Monitoring Independent Study

When a professor supervises student work at an outside business, how does a department provide oversight? C.K. Gunsalus helps with the issues and the politics.

April 23, 2010

Dear Survival Guide:

We are seeing faculty who come from professional practice offering "independent studies" to students that seem to profit the faculty members more than their students. The students help in professional practices on the side. In theory the students learn "real world" problems. For example, in one, the faculty member had a student doing demographic research which turned later to be applicable to the market research for a company the faculty runs on the side. Where is the line between scholarship/teaching and exploitation? Additionally, how many independent studies can a faculty member handle? An approval process of sorts would address these concerns. Some members of the faculty are resisting an approval process. They say it is a matter of academic freedom and raising the issue communicates a lack of trust. What they don't realize is that having it all spelled out, what the student will be doing, the time the faculty members will spend with them, and how they will be graded protects them from a charge of capricious grading or an ethics complaint. What other class do they teach where they are not required to have a syllabus? Can you help us think this through?

--Wondering About Oversight

Dear Wondering:

You sound like you’ve thought this through well, and the challenge now is how to get the proper procedures implemented.

Before we get there, let’s review the principles involved here:

Academic credit should be awarded only for work that advances the education of students, within the curriculum, usually as defined by the faculty as a whole.

In situations involving individual arrangements in serious matters (including awarding academic credit), prior approval procedures and written documentation are good practice and protect everyone: the student, the faculty member, and the institution.

Conflicts of interest exist and can be addressed through disclosure and review of proposed activities by disinterested parties.

All three of these principles support the conclusion you’ve reached, which is that individual arrangements between students and faculty members should fall under the general oversight of “the faculty,” not just be idiosyncratic personal arrangements. These arrangements should be documented, reviewed to assure they meet the standards established by the faculty and also reviewed to protect all parties to them. The faculty should be protected against charges of favoritism and capricious grading. Students should be on notice of what is required of them, applicable deadlines and standards that must be met. The academic unit should have records sufficient to document the award of academic credit meeting institutional standards.

The other thing written agreements do is that they encourage a focus on academically-sound work by creating a structure through which to approach proposals, and a paper trail that can be reviewed by others. A colleague of mine who designed and oversaw a conflict of interest review process uses the shorthand "disclose, discuss and document" for a thorough protection of all the parties. Each of the three steps is necessary.

The purpose of written agreements -- contracts -- is to protect parties to them in the case of misunderstandings and disputes. If the unit’s guidelines specify in advance the parameters to be included in an agreement, the opening conversations are more structured and reduce the ambiguity that can arise, even as to whether there’s any arrangement in place. An agreement can protect the student working with a faculty member who just cannot let go, or who decides the week the work is due that it would be great to add another dimension to the project. From the faculty perspective, an agreement protects against a student who shows up with work and hopes to get independent study credit for it, which can happen when the student has just discovered that he or she is short an hour to graduate.

Speaking from personal experience in a unit that required written agreements, mostly, supervising independent studies were great interactions. Twice, though, the required agreement served as a neutral authority that kept me from being the bad guy to students I personally liked who hadn’t managed their time well or simply didn’t meet the requirements. In one situation, the standard set by the college stipulated that an independent study project required an outline, a first draft and a page limit, as well as the deadlines for getting that credit awarded in any given semester. When a paper was submitted to me out of the blue more than a year after the desired graduation date (really), it wasn’t me being mean or unsympathetic, it was the rules and the agreement signed by the student that resolved the situation. In the other case, where the paper submitted was on a completely different topic than agreed, using a literature with which I am not familiar, and that read a lot like it might have been the final project for another class, I didn’t have to go there or raise that question because the written agreement was so clear as to the topic I agreed to supervise.

Most places, a new process affecting work yielding academic credit will need to go through faculty committees, so it could be a challenge in the environment you describe. Two strategies you might consider are collecting data from other units on campus to show what prevailing “good practice” is (that is, what “everybody else” is doing) and building a coalition before you get to a formal meeting where these matters are under consideration. That, too, is how to gather information on prevailing practice for how many simultaneous independent studies are appropriate. Go visit with the key faculty members on the relevant curriculum/policy committees and solicit their views. Listen carefully. See if one of them will advance or “own” the proposal to regularize the policy governing independent study and become its proponent. If possible, collect horror stories about faculty members left vulnerable in the absence of agreements, so the personal jeopardy to faculty is particularly clear to all who will take part in the deliberations. Perhaps people commenting here can help. Your legal counsel’s office may also be able to help or the staff of the student discipline system. Good luck.

A word to readers: We are fast approaching the spring silly season, where pressures on everyone are building from the end of the semester, not to mention that we’re in the middle of tax season — or overdue tax season. Be gentle with yourself and others, as tempers are likely to be shorter, patience frayed and general fratchetiness rising. Count to 10 and avoid escalating disputes. Speak more softly than usual. The trouble you save may be your own.


C.K. Gunsalus is professor in the Colleges of Business and Medicine and a research professor in the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.


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