Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Standard Syllabi

A new correspondent writes:

One of my neighbors was hired to teach two courses
as an adjunct at a very large 2-year college. Three days
before the semester began the dean sent her syllabi for the
courses. Of course my neighbor had prepared her own syllabi--but
was told by the dean that she had to use the standardized syllabi
provided by the college. These allow for different book
selections but every other aspect ---grading scale, exams, learning
goals, assignments--- is set by the college. She lost the job
when she declined to use the standardized syllabi. I've never heard of
this before. Has anyone else? Are the terms of academic
freedom set by individual institutions?

It's a great question, but it needs to be addressed carefully. I see it as two questions: is this legal, and is this a good idea? I'd answer 'yes' and 'it depends,' respectively.

Colleges routinely construct course sequences with prerequisites built-in, so that somebody teaching, say, Calculus II has a pretty good idea of what the students will bring with them from Calculus 1. One way that many colleges ensure the relevance of the prereqs is by being very prescriptive about their content. If Calc 1 is whatever any given professor says it is, then students will enter Calc II with wildly varying levels of preparation, independent of their own ability and effort.

Standard syllabi give departments a relatively easy way to ensure that different sections are covering substantially the same material, even allowing for differences in personality or style among instructors. In my experience, this has been relatively common practice in disciplines like math, certain sciences, and foreign languages.

From a legal perspective, I believe the college is on solid ground. The Supreme Court addressed the issue of academic freedom in the Bakke case in 1978, ruling that colleges – note the term – have the right to determine what shall be taught, and how it shall be taught. (Note that it did not say 'individual professors.') If a given college decides that, say, Composition 1 shall consist of five graded papers, it is within its rights to do so.

(I've written before on standard textbooks for given courses, taking the position that they can be a good idea. I got flamed pretty good for that, which is fine, but it strikes me as the kind of decision that should be made on local and pragmatic grounds, rather than theological ones. I don't believe that a college is overstepping its bounds legally in saying 'this is our textbook for General Psych.' Whether a given choice makes sense in a given case is a different issue.)

Because something is legal doesn't necessarily mean that it's wise. In many cases, it may be wiser for a college (or, more frequently, an academic department) to set the 'learning goals' for a given course, then leave it to the instructor to figure out how to meet them. This is probably particularly true once you get beyond the freshman/101 level. One of the quirks of knowledge workers, as opposed to some other kinds of workers, is that you can get better results from (most of) them by not managing them too closely. I've observed professors doing things in class that never would have occurred to me, but that worked. I'm counting on them to innovate that way, to come up with methods for engaging and educating students that make sense for their own teaching styles, disciplines, and students.

(Folks who have taught at multiple institutions, as I have, may also notice that an exercise that works like gangbusters at college A falls flat at college B. It takes a semester or two, in my experience, to get the feel of the local culture.)

Certainly, I've seen some cases of unwise prescription. Since I left Proprietary U, friends there have told me that everybody teaching Contemporary Literature has to use the same novels. This strikes me as insane, since the point of the class is not to be a historical survey, but instead to be an introduction to literary analysis. I'd much rather let each professor pick the novels with which she can do the best job. But that's a judgment call, as opposed to a legal requirement. I think PU is being stupid, but it isn't breaking any law.

I hate to hear of someone losing a job over this kind of thing, but I don't think the college was out of bounds in defining its own courses as it saw fit.

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.