Life

Syllabus

On the first page just after the required novels
And before the list of learning outcomes
I'd paste a photo of me from '73
Scraggly hair and wire-rimmed glasses
And then torn from my long gone journal
Some half poem or worry on the day
So they might see me and not me
Who could be their dad or worse
With these handouts and so much to read
How jealous I am I am almost crying
How much I love them.

Author/s: 
Laurence Musgrove
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Laurence Musgrove is an associate professor of English at Saint Xavier University, in Chicago.

The Flaws of Facebook

An acquisitions editor of a major university press was nice enough to buy me a cup of coffee and a brioche and listen patiently as I pitched him my book manuscript during a recent meeting of my professional association. Things went well enough until, at the end of our meeting, he surprised me. On our way out of the café, he turned to me and asked "are you on Facebook?" "I am," I replied, nonplussed, "but I, uh, don't really check it very often." "Well I do," he said, tone heavy in significance, "so friend me."

My dislike of Facebook is not based on ignorance or a knee-jerk academic ludism. I understand exactly what Facebook is – it's an Internet replacement service that combines e-mail, instant messaging, photo sharing, social networking, mailing lists, asynchronous gaming, and personal Web hosting all in one. Crucially, it allows differing degrees of privacy, so you can blog safely about the antics of your adorable cat or the incredible evil of your department chair without either of them finding out unless you add them to your friends list. What bothers me about Facebook -- the dilemma highlighted by my encounter with the editor -- is the particular problem it presents for academics, whose professional career and personal goings-on are all rolled up together into one big life of the mind.

Teaching is an intensely public activity in a very simple way: You spend hours and hours having people stare at you. Over time this simple three-shows-a-week schedule blossoms into something infinitely weirder. It does not take long for professors to find themselves walking around a campus filled with half-remembered faces from previous classes -- faces worn by people who remember you perfectly well. If you teach at a large state university, like I do, it does not take long before random waiters and pharmacists start mentioning how much they did (or didn't) enjoy that survey class you taught. There are even apocryphal stories in Papua New Guinea -- the country that I study -- about a man who more or less taught every social science class at the country's university during the late 70s. He spent the rest of his life never having to stand in line or fill out a form because he had trained the vast majority of the nation's civil servants, who all remembered him fondly.

The public created by your teaching is much larger than just the students in your class. Whether we lament or rejoice in the purportedly poor state of teacher evaluation, it does happen. Those forms our students fill out have strange afterlives and become the source of evaluation by deans and whispering among the senior faculty. The Internet unleashes these evaluations as well, allowing our classroom antics to be shared on Ratemyprofessor.com.

So is Facebook a dream come true for academics -- a private social networking site where professors can finally let down there hair because you control your audience, in the way that the average "I hate the world" anonymous adjunct blog cannot? I would say No. In the physical world professors uneasily navigate the uneasy blurring of their public and private lives, but Facebook doesn't allow for blurring -- you are either friends or not. This extremely "ungranular" system forces you to choose between two roles, private and public, that the actual, uncoded world allows us to leave ambiguous.

Which of the following people would you friend on Facebook? A friend from graduate school? Probably -- Facebook is, for better or worse, a great way to take the Old Boys Club online. A fellow faculty member? If you get along with them, why not? Your graduate students? Hmmm... well I suppose some people have that sort of relationship with their graduate students. Your undergraduates? I've drawn a line in the sand and said no to that one.

I think these cases are actually pretty easy -- categories like colleague and student are well-defined, as is the distinction between a "purely" formal relationship and the intimate friendships that grow up around it. I'm sure that many of the people reading this got to be where they were today because a professor in our lives went beyond the call of duty to become a friend and mentor. Facebook makes handling the formal and the informal tricky, but in all of these examples a lot of work has already been done for it because the relationships in question can all be neatly divided into "formal" and "informal" registers.

What Facebook makes particularly uncomfortable are relationships in which friendship and professionalism are not clear and brightly bounded, but are tied to real political economic stakes. As a young professor on the path to tenure, for instance, acquisitions editors have a certain ominous power over me that compels me to friend them on Facebook (and I did friend him, by the way) and might even include small favors up to and including shining their shoes if the end of the deal includes an advance contract. On the other hand, as someone with a tenure track job, I am also in a position of diffuse power over people like adjuncts and lecturers, who I get along well with in my department, but who do not come to faculty meetings in which we discuss the budget (read: their pay).

The more widely you friend people on Facebook -- and it is a slippery slope -- the more and more your Facebook page becomes a professional Web replacement on Friendster's slick Internet replacement Web site. It becomes less and less a "private" space and more and more a place to show a public face to a very wide audience. In forcing you to craft a public persona, it raises uncomfortable issues of power and inequality and lurk under the surface of our actual world interactions -- which is probably a good thing.

I don't dislike Facebook because it forces me to reflect on uncomfortable truths. I dislike it because it aspires to a world in which these truths are washed away in a swirling sea of Friends. It claims to offer privacy but only magnifies dilemmas of publicity. It offers us a world in which we do not have to stand up and be counted. Living public life is not easy, but learning to do so gracefully is a better solution than a retreat to the supposedly cloistered halls of Facebook.

Author/s: 
Alex Golub
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Alex Golub is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who blogs at Savage Minds.

Why I Teach Intro

You probably recall that in George Orwell’s 1984 the authorities bring Winston Smith to a torture chamber to break his loyalty to his beloved Julia. Perhaps you do not remember the room number. It is 101.

The modern university institutionalizes Orwell’s association of the number 101 with torture. Faculty and students often consider introductory courses an affliction.

I suspect that colleagues award teaching prizes to 101 instructors partly as compensation for relieving themselves of the agony of teaching introductory courses -- a suspicion that first occurred to me last year, when I shared an award with the University of Toronto’s Centre for the Study of Pain, much praised for its relief of suffering.

Why, then, do I teach introductory sociology? My colleagues have been too polite to remind me of the alleged downsides, but they are well known. First, teaching an introductory course is often said to be a time-consuming activity that interferes with research and writing -- the royal road to prestige, promotion, and merit pay. Second, it is reputedly boring and frustrating to recite the elementary principles of the discipline to young students, many of whom could not care less. Third, the 101 instructor performs supposedly menial work widely seen as suited only to non-tenured faculty members, advanced graduate students, and other personnel at the bottom rung of the academic ladder. Although I understand these arguments, I do not find them compelling. For me, other considerations have always far outweighed them.

In particular, teaching intro solves, for me, the much-discussed problem of public sociology. Some sociologists believe that working to improve human welfare is somehow unprofessional or unscientific. They hold that professional sociologists have no business drawing blueprints for a better future and should restrict themselves to analyzing the present dispassionately and objectively. However, to maintain that belief they must ignore what scientists actually do and why they do it. Sir Isaac Newton studied astronomy partly because the explorers and mariners of his day needed better navigational cues. Michael Faraday was motivated to discover the relationship between electricity and magnetism partly by his society’s search for new forms of power.

Today, many scientists routinely and proudly acknowledge that their job is not just to interpret the world but also to improve it, for the welfare of humanity; much of the prestige of science derives precisely from scientists’ ability to deliver the goods. Some sociologists know they have a responsibility beyond publishing articles in refereed journals for the benefit of their colleagues. One example is Michael Burawoy’s 2004 presidential address to the American Sociological Association, a gloss on Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach”, in which Burawoy criticized professional sociologists for defining their job too narrowly and called for more public sociology. Still, many sociologists hold steadfastly to the belief that scientific research and public responsibility are at odds -- largely I suspect, because they are insecure about whether their research is really scientific at all, so feel they must be more papist than the pope.

Setting such anxieties aside, one is left with the question of how to combine professional pursuits with public responsibility. One option is conducting research that stimulates broad discussion of public policy. Some of my colleagues study how immigration policy limits the labour market integration and upward mobility of immigrants; others how family policy impairs child welfare; and still others how tax and redistribution policies affect inequality. To the degree they engage educated citizens in discussion and debate on such important issues, they achieve balance between their professional and public roles.

