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An Unfair Request

An Unfair Request
November 9, 2009

Dear Survival Guide:

I am an untenured member of department at a community college with an off-site program. Many of us from the main campus, including me, regularly commute to the off-site location to teach high demand classes. That program has its own director to whom its faculty report. The faculty in that program all have powerful personal and political connections.

Here’s the problem: Last year, a colleague in the off-site program who has especially powerful backers got tenured even though there have been many reports of teaching ineffectiveness, as her “pedagogy” is apparently to use videotapes instead of leading class herself. This has apparently been going on for quite some time and is well known and resented by the rest of the faculty. Her students have been known to wander into other classes seeking help and, on one occasion, assistance in a medical emergency. People who have complained have been told to mind their own business, or worse, fired. The problems escalated this semester, as now she’s regularly started asking those of us who teach at the site to start her videos so she doesn’t have to show up at all.

Right up until she asked me to do this, it wasn’t my problem. Luckily, I had a dentist appointment that day, but now that she has asked, I know she’ll ask again. I can’t avoid her forever. I don’t know what to do. I find this ethically unacceptable. It shortchanges our students who really need the education and it’s unfair to everyone else. At the same time, I don’t want to lose my job and even the tenured faculty seem afraid to touch this matter with a ten-foot pole. What do I do? Help!

--In a Bind

Dear In a Bind:

Ouch. This is a hard problem and you’re in a bind. Most of what follows is a form of thinking out loud; there are so many pitfalls in this situation that I fear it’s going to take some continuing, cautious feeling your way along for some time. I hope these comments help provide a framework for thinking about the problem and provide you some ideas for moving forward.

Some guiding principles come to mind:

1. Stay on the high road.

  • Don’t participate in any actions that violate your own standards or ethics.
  • Beware of the power of the rumor mill: keep asking yourself what you know as opposed to what “everybody knows.”

2. Do what you can to direct information to those who are responsible for the situation.

3. Resolve not to pass along this kind of dilemma when you ascend further along the power curve.

4. Separate your ethical obligations according to responsibilities: your own actions, and what you should do about wrongdoing you observe around you.

Let’s address each separately and then try to bring them all together to build a roadmap for navigating this mess.

Principle 1. Stay on the high road.

Corollary a. Don’t participate in any actions that violate your own standards or ethics.

I'm glad you were able to avoid doing it when first asked, and it does indeed seem likely that you’ll be asked again. Let’s start there: you’re not comfortable starting videotapes for her class -- as few of us would be -- so you need to keep declining to do that. Prepare now, so that, given the relative power of the two of you in your system (she has tenure, you do not), you have a response ready to go that is both truthful and allows you to dodge the practice you find distasteful. Unless you have terrible problems with your teeth, your dentist is unlikely to provide another way out.

Your prepared response should be one that protects you from having to speak out in a way that could jeopardize your job. (Note that if you hadn’t mentioned that others have already paid a price for speaking out, my advice on this point might be different.) Consider changing your class schedule so that you can truthfully say that you’re unable to start her video given your other obligations. If that’s not feasible, can you schedule student appointments before your class so you’re unavailable to help? Could you make a pre-existing commitment to another colleague in the program that would conflict with helping her out? You’ve established a reputation as a helpful person; can you use that to help excuse you from her tasks because you’re helping others? I might not yet have hit on the right “out” for you; do any of these suggestions suggest an idea that could work?

Corollary b. Beware of the power of the rumor mill: Keep asking yourself what you know as opposed to what “everybody knows.”

As you navigate these tricky waters, keep in mind always that the only real data point you have so far is that she, one time, asked you to start a videotape in her class. That fact reinforces most of what you’ve been hearing on the faculty grapevine, but still you need to be vigilant about keeping an open mind. Based on our interactions, it seems to me that your conclusions are likely about her (non)teaching practices. On the other hand, you don’t know with any certainty what the terms of her employment are, how often she shows videos, etc. Be cautious and stick to what you know. Keep in mind that things are not always what they seem. I’m sure you’re already being careful about how you talk about this, given what a hot potato it is, so focus on making no quotable remarks about your colleague’s teaching while you’re in the not-yet-tenured limbo.

Principle 2. Do what you can to direct information to those who are responsible for the situation.

