Monday, June 04, 2012
Permission of Instructor
When you teach a course for which the prerequisite is “permission of instructor,” on what do you base the decision to grant or withhold permission?
This came up last week in a conversation with a wonderful professor who suggested that a thorny issue could be solved with “permission of instructor.” I wasn’t sold. Let’s say that Jennifer gets into the class and Jana doesn’t. To make things interesting, let’s say that Jennifer is white and Jana is black, and that Jana alleges that her exclusion was based on race. In the absence of clear criteria, how do you rebut the accusation?
It’s an ugly scenario, and I didn’t enjoy raising it, but part of administration is anticipating stuff like that.
In legal proceedings, “how dare you question my judgment?” isn’t much of a defense. “How dare you question the faculty?” doesn’t work, either. You need to be able to show that a decision was based on something beyond personal whim. It doesn’t have to be the objectively “correct” decision, assuming such a thing existed, but it has to be defensible based on something you could articulate and show is relevant.
That’s why prerequisites are so handy. They’re easy to explain and to verify. The same holds for test scores, credits earned, and all the usual mechanisms. Those are all – admittedly – relatively blunt instruments, imperfect and impersonal. But they’re better than random chance – if you use them right – and they’re defensible in court.
Permission of instructor can work well enough when it involves an audition, say, or judgment of a portfolio. In those cases, you can point to a concrete basis for a professional judgment of quality. The judgments of quality don’t have to be “right,” but they have to be based on something.
My recurring nightmare involves a student showing a pattern of “permission” being granted along lines that suggest some sort of untoward favoritism. If Professor Newly Divorced just happens to stock his class entirely with pretty blondes, and some smart but excluded student raises a stink, things could get ugly fast. And rightly so.
This doesn’t strike me as an undue burden. A savvy (and well-meaning) professor could write down some criteria she might use for permission, and then stick to them in her decision-making. If challenged, as long as she can show that the criteria were reasonable and their use consistent, I don’t see a problem. But winging it based on “don’t you trust me?” isn’t gonna cut it. And if you think about it, that’s not necessarily bad.
I never refuse permission, though I will tell students that I don't think it is a good idea for them to take the class. This usually weeds out the unprepared, though I had one wonderful student who was interested enough in the subject matter to teach herself the background math concurrently with the class and who ended up with one of the highest scores in the class.
That said, I would use it for something the computer system can't handle but people can, like an alternative pre-req with a grade higher than C.
Here's the thing: I (and the vast majority of my colleagues) really like for students to complete the required prerequisites. We don't enjoy making exceptions for random students - and in fact, more often than not, when in the "permission of instructor" situation I find myself actively resisting *administrators* who want me to let a student in - because I don't want to admit students into my course who don't have the tools to succeed.
In other words, I really get your concerns about the potential legal repercussions. But. I don't care if a student is black, white, green, or blue - I don't want a student in my course who can't do the work. And so when a student wants permission to enter my course without having completed the prereq, I want some evidence that they will benefit from me making an exception. And frankly, I'm pretty hardcore about that, as I think most of my colleagues are - not because we're good people or something, but rather because letting an underprepared student in only makes more work and headaches for us in the long run. Yes, in theory, "permission of instructor" could be used in a discriminatory way, to give some students a pass while other students are blocked. But I'd argue that in practice it's more frequently used to keep underprepared students out. No, that's not a hard and fast rule, but think about this: what is the *incentive* for faculty members to let students who didn't complete the prereqs into their classes? Practically speaking, there isn't one. In fact, practically speaking, there really is nothing in it for the faculty member, in letting a student in by permission.
A less-common situation involved a chronically easygoing instructor who allowed many student to enroll in second-level classes one the basis of being "smart" or "a good student." This became a problem when students who needed the course for their majors felt it lacked the depth they needed because too much material from the prerequisite course had to be re-taught. Instructor permission is no longer an option for that course.
Another example at my university was that it offers a section of public speaking specifically for very shy individuals. The instructor, who is a scholar in the field of shyness, interviews the student first to ensure that some socially outgoing kid doesn't try to take the course for an easy A.
Probably not your tyoical "permission of the instructor" situation...
It's possible to do that with software, although it may not be possible with the software your college uses.
You brought up the issue of protected classes in regard to "consent of the instructor." In practice, do you find that protected class issues come up much in these or related contexts? My anecdotal observation is that in the more minor contexts, the wheels most likely to squeak about unfairness ("How come he got it and not me?") where mostly from non-protected classes.
I raise this question because you seem to be approaching this from a very high-level vantage that is considering big and potentially devastating problems. That's a necessary mindset for many of the issues you face, but down in the trenches I don't know that "worst first" thinking (i.e. jumping straight to "What if the instructor discriminates?" as your consideration) is the best way to approach the smaller aspects of policy.
To be clear, I'm not arguing that discrimination is OK. I'm arguing that if you approach every situation as a potential lawsuit, you're probably not in the right frame of mind for some issues.