I have chosen a different route to public responsibility. I have conducted research and published for a professional audience, but I have also enjoyed the privilege of addressing hundreds of thousands of members of the public over the years by teaching Sociology 101 in large lecture halls and by writing textbooks for intro students in several countries. As Orwell wrote, communicating effectively to a large audience may be motivated by aesthetic pleasure and egoistic impulses. Who among us does not want to write clear and compelling prose and to be thought clever for doing so? But in addition, one may want to address a large audience for what can only be deemed political reasons.

In 1844, Charles Dickens read his recent Christmas composition, The Chimes, to his friend William Charles Macready, the most famous Shakespearean actor of the day. Dickens later reported the reading to another friend as follows: “If you had seen Macready last night -- undisguisedly sobbing, and crying on the sofa, as I read -- you would have felt (as I did) what a thing it is to have Power.” I understand Dickens. I, too, relish the capacity to move and to sway a large audience to a desired end because it signifies that my influence will not be restricted to a few like-minded academics and that I may have at least some modest and positive impact on the broader society. I find most students burn with curiosity about the world and their place in it, and I am delighted when they tell me that a lecture helped them see how patterned social relations shape what they can become in this particular historical context. On such occasions I know that I have taught them something about limits and potential—their own and that of their society. Teaching intro thus allows me to discharge the public responsibility that, according to Burawoy and others, should be part of every sociologist’s repertoire.

In Marx’s words, “it is essential to educate the educators” -- especially those who persist in believing that teaching intro bores, frustrates, interferes, and suits only the academic proletariat.

Author/s: 
Robert Brym
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Robert Brym is professor of sociology at the University of Toronto. A version of this essay first appeared in Academic Matters, which is published by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations.

Lost and Found in the Classroom

In 1990 I began to mediate cases for the Harvard Mediation Program; that same year I was hired to teach law and conflict resolution to undergraduates at Mount Ida College. It took me several years to realize how my experience as a mediator could enrich and improve my teaching methods in the classroom. It all came together when I began to use labyrinths and mazes as tools for teaching the mediation process.

The terms labyrinth and maze are often treated as synonyms, but there is one key difference between them: A labyrinth has only one way in and one way out; you cannot get lost or choose a wrong path. A maze has choices, various ways in and out, numerous dead ends and deceptive paths. In the Greek myth, Daedalus was commissioned to build a structure to house the deadly Minotaur (half man, half bull). The so-called “labyrinth” he constructed was actually an intricate maze, which prevented the Minotaur from finding its way out. This is why (later in the myth) Ariadne gave Theseus a long thread to help him find his way back out of the maze after slaying the Minotaur.

Labyrinths were popular in the Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages; the famous pavement labyrinth in the Cathedral at Chartres was designed to help people on their spiritual journeys. Pilgrims walked the winding path until they arrived at the heart of the labyrinth, a symbol of the quest for enlightenment.

I used to view teaching as a labyrinth, one way in, one way out: You came to class well prepared, gave interesting lectures, allocated time for group exercises and role-plays, assigned relevant readings and papers, and posed provocative questions for discussion. Students completed their assignments on time, came prepared to discuss the reading in class, studied diligently for exams, participated enthusiastically in group exercises, and mastered the major concepts of the course. What could be simpler?

You can stop laughing now. After a couple of semesters I realized that I couldn’t approach my courses the same way my professors had approached theirs. Students’ expectations often did not align with my own; they had different priorities, challenges and attitudes toward their work. Teaching was not, in fact, a labyrinth; it was a loopy and perplexing maze full of unexpected turns and dead ends, and I desperately needed a thread.

The thread emerged from my mediation training and practice, which, when I finally made the connection, helped me find a solution to the conflict between my students’ and my own expectations.

Mediation clients are not unlike our students: anxious, somewhat leery of the process, fearful of the unknown, hesitant to take risks. Disputing parties often expect the mediator to suggest solutions to their problems. But the first principle of mediation -- self-determination of the parties -- requires that the mediator not suggest but elicit solutions from the parties.

There are several reasons for this strategy, the most important of which is that if the solution does not come from the parties themselves, they feel less invested in their agreement and are less likely to uphold it. If a way out of their maze can be found, the parties must find it themselves, with the mediator’s guidance. In this respect, mediation is an exercise in critical and creative thinking, a form of teaching and learning.

At some point I realized that self-determination and ownership of outcomes was as important for my students as for my mediation clients. So I decided to apply this basic principle to one persistent problem I was encountering in the classroom.

I was frustrated in my Leadership Studies Seminar because students would not do the assigned reading before class. Instead of participating in a discussion of materials they had previously read, they came to class apparently expecting me to go through chapter and verse, highlighting everything they needed to know for the exam (and nothing else, thank you). Sound familiar?

I tried the usual strategies to encourage them to read the assigned pages before they came to class: in-class minute papers, group presentations, pop quizzes, study questions, penalties for lack of class participation. (I know that these tools can be helpful and even essential. They just didn’t solve this particular problem.) My students didn’t budge. I was giving myself a lot of extra grading and they still weren’t reading before they came to class. Yes, students who didn’t read the text got low grades on exams, but that didn’t improve class discussions or make me feel any better.

Clearly, as I often urged my mediation clients, I needed to approach the problem from a fresh perspective. I wanted my students to read the materials in advance so they were familiar with the issues raised in our class discussions, and not rely on me to do the reading and thinking for them. I didn’t want to spend valuable class time on pop quizzes or questions that received blank stares in return. I wanted the class to be fun and thoughtful and to get students to engage more actively. I had reached a dead end and needed to find a way out.

I settled on a plan that allowed for more choice and autonomy in how students prepared for class. In each class we would explore in depth only one or two major issues, based on short articles or passages (students chose them from a selection) we would read together at the beginning of class. However, students were responsible for all assigned readings on the syllabus, whether or not we discussed them in class. If they had questions or comments about the reading, they could bring them to class. If they had no questions, I would trust that they understood the material.

For exams, students could bring in any notes they had prepared themselves or in a study group. (No photocopies or handouts were allowed.) This policy obviated the need for memorization of the text and encouraged students to use their time to read all of the assigned materials, organize their thoughts, and approach the reading with a critical eye to determine how the information might appear on an exam.

No exam question could be answered straight out of the text; all questions called for application of leadership theories and concepts to scenarios drawn from our films. Students were required to support their arguments with concrete examples from the text and films, and in most cases, analyze and draw conclusions about the choices made by the leaders we were studying.

In the last class, armed with their notes, students gathered in small groups and drafted a list of five essay questions they thought would be appropriate for the final exam. Each group chose two questions to share with the class, and group recorders wrote them on the board. We then discussed possible answers and supporting evidence. The final exam had one required essay and a choice of four of six remaining essay questions.

The experiment succeeded on several levels. We all enjoyed the short communal readings and in-depth discussions; the material was fresh in our minds and everyone was on an equal footing in terms of preparation. For my students, the pressure was off to complete all of the required readings before each class, and I didn’t feel as though I had to lecture and review the reading in order to fill an information vacuum.

Most students (I wish I could say all) did the assigned reading at their own pace, brought well organized notes to exams, and in some cases formed study groups. Since students didn’t have to spend time memorizing the text or fake their answers on exams if they drew a blank, their essays were much more thoughtful and well-reasoned, in some cases a delight to read. And because they were given a choice of essays on the midterm and final, they could present their best work.

One unexpected bonus was that, since I no longer reviewed all of the textual material in each unit (students now owned that task), we had time to surf the Web to find supplemental information on the leaders we had viewed on film. My students took charge of that and enjoyed teaching me shortcuts through cyberspace.

For me, this was Ariadne’s thread: my students were more active and engaged, wrote much better exams, and seemed to respect my goal of giving them more choices in the teaching and learning process. Our class discussions were thoughtful and lively. But best of all, I could stop being the Minotaur in the classroom.

Author/s: 
Ellen Goldberger
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Ellen Goldberger is a professor in the School of Arts and Sciences at Mount Ida College, in Massachusetts.

Who Really Pays for Assessment?

