Thursday, January 15, 2009

Ask the Administrator: Getting the Boss Fired

A returning correspondent writes:

Here's the situation: I worked as a TA for an intro level survey course for a truly awful adjunct. She was condescending, vague about my role inside and outside the classroom, unclear about how strict/lenient grading should be, and frequently imposed impractical deadlines. With the students in the class, she was vague about expectations, a truly harsh grader, thematically all over the place, and in particular, refused to explain to the students what she meant by "good writing" (probably just wasn't capable of, is more like it). She also was terrible about answering student emails/keeping the students informed about changes to the syllabus. All in all, pretty much your standard nightmare with a PhD.

As her TA, I struggled pretty much daily with what my role both in- and outside of the classroom. My suggestions for how to improve the class (like a suggestion for a session on improving student writing, which I even volunteered to organize and run outside of class time) were met with hostility and disgust. I helped the students best I could, but a lot of the time, there wasn't much I could do (since it was unclear what this woman even wanted from her students, outside of a textbook recitation of facts, etc)...

So, my question is actually two-fold:

1)What do you (and your readers) feel a TA's role, both inside and outside the classroom, should be? How/Should a professor communicate responsibilities with their TA?


2) How can you get a truly awful adjunct fired without making a god-awful mess of things for yourself? Our department is kind of all over the place in terms of knowing who to talk to about anything, but someone needs to know truly how awful this woman is. I'm afraid, however, that this will just look like bitching on my part. I know that this professor is a serious gossip hound, and she talks about EVERYBODY, including her TA's, and I know for a fact that she's had some not-so-nice things to say about me. I don't think she should be removed for my sake; I KNOW that there are hundreds of other smart, qualified people that would happily take a position at our institution.

There's a lot here, but I'll focus on what I consider the key point. (I won't really address #1, since we don't have TA's at the cc level. I'll leave that one for folks who work with TA's on a regular basis.)

It's not your job to get her fired.

Let's assume that everything you write is correct, and that she's a terrible teacher and supervisor. Not criminal, and not in violation of any of the basic canons of behavior (sleeping with students, accepting money for grades), but just a really lousy teacher.

Mere badness – as opposed to violation of law or canons of ethical behavior – falls under the category of 'professional judgment.' The professional judgment in question belongs to the hiring manager, typically a department chair. It does not belong to you.

To the extent that you can inform that judgment with relevant and verifiable facts, presented calmly, that may or may not be worthwhile, depending on personalities and local culture. But if you go on a crusade to get her fired, you will be perceived – rightly or wrongly – as part of the problem.

One of the really frustrating lessons I've had to learn in administration is that you never want to get into a point-by-point argument with a crazy person. They don't fight fair, and you'll get dragged into their mud. The way to handle them is to take the high road, stick to facts, and to trust that, over time, their nuttiness will discredit them. (If the entire culture of the college is nutty, you're probably best off finding another place to work.)

If you fight a gossip-monger by gossip-mongering, it's hard to imagine a positive outcome. At best, maybe you battle to a draw, reducing your own credibility to her level. At worst, you lose, since she has more practice at that game. Don't do it.

And that's without even addressing the cost of the battle in terms of both time and emotional energy. Both are finite, and both could be better spent doing almost anything else. You'd be much better off focusing on things you can actually control. For example, if it helps you sleep at night, you could go to the chair to deny her allegations, and merely take a classy and conspicuous silence regarding her. I'm not usually a fan of this approach – it's hard to defend yourself without sounding defensive – but it can make sense in some cases. Then learn what you can from the experience and move on.

(For the record, my advice would be very different if she were doing something clearly illegal or immoral. In those cases, I see an ethical obligation to blow the whistle. But that's not this case.)

If it's any consolation, it's possible to learn from lousy mentors and bosses, just as it's possible to learn from good ones. Reflect carefully on all that you've seen and experienced. To the extent that you can translate visceral responses into conscious ideas, you may be able to make yourself a more effective instructor.

Good luck. This isn't a pretty situation, but it doesn't have to get any uglier.

Wise and worldly readers – any thoughts on this one?

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