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Author Topic: how would you respond?  (Read 3198 times)
ellareese
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« on: January 05, 2013, 3:28:21 PM »

I'm an administrator at a small college supervising several departments.

Wondering how others might respond to the actions of a faculty member, let's call this person Bad Apple (yes, I posted about this person already under the Chairs forum).

Bad Apple taught a course this semester that was intended to be an intro to critical thinking. BA focused the syllabus on institutional critique, as in, learning how to critically examine your own institution of higher ed. Chair discussed the syllabus with BA, saying he wasn't sure it really fit the course description, but BA disregarded Chair's feedback and  taught it anyway.

At semester's end, BA had the students write an e-mail to an administrator (or multiple e-mails to multiple administrators) expressing their assessments of the college and its curriculum.

BA sent an e-mail to the list of admins to whom the students would be writing (including me), saying that we might get such an e-mail from a student, and if we did, BA would be open to hearing our impressions, including if we wanted to give the student a grade on their e-mail.

Here are all my reasons why this has been incredibly obnoxious:
1. Most of the student e-mails are ill-informed and negative, leading me to believe that the course was a b*tch session about the college.
2. This "assignment" has resulted in me needing to take my break time to respond to about a dozen student e-mails, explaining why they are required to take breadth reqs and such, b/c I feel that not responding would be impolite (I copied BA on all of these).
3. There's a lot of gall to think I would take the time to grade BA's students. Also I feel this illuminates what I feel to be a shortcoming in BA's teaching style, if BA thinks it's okay for someone unfamiliar with the course context, and the students, to give a grade.
4. Given the fact that most of the e-mails came to me after the grading period, it's hard for me to see how they are part of the course at all.

Okay, I admit, maybe I just need to vent about this!! But BA has a pre-tenure review coming up, and I am seriously considering how to address this. My current thinking is that I'll simply ask BA in front of the committee to elaborate on the pedagogical merit of the course and the assignment, and ask why BA did not change the course content when asked to by their Chair.

Thanks for listening... I welcome any thoughts!
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yellowtractor
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« Reply #1 on: January 05, 2013, 3:50:26 PM »

BA is untenured and did this??  Wow.  I don't know whether to be impressed or appalled.  Some of both?

I would totally bring it up in some way in the pre-tenure review.  How to bring it up is the thing, and depends, of course, on institutional and departmental culture and expectations.

In the meantime, do you have access to the course syllabus, along with the student course evals?  If you are on BA's review committee, surely you have or will have (or can request) access to these.  For myself, I would want to see both sets of documents before mounting a challenge, critique, or professionally durable question.  If your guesses about the nature of the course are correct, you may gain some additional insight here.
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daniel_von_flanagan
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« Reply #2 on: January 05, 2013, 4:03:55 PM »

You have to admit, this is teaching a useful skillset that will translate well into the world beyond college.

BA offered you an opportunity to give the students feedback on their email.  This sounds like it would be useful for them.  Assuming you are at a student-centered institution, you should consider doing it.

However bad BA's attitude seems to be, yours doesn't sound a whole lot better. - DvF
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ellareese
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« Reply #3 on: January 06, 2013, 1:51:24 PM »

You have to admit, this is teaching a useful skillset that will translate well into the world beyond college.

BA offered you an opportunity to give the students feedback on their email.  This sounds like it would be useful for them.  Assuming you are at a student-centered institution, you should consider doing it.

However bad BA's attitude seems to be, yours doesn't sound a whole lot better. - DvF

I *did* respond to the students, in full and pleasantly. That's my point, is that it would be wrong not to respond to them, so what BA has done is create an assignment that becomes a little make-work exercise for admins as we answer questions that BA apparently did not answer in class. Yes, it could be a useful skillset in the abstract. But BA seems to have disposed them towards a negative attitude towards their own institution, without fully explaining the issues. I think that can have an overall negative impact on their education.

For example, a number of the students complained that they resent having to take their Gen Ed breadth courses. So, I explained to them the meaning of a BA/BS degree, why accreditors demand this, why we agree with accreditors that students need to extend beyond what they think they want to know, etc. This left me wondering, if BA discussed Gen Ed in class, did the class look at the reasons why Gen Ed exists? Because the students seemed unaware.

I'm with Yellowtractor: I need to say something, but the question is *how*. I'm thinking that in the review, I'm going to ask BA, in a very pleasant and positive way, to elaborate on the learning outcomes of the course and whether BA felt the "exercise" achieved BA's pedagogical goals.



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prof_twocents
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« Reply #4 on: January 06, 2013, 3:07:45 PM »

You have to admit, this is teaching a useful skillset that will translate well into the world beyond college.