Nothin' from nothin' leaves nothin'
You gotta have somethin'
If you wanna be with me.
--Billy Preston and Bruce Fisher

Many essays in these pages have debated the pros and cons of assessment, but I have not yet seen a discussion about what from my perspective is a crucial question for anyone involved in the assessment process: Who pays?

For the purpose of this essay I want bracket the question of the value of assessment. In fact I want to imagine, as proponents of assessment claim, that the kinds of assessment now being required or proposed are distinct from the kinds of assessment academic departments have traditionally performed, and that these new kinds of assessment improve instruction.

But if these assessments add value, who creates that value? There is no such thing as a free lunch. And it is faculty who are very often being asked to cook up this assessment meal. The new work is not trivial. Of course, faculty members carry out assessment as part of their regular employment. This ordinary assessment includes evaluating student assignments, both individually and at the end of a course, and broader evaluation of the direction and effectiveness of academic programs.

Recent calls for assessment add new layers to this traditional work of the faculty. Indeed, there may be more than one externally imposed, large-scale assessment requirement. State education boards may have their version of assessment requirements, and regional accrediting agencies another. Because these requirements do not necessarily coordinate either with one another or with the kinds of assessment in which faculty have traditionally been engaged, members of the faculty can find themselves involved in multiple assessment projects at once, each with its own distinct requirements. There are additional labor costs involved in learning the frequently complex number of assessment cycles and report formats required, even before one does the actual work of a new assessment.

All told, I would estimate that I spent about 50 total working hours last year on additional required assessments: these hours include tasks such as learning about multiple assessment formats and assessment software, meeting with assessment staff to discuss requirements, collecting information, drafting multiple reports and coordinating sections of these reports with colleagues. This 50 hours of time was just mine. To estimate the total cost to my department, you would need to multiply that number by 4 (the number of faculty members for whom this assessment was a principal duty), and then a fraction of that number -- say an average of 8 -- by another 15 faculty who helped in various ways with the assessment. The total hours come to 320. That's a lot of work, and hence a lot of work not being done somewhere else. Only a fraction of that work could be folded into the traditional forms of assessment done by faculty.

At my institution, moreover, there is little administrative support for these new assessment requirements. Our small assessment office works valiantly to keep up with its own ever-increasing workload, but because of the strains on that office there is little the staff can do for departments other than communicate information about assessment requirements and leave departments to figure out how to meet them.

Some proponents of assessment argue that the work should be understood as part of a faculty member's job description. As noted above, I agree that assessment of students and programs is part of a tenure-line faculty member's responsibility -- of teaching and service, to be exact. (I strenuously disagree, however, that already underpaid part-time faculty should be required to engage in these additional forms of assessments, as they sometimes are.) But you can't have your cake and eat it. If there is something new, and hence value-added, in the current calls for assessment, beyond the forms of assessment that members of the faculty have traditionally performed, then there must also be new work involved -- work that had not previously been part of the responsibilities of tenure-line faculty.

There are a few ways to understand how this new work gets added on. First, one could justify this addition by claiming that tenure-line faculty have been under employed. Those who believe that to be the case should state it explicitly, and provide good evidence to back up their claim.

Second, one could grant, as I believe is the case, that faculty already have full loads comprised of teaching, research and service. In that case, institutions could take seriously the idea of new assessment requirements by shifting faculty work obligations. What percentage of the faculty member's job should be devoted to new assessment requirements? Perhaps, for example, universities should lower research expectations in order to allow faculty time to carry out new layers of assessment, or perhaps members of the faculty should receive some form of course release.

Because universities are, very reasonably, unwilling to cut back on any of the current obligations of their tenure-line faculty, I suspect they turn (as at my institution) to the tempting strategy of piggy-backing. In this strategy it is hoped that since members of the faculty have always assessed instruction, they can just add the new assessment requirements to the mix. In my experience, however, this strategy is less piggy-backing than camel's back-breaking. Especially troubling is that the faculty charged with new forms of assessment are often those who were already most involved with forms of assessment traditional to the department or college.

For example, our undergraduate committee was delayed by a semester in carrying out planned improvements to the undergraduate program because our time was spent assessing and reporting according to the requirements of a new state-mandated assessment. At the minimum, advocates of new assessment requirements must be willing to state that they are comfortable asking faculty that have long-standing modes of self-assessment to give up (rather than double-up) these forms of self-assessment, in order to create time to comply with the new requirements.

There is one more approach, the worst of all. That's just not to care. This approach says (more or less tacitly) "if the faculty have more work to do, so what? Things are tough all over." This approach is not only unfair, but also counterproductive. The work gets done, but it gets done poorly. If one considers declines in service in businesses that are trying to do more with less (for example, the airlines) it is easy to see how disastrous an approach this is. Overburdening faculty, in fact, most adversely impacts the very constituency that assessment is supposed to help: the students.

So here is my proposal. From now on, all plans for assessment should come with plans for who is going to do the labor, where the labor time is going to come from, and, if need be, who will pay for it. This side of any assessment plan should be as detailed as the requirements for assessing itself, including an estimate of the added number of hours required for the assessment, as the IRS estimates the time to do our taxes. I would add that if there are readers who think I must be overestimating the amount of time my department spent on additional assessment requirements, at least I am providing an estimate (I wish, in this case, I had treated my hours as billable!). It would be helpful to see from assessment proponents how much time -- additional to the ordinary teaching and service responsibilities of faculty -- they believe the assessments should take, and, again, where that time should come from.

I have to hope that those who believe the most in the value of new assessment requirements would be the most enthusiastic about accounting for the monetary or staffing resources required to carry them out. After all, to the principles that there's no such thing as a free lunch, and that you can't have your cake and eat it, we may add that you get what you pay for. If we're going to take new assessment requirements seriously, let's not nickel and dime them. And if we're not going to nickel and dime them, then we need serious and explicit discussions about who pays.

Author/s: 
Unfunded Mandate
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Unfunded Mandate is the pseudonym of a member of the faculty at a large state university.

Knowledge Overload

Coping with the deluge of information is a major challenge for students, scholars, librarians and the general public. After all, with thousands of online newspapers, blogs, and academic journals, Google Books digitizing millions of titles, massive amounts of information coming online each day, major innovations in content management, and the ubiquitous impact of e-mail, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other new technologies, we find ourselves awash in petabytes of information of widely varying quality.

While we struggle to accommodate Web 2.0 and all of its implications, however, we are paying too little attention to another reality of our time: that the traditional ways of disseminating knowledge have grown well beyond our capacity to assimilate information. There is scarcely a field of academic inquiry that has not experienced massive growth in the past three decades. Few scholars even attempt to stay current in their broad discipline; most operate, sometimes in a near panic to keep up, in sub-disciplines, if not sub-sub-disciplinary fields. Those in multi-disciplinary or inter-disciplinary areas of inquiry face even more profound challenges.

When I entered the academy in the mid-1970s, it was quite possible to keep up with major developments in my sub-discipline of Canadian history. Each book, even in a distant area of Canada’s past, was worth noting, if not reading, and the handful of academic journals in the field were easily accommodated. Now, the profound growth of scholarly output has made it a formidable challenge to try to stay current, forcing many of us to retreat into narrow fields of inquiry, in my case northern Canadian and Aboriginal history.

Many academics have responded to the challenges by being more focused and, ironically, by reading less than in the past. After all, with professional rewards focused on productivity rather than receptivity, many realize that additional publications are more important career-wise than keeping up with the journal literature and reading the latest academic books, save for those germane to their current research. Now, of course, with online material expanding exponentially, the task of staying current has become that much more difficult.

But before we attribute the intellectual explosion to the Internet and digitization, we need to realize that the scale of academe has grown well past the point of saturation. Consider not the material available through new technologies, but focus instead on the old-knowledge systems: academic journals, books and conferences. The proliferation of journals has proven simply remarkable, providing numerous venues for scholarly dissemination (and producing an unhappy debate about the list of top-tier publications, impact factors, citation numbers and the like). The list of scholarly books grows seemingly exponentially – although the sales of these same volumes have been hit severely by declining library budgets, soaring costs and a flooded market among penurious academics.

