Thursday, January 31, 2013

Hector from Hagerstown With a Big Thirsty on Likability.

As part of my duties here as a tenured full professor at an average state uni in the northeast, I do in-class evaluations of instructors as part of the tenure & promotion committee.

I do this happily. I've often picked up great teaching ideas, and I love being able to keep up with the younger faculty.

Likable Lou, up for tenure, was my visit this week. I know him outside of class, and know his reputation as a very popular proffie. He's a great guy. I have fun with him; he's a gas at faculty meetings, and I've always heard that he's a great teacher.

So for an hour yesterday I sat through a maddening and mystifying "class" with him and 25 sophomores and juniors. It's a class I teach myself, but I really couldn't prove that we were endeavoring to do the same thing.

It started with 20 minutes of "free time," where the only requirement was that the students had to be in groups, and they had to be "lively." It was a clusterfuck of chatter and nonsense, and the only time students ever talked about the reading for the day was the 90 seconds Lou spent leaning over their circles.

The rest of the time Lou spent with his phone.

Then the class really began. Students stayed in groups, about half of them facing the windows or the back wall, and Lou talked about his crush on Maria Menounos, his love of green chili, a few things about an upcoming test, how the basketball team did last weekend.

He'd often say, "It's all connected, right? How we think is how we stink!" It was a mantra of some kind that the students knew and they all hit "how we stink" with him with great glee. (I've changed the mantra. The real one is just as stupid.)

The last part of the class featured students talking about their own personal experiences as it related to the chapter reading which was about social constructs. They talked about their sororities and frats, those parties, what their high school friends did if they didn't go to college, the economy, climate change, and how cold it was.

Never did Lou try to wrap these ideas into anything resembling the chapter in question; never did he try to show a connection between the discussion and the point of the reading or the class.

At the end of class, about 10 students gathered around him. Everyone chatted excitedly about something. Then two young men took turns doing a protracted hand shake with Lou, tugs and whistles and high and low 5s! And it was over.

I waved as I left and started to my office. The department chair, to whom I write my report, came up alongside me.

"Oh, did you see Lou's class? My God, those kids love him. It's a shame we have to go through the charade of the promotion, because he's clearly going to get it. Just write up a couple of paragraphs and give them to me later."

Obviously people like to be liked, even professors. Adjuncts and part-timers, of course, have a lot of their value tied up in a set of friendly evaluations. But how on earth is Lou (tenure track, almost sure to be given tenure) helping his students, besides providing a nice clubhouse for an hour two times a week?

Q: Do you have someone like Lou in your department? What would you do with in my situation?


  1. I once had to evaluate a junior colleague, pre-tenure, who was doing a lot of things that struck me as extremely odd in class. Not as odd as what you describe, by a long shot, but still: odd. I thought about writing a review saying that he was doing a bunch of odd things and then letting him have a look at it (which is the usual procedure around here - it gives the instructor a chance to correct 'factual errors' ) - but I thought that even that might not be entirely fair. So before I wrote the evaluation I went to talk to the instructor and asked why he'd done x, y and z.

    It turned out he had an excellent reason for every one of the weird things he was doing, and I could see how they might actually work. I wound up incorporating a couple of them in my teaching - well actually I didn't, because it would have been a lot of work, but I thought about it.

    His students liked him, but they were also learning a hell of a lot in unconventional ways; I just hadn't spotted it on the first pass because it wasn't how I did things.

    I do not actually think that's what your'e looking at here. I think you're looking at a transparent bid for popularity. But before you write up a review that says so, I would go to the instructor and ask him what the pedagogical function was of each of the things he's doing that frankly sound like shameless pandering. It may well turn out that he's got an excellent reason for each of them. In fact he probably does. And then you can write a review suggesting that he might want to modify X practice, for which he has an excellent reason as stated, in order to actually achieve the outcome he's aiming for.

    Assume that thought, conscientiousness and goodwill underly everything he's doing, in other words. And give him a chance to explain how, before you write the review.

