AAUP censures four institutions, calls out others

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Association's annual meeting on academic freedom issues features a debate on whether Steven Salaita's rights were violated and consensus that Wisconsin politicians are undermining their university system.

Judge Orders Release of Donor Emails in Salaita Case

A judge on Friday ordered the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to release emails regarding the revoked tenure appointment of Steven Salaita. The American Indian studies scholar found himself without a job last year after Chancellor Phyllis Wise objected to the tone of his Twitter comments about Israel. Salaita has maintained that donors illegally influenced Wise’s decision, based on the previous release of some emails between Wise and unnamed donors. Salaita wants the full, unredacted email record regarding his nonappointment, but the university has maintained that such a request is unduly burdensome.

Robin Kaler, university spokesperson, said that the institution maintains the request is too large, and that it will “do its best” over the coming weeks to produce the some 9,600 documents regarding Salaita’s case. Kaler said the university tried to negotiate his request to a more manageable size, with little success. Maria LaHood, Salaita’s lawyer at the Center for Constitutional Rights, said the university was trying to avoid transparency, but that the court agreed releasing the emails was in the public interest. “We look forward to seeing what the university was so eager to hide,” she said. Salaita has another ongoing lawsuit against university leaders and the John Doe donors for breach of contract and tortious interference, among other claims.

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Jury Backs Professor Fired by Erskine College

A South Carolina jury last week found that Erskine College violated the rights of William Crenshaw when it fired him in 2011 from his tenured position as a professor of English. The court ordered Erskine to pay $600,000 to Crenshaw. While the college has never been specific on the reasons it first suspended and then fired Crenshaw, many traditionalists in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, with which the college is affiliated, objected to many of his statements. Crenshaw, who won teaching awards and many student fans in 35 years of teaching, was known for encouraging critical thinking. He spoke out regularly about, for example, the need to study science even in ways that do not conform literally with the Bible. Crenshaw's suit said his dismissal violated his rights because the college ignored its own rules and its stated pledge to protect academic freedom.

A spokesman for the college said he could not comment, but said that an appeal was possible.

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Study Challenges Conventional Wisdom on Retractions

With retractions of scholarly papers attracting much attention these days, a study that will be released Wednesday will challenge conventional wisdom on the factors that encourage work that must be retracted. The paper will appear in PLOS ONE and features an analysis of retractions to look for trends. A summary of the paper is available now at Retraction Watch. "The hypothesis that males might be prone to scientific misconduct was not supported, and the widespread belief that pressures to publish are a major driver of misconduct was largely contradicted: high-impact and productive researchers, and those working in countries in which pressures to publish are believed to be higher, are less likely to produce retracted papers, and more likely to correct them. Efforts to reduce and prevent misconduct, therefore, might be most effective if focused on promoting research integrity policies, improving mentoring and training, and encouraging transparent communication amongst researchers," says the summary.

It adds: "Some factors were associated with a higher rate of misconduct, of course -- a lack of research integrity policy, and cash rewards for individual publication performance, for instance. Scientists just starting their careers, and those in environments where 'mutual criticism is hampered,' were also more likely to commit misconduct."

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Trailer Arrives for Film on Stanford Prison Experiment

The trailer has arrived for a film, being released nationally next month, about the Stanford Prison Experiment (which is the name of the film as well), a controversial experiment at Stanford University in 1971 in which students were assigned to play the roles of prisoners and prison guards. The study had to be halted as the students playing the role of guards became sadistic. While many criticized the experiment, it remains much studied in psychology courses, and is cited when events such as the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib raise issues about how people change in certain situations.

Here is the trailer:



For those who want to review the scholarship about the experiment, here is a website about the experiment by Philip Zimbardo, professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford and leader of the study.

And for fans of film about controversial social science experiments about how good people can be led to do bad things, watch for Experimenter as well, about the Stanley Milgram experiments in which research subjects were led to believe they were administering shocks on others. The film is currently on the festival circuit and will be released generally later this year.