And then there are the conferences. For those academics with professional development funds at their disposal, admittedly a more select group this year, there are dozens if not hundreds of professional meetings. They range from tiny workshops to national disciplinary sessions, from quiet retreats at vacation hot-spots to cattle-call mega-conferences. The attractions are obvious: a chance to network with academic colleagues, exposure to the brightest minds in the field, an opportunity to try out new ideas, book fairs and social time with like-minded thinkers.

There are brilliant conferences, where stunning ideas are introduced and where academe is at its very best. There are boondoggle conferences, which attract many registrants, few attendees, and produce little of scholarly merit. Most are in the former category and most scholars approach these events with seriousness of purpose and professional commitment. But even here, there are abundant signs that the scale of the academic operations has vastly exceeded our individual and collective capacity to assimilate and disseminate scholarly information.

Consider a major sub-disciplinary meeting in political science meeting, held recently in New York City. A junior colleague from my university attended and asked for advice on picking the most appropriate sessions. The online program was staggeringly large, running to more than 185 pages. The event lasted for four days, with sessions running, at 1 hour and 45 minute intervals, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Almost 50 sessions ran concurrently, with an average of four presenters per session. With five time slots, this meant that there were close to 250 sessions and some 1,000 papers per day, or a total of 4,000 scholarly presentations. This was an impressive conference. A quick review of the presenter lists revealed the presence of top scholars in the field, with contributors coming from around the world.

Intellectually, the conference offered a wealth of opportunities. Paring the massive list of possibilities down to a manageable selection proved extremely difficult, even with access to a convenient online feature that produced a personalized program. An initial run of preferred sessions revealed a minimum of three sessions per time slot, making the final decision very difficult. By any measure, this meeting had the potential to be a challenging and impressive intellectual experience.

Of course, the execution proved much different than the promise. The same math would suggest that, with 4,000 paper-givers and perhaps another 1,000 others attending, that there would be approximately 100 people at each session (varying according to the speakers, topic and collective interest). The sessions my colleague attended attracted small audiences, typically around 20 people and sometimes many fewer. By the time that the chair’s introduction and the commentator’s contributions were added to the presentations, there was rarely time for more than a handful of questions. The tightly packed schedule – only 15 minutes between sessions – restricted opportunities for follow-on conversations. The debate and exchange that one hopes for in academic sessions was episodic rather than commonplace.

Given that this conference was devoted to my colleague’s sub-discipline, it is not a stretch to suggest than 50 percent of all of the papers related somehow to her teaching, professional and research interests. So, back to the math quickly. Assume that papers were collected from these selected presentations – some 2,000 in total. It would take, realistically, approximately one hour to do justice to each contribution. The time frame is daunting. Two thousand hours represents the equivalent of 50 weeks of full-time reading, clearly an unachievable number. So, let’s reduce this to a mere 10 percent of the papers, or 400 in total, and a more “manageable” 10 weeks of full-time reading. Allow for some speed-reading – half an hour per paper instead of an hour – and the time frame is compressed to a mere five weeks of reading.

The point is obvious, simple and telling. A scholar cannot begin to do justice to the intellectual potential of an academic conference by attending the event. In this instance, assuming full-time attendance over four days (which would be an accomplishment given New York City’s many fine attractions), my colleague could attend only 20 sessions and hear only 80 papers – a full enough slate but representing only 2 percent of the fare on display at this intellectual buffet. Nor, realistically, could one person ever collect and read more than a small percentage of the total academic output from this one gathering. And this is only one conference in one year, only a tiny drop of water in the floodwaters of the contemporary academy.

So, in our haste to prepare ourselves for Academe 2.0, let’s recognize that the old analogue academe has already overwhelmed our capacity to gather, read and assimilate the research, analysis and collected wisdom of our age. Wading through hundreds of conference programs, scanning (thankfully now electronically) thousands of journal indexes, and struggling with hundreds of book catalogues – let alone finding the time to read all of the relevant material -- has us already falling well short of staying truly current.

There are those who argue that the proliferation of scholarly output is a case of bad writing driving out good, and that we should turn to the best journals and the best university presses as gatekeepers for what truly matters. I am not in that camp, having long-ago realized that insight and inspiration can come from many quarters, that some of the big name venues are more conservative than courageous intellectually, and that we need to let as many scholars as possible find their voice.

But there is a fundamental problem here that needs to be addressed. Look at this issue from the other side. A significant number of articles, including many published in small circulation periodicals, are never cited by anyone. Think, too, of the conferences papers that fail to attract meaningful audiences, the journals that have tiny circulations and very small readerships, and the fact that most academic books are published in press runs of under 1,000 copies, despite the growth in the number of academics and university and college libraries. Put bluntly, we are researching without having an impact, speaking without being heard and writing without being read. Furthermore, our tenure and promotion procedures reward publication more than they do awareness of the field, thus pushing up conference attendance, and journal and book submissions.

There may well be a convergence possible between Academe 1.0 and Academe 2.0. New technologies certainly do find things faster and share them more broadly. Digitized materials are readily assembled and moved from producers to libraries to end-users. But there is a major impediment to improvement in this regard: the capacity to read. No one has yet found a system that will truly allow us to assimilate new research more effectively. And so, we read indexes rather than journals, abstracts rather than papers, review essays rather than books. Awash in a sea of academic discourse and analysis, we look desperately for an intellectual life-raft, all the while feverishly seeking to add to the accumulated scholarly wisdom ourselves.

It is time to take a very deep breath and to step well back from our current approach to academic dissemination and publication. Consider that New York conference. Would the discipline and the practitioners not have been better served if there were three or four large concurrent sessions, each involving the key and most innovative thinkers in their field, rather than a vast proliferation of tiny sessions? But how many colleges and universities will provide travel funds, or even partial support, only for scholars who are giving a paper? And do we, in the world of Web 2.0, really need to constantly add to the number of published – and sadly unread – academic journals and books. Can we not elevate the scholarship of synthesis and interpretation back to the highest rank of professional inquiry, recognizing the remarkable talent needed to bring together in a readily digestible form the accumulated insights of thousands of scholars?

The irony in all of this is that it is academic career and advancement requirements, more than faculty preferences, which are driving the current pattern of academic dissemination. New doctorates, eager for a place on the tenure track, work like crazy to get into the right conferences and journals. Recently hired faculty know that tenure rests on getting the right hits in the right journals and, maybe, getting their dissertation published as a book. Tenured faculty know that merit and final promotion – indeed, their personal standing in the field – rests on continued and even accelerated publication output.

We have collectively created the equivalent of an academic monsoon over the past three decades, with no change in the forecast for the coming years. Without a major reconsideration of how we share and use information, how we keep up with the field, and how we recognize academic accomplishment, we will continue to add to the floodwaters, all the while spending less attention on whether or not anyone reads our work, listens to our presentations, or appreciates our professional contributions. Academe 2.0 offers tools to build more effective dikes and even to regulate the flow. But we need to realize that the lakes at the end of the bloated academic rivers – our faculty, researchers and students – have finite capacity, in terms of time and ability to assimilate information. Controlling the scholarly input is crucial to ensuring that we actually learn from and about each other, and ensuring that our academic work truly makes a difference.

Author/s: 
Ken Coates
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Ken Coates is professor of history and dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Waterloo.

Defending Collegiality

In his provocatively titled recent book, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, Robert I. Sutton argues for zero tolerance of “bullies, creeps, jerks, weasels, tormentors, tyrants, serial slammers, despots, [and] unconstrained egomaniacs” in the workplace. These individuals systematically prey on their co-workers, especially the more vulnerable ones, leaving their victims feeling humiliated, belittled, and demoralized. Their weapons include personal insults, threats and intimidation, hostile e-mails, public ridicule, and scornful interruptions. In the environments that they poison, enthusiasm for work gives way to anxiety, resentment, and a longing to get out.

The importance of a civil workplace struck Sutton more than 15 years ago during a department meeting at Stanford University, where he teaches. As his colleagues debated hiring a candidate for a faculty position, one of them remarked, “Listen, I don’t care if that guy won the Nobel Prize ... I just don’t want any assholes ruining our group.” Sutton describes the group as a collegial and supportive small department, “especially compared to the petty but relentless nastiness that pervades much of academic life.”