    1. While I sympathize strongly with Frod, I agree with Merely -- largely from a CYA point of view. If you submitted what you posted here without giving said colleague a chance to rebut beforehand, you couldn't be blamed but the colleague might be able to find grounds to sue the school if (when) he's denied tenure.

    2. I agree that asking him about his intentions and learning outcomes is a really good idea. It looks less accusatory and more thorough and dedicated.

  2. We used to have a character like Lou, although perhaps not as bad since my field is physics, so we can't possibly do what Lou does, and claim we're still teaching physics. Physics is a field concerned with reality, and mathematically describing it. Unlike so much if human endeavor, there's really no way to fake your way through physics: you either know it and can prove it by delivering substance, expressed correctly, or you don't.

    Although our educational menace retired years ago, we still feel the effects of his edu-tainment approach: our students sill constantly whine that acutal physics classes are "too hard." It's just not possible to teach much physics when the instructor's first priority is the students' "feelings." Prof. Edu-tainment also had a bad effect on the junior faculty who came after him, who by and large were interested in teaching physics, and were greatly dismayed by the edu-tainment approach. I know, since I was one of them.

    I would write down exactly what you've written here, and submit it to your department Chair. Lou is a jagoff, and your Chair and the committee who will be evaluating him for tenure ought not to tolerate it.

    1. I do make attempts to be "likeable," since modern students raised by parents primarily concerned with their self-esteem demand it. I try not ever to be gratuitously mean or nasty to students, watch my language in the classroom, and in general usually have much better manners than my average student. What your guy Lou is doing is far beyond what's needed for likability, though: he should be stopped.

  3. I would try to carefully raise your concerns with the chair IN your report. You've got tenure. Lou doesn't. That class sounds like a gabfest, and even though he knew he was being evaluated, he didn't teach anything.

    You owe it to yourself (I can tell you care about it) to tell the truth. That class was awful, and if someone wanted that to be a part of his review, then that's what he should get.

    I hope you'll let us know how it goes.

  4. Colleagues? Not really, not in my department. But there are others... when I heard an accounting major say that the way European universities are different is "they expect you to do most of the work outside of class," I shake my head.

  5. Do it, Hector. Write the real report. You owe it to the students of your college who are getting a wide pass from a buffoon.

  6. If you don't have tenure? Say nothing.
    If you do have tenure? Probably still say nothing. It's better to make enemies and fight over stupid petty stuff than actual substantive issues that affect students.

  7. We have one in our department. I don't know if ours goes for the "transparent bid" to be liked, but s/he doles out extra credit, rewrites-redo's, retakes, and A's like crazy. Students tell me they don't need the book because s/he posts all the powerpoints on-line and only asks questions from said power points. And worst of all, s/he coddles them and coos over them like they are cute babies. yuck. You can write whatever you want, he will probably get tenure and your report will be viewed as a "outlier" and ignored. I'm lucky, I evaluate a tenure track colleage also, she is meaner than I am so it is easy.

  8. @Hector: It's possible that Lou was nervous about being observed. Nervous people can do strange things. We've all seen student presentors who turned beet-red/stuttered/hyperventilated, proffie candidates who behaved weirdly during interviews, and well-published conference presentors who seemed mind-bogglingly idiotic. You might think Lou is a shoo-in, but Lou might not feel that way at all. In spite of the way he acts, he could be extremely insecure. You were there essentially to judge him just like you would in an interview, and he knew it.

    Why don't you talk to him and ask him what's going on in his class? You are the one with the power now. If you don't confront him now, then you will have set a bad precedent. Fucking ask him what's going on. If you can't do that now (when you clearly have the power over him), then when are you going to do it?

    Talk to him. Otherwise, you're drawing conclusions based on limited data. It's possible that Lou was out of his goddamn mind because he was diagnosed with cancer an hour before you observed his class--and rather than cancel the class, he decided to have a class with benign activities. Or maybe he actually had that day explicitly scheduled as "Circus Day" on his syllabus--which could be something similar to (and as "useless" as) the one class when students go to a proffie's house for dinner.

    So talk to your department chairman or talk to Lou. You're not trapped.