Another form of preparation is to know where to send them if students bring complaints to you about the teaching. Look up the proper procedure and the person to whom they should speak about their concerns. Keep good boundaries in the situation, making clear that you are not the person who appoints or evaluates your colleague and that you want their concerns to be heard by the appropriate people. Consistent with the cautions above, speak carefully, so no one goes away saying “Professor XX told me to complain to you....”

There are some other, less passive, actions that you could take in this situation. For example, you might consider revising your own syllabuses, for your classes on both the main campus and the off-site program, so that they include, clearly and without fanfare, the procedure students can use to complain about your teaching should they wish. When you go over your syllabus in class, discuss each element of it, so in amidst your assignments and expectations, it is clear that a complaint procedure exists and that you think students deserve good teaching to support their aspirations. I’m saying this assuming that you’re comfortable with the quality of your teaching and that it is well received by students.

The general idea here is to put into the student collective consciousness the idea that complaining about sub-standard teaching is possible and to explain the process. Your students in the off-site program likely take classes or talk with students in the video-taught class. If you salt the environment with the concept that there are procedures for expressing concerns, the idea might propagate. A number of student complaints might surface the sub-par practices in a way that wouldn’t jeopardize either them or others, especially if the off-site program is tuition-driven. Although it’s not widely appreciated, a coalition of those at the bottom of the power curve can be a formidable tool in effecting positive change. You’ll need to be relatively low-key about this, because my suggestion is effectively a subversive organizing effort, though a quiet one. Drop the idea into the pond and see what happens, while still protecting yourself by keeping your own conduct above reproach.

Principle 3. Resolve not to pass along this kind of dilemma when you ascend further along the power curve.

When you do get tenure, I hope that you’ll think about whether there’s a constructive role you can play in improving the quality of education offered by your college. Could you volunteer to lead a curriculum review? Serve on a committee that deals with teaching evaluations? Initiate a teaching evaluation?

Look around you and think about these and related questions, so that once you’re in a more stable position, you can be a force for good in your environment.

Principle 4. Separate your ethical obligations according to responsibilities: your own actions, and what you should do about wrongdoing you observe around you.

One of the dilemmas in this situation, once you protect yourself from participating in acts that make you uncomfortable, is assessing your responsibility for reporting perceived wrongdoing.

I’ve written before on how to blow the whistle and still have a career afterwards in the setting of scientific misconduct (see link at www.gunsalus.net). These are hard problems, and we do have obligations to report wrong when we see it. Those obligations are tempered both by what facts you actually know and the likely consequences to you.

You report that others have been threatened and fired for complaining about your colleague. When you do not have tenure and work in an at-will employment environment, there’s not much to be gained by acting, and much to be lost. The system doesn’t sound well-structured for focusing on facts, not personalities, nor especially interested in serving its students. Not only might you lose your job by speaking out, your students would lose you as their conscientious instructor. For now, so long as you’re not participating in the scam, I don’t see that you have an obligation to report.

What you must do is provide the best education possible for your students. Direct those who complain to the proper authorities, while articulating good boundaries: you lack power and responsibility in the situation. It is not your job to investigate, but it is your job to stay aware of the environment around you. Keep track of facts and track carefully your own ability to make a difference. And you should do this in a written record at home or on a non-college computer account.

Once you have tenure, reassess. If you have documented facts, your ethical obligations -- and your ability to be heard -- may change. Watch for changes in the power structure or larger environment that indicate a willingness to attend to the quality of instruction.

This is a hard situation to be in. We all feel the responsibility to right those wrongs of which we are aware. In the setting you describe, though, any action you take now would be beyond your role and could cause damage, including to your students, you and your career.

I am not advocating standing passive in the sight of all or even most wrongs. What I am suggesting is that, as you describe the situation, action on your part now is not justified nor likely to be effective.

Protect your own reputation by assuring that your actions are correct and do not participate in unethical behavior. As for reporting, keep your powder dry until it is your role to act or there’s an opening where it might be heard and acted upon. Think about how to get into roles where you could properly stimulate a review to determine if the rumor mill is correct or misplaced. Do all you can to support those directly affected who seek your counsel, within the limits of your current duties. Keep your eyes open for opportunities to change the limits of your role and do all you can to assist students who are (or might be) affected.

And good luck. I’m sorry to hear about the situation you’re in, and I hope it changes for the better sooner rather than later. Stay in touch.

--Survival Guide

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