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Essay about a professor who learns his son has discovered RateMyProfessors.com

There are professors who find student comments on their end-of-semester evaluations so upsetting that they cry after reading them. If my course evaluations have tended to be pretty good, I can still relate to how faculty members feel, thanks in part to RateMyProfessors.com. Side by side on the site stand evaluations from students who gave me high marks and others who gave me low marks -- in the same exact areas. I can see a host of negative and mediocre rankings for classes I taught very differently some seven years ago -- and one that I never taught at all. I’ve peeked there from time to time and have tried to learn what I could from things students said there, but have not spent a terrible lot of time on the site.

I’ve tended to view what one finds there as akin to YouTube comments -- most are gushing praise or insulting jibes, with very little middle ground. And most people will never comment, leaving the soapbox to those who feel strongly, having had a positive experience or, more likely, a negative one.

And so you can imagine my dismay when my son, who is in high school, told me that he had looked me up on RateMyProfessors.com. I'm sure a worried look crossed my face, but I tried my best to retain my composure. Apparently RateMyProfessors.com had been mentioned on Reddit recently, and anything that is featured prominently on Reddit, my son spots -- almost but not quite always before I do.

As it turned out, my apprehension was unnecessary. As the conversation progressed, I found myself really impressed by my son’s thoughts regarding the comments about my classes that he saw there. One student on the site had written, "I would advise not taking his class because he can't keep the class discussion going." Another complained, "He wasn't good at stimulating conversation." My son, despite still being several years away from university, was astonished by such comments. How, he asked, can students have the audacity to blame the professor for something that is the responsibility of the students themselves?

A conversation that began with fear and trepidation on my part ended with a sense of satisfaction. I had always taken comments on RateMyProfessors.com with a grain of salt. But it was reassuring to realize that a young person, still a student, without my prompting, could draw the same conclusion, based simply on what he knew about online reviews and things that he learned on Reddit. We often despair for humanity reading online comments, whether they are on YouTube, Reddit or RateMyProfessors.

Usually, when it comes to course evaluations, the fact that students are required/compelled/pressured to complete them means that one has a wider range of useful data to work with. If most students have filled in evaluations, and all the comments and ratings are similar, then you know that you really are doing a good/terrible job -- the results are statistically significant. If one only had course evaluations from students who hated or loved the class enough to fill them in, one would probably have a distorted perception of what one has accomplished, whether that perception errs on the side of being too negative or too positive. As with the complaints, the flowing praise of the course and its instructor some students offer may have as much to do with their own work habits and motivation as anything the professor did.

Comments (whether on official evaluations or RateMyProfessors) become less discouraging as one’s career progresses, because one becomes aware of what one is and isn’t able to control. I’ve taught two sections of the exact same class, with the exact same syllabus, back to back on the same days of the week in the same semester. The students from one of those classes gave me some of the highest ratings on the course evaluations that I’ve ever gotten; the students from the other gave me some of the lowest.

I learned some really important lessons from that experience. One was to avoid teaching two sections of the same course in the same semester if I can. But another was that you can do essentially the same things in a classroom, and it is not guaranteed to either succeed or to flop.

Unless you are still approaching classes in the traditional lecture mode, with students expected to write down and reproduce what you say, then your role is probably more like that of a coach. The same coach can work with two different groups of students on the same team at the same university, but they will not necessarily have comparable successes and failures. Because we know that, however much we hold coaches responsible, ultimately it is up to the players on the team to put the training that they are given into practice, to translate it into effective playing in games. In the same way, the same course materials may work really well with one group of students and less well with another. That doesn’t mean the students were necessarily less hardworking. Sometimes it is about their prior knowledge or personality types rather than their motivation or diligence.

I’ve heard lots of faculty complain about “kids these days.” I think such complaints are misguided -- and not just because my son’s reaction to RateMyProfessors.com gives me great hope for “kids these days.” I think we as faculty members are prone to forget that, in many cases, we were not typical students as undergraduates. Those who go on to pursue Ph.D.s and become professors are often those who enjoy learning for its own sake. Don’t you remember there being others in your classes who didn’t participate in discussions, didn’t read beyond the bare minimum, if that, and were content just to drift through classes?