    Discover what's actually going on with Lou and your department. Look at Lou's syllabus. Look at the grades his students earn in his classes and in the upper-level classes his former students take with other proffies in your department. If you can, informally ask the HR director to give you some indication of any peculiarities (positive or negative) with Lou. Investigate the shit out of this.

    If you see any red flags, then pursue them. If you don't, nobody will. Do you really want to be stuck with Lou for the next 25 years?

    Suppose you see what you think are red flags? And you look into things and discover that Lou's students earn an appropriate number of failing grades, that his students perform as well as other proffies' former students, that he hasn't raped any students or embezzled from the school, and that the school gets its tuition from him. Then do as the department chairman said: "Just write up a couple of paragraphs." But when you write up those couple of paragraphs, don't be dishonest.

    Explore the possibility that Lou might know something you don't know (because you already know that he does). If he gets the same results as other proffies in your department, then isn't that what matters? His class might look like a goddamn circus with him doing black magic. So what. Who gives a flying goddamn fuck what kind of magic he's doing, as long as it gets results? Like Arthur C. Clarke said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Isn't it possible that Lou's technology is more advanced?

    Be willing to acknowledge that Lou knows some things you don't know. As long as he hasn't hurt anybody, then let him be. Write those two paragraphs. Learn from Lou.

  9. The upcoming is a joke:

    "Bubba. That's really good advice. When was your last drink?"


  10. Yes, but my Lou is a Louise. She acts as if she wrote Up From Slavery. It's all, "I'm one of you. I came up from the slums and got this great job. You can do it too. Power to the people!" Then they read from the textbook in class, talk about meaningless "big ideas" that don't connect with the course materials at all, and write an occasional essay about how they personally connect their lives with the course readings. No research. No documentation. No critical thinking.

    Louise is already tenured and has indicated she will not go for promotion to Professor, so under our current system, there is no evaluation aside from the masturbatory self-evals we do periodically followed by a meeting with the chair. Lou's magic numbers are through the roof, the highest retention and A rates in the department. She balances out the equally awful people in her same position who somehow have managed to make Professor yet consistently keep about 25% of their students and then still have pass rates of 20% or lower. Thus our chairs in the past have been reluctant to anything about Louise. We have a new chair now, however, and our central system is going to be changing the way we do evaluations for tenured faculty. I have the tiniest bit of hope that Louise might finally experience what she truly deserves.

  11. This is where Assessment is our friend.

    How did Lou's students do in the Hamster Research Methods section of the Rodent Field Test that all of your majors have to take, compared with students who took HRM from someone else?

    Or, if your students do not take the Rodent Field Test, have Lou's students and your students take a common final exam. We did that with our huge Intro to Capybaras class, and to our surprise we found that the instructor had no impact on the class's final performance. Students in our version of Likeable Lou's sections did exactly as well on average as those enrolled in Meanypants Marilyn's. We did ANOVAs and everything, and the only things that had a statistically significant impact on their exam performance was 1) their incoming SAT scores and 2) their attendance (which may have been an indicator of conscientiousness.

    As Bubba suggests, though, you should also check the grade distributions.

    1. And speaking of conscientiousness, my abject apologies for forgetting the right hand parenthesis.

  12. One of the nice things about the push towards greater assessment, besides all the extra paperwork, is that faculty have to set somewhat reasonable and measurable outcomes for their students. What evidence can you provide that Lou is doing a bad job? Given the description of his class, it seems his students would do poorly on any department-wide final exam or test. However, you don't mention that his students go on to do poorly in other classes.

    I agree with those who say that you should discuss this with him. Not in terms of your evaluation, just your awe of how wonderful his class is and how you could adopt some of his great teaching ideas. With that flattery, he might admit that it's all for the eval scores.

  13. I teach in a math department and if a professor does things like this, his/her students leave the class unprepared for the follow on courses. Hence we are pretty stringent in making sure that our fellows actually TEACH the material.

  14. For some reason, this post has been haunting me all morning. I think it's because I might be Lou (I mean, not really , just in the Spartacus sense). I do innovative stuff in my classroom that often involves me not saying a word while students figure stuff out on their own (of course, while they're doing that I'm taking extensive notes that shape my future lectures and guided discussions, which may have been what Lou was doing on his phone since they're mini-computers now). I do a lot of stuff that might look like I'm doing nothing at all. Hell, I actually occasionally do games which require students to apply concepts they've learned to "win."

