Thursday, February 25, 2010

Ask the Administrator: Pinch Hitting

A brave-or-foolhardy correspondent writes:

I am junior, recently tenured faculty at Average Community College. My
mentor is having serious health problems,compounded by an incredibly
difficult class full of student-athletes who are continuously disruptive
discipline problems. The situation has gotten so bad that we are switching
instructors mid-semester, and I will be taking
over his hell class on Monday morning. I have 2 questions. First, do you
have any administrative advice on how to handle a mid-semester instructor
change? Second, any insights on how to engage a class like that?

So far, my plan is to retain as much of his class design as possible while
making a few changes to the syllabus regarding disruptive behavior in class,
and try to change the tone a little by example. To make sure everyone
understands the new rules, they will need to pass a syllabus quiz and sign a
paper indicating that they understand and will follow them. For the
athletes, I'm going to try engaging them by pulling lecture examples from
their experience, involving their coaches in a constructive dialogue on how
we can all succeed cooperatively, and respectful but merciless enforcement
of the class rules and policies. Am I on the right track?

I haven't actually done that myself, though I've seen it done several times, usually for medical reasons. To the extent that you explain the switch to the students, I'd emphasize the medical angle. If they sense that they broke the previous instructor, it will simply embolden the worst of them.

Experience tells me that the students will seize upon the interruption as an excuse for just about anything that doesn't go their way. This will be particularly true if the instructor change is accompanied by a syllabus change. They can argue, with some warrant, that the syllabus was their contract for the class, and that it's unreasonable to change both the instructor and the syllabus at this point in the semester. The local administration may defer to this position to a greater degree than you'd expect, since there's some real legal strength to it.

My first piece of advice is to simply incorporate whatever grades have been given thus far. Don't undermine the authority of the original instructor, even in absentia; it will merely feed the fire. Any perceptible daylight between the two of you will become a cudgel used against both of you. Make it as seamless as possible. If you can keep the original syllabus entirely, all the better.

Changing the tone by example is a good start, but as I mentioned a few days ago, leading by example is often too subtle. Don't just do it; tell them what you're doing, while you're doing it. Make it clear, and repeat as needed.

I'd also be in close discussion with your dean or chair, depending on your system, to let her know what's going on. Make sure that you're listed as the new instructor of record. (That may involve notifying the union, as well.) Whatever you do, don't try to do this below the radar. When students complain -- and they will -- you don't want your dean's first reaction to be "what?" From this side of the desk, I'll just say we don't like surprises like that. At all.

Assuming that everybody is in the know, the other task will be to set expectations. The class has already, for all intents and purposes, failed. You're engaging in a salvage operation. You shouldn't present it to the students that way, of course, but that's essentially what it is. I'd be shocked if you got to the end of the semester with a bunch of happy campers. If you have the kind of administration that makes snap judgments based on student evaluations, you'd better make damn sure you get ahead of the story.

There's also the question of the class you're giving to your mentor. If he's still performing well and this group just happens to be awful, it's probably not a huge issue. But if he's starting to slip, you could be turning one problem class into two.

In terms of actual classroom techniques, I'll defer to those among my wise and worldly readers who've actually been the pinch hitter. What worked? Is there anything specific to embrace or avoid?

Good luck!

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