Although he goes on to cite many businesses that have the zero tolerance policy that he advocates, he does not return to his bleak characterization of academic life. Neither does he explore the reluctance of universities to hold faculty members to the rules of conduct that many businesses are implementing — rules that supplement standard prohibitions against harassment and discrimination — even while they apply them to staff. At my own university, for example, exempt and non-exempt staff are explicitly required to “cooperate and collaborate with other employees in a spirit of teamwork and collegiality” as a condition of their employment. Faculty members are not.

The reluctance to adopt a code of conduct for faculty members stems in part from a belief also expressed in corporate workplaces: that geniuses must be jerks and that some belligerence, indifference to others, and rudeness are inseparable from the achievements of a Steve Jobs or Bobby Knight. Sutton counters this view by observing that not all successful people are jerks and that jerks succeed despite their cruelty to others, not because of it. I would add that the odds are slim that the professor yelling at the departmental secretary spends the rest of his day bringing about a Copernican revolution in his discipline.

Sutton also argues that even in the extremely unlikely event that the bully is a genius, he still does more harm than good — which is why a Bobby Knight or Michael Eisner eventually wears out his welcome. Making exceptions for seemingly special cases can be damaging, not only in spawning imitators but in depressing the initiative of others. Sutton rightly emphasizes that “negative interactions have five times the effect on mood than positive interactions”: “a few demeaning creeps can overwhelm the warm feelings generated by hoards of civilized people.”

However, the November 1999 American Association of University Professors statement on collegiality as a criterion for faculty evaluation — while conceding the importance of collegiality to teaching, scholarship, and service — favors limiting a faculty member’s evaluation to these three areas on the grounds that vigorous discussions are essential to academic life. Adding collegiality as a yardstick, the AAUP asserts, is not only unnecessary — it risks “ensuring homogeneity,” “chilling faculty debate and discussion,” and curtailing academic freedom by stigmatizing individuals who do not fit in or defer to the group:

In the heat of important decisions regarding promotion or tenure, as well as other matters involving such traditional areas of faculty responsibility as curriculum or academic hiring, collegiality may be confused with the expectation that a faculty member display “enthusiasm” or “dedication,” evince “a constructive attitude” that will “foster harmony,” or display an excessive deference to administrative or faculty decisions where these may require reasoned discussion. Such expectations are flatly contrary to elementary principles of academic freedom, which protect a faculty member’s right to dissent from the judgments of colleagues and administrations.

Weeding out the gadflies, critics, and malcontents (via the criterion of collegiality), according to the AAUP statement, leaves us with the “genial Babbitts” and casts “a pall of stale uniformity” on what should be a scene of vibrant debate.

“Should be” is the key phrase here. The individuals Sutton is criticizing — the bullies, jerks, and so on — themselves chill debate through personal attacks, intimidation, and invective. One sign of this is the relief felt when they are away. Instead of disappearing, dissent blossoms, as individuals can now express ideas without fear of vicious recrimination and unfounded attack.

Thus, some faculty members have begun exploring codes of conduct, not because they want to squelch free debate but because they want to enable it. They are especially concerned about the most vulnerable faculty members – often newcomers with fresh perspectives and much-needed enthusiasm – who may shy away from departmental deliberations lest they jeopardize their personal futures. The motivation behind codes of conduct is not to make everyone agree but to let everyone feel free to disagree, allowing all voices to be heard.

The literary scholar Linda Hutcheon offers a version of this argument in her recent essay “Saving Collegiality,” in Profession, published by the Modern Language Association. While acknowledging the potential dangers of poorly worded and insensitively enforced codes of conduct, Professor Hutcheon reaffirms the importance of mutual respect, civility, and constructive cooperation to healthy debate: “Harmonious human relations need not stifle the right to dissent that we all so rightly treasure; instead they can make dissent easier, because safer. I fail to see how inclusivity and collaboration would necessarily chill debate.”

I think that this mounting interest in collegiality stems from the intensification of the forces arrayed against it:

  • A star system that widens inequities between the haves and have-nots and equates academic success with a reduction in teaching loads, service commitments, and other work on behalf of the institution.
  • Greater reliance on adjuncts and part-time faculty with little connection to the departments that hire them.
  • Tension between administrators and faculty exacerbated by top-down methods of management and increased demands for narrowly defined measures of accountability.
  • A poor job market that places individuals at institutions where they may not want to be, thereby fostering feelings of estrangement, disdain for colleagues, and single-minded efforts to leave via one’s research.
  • Heightened specialization subdividing already splintered departments.
  • Recourse to e-mail as a substitute for face-to-face collaborative decision-making. Its impersonality unintentionally licenses individuals to fight and distrust one another even more (as Sutton explains, “apparently this happens because people don’t get the complete picture that comes with ‘being there,’ as e-mail and phones provide little information about the demands that people face and the physical setting they work in, and can’t convey things like the facial expressions, verbal intonations, posture, and ‘group mood’ ”); and, finally,
  • Inadequate salaries and benefits at many universities, deepening resentment, stoking competition for increasingly scarce material rewards, and adding new urgency to often longstanding rivalries and feuds.

Add to these forces department chairs who are inadequately prepared for dealing with conflict, and an already fragile community begins to pull apart, giving antisocial behavior even freer rein.

The disintegration of community takes a special toll on academic workplaces. In a chapter of tips for surviving nasty people and hostile workplaces, Sutton mentions developing indifference and emotional detachment, limiting contact with one’s adversaries, and doing the bare minimum required by one’s job — in effect, disengaging. These are not solutions but survival strategies intended to assist individuals stuck a demoralizing job that they cannot change or escape.

So collegiality turns out to be important as well as endangered: important because necessary to the free discussions, voluntary service, and constructive collaborations that universities depend on and endangered because so many institutional developments militate against it. Thinking about the collegial atmosphere of a particular institution, one of the contributors to the Profession symposium wonders if it might not just be “the luck of the draw,” the happy byproduct of a mix of people who just happen to get along, rather than the result of institutional intention.

But other contributors rightly counter that some steps can be taken, especially by department chairs, to foster collegial professional relations: for example, modeling respectful treatment of others, expressing appreciation, hosting social events and lunch meetings, sharing information, informally consulting with and involving colleagues, distributing responsibility, supporting reading groups organized around certain topics, setting up forums where faculty members can discuss teaching or present their research — in short, creating a vibrant social context for decision-making and debate. It can be harder to demonize people you eat lunch with or see at a reception with their children. One contributor to the symposium shrewdly defines a dysfunctional department as “one where the main interactions with the faculty are around tenure decisions.” Embedding difficult discussions in a network of relationships cushions their potentially divisive impact.

At the same time, another contributor to the Profession symposium, Gerald Graff, makes the important point that these “soft” ways of nudging faculty members into collegiality, though necessary, are not sufficient. As “add-ons” or “Friday afternoon solutions,” they must compete with other priorities in a busy professor’s life. When deadlines call and the pace of the semester picks up, attendance drops off and enthusiasm wanes.

Professor Graff argues for supplementing these measures with structural changes in the curriculum such as team teaching, exchanging classes with a colleague at mid-semester, and teaching one another’s books. Overcoming the customary isolation of teaching enables collaboration to be incorporated into what we do every week.

There remains, however, the problem of those admittedly few angry, disruptive individuals whom no one would want to teach or mix with — the “bullies, creeps, jerks, weasels, tormentors, tyrants, serial slammers, despots, [and] unconstrained egomaniacs” that I started out this essay with.

It is always tempting to ignore these individuals, hope they’ll go away, or find some way of excusing them. In “When Good Doctors Go Bad,” Atul Gawande observes the extraordinary lengths physicians will go to look the other way even when one of their colleagues repeatedly botches surgeries, abuses patients, and triggers lawsuits. As with many cases of professorial misconduct, the people in the best position to see the damage being done can be in the worst position to take action against it: junior physicians, nurses, staff members. Meanwhile, senior physicians are held back partly by the tremendous work involved in documenting and substantiating evidence of incompetence and partly by social pressures.