BA offered you an opportunity to give the students feedback on their email.  This sounds like it would be useful for them.  Assuming you are at a student-centered institution, you should consider doing it.

However bad BA's attitude seems to be, yours doesn't sound a whole lot better. - DvF

Creating whine-fests for administrators to handle is a useful skillset? If a middle-manager at a private corporation went to his employees and said "all of you are required to write complaint emails to my boss," that middle-manager would be fired. BA purposely wasted the time of other people at the university without asking their approval or permission. I don't see how ellareese's attitude is in any way inappropriate. I would be livid in that same situation.

How would you like it if one of your colleagues out of the blue said, "Hey, I'm having my students all email you a bunch of assignments from my class. I expect you to evaluate each one and give them and me feedback on each one." -- and never asked if that was OK with you?
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daniel_von_flanagan
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« Reply #5 on: January 06, 2013, 4:18:05 PM »

I *did* respond to the students, in full and pleasantly. That's my point, is that it would be wrong not to respond to them, so what BA has done is create an assignment that becomes a little make-work exercise for admins as we answer questions that BA apparently did not answer in class.
You didn't have to respond; the exercise of students writing people in authority is a big part of K-12 education and there is never an expectation of response.

With respect, administrators create make-work for faculty all the damn time.  Sometimes it is important work - tasks required by accreditors, say - but sometimes it is only important in the eyes of the office creating the work.  Our jobs as responsible professionals on both sides of the faculty/admin divide is to talk to one another, work out the important from the unimportant using all the information that is available, and make the best decision we can.  Sometimes faculty are petulant and (in the eyes of admin) insubordinate, but sometimes administrators are bullies, and engage in the kind of spiteful behavior you anticipate doing in this person's review.

Quote
Yes, it could be a useful skillset in the abstract. But BA seems to have disposed them towards a negative attitude towards their own institution, without fully explaining the issues. I think that can have an overall negative impact on their education.

For example, a number of the students complained that they resent having to take their Gen Ed breadth courses.
I don't have enough information to know whether your spin on BA's teaching is correct, or even whether you yourself have enough information for judgment.  I do know that many (if not most) students deeply resent gen ed requirements, and when I discuss it in my classes (which I do, as I helped create my institution's requirements) that most of what I say goes right over their heads.

Quote
Creating whine-fests for administrators to handle is a useful skillset? If a middle-manager at a private corporation went to his employees and said "all of you are required to write complaint emails to my boss," that middle-manager would be fired.
Well, that's hardly an appropriate comparison; why not just go all the way and compare it to priests suggesting that their congregations mail athiestic rants to the Pope?

Quote
BA purposely wasted the time of other people at the university without asking their approval or permission.
As I read the OP, the faculty member did contact the administrators in advance, and did leave it up to them to respond or not.

I don't have enough data to know if the faculty member's assignment was appropriate.  Possibly he was himself reacting to something that had been forced on him (which wouldn't make it entirely appropriate but might make it understandable), or perhaps he thought he was finding a way to get the students involved in the governance or curricular development of their institution.  It does sound like he is requiring the students to do a certain kind of writing of a sort that every educated person ought to be able to do, so simply as an exercise for the students (aside from any collateral issues) it does sound valuable to me.

The thing is, this faculty member hasn't posted, but ella has.  My advice is to her, not to anyone else, and that advice is that her reaction sounds extreme, uncollegial, and way over the top.  This might be true for BA as well, but he hasn't posted.

If all ella wants is sympathy or validation, we have threads for that.  If she wants to know how she sounds to an experienced senior faculty member who often straddles the faculty/admin divide, she has my opinion. - DvF
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larryc
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« Reply #6 on: January 06, 2013, 4:24:19 PM »

BA is untenured and did this??  Wow.  I don't know whether to be impressed or appalled. 

Exactly!

This person sounds both toxic and clueless. Their pre-tenure review should be a one-year terminal contract. Imagine what this person would be like with tenure. Imagine what it would be like to be their chair after tenure!
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« Reply #7 on: January 06, 2013, 4:28:08 PM »

I don't want to judge the issue with only  one side presented by the people involved. I do want to say that DvF provided a very good example in his writing of what a critical thinking approach would entail.

We don't know whether BA used DvF's approach; one can never know unless BA is on this fora and can provide (one of) the other side(s).
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yellowtractor
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« Reply #8 on: January 06, 2013, 4:47:53 PM »

I don't want to judge the issue with only  one side presented by the people involved. I do want to say that DvF provided a very good example in his writing of what a critical thinking approach would entail.

We don't know whether BA used DvF's approach; one can never know unless BA is on this fora and can provide (one of) the other side(s).


