Monday, November 07, 2016

Rigor and Fairness

I’ve read that the hallmark of a great mind is the ability to hold contradictory ideas simultaneously.  By that definition, academia is full of great minds.  Many of us manage to believe both of the following:

  1. Grading is a core component of academic freedom, and should be left to the professional judgment of individual faculty barring extraordinary circumstances (i.e. harassment).
  2. Students’ performance should be judged consistently across sections, and their GPA’s should not be held hostage to which section they take.

When you have, say, twenty people teaching Intro to Field, and one of them is a conspicuously, significantly, and consistently harder grader than the rest, to which belief should you default?

I thought about that in reading the IHE story about the adjunct who says he was fired for maintaining academic rigor in his classes.  Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t, but I’ve heard enough variations on that line over the years to want to offer some possible context.

Over the years at several different colleges, I’ve seen faculty who say that the reason students don’t like them is that they have high standards.  That sounds reasonable until you see other professors with high standards whom students love.  Having observed my share of classes over the years, I can attest that every so often, rigor can be the last refuge of the misanthrope.  

One clue is polarized feedback.  If student feedback on Professor Scrooge is evenly split between “best ever!” and “run away!,” that’s consistent with rigor.  If student feedback is uniformly negative, there’s likely a reason.

That said, I have to admit that yes, sometimes administrators will use pass rates to judge faculty.  At DeVry, I came under pressure to do that, which was a major reason I left.  In the very short term, you can increase pass rates just by passing anybody who can fog a mirror.  But in the long term, that approach is both unethical and institutionally suicidal.  I’ve been consistent in avoiding that and in instructing my deans to avoid that, precisely because I’ve seen what happens when standards fall.

In the context of a community college with a strong tradition of transfer, too much laxity on grading will lead to underperformance by students at destination colleges.  If too many of our students crash and burn at destination schools, the destination schools would eventually either stop taking them entirely or make them jump through so many hoops that they might as well start over.  

To me, the more elegant and sustainable way to handle ideas one and two is to go around them.  That could mean departmental norming sessions for grading papers.  It could mean trading papers and grading them blind.  It could mean agreed-upon rubrics.  It could even mean longitudinal tracking -- do the students who get A’s in Intro to Field do well in Field II, Son of Field?  If they don’t, that’s a red flag.  The red flag could signify any number of things, but it’s there.  

From this side of the desk, I’ve heard far more students complain about opaque or illegible expectations than about high ones.  For the most part -- and yes, there are exceptions -- students respect high standards when they understand them.   I remember in my own student days, the most frustrated I ever got with a professor was when a weak paper got an A-, and a subsequent stronger paper got a B-.  The overall level was probably about right, but the apparent disconnect between what I produced and the grades I received meant that I had absolutely no idea what was valued.  I had received tough grades before, but they made sense; I knew when I was struggling.  In that class, they didn’t make sense one way or the other.  That was maddening.  (To make matters worse, the professor was consistently inaccessible, so I couldn’t even ask the question.)

I’m happy to back up high standards when they’re clear.  If Professor Scrooge expects students in Field III, The Field Strikes Back to go above and beyond, so be it; college is supposed to be hard.  But if Professor Scrooge is miles away from everyone else in the Field department, it seems fair at least to raise the question.  Starting with threats would be counterproductive, but maybe a peer observation or a norming session would be in order.  

Wise and worldly readers, if Professor Scrooge is dramatically and consistently tougher on students than anyone else in the department, what would you do?  For extra credit, try not to violate ideas one and two...