). Sometimes the comments will be true; students are frequently on the money. Sometimes, the comments will be misleading, or students are simply griping or venting. Sometimes, students are WAY off base with their comments. While I think we all get to know some things about each other's teaching style & reputation, the truth is, unless you are in the other person's classroom too, you can't be sure which student complaints are legit and which ones are just gripes. And this is why most schools have some kind of formal evaluation or review process that includes classroom visits, as well as an opportunity for students to anonymously evaluate their professors at the end of the course (with all the shortfalls that such a system has).

Come to think of it, DD: Why isn't there a similar a anonymous eval of admins at the end of each academic year?? (that would be interesting)

But long & short of it, you will not make your colleagues better or more sensitive teachers, and you run serious risk of damaging both your relationship & the students' relationships with these other professors.
Yeah, I second all the comments above. Get your degree and move on. Sorry if that is disheartening news, but I don't think you should take on being the mediator in this situation. If students are really vocal, I would let them know where they can voice concern (dept. chair or dean maybe), and then back out of it.
I don't know if high numbers will help persuade you but I also agree with DD and the posters above. Do your work, finish your degree and leave.
It's every man for himself out there. I remember a TT colleague who cared a lot about her students was told she had to "tone down" her undergraduate teaching and publish more, and this was advice for someone whose job description includes teaching.

Keep in mind as a grad student, you are not even required to teach (it's meant to be a way to give you a stipend). Having sit through a lot of closed sessions in the department meetings, I would say the chance of you not graduating is pretty high, if some of the TT folks took your suggestions the wrong way.

If you truly want to make a difference for your students, find someone who you trust, is established in the department (full prof), and cares about teaching. Ask him/her to bring up the general issue without raising suspicion with regard to the source. Your message has a better chance of being delivered than if you were trying to deliver it yourself.
As far as the 'importance' of teaching...It's worth considering that new faculty may be trying to prove themselves as well, and there may be a very strong message that expressing care about teaching is a red flag. The good thing is you might have some people who agree with you. The bad thing is that they are unlikely to be able to act on it- research is what they need to do to keep their jobs.

As far as attitude toward students- it doesn't actually cost any research-productivity time to be a decent person. But correcting assholes is always risky.
I think there is a place for improving the climate in little ways, but this doesn't sound like a situation you can bring up to the department.
For example, one thing that could be done, if you personally witness a specific professor talking down to students, is you can either interject with a *misdirection* (e.g. a gentle joke at your own expense about not getting that concept at first either), or you can take the students aside afterward and give them an encouraging word. It's a bit akin to throwing starfish back in the ocean, but if you do it enough there's a pretty big reward for almost no cost (compared to tackling it at the departmental level, where the cost:benefit ratio is reversed).
Pick your battle.

You never want to antagonize someone who you work with (teaching or research) and who might write you a letter when seeking a job or tenure or even reviewing a proposal.

Also, new folks are rarely good at teaching undergrads, always, but particularly if they are working far down the food chain compared to where they went to school. You can always raise the issue ten years from now, when you both have tenure.

The other time would be when one of the faculty you teach with raises the issue, maybe asking a rhetorical question about student evaluations. Be sure to couch your reply in terms of where the students are coming from rather than where the new professor is coming from. "You should see what it is like in the high schools they came from ... "

PS -
We evaluate our admins every year or so.
Do not say anything before you or after (when you will need letters) you graduate.

A more passive way to deal with this is to start a pedagogy club. Under the guise of 'I want a semi-formal way to learn about teaching,' you can invite all faculty to discuss readings on various pedagogical issues once a month. On the month you are in charge of the readings, you could choose something about interacting with students. The faculty who are willing to be reflective about teaching may attend; indeed, they likely had ZERO formal training in teaching and would welcome such a way to gain skills.
I'd agree with all the advice above. The key is that even if you adjunct, a t-t assistant professor - especially one who talks down to students --will NEVER think that a grad student is a colleague.
Don't be a hero. Nothing will change for the better, and you will probably suffer for it. (Others might as well, i.e. the students who confided in you.)

I was in a situation similar to yours, imprudently decided that being right was more important than anything else, and wound up being pushed out of the graduate program.

Think of this as part of your education, i.e. an example of how NOT to behave as a professor.
You will not possibly positively affect this. Keep your head down, do your job, and change things when you have the power to do so later on.
DD's answer breaks my heart because it is true.
I agree, you can't win this one.

What you should do, however, is to take opportunities to learn how to teach -- and get them on your CV -- since it sounds like you want to be at a teaching college... i.e. a CC -- do what you can to increase your flexibility and exposure to different levels of prepared students -- and keep your head down until you have tenure.
The pedagogy journal club would also be an excellent way to enhance the teaching side of your CV.
Ditto the above.

I would add that the situation may not be as bad as it seems once the new faculty have a chance to adjust to the reality of teaching your students. Right now, it sounds like they are defensive and possibly afraid that they will be blamed for not achieving high student outcomes. If they are like most new faculty, they have had little if any instruction in how to teach, and they are focused on research like a laser because they know what it takes to get tenure.

Your students may be less prepared and have more external commitments than students they are used to, but their are probably about the same number who really want to learn the material as at any other college. Once the pressure is less, some of your faculty will probably be engaged by this and find that they like teaching after all.
I'm interested in the other sides to this question. Many of us are evidently familiar with the experience of working within (or trying to get into) an institution that's refocusing its hiring strategy to try to get better ranking results. Mostly, this feels pretty awful, for everyone concerned. The research stars are under immediate pressure to churn out stuff, while still handling their teaching to a standard that won't actually result in grievance proceedings. Adjuncts, grad students and teaching focused academics with tenure all feel the pressure on their ability to remember names, let alone teach effectively, as surplus students pile up around them.

So it seems we're all trying to figure out graceful ways of responding to the directives that we do less for more students while at the same time producing more research in less time, and somehow managing to keep up with laundry at least to the point that we don't show up for work in our pyjamas.

Is this sustainable, or are we starting to see signs of the ship breaking up? Is there any prospect at all that we can speak up, as your correspondent suggested, in laid back and tactful ways about the ways that institutional strategies aimed at fixing the ranking race are creating some genuine long-term problems that will be tricky to repair?
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