There’s an official line about how the medical profession is supposed to deal with these physicians: Colleagues are expected to join forces promptly to remove them from practice and report them to the medical-licensing authorities, who, in turn, are supposed to discipline them or expel them from the profession. It hardly ever happens, for no tight-knit community can function that way.

As in academic departments, intervention gives way to avoidance but at great cost, in the one case to the incompetent physician’s patients, in the other to the abusive professor’s colleagues and students, who sometimes come into play as prizes to be fought over or enemies to be scorned because they have sided with a rival.

Even so, despite the odds against it, in hospitals and doctors’ practices sometimes the bad physician loses his license or gets sanctioned in some other way.

In universities, here is where a carefully designed faculty code of conduct can become necessary — as a last resort, when other interventions have failed and the behavior in question falls through the cracks of the faculty handbook. The threshold for invoking the code should be high, not just by one isolated outburst. But the expectation of collegial behavior, of cooperating and collaborating with other employees in a spirit of teamwork and collegiality, should be there — not as a distinct criterion for promotion and tenure but as a condition of employment for faculty as well as for staff. Once faculty members make the difficult decision to act against a disruptive colleague, they must have the means of doing so, lest powerlessness and frustration make their demoralization even worse.

After a code of conduct is institutionalized, it becomes everyone’s responsibility to use it. In my experience, most people treat others in the academic workplace with respect, consideration, and care, conduct code or no conduct code. My intent here has not been to legislate collegiality but to make sure that in those rare instances when enough is enough, when egregious behavior persists and reaches a carefully defined tipping point, faculty members and administrators are in a position to do something about it.

Author/s: 
Michael Fischer
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Michael Fischer is vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty, as well as a professor of English, at Trinity University, in San Antonio. Prior to joining the Trinity administration, he was dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of English at the University of New Mexico. A longer version of this essay will appear in Change and is available on the magazine's Web site.

Identity Politics and Invisible Disability in the Classroom

When professors interact with students, an unspoken rule dictates that we should avoid calling unnecessary attention to the bodies in the room. We follow this rule instinctively and, for the most part, with good reason. This rule works well particularly in regard to gendered bodily differences. De-emphasizing bodily differences -- most differences being clearly of minor or no importance in an academic setting -- between groups constitutes one way to foster tolerance for individual differences and American democratic ideals. In this regard, classrooms mirror national ideals of human equality.

In the case of disability, America values the benefit gained from de-emphasizing bodily difference so much that this benefit has become a national objective through law: the Americans With Disabilities Act. The central functions of the law include not only ensuring that people with disabilities are provided with reasonable accommodations in the workplace but ensuring as well that they receive accommodations without having to disclose their disability publicly. This latter legal right is, of course, considered a particular advantage for those who have invisible disabilities, such as minor hearing loss (like mine) and other minor to moderate sensory disabilities, chronic non-life-threatening disorders, and some kinds of psychological/cognitive disabilities.

Notwithstanding the potential benefits of retaining this right to privacy about one’s disability in our workplace — the college classroom — I would like to make a bold counter proposal to my professional peers who, like me, have invisible disabilities: let us as a group establish a common policy to come out as disabled in our classes each semester. My experience with both options of negotiating my disability — retaining privacy and coming out — has shown me that, although coming out is not a necessity for me to perform my job as a professor and has even brought about occasional awkward moments, coming out as a professor with a disability is more than worthwhile in so far as it fosters positive identity politics among my students with disabilities.

I had chosen to retain privacy at the universities, one in Rhode Island and one in Louisiana, I had taught at as a teaching assistant prior to being hired 13 years ago on the tenure-track at Angelo State University, in West Texas. However, to adjust to my new Texan students’ speaking style (for an exaggerated example of this style of speaking, think of Boomhauer on the Fox Network show "King of the Hill") and low-keyed body language, which limits visual communication cues I can usually rely on, I was prompted to disclose my right-side hearing impairment. I worried at first about causing unnecessary confusion for students about the extent of my impairment. But I found after that the results of the first experiment in coming out were so positive that such minor confusion, which was less difficult to dispel than I originally thought, was unimportant in comparison with what was gained in coming out as disabled.

In just the first couple of academic years out of the “able-bodied” closet, I was approached by more than a dozen students, including two hearing impaired students who had taken previous courses with me but whose hearing impairments I had not known about, who told me about their own invisible disabilities and sought me out as an academic mentor. I noticed that students with both visible and invisible disabilities exhibited a different attitude toward me and about their own identities as students with disabilities than I had perceived when I was passing as non-disabled. These students with disabilities to whom I had disclosed my disability were more self-assured than my students with disabilities had been with me when I had been passing as nondisabled. They participated more freely in class discussions and asked more readily and with less self-consciousness for appropriate disability accommodations. And in the decade or so since my first experimental semester coming out as disabled to my classes, I have found that these initial impressions were correct, as scores more students with disabilities responded in the same encouraging ways.

Of course, coming out with an invisible disability must be done carefully to avoid the difficulties often associated with any coming out process involving stigmatized identities. The disclosure must be performed so that one does not seem to be trying to elicit pity from students, either nondisabled or disabled. Nondisabled people confronted with another person’s disability tend to feel, often unconsciously, as Lennard Davis aptly asserts in Enforcing Normalcy, a “welter of powerful emotional responses . . . . horror, fear, pity, compassion, and avoidance," emotions that most professors would do nearly anything, short of a crime, to avoid evoking on the first day of class.

And, even more important for my argument here, many disabled people despise pity-inducing moments on a more conscious level, thinking of them in the same category as Jerry Lewis’s annual Labor Day pity fest, which achieves its financial end through the unjustifiable means of ritually parading Jerry’s “poster kids” in front of a nondisabled television audience so that this audience may collectively sigh in gratitude that they are not “crippled” too. To avoid this counterproductive evoking of pity, I have found that maintaining a matter-of-fact attitude, keeping explanations as brief as possible, and focusing on the impact of the disability on classroom dynamics specifically make the disclosure practically and ideologically useful for both disabled and nondisabled students. (Conversely, professors with invisible disabilities that do not impact classroom dynamics might need only mention that, like some students and faculty, they have a disability too, without specifying it, perhaps as a quick addendum to calling students’ attention to their university’s procedures for acquiring accommodations, which most professors include on their syllabi and refer to on the first day of class.)

In light of these experiences, I urge other professors with invisible disabilities to come out to students as well and to become more aware of the considerable number of faculty with such disabilities on their campuses. For instance, in the English departments at the three universities at which I have taught about 20 percent of faculty members have invisible disabilities (not surprisingly, far fewer than this percentage — less than 5 percent — have visible disabilities). Unfortunately, however, none routinely come out as disabled to their students, and none have given much thought to how many professors and students with disabilities exist around them. Further, all of those to whom I have advocated coming out as disabled have been concerned about negative repercussions in their classes, while none of these professors have thought about the negative repercussions to students with disabilities of such passing by professors.

Indeed, the choice to pass among professors with invisible disabilities prevents all of their students, disabled or nondisabled, from seeing an important facet of the diversity of American culture. Such passing particularly undermines the academic and career-related success of students with disabilities. When these students cannot find appropriate mentors among the faculty who serve them, they lose an opportunity to develop the identity politics necessary to collective social activism. Coming out, in contrast, provides an ideal moment to introduce disabled and nondisabled students to the growing interdisciplinary field of disability studies, and to direct them to research done in the field through the Society for Disability Studies and other resources that examine disability as a category of identity instead of merely as a medical construct. By coming out — refusing the less ethical choice of passing — professors with invisible disabilities can educate students to become truly democratic citizens prepared to explore individual identity from all perspectives.

Author/s: 
Linda Kornasky
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Linda Kornasky is associate professor of English at Angelo State University.

