Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Ask My Readers: Getting Out of Dodge

A longtime correspondent writes:

Something that may spark some responses from your readers.

One of the things about our campus culture that gets to me now and then is the “It’s OK if you’re not on campus all that much” attitude of many of the full-time faculty. Historically, this has been an institutional thing. When I interviewed for my job here—in 1987—the chief academic officer told me that we tried to schedule classes so that the faculty only needed to be on campus two days a week. I was stunned into silence.

It’s not quite that bad now, but the attitude persists. I recently served on an appeals committee which had to deal with a situation in which a faculty member did not receive notice of something because he had left campus for the winter break immediately following his last final exam (on a Thursday; the final exam period did not end until Saturday and grades were due on Monday—and can be submitted electronically). After the break, the campus re-opened on the first Monday in January, for late registration, and so on. He did not return until the following Saturday, for a department meeting, which is when he received the notice. And which he received after the response date had passed.

His position is that expecting him to be around after his last final, or before the last possible moment before classes resumed, is unreasonable. That, therefore, he was not really notified. And, therefore, that the penalty he incurred from not responding should be invalid. Implicitly, his department also seems to take the position that he bears no responsibility for this.

My curiosity is aroused. Does anyone else work in a place in which this sort of culture exists? Is tolerated? If so, how do you work around it?

With variations, I've seen this enough times not to be shocked by it. Disappointed, yes, but not shocked. (And you get away with having department meetings on a Saturday? I'm impressed!)

This actually isn't the worst I've seen. At a school that had a designated final exam period, during which classes were not held and final exams were supposed to be given, I saw a dispiriting number of professors give their own finals the week before so they could get out of Dodge on the first day of exam period. It came to light when a student came by to complain about having three final exams on the same day, during a week when she shouldn't have had any. She was right.

At that time, final grades still had to be submitted on paper. The secretary in Academic Affairs mentioned in passing that she usually got about a dozen professors' final grades before exam period started. And those were just the ones brazen enough to hand them in.

In the case of my correspondent, it looks like the professor in question is reading every angle to his own advantage, then trying to claim the moral high ground. I don't think he's actually breaking any rules, but I wouldn't cut him much slack, either. At most colleges now, you don't have to travel to campus physically to get your email. If he really couldn't be bothered to check his email for a month, I'd have a hard time with the "but I wasn't notified!" argument.

As a cultural issue, though, this is maddeningly hard to address. If you don't have a formal attendance system for faculty -- and heaven knows I don't want to work anywhere that does -- then proving non-attendance becomes a nasty surveillance issue. The savvier faculty will eschew final exams altogether in the name of final projects or papers, then claim academic freedom if challenged. (To be fair, it's entirely possible to give final papers or projects without violating the spirit of exam week. I'm just saying that those who like to maximize their breaks often resort to this method. The honest ones will often use the designated exam time to return the papers or projects.) There's also the inconvenient fact that many students prefer the earlier end, too, so relying on student reports will tell you only a small fraction of what's going on.

At Proprietary U, one of the more civilized traditions involved free bagels and coffee for faculty during finals. One room was set aside as an impromptu lounge, and we could blow off steam there between rounds of grading. It was a small thing, but it helped, and it made the whole enterprise a bit less lonely. Food has a way of softening some rough edges.

I'm curious to hear from my wise and worldly readers. Have you seen an effective way to prevent people jumping the gun on the end of the semester?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator (and/or my wise and worldly readers!) at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.