Monday, February 12, 2018

Australia and Appeals

Okay, by now we’ve probably all heard about the professor at SNHU who penalized a student for identifying Australia as a country.  Apparently the student failed the assignment because the instructor didn’t accept that Australia was a country, and the student had to jump through some hoops to appeal the grade.

This will sound awful, but as a college administrator, I can see where something like this could be incredibly hard to avoid.

Grade appeals at most colleges are bounded by criteria.  They have to be; otherwise, any grade could be overturned at any time for any reason.  The integrity of the grading system relies on having some sort of guidelines for appeals.  At most colleges, including my own, grades can be overturned only if they meet one or both of the following criteria:

  • A data entry or computation error can be identified
  • A student’s grade was determined by different criteria than other students in the class

Beyond that, grades stand.  The first criterion refers to a typo or a math mistake; the only time I see that coming into play would be when the professor is indisposed or unreachable.  The second refers to differential treatment.  That could mean discrimination, or it could mean really sloppy application of extra credit assignments.  (Don’t get me started on extra credit assignments…)  That’s it.

There’s no criterion for “the professor was substantively wrong.”  The criteria assume that the academic judgment of the professor is substantively correct.  

And that’s nearly always fine.  We don’t hire faculty who don’t know their subjects.  But everyone has funny little knowledge gaps, and we often don’t know what we don’t know.  

Ideally, of course, a professor who made a factual error and got called out on it would quickly check it and, upon discovering that the objection was valid, apologize and accept the correction.  If that happens, no formal appeal process is needed.  We’ve all been in that spot at one time or another, either because of fatigue, distraction, or simple ignorance.  I’ve found students to be quite forgiving when you simply own the occasional small slip-up.  Of course, “occasional” and “small” are key.  As long as they’re confident that you know your stuff, they’ll forgive the occasional human moment.  

But a professor who digs in and fights the correction would represent a real danger.

In the case of an adjunct, replacing someone who has demonstrated incompetence is relatively straightforward.  But if a tenured professor did this, and stood his ground, it could lead to years of extremely expensive and complicated litigation, as well as sustained and severe reputational damage to the college.  It would play into every negative stereotype about community colleges, and would become a punchline.  The poor student would be in limbo as we fought internally over the authority to overturn a grade for a basic factual error.  Worse, people on the outside who lack any serious understanding of academic freedom would call for its abolition, on the grounds that it enables obvious nonsense.  “Yes, but…” isn’t a great defense in the court of public opinion.

SNHU isn’t a community college, and from what I can see, it handled the incident relatively well and with an apparent sense of humor.  But honestly, most of us are just dumb luck away from something like that going viral at some point.  

So thanks, SNHU, for taking one for the rest of us.  Now to start wordsmithing a possible third criterion...