The Dreaded Grade Appeal

During a routine conversation about the semester, curriculum, and student population, a colleague of mine burst in with a frustrated comment about grade appeals. He thinks that we’re seeing more formal grade complaints than in past years. A dozen contacts at community colleges and universities seem to agree; we’re seeing more and more students going to the administration to complain about individual assignment grades, course policies, and final course grades. On a bad week, I will see more students in my office wrangling over assignment grades than those truly hoping to improve their academic performance. It’s depressing. Like many of my academic friends, I want to blame the generational divide for what looks like an increase in the number of grade appeals. After watching “I Love the 80’s” every night in a week, I want to wail and cry, mumbling that this new generation just doesn’t understand. They have no sense of what’s appropriate. They don’t respect authority. And their sense of entitlement is overwhelming. That, my friend, is what’s causing this increase in grade appeals across the nation.

Maybe. Maybe not.

When I off VH1 for a moment, I start to sort out some of what’s underneath this blanket statement that it’s us against them. Yes, the new Millennial students have a different sense of hierarchy than middle-aged folks like me. In the 70’s and 80’s, most administrators of businesses hid behind heavy doors and left customers to talk to counter staff or receptionists. Today, many businesses are transparent. The Internet allows customers to find out the name of the owner of even the largest business and with a click, e-mail them directly about a concern. In forums and chat rooms, anonymous posters can reveal an opinion about anything at any time. No one knows the poster’s age, gender, level of education, culture, or social status. In a way, this is the most democratic of processes. Of course this may have been one of many reasons why our traditional authoritative structure has shifted and changed in the last few decades. And this might explain the occasional “That’s just your opinion” response I receive when I return an essay to a student with comments and a rubric. After all, in the online world, all opinions seem to be of equal value. For the less experienced student, having one’s roommate, boyfriend, or role-playing forumites reading one’s work may be just as useful as having a trained tutor or instructor take the time to critically read and make suggestions. Maybe.

And maybe my students’ increased level of comfort at exposing one’s ideas online (or elsewhere) could help convince them that there is no hierarchy in knowledge — just fantastic bits and pieces of wisdom gleaned through online forums and blogs. Sewn together, this patchwork may seem just as valuable as the scholarly journal that is edited and produced by Ph.D.'s at a respected institution. And my students’ cauldron of original thought is available at 3 a.m. with the click of a button.

Sometimes I agree with colleagues who feel that the recession has not only forced students to feel desperate to get a degree, but also encouraged our administrators to reach farther and farther out to recruit students to support programs developed decades ago. And maybe we are approaching less qualified students. But I also know that I love teaching. And one reason for that is the occasional surprise brought on by what we would have called an “unqualified” student who suddenly becomes interested in a subject, changes his or her major, and pursues a certificate or degree — something that no one could have predicted. Lives are changed and generations feel the impact. For that I will slog through the stack of papers that simply restate the same lukewarm opinions again and again. After all, hidden in that towering stack (or the next stack) may be the paper that reveals an “Aha!” moment for a student who others may see as “unqualified.” This is the reward that goes beyond the student.

I do think what is behind the increase in grade appeals is more complex than a generational split. Some of the reasons for students’ grade appeals are age-old. Yes, our institutions are more transparent and administrators are more available. Yes, our administrators may be under increasing pressure from students, parents, and the community to provide a certificate or degree to a student where a high-school diploma may have sufficed 10 or 20 years ago. And yes, our digital native students may have more confidence questioning authority or structures that seemed inapproachable years ago. Still, according to a few administrators I’ve worked with, the complaints are often the same — vague class requirements, uneven enforcement of policies, and poor communication head the list.

After serving on a formal grade appeals panel at my community college, I vowed to simplify my own class policies and put into place some very comprehensive (and visible) statements on difficult topics like plagiarism and academic dishonesty. Not only do I state verbally and in writing what is necessary to pass my course — I now quiz my students so that I can reassure my administrators that on the first day of class, out of 24 students, 24 demonstrated that they understood the most important class policies and requirements. Of course this won’t guarantee that I won’t be suffer a formal grade appeal later that semester; still, it gives me some confidence that not only will I be able to show that my requirements were clear, but that the student had at one point reiterated those requirements to me.

Why the push to avoid grade appeals? Like other not-yet-tenured instructors, I realize that no matter how positive my reviews, if I receive too many grade appeals, I may not be given tenure. And my adjunct friends have it even worse. Complaints and grade appeals often mean not being offered work the next semester. And for those seeking full-time work, this can be the black mark that means no interview when the next full-time position becomes available. Experienced colleagues may see a certain number of complaints and grade appeals as healthy; they often indicate an instructor who is rigorously teaching the curriculum. Still, those of us who have been in education for some time understand how multiple grade appeals will be viewed by the administration. Reviewing one’s materials for clarity, spelling out expectations in many formats, and attempting to minimize miscommunication would have a positive impact on one’s teaching in any case.

This last year, I also talked to colleagues at length about how they handled attendance, absences, make-up work, and late work for their courses. I then altered my own policies to reward students for their attendance and hard work (the carrot) rather than punish them for a lack of attendance and missed work (the stick). Rather than assign a specific percentage for attendance and then take away points when students are not present, I now give students points for a short quiz given at the start of each class. I still have strict requirements for passing the course, but my mentors assured me that this small change would help students perceive me as fair and less cynical. In just one semester, I experienced a significant drop in the number of students who made the decision to march into my associate dean’s office to complain about my teaching (or grading).

One great read on grade appeals is Marcia Ann Pulich’s, “Student Grade Appeals Can Be Reduced” published in 1983 in Improving College and University Teaching. Although it’s dated, many of the concepts are still applicable. In short, Pulich advises professors to communicate grading policies clearly and stick to them. She advocates a simple grading method and recommends that professors check to see that students understand individual grades and how they relate to their final in-class grade.

An experienced colleague I know uses a simple computation for final grades — each assignment is worth points that add up to 1,000. Students can clearly see how they’re doing at any stage in the course. I weight grades, stating the total percentages for each area on my syllabus. I’ve also had support staff at my college add my name as a student to my Blackboard sites for all my courses. I then load in some grades for assignments, and project this overhead several times during the semester so that I can explain in detail what each percentage means to that assignment. Since this corresponds visually to the percentages listed on my syllabus, students often have fewer questions and complaints later in the semester.

Pulich advocates concrete responses to students’ inquiries. She states that on an essay, comments justify a lower grade. I also use a customized rubric that shows how a student fares in a number of areas including content, logic, structure, and mechanics. There’s no mystery to this rubric; in fact, students have already seen this instrument before they’ve completed their written work. Before we get started on that particular assignment, I not only show them sample student essays, but I also grade an essay (with comments and a rubric) in class on an overhead. This helps students understand what’s most important in their own work. They also feel less frustrated later if they don’t receive a perfect grade.

Like Pulich, I believe that some misunderstandings between student and instructor can be avoided by clear, concrete response in verbal and written communication. In my early teaching days, I might have written to a student, “I’m concerned about your recent rough draft. Please see me immediately.” Today I would write, “I am giving this paper a zero because outside sources are not cited. If I don’t hear from you by Friday, September 25th, I will consider this a case of plagiarism and you will be failed in this course. If you contact me before Friday, September 25th, I will allow you to rewrite this material for your final draft without a late penalty.” I then copy the e-mail to myself, print out a copy of the e-mail to deliver to the student in person at our next class meeting, and wait for a reply. If the student replies by e-mail, I keep a copy of that message in a digital folder for the course and reply, reiterating my instructions. Perhaps this sort of rigidity isn’t necessary with upper-level courses and graduate students; however, in my area (developmental- and transfer-level English), providing deadlines and penalties ensure that I get a response from the student, helps them understand exactly what they must do to succeed, and protects me in case there are questions later.

Pulich suggests being clear about course policies — including vague categories like “participation.” Depending on the professor and the course, “participation” might mean speaking up in courses, in other courses, it might mean simply attending class, being on time, and not leaving early. If students’ grades are impacted by “participation,” this must be carefully spelled out in writing to avoid misunderstandings later. She also advocates grading “blind” — that is, without a student’s name on typed-up work. This helps a professor keep from playing favorites and if this is not a problem, helps students see the grading process as more fair. With my hybrid and online courses, this is easy. When I use the assignment feature on Blackboard, I am often grading without a student’s name visible. With materials from traditional face-to-face courses, I often flip the first page of the essay over and start reading from that point. In both cases, I consult a rubric (customized for that assignment) again and again during a second read. This keeps me on target with the original assignment requirements.

