Monday, June 04, 2012


Permission of Instructor

This one is a question for all the faculty out there.

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 have used "permission of the instructor" as a way to force students in an unusual class to speak to me before they enroll and plan their entire schedule around my very math intensive class on a popular topic.

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.
When I see the parade of students outside the Dean's office, I wonder why anyone would want that outside of their office, let alone calling and e-mailing frantically all summer! Must not be a class where 60 to 100 students want to take it. I would prefer "permission of department".

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.
For what it's worth, from a humanities perspective, I am reluctant to give my permission to a student who hasn't fulfilled the stated prereq. BUT. I have done so in rare cases: first, I did it in a situation where a high school student was looking for a dual-enrollment thing and was technically allowed to take courses at the university - after seeing the student's transcript and hearing why the student wanted to enroll in my (gen ed lit) class; second, I allowed a transfer student to enroll in my course (concurrently with what was supposed to be the prereq) because they really did have the background to take it, but their transfer situation didn't give them the necessary credit (again, I allowed the student in based on information - not on knowing the student or something).

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.
In our very small, rural community college, two types of instructor overuse of instructor permission have come up. When courses are likely to be cancelled due to low enrollment, allowing students to enroll without prerequisites becomes strongly tempting. The appeals of already-enrolled students who need or very much want a class added to those of the students seeking to enroll can be very hard to resist.
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.
My department adds this on to almost everything in the upper years but I've rarely seen the university actually enforce this except when we get to the "soft" course cap. Then they have to convince me to add them in on top of the other eighty or a hundred students already enrolled.
Usually, the "permission of instructor" courses I've seen have had some sort of criteria for determining permission. For example, a student could get into an advanced language course by demonstrating to the instructor that s/he is capable of handling the material. (I got into advanced Spanish that way: I didn't take the intermediate level at my university, but I had enough Spanish in high school to handle it.)

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.
Any student at my Pub U that wants to do that (and there are VERY few courses where this is an option) have to go through the advisor first who evals their work experience and previous coursework and can usually steer them away from pushing that line unless it's necessary and then the advisor goes to the department. Works fairly well for us.
I've only taught one course (and on a regular basis) that had a "permission of the instructor" tag on it. We were trying to get around an accreditation issue that prevented us from cross-listing an advanced undergrad class with a beginning MBA class, so we listed the class meeting time as "Arranged." The "arrangement" was that the students had to attend the MBA class, and, to be sure they would eb able to, they had to talk with me first...

Probably not your tyoical "permission of the instructor" situation...
"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."


It's possible to do that with software, although it may not be possible with the software your college uses.
I used to teach a class that I didn't create and thus I didn't set the pre-req. The course that was the pre-req wasn't applicable to success in my class in the slightest. As long as I had room, I gave "instructor permission" to anyone who wanted to take it --first come first serve--because the pre-req didn't match well. For our internships we require permission of instructor too--largely to be sure the student is looking at legit internships.
I'm a historian, and teach one class whose prereq can be waived with my permission. It's because the prereq (to have taken one of three lower-level classes) is so that I don't have to explain the very basic contours of the 20th century history of Africa to students in a seminar. As in, I don't want this class to be the first time a student realizes that Africa was colonized - it's not fair to my students who have taken four classes with me already and are ready for much more detailed discussions. I'm happy to admit any student who has this knowledge from another source, however - whether from spending time in Africa, or from focusing on African colonization in a European history class, or from their own outside reading. An interview turns this up pretty readily.
"Permission of instructor" seems like the sort of thing that's a better fit for the latter half of a 4-year college than most of what CC's do.
Dean Dad,

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.
I once taught an Advanced Qualitative Social Science Methods course and we used the "permission of instructor" to admit people who hand not taken the pre-req, but who did have field experience. If they could demonstrate the experience, they were in.
Coming main class requires instructor permission except for majors. this enables me to do two things: 1) tell a student what the class entails and what skill set I expect them to bring to it and 2) control my load. It's tutorial-based and there are only so many hours in the week... If I turn a student away because they lack sufficient skills, I suggest another class for them and invite them to contact me in the future.
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