Monday, April 13, 2015

Getting Back on Track

Some people I’ve known over the years are moving into deanships or similar positions.  Beyond praying for their souls, every so often I like to offer some helpful tips.  

Let’s say that you have a long-term professor with a generally solid-to-strong history, but he’s starting to go off the rails a bit in class.  You’re starting to get credible student complaints, and you know the professor well enough to suspect that the complaints are at least grounded in truth.  (For the sake of argument, let’s say the issues are about effectiveness, rather than ethics.  We’re not talking about anything criminal, dangerous, or salacious here.)  And let’s say that you have a faculty union contract that’s pretty prescriptive in terms of evaluation processes.

What do you do?

Yes, you talk to the professor.  But if you’re responsible for evaluating that professor, there may be limits to how candid the conversation will get.  In the best case, maybe you learn of something either easy to fix or clearly temporary.  But maybe the professor knows something isn’t working, doesn’t know why, and doesn’t want to admit anything.  For various reasons, you don’t want to resort to any nuclear options first.  What do you do?

I’ve had good luck with the “honest broker” intervention.  Here’s how it works:

I invite the professor to identify a senior colleague he trusts, whether in his own department or another.  I offer to pay the senior colleague the usual hourly rate to do an observation of the professor’s class, but on the strict condition that the results are not reported back to me.  (I only need to know when it was done, to authorize payment.)  The idea is that the senior colleague will sit in on a class and watch the professor at work, and then later have a private conversation offering constructive feedback.  With the strict precondition that nothing from that observation is used in any evaluative way, it’s at least possible for the conversation to become usefully honest.  And since the observer is a fellow instructor who deals with the same students, there’s no credibility issue.  

The “honest broker” method has worked well several times over the years.  Some capable people had fallen into some self-defeating habits, for various reasons, but when called on it by someone they trusted, were able to right themselves.  At that point, from a management perspective, all is well.  A seasoned instructor has bounced back at minimal cost.  The mentor was flattered by being identified.  The students get good instruction.  And the professor himself gets back on track without any sort of long-term damage to his standing in the institution.  From a cost-benefit perspective, it’s almost a no-brainer.

Of course, it only works under certain conditions.  You need enough credibility as a manager that the promise of confidentiality will be believed.  The professor needs to have some respect for at least some colleagues, and needs to be open to constructive feedback.  The senior colleague needs to have a good eye.  And the issue being addressed needs to be realistically fixable.  If the issue is that the professor gets too easily flustered, that’s probably fixable.  If the issue is that the professor is struggling with a severe but unrevealed medical condition, that might not be.  It’s not foolproof.

But I like it a lot, and I recommend it to my colleagues.  It assumes goodwill, which strikes me as an excellent place to start.  It rewards honest effort.  It respects the faculty as intelligent people who want to be effective.  And in bracketing the formal evaluation process, it gives room for improvement before performance becomes an employment issue.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen similarly low-cost, goodwill-based methods to help struggling professors or teachers get back on track?