Which is why I strongly suggest the OP review BA's syllabus and course evaluations before doing or saying anything else.  DvF is right to delve into the OP's posts, but frankly neither we nor the OP have the information we need to make an experienced, professionally defensible recommendation.
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alleyoxenfree
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« Reply #9 on: January 06, 2013, 5:06:43 PM »

While I might not have done this, the quote that sprang to mind was Susan Sarandon's, "When I taught my children to question authority, I forgot the first authority they would question would be mine."

In other words, it seems the institution is fine with critical thinking, so long as none of it is applied to the institution itself, or any of the elements of institutional life that are directly have an impact on students.

It reminds me of administrations that resent a good student newspaper that actually covers the campus, one that expects/invites administrators to submit themselves to the questions of student journalists.
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oldfullprof
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« Reply #10 on: January 06, 2013, 5:16:10 PM »

I'm impressed.  Favorably.  Most "critical thinking" courses are deadly awful.  And two-cent, academic administrators are not middle managers of faculty in the sense you mean.
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prof_twocents
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« Reply #11 on: January 06, 2013, 7:44:29 PM »

I'm impressed.  Favorably.  Most "critical thinking" courses are deadly awful.  And two-cent, academic administrators are not middle managers of faculty in the sense you mean.

My analogy set professors as middle-managers of students complaining to their boss, not professors as middle-managers.
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didotwite
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« Reply #12 on: January 06, 2013, 10:02:21 PM »

Forgive me for interrupting, but I would respond this way in the pre-tenure review.

I would tell the faculty member that the assignment is interesting, but the performance of the students was very weak and not distributed widely enough among different administrators at the university, thus causing a lot of extra work for only a few.  In the interests of collegiality, therefore, I would ask the faculty member to, first, have students sign up for topics and make sure that no individual would receive more than X number of  complaining letters; second, ask the professor to move the assignment earlier in the term so that it could become a part of the students' grades and have the faculty member attach a rubric for evaluating each letter when contacting the administrators; and, third, I would dump a pile of documents, including criteria used by accrediting agencies to evaluate the academic program, on the professor, asking him or her to make this available to the students so that their complaints can be bolstered by specific and relevant detail and so that administrators do not have to respond with information easily found with minimal research.

In other words, if the faculty member is serious about this assignment, he or she should do it right.  If the faculty member is just being a pain in the bum, these requests should shut down the assignment altogether.
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slac_vap
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« Reply #13 on: January 14, 2013, 1:46:06 PM »

I can see why it might be a useful exercise for students to practice writing such correspondence, but I cannot see why it would be useful for those students to send such correspondence.  Couldn't the same pedagogical goals be accomplished by having students construct the emails and then send them to their professor for feedback?  Would that not allow the students practice in such writing without exposing them to the risks associated with sending a possibly ill-founded and poorly-written critique to a person higher in the power hierarchy? 

I can actually see this as a very useful multi-part assignment.  The students could draft a letter at the beginning of class, before introducing the class content.  Then the students could revise their own letters later in the semester.  Then BA could help them strengthen the work even further (by noting, for example, that the student failed to adequately address the recognized perceived benefits of general education classes) and revise drafts to incorporate the critical thinking apects.   Perhaps after the class some students might feel compelled to send the final drafts of their own volition, but perhaps others would have decided against doing so.
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dillon
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« Reply #14 on: January 25, 2013, 4:32:35 PM »

I realize I'm a bit late to this thread, but there's an element in this assignment that bothers me.  And I'm seeing it all over the place now, at least on my campus.  For some, it seems "critical thinking" is translated into "being critical", i.e. talking about all the negative things one can find on a particular topic.

I've found, for example, that when I ask my graduate students to read a well-regarded piece of peer-reviewed literature and write up their ideas on the topic, instead what they will do is write up anything that they see wrong in the source.  Unfortunately (a) a lot of this is based on their own misreading of what is there, (b) reflective of their not understanding the source, and/or (c) reflective of a failure to note or extract any of the useful or "positive" content.  Additionally, as it strikes me in this situation as noted by the OP, they fail to consider the full picture and varying perspectives.  That is what I believe critical thinking should be, but it has been turned in a non-productive direction.  Even when addressing faults or problems, they should be dealt with in balance with those things (assuming there are any) which are positive and useful.

I've come to avoid using the term critical thinking altogether and instead substitute logical thinking in its place.

I can see where emailing an administrator a well-reasoned, balanced analysis of a particular issue along with a suggested solution could be a very reasonable class tasks.  Writing an email where all one does it complain about something isn't very productive in a lot of situations, and I can't imagine an assignment framed in that manner going over well on most campuses.
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