Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Ask the Administrator: They're Spying on Us!

A frustrated correspondent writes:

I work in a service department. Another department, which is a large client of ours, has scoured the records of grades to determine which instructors in our department are easy graders and which are hard graders. They are now advising their students to try to get into the sections taught by the easy graders.

I feel that this is about three kinds of wrong. For one thing, I think it's a violation of professional courtesy. You don't do a study like this on another department without the consent of the department. For another, if you do the study, you take the results to the department, not to the students. And frankly, I don't think that advisers should be taking the professional stand that the best thing to look for in an instructor is easy grading.

How would you, as dean, react to this issue? I'd like to see the offending department censured, but I'm not holding my breath. How should we, as a department, react to this issue? Should we take a stand (either publicly or privately), or should we simply ignore the issue? To what extent should we pursue policies that would make our grade distribution more uniform? That is, how important is it to deal with the underlying issue?

Juuuuust a few issues here...

In the age of the internet, it's much tougher to keep secrets than it once was. Unfortunately, some folks who aren't schooled in, say, statistics, will sometimes misinterpret facts and derive false patterns. (For example, some folks will confidently assert global patterns after hearing of two or three cases.) That's annoying, but it's increasingly a fact of life. Even if you manage to censure the department, which I wouldn't bother trying to do, you couldn't shut down the student grapevine. Word gets out. It often gets out in distorted, inaccurate, and unhelpful ways, but it gets out. Over at ratemyprofessor, one of the categories on which folks are rated is easiness of grading. Hell, back in the Stone Age when I was in college, we had a pretty well-developed (analog) grapevine about which professors graded easier or harder than most.

I'll admit wondering how they got their hands on the data, though. Since FERPA prohibits the time-honored practice of taping grade rosters to office doors, it should be considerably harder to get this kind of information in a systematic way than it once was. If there was some sort of skulduggery involved, then that might be cause for some sort of censure.

But let's say that, by whatever method, they've unearthed some non-trivial disparities. It's fine to make the point about airing dirty laundry in front of students, but that doesn't get the laundry clean. You need to address those disparities in a serious way.

This may be a blessing in disguise. Experience suggests that wild disparities in grading standards often reflect wildly disparate ideas of the point and/or proper level of the course. If you have faculty effectively defining the class in tremendously different ways, then you really aren't doing right by the students. A professor who passes everybody in Composition I is setting up his students to tank Composition II, and that's not fair to the students.

I've seen English departments convene 'norming' workshops, in which various composition instructors discuss how they'd grade some sample essays. This strikes me as a fantastic idea, since it manages to combine consistency with input. A standard announced ex cathedra, but without faculty buy-in, is meaningless. A standard the faculty develop for themselves, on the other hand, could actually work. (In a really high-functioning department, they'd road-test the standard for Comp I by having the local Institutional Research folk track success rates in Comp II. If the courses are understood as a sequence, rather than as stand-alone classes, then the students will actually have a realistic shot at success.)

Along these lines, one of my prouder moments at my current college has involved finally getting the ESL exit standards to align with the English entrance standards, so students who complete the ESL sequence are actually ready to take the English courses. That involved a certain amount of inter-departmental diplomacy, but I honestly believe it was the right thing to do for the students.

For courses that don't feed directly into sequences, the issue is slightly less clear-cut, but students should still have reasonable confidence that Professor X's General Psych class isn't significantly easier or harder than Professor Y's. There will always be judgment calls on the margins, which is to be expected. But large, sustained differences shouldn't happen.

Paradoxically, those norming workshops are obviously harder, yet also obviously more important, when you have a significant adjunct population with considerable turnover. Locally, we've found that paying adjuncts to attend, and providing a little food, makes a huge difference in their participation levels. A little time and money upfront saves plenty of misunderstandings later. No, it doesn't compare to an all-permanent faculty, but within what the taxpayers are willing to pony up, it helps.

In terms of what the other department is doing, you may or may not be able to prevent 'opportunity,' but you can deflate the 'motive.' If they find, over time, that the grading levels have become fairly consistent, they won't have much reason to spy, and everybody wins.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – what would you suggest?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.