Thursday, October 25, 2007

Bad Job, But Not Malpractice

Sherman Dorn has a thoughtful post up about the difficulties institutions have in dealing with faculty instructional practices that aren't quite enough to get someone fired, but that do result in lousy teaching and valid student complaints. As his post points out – it's worth reading in the original – most of the 'official' policies and procedures deal only with the 'bright line' issues, like “thou shalt not sexually harass thy students.” Issues that aren't as obvious as that one often slip between policies, so deans and such often have to make up responses on the spot.

This is a very real issue.

Any time I'm confronted with a novel situation, I have to balance the uniqueness of the situation with the likelihood that any decision I make will be cited as “past practice” in some future argument. The conflict between 'solving the immediate issue' and 'setting a dangerous precedent' is chronic, and frustrating, and, at some level, inescapable. But a more developed set of policies that would at least put tighter boundaries around no-man's-land would certainly reduce my headaches.

I'll give a purely hypothetical example that would never ever happen at my current college where everybody is practically perfect in every way.

Professor X, who has tenure, routinely takes six weeks to grade papers. By the time the students get their midterm papers back, the 'drop' deadline has already passed. Students who had no idea how they were doing in the class didn't find out they were in trouble until it was too late to escape.

I ask Professor X to return the papers in a more timely fashion. He screams “academic freedom,” threatens to file grievance #478, and storms out of my office spreading rumors about me and farm animals.

Or, I ask the chair of X's department to have that conversation. The chair balks, asking what good it will do, since Prof. X has tenure. I say we have to try. A week later, the chair reports trying, failure, and grievance #479. Now, not only is Prof. X on the warpath, but the chair is feeling put-upon, too.

Or, I tell the students to suck it up.

From my perspective, none of these is acceptable.

In the fantasy world in which some people live, it would be possible to 'coach' Prof. X to better performance. In the presence of renewable contracts and merit raises, that could actually be done, with raises and/or renewal contingent on improved performance. But with tenure, and without merit pay, there isn't much in the way of leverage for dealing with offenses that fall below the level of termination. If Prof. X doesn't feel like listening, I can't make him.

This is where I think Dorn's proposal of more rigorous peer review falls flat. What incentive would a peer have to take on somebody disagreeable? Depending on the mechanism of the review, the peer might not know about the slow-motion grading, since, in practice, peer review often consists of a single class observation. Even if the peer actually did know, and actually did have the integrity and intestinal fortitude to say so, any peer fault-finding – by definition – won't be much more than he said/she said. At which point we're right back where we started.

To make matters worse, suppose that the accusation is of repeated, lengthy digressions that have nothing to do with the subject matter. I'll take politics out of it, and stipulate that the digressions are about the professor's favorite football team. Suppose that it's a chemistry class, and the professor spends more time on the Green Bay Packers than on chemistry.

Will a single class visit catch that? Almost certainly not – anybody competent can behave for an hour, just as anybody can obey the speed limit when the police car is in the rear view. Will the politically aggrieved catch it? Not likely – it's not a hot-button issue. Is it an abuse of the classroom? Yup.

It's tough, because there's no 'bright line' rule about digressions (and there probably can't be). I'd guess that anybody who has taught for any length of time has gone off on something unrelated at least once. I'll even concede that a little of that, carefully and sparingly done, can serve a purpose. So Prof. X here will claim that he hasn't said anything obscene or harassing – which is true – and that he's not the first to digress, which is also true. How do I show that my threshold, which isn't even quantitative, is reasonable? And what do I say to the students, who complain that Prof. X rushes through the material at the end to make up for the time he wasted?

Invoking “professionalism” or “individual responsibility” doesn't get the job done; if Prof. X had any of either, these issues wouldn't arise in the first place.

Rather than making this post #480 in my ongoing series on the evils of tenure, I'll ask for solutions within a tenure-based system. How would you handle the tenured professor who would rather discuss Brett Favre than his course's subject matter?