    How would my class look from an outside observer? I've had people observe what I really do in class. In fact, for my tenure application I insisted that some of the observers (we have like four or five people do observations, I have no idea why) see some of those stranger classes. Most reactions were positive; one was baffled. I did get tenure.

    But a lot of the odd stuff I do in class is founded in sound pedagogical theory (well, as sound as it ever gets) and requires a hell of a lot more planning and thinking ahead than lectures or typical guided discussions. I don't have my students chant slogans -- eeeeww! -- or high-five me -- ick! And many of them outside of the majors don't much like me; and some of those majors despise me. So I'm sure not doing it to be liked. Frankly, if all my students like me, or are comfortable in my classes, or are having fun . . . then I'm doing something wrong.

    So I'm not sure I'm Lou or not.

    1. I don't know anyone remotely like Lou. But then, I'm in a math department. What we do to be likeable me out here: what was it again? I wish I knew what my colleagues do; the classes I have visited had no hints, so I suspect it's things like keeping it trivial, giving lots of "practice tests" and curving like crazy.

      Now, if I were in the teaching section of Lou's tenure committee (fox, hen-house, not in a million years) I would write a preliminary (draft) report along the terms of your post here and share it with him privately, including your concerns/bewilderment, hear what he has to say and offer to visit his class again (who knows, maybe this one was exceptional). If he agrees (in writing), see if anything changes and write the final report (including an opening paragraph outlining the first class visit and the conversation.)

    2. (This was in reply to the OP, not to M. Chiltepin's comment. My bad.)

  15. Hector writes:

    My closest colleagues tell me Lou's students invariably are poorly prepared for the senior classes. Apparently two majors ended up taking June tutorials to complete projects that should have been done at graduation.

    But one of these colleagues brought up the problem last year with the chair who ignored the warning. Lou is a bit if the favorite with the chair.

    I don't have a memory of any of my own students who came through his classes so cannot corroborate.

    1. WTF? This Lou story doesn't make sense. First, Hector said, "He's a great guy. I have fun with him; he's a gas at faculty meetings, and I've always heard that he's a great teacher." But now people are saying Lou's a loser? It seems that Hector is either confused or untrustworthy.

    2. More from Hector:

      Bubba, then I did a lousy job with the story. Sorry.

      He is a great guy, but I've had no personal experience with students who have gone through his class, and I've certainly never seen him teach. He's likable. I mean, that's his thing, and I have been told by the chair and some other faculty that he was a great teacher. (We have more than 50 full time faculty in the department. I got to know him because our offices are near each other, but truly we talk more about other things than the job.)

      When I visited, it was a real wake up call.

      After that I tracked down some other people in our department who teach more closely in the area that he specializes in, and who work in a certain subdiscipline that is connected to his.

      All the stuff I learned today was the flipside of the general consensus about Lou, and I'm guessing this bad news got quashed last year when one of my other colleagues brought up problems to the chair and had no success.

      What I wish I could do was talk to the whole department at one time and say, "Hey, can we forget he's a cool guy for a minute, and talk about if he deserves tenure."

      I feel 99.5% safe in doing whatever I want with my report. A small part of me doesn't want to spend my political capital on this until I know for sure what I think of Lou. It's been a baffling couple of days, because the class was so silly and meaningless.

      I am taking the advice of some above to meet with him next week to debrief before my report. I told the chair I wouldn't have it until late next week and that will give me a chance to press Lou a bit about what the hell it was all about.

      To all, thanks for the feedback.

    3. @Hector: No need to apologize. It's polite, but not necessary. I think you're confused because you're in a confusing situation--which makes sense. You're getting lots of mixed signals. But, again, I hope you investigate the shit out of this matter now. Otherwise, you might spend the next 25 years being gaslighted. One week of that is bad enough, isn't it? Figure out what information and which people you can trust. Good luck. Please let us know how it goes.