Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Everybody Knows…

In response to the piece about a “few, big, dumb questions” approach to assessment earlier this week, an exasperated professor from another state wrote to mention his frustration at the time that assessment takes, and at the unwillingness to act on the consistent finding that one professor’s students underperform everyone else’s.

The point about time and effort is well-worn.  It’s valid when it’s true.  But the point about the colleague that everyone knows is underperforming struck me as much more complicated.

What can, or should, a department do when it knows one of its own isn’t getting it done?

That question can go in lots of different directions, so I’ll narrow it down.  Let’s say that the underperformance isn’t about failing to show up, or showing up drunk, or any sort of egregious misconduct.  And for the sake of argument, let’s say that there’s enough factual backup for what “everyone knows” that they can’t duck the question by pleading ignorance.  In this case, let’s say that someone who routinely shows up for work and doesn’t do anything spectacularly awful just doesn’t do a good job of teaching.  The students consistently fail to learn what they’re supposed to.

The easiest response is to do nothing, and/or to wait for the administration to take care of it.  But that’s often unrealistic.  If assessment is being done the way it should be done, the administration won’t use it to single out faculty.  In part, that’s because the point of assessment is to look at curriculum and structure, rather than personnel.  And in part, it’s because for it to work at all, faculty need to be candid.  If they believe that anything they say can and will be used against them, they won’t be candid, and the whole enterprise will become pointless.

Yes, there are formal performance evaluations, but once people have tenure, evaluations typically happen only once every x years.  (I’ve seen cycles as long as five years.)  And even then, the burden of proof to lower the boom on someone with tenure is so high that I wouldn’t count on it.

Ideally, the low performer will know, at some level, that something is wrong, and will be open to discussing suggestions for improvement.  Sometimes that happens.  Over the years, I’ve seen a few variations work.  One is targeted professional development -- help the struggling professor get back on track through direct intervention.  Another -- my personal fave -- is to have the struggling one pick a senior colleague he respects, and to have her observe a class without telling the administration what she saw.  The point of the observation is to give useful feedback to the struggling instructor, in a setting in which the recipient’s defenses are sufficiently down to actually hear the feedback.  It’s easy to slip into self-defeating habits from time to time, and having a sympathetic and respected figure point out where you’re doing it can break the pattern.  I’ve seen that method succeed several times over the years.  Admittedly, it requires an administration that’s willing to back off and let the observation stay private, but some of us are enlightened enough to do that.

But that method only works when the struggling professor is willing to hear it and able to change what he’s doing.  Those aren’t always givens.  

I’ve seen departments try to minimize the issue through scheduling and course assignments.  If Professor X is truly weak, they might try to give him the low-enrolled sections, or put him in the classes in which he will do the least harm.  But that can amount to rewarding bad performance, which tends to leave a bad taste for the better performers.  It also doesn’t really solve the problem.  It amounts to moving the pile of dirty laundry from one side of the room to the other.  And depending on how severe the scheduling curlicues are, students can wind up suffering in multiple ways.

Some departments will even try to steer the low performer into any quasi-administrative roles that come with course releases, just to minimize the damage.  If the person has a talent for paperwork, that can be a tolerable solution, but in practice it tends to backfire.  I’d argue that kicking a problem upstairs tends not to end well for anyone involved.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen effective ways for departments to deal with one of their own who just wasn’t getting it done?