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Epic Fail
April 16, 2010 - 4:37am

What should a college do when a professor fails 90 percent of the students in an intro class?

Apparently, at LSU the answer is to remove the professor unilaterally, mid-semester. The comments to the IHE story are about 90 percent from faculty trading in the worst anti-administration stereotyping, laced with an intoxicating brew of outrage and moral superiority. But they really miss the story.

Based on the article, I can see heaping piles of wrong on all sides.

Professors have every right to expect that their grading decisions will be afforded tremendous weight, and will be questioned only in exceptional cases and through due process. In this case, there's no sign of anything resembling due process, and the degree to which the case is exceptional is hard to discern. Was she planning to curve at the end? Who knows? If deans go around raising grades just to pacify annoyed students, there will be no end to it, and the highest grades will go to those who whine the loudest. In the absence of a nearly unimaginable smoking gun, the dean was clearly in the wrong in unilaterally overriding grading decisions en masse without an investigation. No argument there.

But that's only a part of the story.

The article also mentions that the professor hadn't taught an intro class in 15 years. From a workload perspective, I find that literally incomprehensible. It could also explain a certain detachment from the reality of what can be expected in an intro course.

More to the point, though, there's no mention of departmental norms for intro courses. While it's easy to retreat to 'academic freedom' and stop thinking after that, we need to remember that there's a legitimate expectation among students that variation among professors' grading standards will fall within a certain range. If a particular professor decides to take it upon herself to become a one-woman generational avenger, then the students who had the rotten luck to get her class will suffer long-lasting damage to their academic careers through no fault of their own. The students who took the exact same course in any semester over the last 15 years -- cough -- will have higher GPA's, and the opportunities that come with that. Assuming that hers was not the only section taught that semester, another student taking a different section of the exact same class at the exact same time could have a dramatically better chance of a higher grade. Some level of variation is to be expected, but a 90 percent fail rate in an intro course for non-majors fails the plausibility test.

In my time at Flagship State, I was frequently advised to grade harshly in the first month of a class to drive away as many students as possible; the idea was to get my grading workload down. The subtext of that was that teaching generally was to be considered a time-suck, something to be minimized in the name of a research agenda. I never liked the idea -- it struck me as selling out the students -- but it was hard to miss.

I don't know if the professor in this case was trying to make a point, was intending to curve, was wildly out of touch, or was just trying to thin the herd and got carried away. (The fact that she gave multiple-choice tests suggests that reducing the time on grading wasn't the motive.) Maybe she thought of herself as a champion of academic rigor.

The comments to the IHE story frequently fall into the simpleminded trap of equating high fail rates with academic rigor. They are not the same thing, and one does not imply the other.

For example, at my cc, remedial algebra has a much higher fail rate than pre-calc, which in turn has a higher fail rate than calculus II. Does that mean that remedial algebra is more academically rigorous than calculus II?

Of course not. And the same inverse relationship between course level and fail rates holds across the curriculum; it's not confined to math. The lower the course level, the higher the fail rate. My cc has a much higher fail rate than does Harvard. Does that mean my cc is more academically rigorous than Harvard? (Okay, bad example. Let's go with Swarthmore instead; the argument still stands.)

Students fail classes for all kinds of reasons. Obviously, what the students bring with them matters a great deal. Strongly-prepared students will generally outperform more weakly-prepared students. Students without full-time jobs will generally outperform students with full-time jobs. And students of effective teachers will generally outperform students of ineffective teachers. If a professor simply can't teach her way out of a paper bag, her students won't do well. Assuming that this year's students aren't meaningfully different from last year's students, but the teacher is, there's a certain surface plausibility to the idea that she is the critical variable.

I'd suggest that the missing link here is the academic department.

As long as the issue is understood either as "heroic prof faces down lazy students and corrupt dean" or "heroic dean protects innocent students against crazy prof," we won't get anywhere. What's missing here is any serious sign of engagement by the academic department in defining its own expectations.

Here I have to give kudos to the English and math departments at my college. Both of them have "grade norming" workshops for faculty -- both full-time and adjunct, and the adjuncts get paid for attending -- in which they go over papers or problems and discuss how they ought to be graded. Although an absolutist might view this as a violation of academic freedom, I actually see it as a fulfillment of academic freedom. Academic freedom in teaching is not an individual right; it is an institutional right. It is up to the college as a whole to determine what is or is not to be taught; that's why colleges have curriculum committees, and it's why departments are free to choose standard textbooks to assign to every section of a given course. (Academic freedom in research is another matter.) When a department sets about defining its courses and its standards, it is not infringing on the rights of its members; it's living up to the responsibilities inherent in owning curriculum. When a department chooses not to bother, and to cede its collective responsibilities to its individual members, it makes a category error and loses the ability to corral outliers.

This is why my preferred method for addressing grade changes is to have a faculty review committee empowered to make the call, under guidelines voted on by the faculty as a whole. As an administrator, I'm happy to stay out of it; besides, nobody can be a content expert in everything. Better to allow the faculty collectively to exercise its institutional academic freedom. In practice, I imagine that this would result in very, very few changes, and that's as it should be. In this case, the dean made the colossal error of substituting his own personal judgment for that of the faculty, and to do so impulsively.

But the better response to a correct revulsion at that dean's action is not to fall back on student-blaming or absolutist (and incorrect) claims of academic freedom. Students deserve some level of protection against arbitrary and punitive grading, which implies that professors do not -- and cannot -- have unlimited power in grading. The college as a whole is allowed to define what shall be taught. Boiling this down to two individuals misses the point. This case suggests strongly that LSU is missing that crucial space in between, in which faculty act collectively to define the academic mission of the college and to uphold standards of professionalism precisely to protect the students. The missing piece is shared governance, properly understood. With that missing, this is just an epic fail all the way around.


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