None of the things discussed here are due to new technology, either. Even before there was RateMyProfessors.com, students were spreading the word about professors. And students didn’t require electronic devices to be distracted or tune you out and then rate you negatively for it. I remember early in my teaching career having my department chair tell me that he had heard from another faculty member, who had heard from a student, that I tend to drone on and on in an uninteresting manner in class. The chair sat in on my class soon after that. The discussion was lively, and he was thoroughly happy with it. But there was one student who sat flipping through a magazine or catalog the entire time -- with my department chair sitting right next to them! I can’t help but suspect that that student was the one who felt the class was boring.

It reminds me of this exchange in the Friends episode “The One With Joey’s Fridge”:

Monica: What’s the charity?

Rachel: I don’t know, something either trees or disease -- Ralph mumbles a lot.

Monica: Does Ralph mumble when you’re not paying attention?

Rachel: Yeah! It’s weird…

While there are exceptions, most students who are motivated and diligent do not find even a truly boring professor who mumbles a lot to be a hindrance to learning.

This is not to say that I haven’t undertaken efforts to improve. I have done so, even on the basis of comments on RateMyProfessors.com. One thing I never learned to do earlier in my career was how to use my voice properly. And so I took singing lessons -- in part because of musical interests I happen to have, but also because I suspected that this would improve the clarity of my communication.

I recorded my lectures using Panopto, partly because I wanted to try out the “flipped classroom” approach, but also in part because I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity this technology afforded to listen to what I sound like in class. I made conscious efforts to deal with “ums” and other verbal habits. And I think that these efforts have done more to give students a better experience in my classes than any changes I’ve made with respect to a syllabus or a textbook.

And so what’s the takeaway message of this experience? A number of things come to mind. One is the fact that some things will always depend on the student. Some students will take comments on RateMyProfessors.com seriously, and as a result may never take your class, or may take it and then be disappointed that you did not seem as stellar as that review on the website led them to believe you would be. You can do the same things and they may work well for some students and not for others. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t things you can do to improve. And in the process of developing your teaching ability even into the middle of your career and beyond, you can model lifelong learning to your students in ways that may help them to take responsibility for their own learning.

But ultimately, I think the biggest takeaway message is that there are students out there who have the understanding to perceive what a site like RateMyProfessors.com does and doesn’t tell you. And those students will, I suspect, be the very ones who will have the understanding to perceive what your course is about and engage with it in ways that are conducive to their own learning.

My son had a favorite comment about me from RateMyProfessors.com, and it was this one:

Having been reminded about this comment, I am seriously tempted to make it my Facebook banner. I can live with being described as a jolly leprechaun -- especially by someone who appreciates meaningful discussions about the spirituality and philosophy of science fiction, and who is capable of spelling "leprechaun" correctly, to boot!

I hope this article will provide some encouragement to faculty who feel beaten down and discouraged as a result of comments on RateMyProfessors.com. But if it doesn’t make you feel better, then you can always try using RateYourStudent.com. I don’t think it will convey any more useful information about what students are like than RateMyProfessors.com ratings do about professors. But ultimately, venting is about catharsis, and when we recognize that students and professors do that at times, we will be better poised to learn what we can from the feedback we receive, and having done so, to then move on.

James F. McGrath is Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University. He is the author of John’s Apologetic Christology and The Only True God and editor of Religion and Science Fiction (with Andrew Crome) and Time and Relative Dimensions in Faith: Religion and Doctor Who. He blogs at Exploring Our Matrix, where a precursor to the present essay first appeared.

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U of All People proves that any college can offer a high-priced M.F.A. (essay)

U of All People has missed more than a few boats in academia, including MOOCs and nanosemesters. But one trend we’re determined to ride is the low-residency M.F.A. degree.

Or at least Professor Ronald Whittaker is. As a Victorian specialist and novelist manqué in the English department, he leads the undergraduate creative writing program at U of All People, having published a short story in the small-press journal Journal 15 years ago. Since 2010, he has announced his intention to increase the presence of creative writing on campus, but he lacks the numbers. At present, the department has only Whittaker and Michael Ames, a poet whose day job is composition and more composition.