Last, Pulich writes that one should be “human but fair.” Enforcing due dates and applying rules about late work (no credit, partial credit) for everyone keeps students from doing a slow burn and running to my administration as soon as class is over. This generation is surprisingly bold about sharing information about the grades they’ve received and how an instructor has treated them with other students. If I make an exception with one student, I can assume it will be common knowledge with my college’s student population almost instantly. But being “fair” is much easier than being “human.”

One strategy I’ve started to employ is an empathy line in e-mail replies to students’ requests. When students e-mail me with terrible news about their personal lives (a friend’s father died, they locked themselves out of their car, they broke up with their significant other) and ask to make up a quiz or turn in an essay late without a late penalty, I immediately reply with a sympathetic statement. I follow up with a comment reiterating my course policies and list something they can do to be prepared for the next assignment. In past years, I might simply have responded, “No. Please refer to my course policies.” Today, however, I respond with, “I’m so sorry that you’re having problems with your car. My course policies, however, state that students won’t be allowed to make up quizzes if they’re not in class. Do review Chapter Four so that you’ll be ready for the quiz on Wednesday. I’ll look forward to seeing you then.” Interestingly, the core information is exactly the same — “No.” But how I frame it makes the student feel heard and gives him or her the feeling that he or she has control over some part of his or her life.

This strategy, combined with my change in attendance rules has gone a long way in improving my reputation with students. And the number of students who have complained has dropped over 90 percent in two semesters. I can’t say that my fear of being criticized by students is less; but I do feel more confident that the degree of caring that I have for my students is somehow more visible. In my last stack of student evaluations, one student wrote that she was upset she wasn’t allowed to make up a quiz on a day that she was late for class, but also stated, “The instructor was always willing to help students in her office and was understanding — even if she couldn’t really change the rules. She seems to actually care about her students as people.” Other students commented that my grading was “tough,” but that I was a good instructor. To me it is the perfect balance. I’ll never be one of the fun, popular instructors whom students try to befriend through social networking sites, but I feel more and more convinced that the greater number of students who pass my course are truly prepared for the next course. That good feeling surpasses the feeling of making my students happy in the short run.

Nothing I do will guarantee that a student of mine won’t march into my dean’s office to complain. But providing clear course materials in a number of formats, defining and quantifying areas that will be graded, spelling out deadlines and penalties in course materials and e-mail communication, packaging a “no” with empathy, and testing students to ensure that they understand integral issues like academic dishonesty and plagiarism will give me confidence when I’m brought to a formal grade appeals panel.

Author/s: 
Shari Dinkins
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Shari Dinkins is an assistant professor at Illinois Central College.

Communication Breakdown

Not long ago, a woman I know got a phone call from a sibling who reported that one of their sisters had died a few hours earlier. It was painful news, if not unexpected given the sister’s long illness; the call was part of a narrative of grief that had been taking shape for a while. But in telling me about it, she also noted an odd and slightly awkward detail. She’d actually learned the news a bit earlier, on Facebook and via Blackberry, where it had been announced in a “status report” from her sister’s daughter.

My friend kept that part of the story to herself when dealing with relatives. As someone with a professional interest in information and communication technology, she’s very open-minded and curious about the way people use the tools now available, and this was no exception. But it was impossible to get around the sense that some breach of tradition was involved. It hadn’t bothered her, but she felt sure that any other member of her family much older than her niece would feel at least somewhat appalled.

An individual’s death is a rip in the social fabric. And communication among those closest to the deceased involves more than transmission of the news. It is process of patching up what remains of that fabric, a reinforcement of bonds. By some implicit rule, we take it as a given that family will get the news before it is available to a world of strangers. Not that things always happen that way, of course, but the exceptions are felt as such. (A man opens a newspaper and learns that his son was killed a few days earlier.... This is the stuff of melodrama – a situation implying circumstances so complex it would take a whole movie to explain.)

But now the grammar of social relationships is changing in ways it remains difficult to understand. Exactly what is happening when you share the pain of the death of a loved one with the world of your “Facebook friends,” that cloudiest known category of human connection? Anyone who wants to get all curmudgeonly about this should feel free to wail away. Yet doing so does not answer the question.Telling the world that my “status” is grief is not something I would be inclined to do. But it would be morally stupid to question the pain of anyone who finds this appropriate -- or to doubt whether they, too, are trying to reweave some part of the web of everyday life. The boundaries between private and public, between intimate and overt communication, are never absolute or fixed in any case.

Today those boundaries are blurrier. Maybe poets (the “antennas of the race,” as Ezra Pound put it) will be able to make sense of what it means for the human condition. I made the mistake recently of hoping that the social sciences would help. Some of my best friends are social scientists, so no offense intended, but reading a new book from the MIT Press called New Tech, New Ties: How Mobile Communication is Reshaping Social Cohesion was really not all that encouraging.

The author, Rich Ling, is identified on the cover as a senior researcher at the Norwegian telecommunications company Telenor and an adjunct research scientist at the University of Michigan. His methodology primarily involved following people around in public as they talked on their cell phones. I believe this brings the difference between ethnography and eavesdropping to an all-time minimum. Not quite half of the book is devoted to rehearsing the conceptions of social ritual worked out by Emil Durkheim, Erving Goffman, and Randall Collins. The rest is based on field notes, often supplemented by guesses about what the person on the other end of the phone call might have been saying.

Ling’s thesis, in short, is that mobile communication devices strengthen social connections through something akin to an interaction ritual. The argument hovers between insight and truism for quite a while before coming to rest on the obvious. Cell phones and text messaging create “a tightening in the individual’s social network that augurs against those who are marginally known to us and in favor of those who are familiar.” This is inarguable. Most of us do tend to speed-dial people we already know. (Plugging in the numbers of complete strangers might seem like a good idea after several bottles of whiskey, but not otherwise, and especially not the next morning.)

Unfortunately for the elegance of the whole enterprise, the main thrust of Durkheimian notions of social ritual is that they create or consolidate a sense of shared identity among people who do not necessarily have any close connection. This is even true of the sort of small-scale, face-to-face encounters described by Goffman and Collins. Their point is that even seemingly casual exchanges tend to follow established patterns that bind participants together by virtue of the fact that the routines are commonly accepted.

A contrarian (or really, just about anyone not employed as a researcher at a large telecommunications company) might well point out that mobile devices actually tend to dissolve social ritual. Any degree of formality -- let alone any expectation of shared attention by people sharing a common space -- is now precarious. The solemnity of a funeral has no guarantee against the vivacious force of a calypso ringtone.

The author discovers from his extensive observations that some people do try to mitigate the disruption that cell phones bring to “copresent” interactions. They may lower their voices, or practice certain gestures to indicate that they are sorry to be interrupting things. But evidence from my own corner of the global village would suggest this is not quite universal. It may be that Norwegians are more reserved than Americans.

So does it follow that codes of interaction are simply disappearing as reticence itself vanishes? Such is a common enough complaint, but things are not necessarily so straightforward as that.

The ubiquity of mobile communication devices means that the behaviors associated with them are more or less inescapable. As irritating or incomprehensible as those behaviors may be, our options for responding are limited. There is no sanctioned code for interacting with someone bellowing endearments into a Bluetooth at a coffee shop, or typing messages into a Blackberry in the front row while you are reading a paper at a conference. A few years ago, I proposed shooting people who talk on cell phones in libraries, if only with a taser; but in spite of generating considerable enthusiasm, this idea never really caught on.

In the absence of rules for confrontation, then, the rule is that confrontation must be avoided. Durkheim wrote that any given social order obliges us to “submit to rules of action and thought that we have neither made nor wanted and that sometimes are contrary to our inclinations and our most basic instincts.” To put this another way: Might as well get used to it.....

Author/s: 
Scott McLemee
Author's email: 
scott.mclemee@insidehighered.com

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