Monday, June 04, 2012

Permission of Instructor

This one is a question for all the faculty out there.

When you teach a course for which the prerequisite is “permission of instructor,” on what do you base the decision to grant or withhold permission?

This came up last week in a conversation with a wonderful professor who suggested that a thorny issue could be solved with “permission of instructor.”  I wasn’t sold.  Let’s say that Jennifer gets into the class and Jana doesn’t.  To make things interesting, let’s say that Jennifer is white and Jana is black, and that Jana alleges that her exclusion was based on race.  In the absence of clear criteria, how do you rebut the accusation?

It’s an ugly scenario, and I didn’t enjoy raising it, but part of administration is anticipating stuff like that.

In legal proceedings, “how dare you question my judgment?” isn’t much of a defense.  “How dare you question the faculty?” doesn’t work, either.  You need to be able to show that a decision was based on something beyond personal whim.  It doesn’t have to be the objectively “correct” decision, assuming such a thing existed, but it has to be defensible based on something you could articulate and show is relevant.

That’s why prerequisites are so handy.  They’re easy to explain and to verify.   The same holds for test scores, credits earned, and all the usual mechanisms.  Those are all – admittedly – relatively blunt instruments, imperfect and impersonal.  But they’re better than random chance – if you use them right – and they’re defensible in court.

Permission of instructor can work well enough when it involves an audition, say, or judgment of a portfolio.  In those cases, you can point to a concrete basis for a professional judgment of quality.  The judgments of quality don’t have to be “right,” but they have to be based on something.

My recurring nightmare involves a student showing a pattern of “permission” being granted along lines that suggest some sort of untoward favoritism.   If Professor Newly Divorced just happens to stock his class entirely with pretty blondes, and some smart but excluded student raises a stink, things could get ugly fast.  And rightly so.

This doesn’t strike me as an undue burden.  A savvy (and well-meaning) professor could write down some criteria she might use for permission, and then stick to them in her decision-making.   If challenged, as long as she can show that the criteria were reasonable and their use consistent, I don’t see a problem.  But winging it based on “don’t you trust me?” isn’t gonna cut it.  And if you think about it, that’s not necessarily bad.