But a low-residency M.F.A. program doesn’t really have to be a part of campus any more than a limpet mine needs a limpet. Successful programs have arisen in the unlikeliest of schools, and U of All People certainly qualifies in that regard. It even has the potential to generate revenue or, as the dean of liberal arts put it in a closed meeting, “make more money than a cow at a milking convention.” Accordingly, Professor Whittaker has drawn up a program proposal and started pushing it by the 17 different committees whose approval are necessary before it goes through 17 other committees, the last of which is tasked solely with changing all commas to semicolons.

But resources and staffing remain real gaps, which Professor Whittaker has taken pains to cover. Below is an abridged form of the proposal, version 13b:

A Low-Residency M.F.A. Program for All People

Rationale: The purpose of a low-residency M.F.A. program in creative writing is to empower those individuals who are tired of their boring jobs and figure that writing is easier than working. To that end, this low-residency program will provide the illusion of future artistic employment as those enrolled learn the meaning of fourth drafts.

Market research: The 10-mile radius around the U of All People campus alone, a rural town whose chief business is sorghum, boasts 500 wannabe authors, eager to experience the writer’s life of rejection, alienation and poverty. Moreover, a hastily circulated questionnaire shows that many of Professor Whittaker’s creative writing students would happily repeat the course.

Program of studies: The AW low-residency M.F.A. program at U of AP comprises 40 credit hours or 13 modules, whatever a module is:

--3 workshops, I, II, and III. Taught by Professor Ronald Whittaker, Ph.D.

--3 craft seminars, including the Victorian novel, Victorian prose and Tennyson. Also basic composition refresher course. Dr. Lardon Thwaitker.

--1 reading series. Arnold Hittwaker and Michael Ames.

--3 panels on editing and publishing, put on by Roland Tweakhirt Associates.

--1 publishing internship at R. W. Press. Repeatable for credit.

--Short-term subjects (take 2):

  • Writing pedagogy (teach one of Michael Ames’s composition classes).
  • Putting a book together (assemble pages from Arnold Hittwaker’s unfinished novel, Strewn Boats).
  • Networking in the publishing world (the English department chair has an uncle who once worked at Scribner’s).

--Terms of residence: Students come to the U of All People campus twice a year for 10-day periods to start their semesters, after which they return to wherever they came from, and Ronald Whittaker will stay in touch.

--Thesis project: all students must complete a book-length work of words.

--Consultant’s report, still to come, to be presented by I. M. Canine (anyone can be a consultant).

David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is the short story collection My Date With Neanderthal Woman (Dzanc Books).

Nearly Half of Senior Tenured Professors Want to Delay Retirement

Some 65 percent of tenured senior faculty members plan to put off retirement for various reasons, according to a new study from the TIAA-CREF Institute. But the reasons behind that figure might not be what you think. Just 16 percent of respondents said they’d like to retire by the “normal” retirement age of 67 but expected to work longer for financial reasons. A much bigger proportion of respondents -- 49 percent -- said they’d want to work past age 67 by choice.

Those findings are similar to what was observed in a similar 2013 TIAA-CREF study on faculty retirement: that faculty members were putting off retirement, but not just for financial reasons in a still-bumpy economy. Some of those choices are based on “unconfirmed assumptions,” according to the report -- either that faculty members won’t have enough money to retire or that they won’t find viable work alternatives. Female faculty members are more likely than their male colleagues to expect to retire by normal retirement age. Paul J. Yakoboski, a senior economist who co-authored the report, said universities should talk to faculty members about both the financial and psychosocial aspects of retirement so that they can make informed choices. The full report is available here.

AAUP session discusses off-list reference checks

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Should faculty members be concerned if administrators check references who were not supplied by job candidates?

Many Professors Quit Jobs in Venezuela

Many faculty members are quitting jobs in Venezuela, where they are finding it impossible to support themselves on government-mandated salaries that are as low as the equivalent of $30 a month, the Associated Press reported. At the Central University of Venezuela, for example, 700 faculty members (out of a total of 4,000) have quit in the last four years.

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