Saturday, November 9, 2013

RYS Flashback To Year One. 8 Years Ago Today.

Wednesday, November 9, 2005

Where People Are Wrong.

In reply to a number of missives, no, professors don't rate students by giving grades. The grades I give students are entirely about the work they do in my class. And yes, of course there are some students I 'like' more than others, but don't you imagine that any professional can separate the personal and the professional?

Some of my favorite students have been among my weakest, in part because I see myself in them at that age. They work hard, but the work is barely passing. On the other hand, smart kids who've had a lot of advantages in high school come in to my class with bad work habits but a strong background. They do well on their work, despite the fact that they are annoying, grade-grubbing, and all the rest. They earn A's, despite what I actually think of them, despite how I would rate them as a student.

I prefer students who are a challenge, who question me, who push me to do a better job. Students who are mute, mellow, arrogant, or disengaged are missing the point of college, and it never fails to annoy me.

In reply to a couple of posters, I don't suppose faculty members will send in a lot of "positive" ratings. I imagine this is because professors will use this site to work out some frustration that is created by unfair and anonymous ratings of their own. Is that fair? I wasn't aware we were going for that, so perhaps not. Do I have a ton of great students? Absolutely. They don't frustrate me. They make my days better. I should just say, "Good on you," to those students every once in a while, and I hope that I do over the course of a semester.

But Rate Your Students is a blog where we come together to bark at the moon when we get sick and tired of our entire careers being reduced to whether we're "hot" or not, and where any chickenshit student can blast away anonymously with falsehoods.

- The Professor


  1. This needs to go in the "what we're about" file. If we had one.

  2. I think that's all reasonable, but then the next step is to take that barking to the right place, right to the door of your Dean, Provost, or Vice President. (The President is in Atlanta, scuffling for money.)

    Seriously, get whipped up and then change what's wrong!

    1. Yuri, have you ever been in the military? Your opinion (or grievance) usually doesn't mean shit unless you have advanced to a certain rank, typically pay-grade 7 for enlisted personnel (in the Army, Sergeant First Class; Navy, Chief Petty Officer) or grade 6 for officers (in the Army, Colonel; Navy, Captain).

      I'm a tenured full professor, so I know I'll be listened to and not immediately blown off. But a lot of the people here are adjuncts; they have no power at all, beyond striking, and labor law is not really much in favor of that sort of thing. There are too many scabs available.

    2. At my SLAC, Enrollment and Admissions make decisions about who we admit to the college. That's where our problems start. Students who aren't prepared for college are allowed in. When I explain to the VP for Enrollment or the academic dean or president that we have had to add more Remedial Courses and that half of the students are not likely to pass even the lowest level of remedial courses, I am always given the message (not in these exact words, but in subtext): "Enrollment has worked very hard to get the students here; your job is to keep those students here. Without these students, you would not have a job. We have hired you to get them caught up to college level in one quarter here. If you can't do that, we will find someone else who can do that."

      The assumption that my Administrators care about anything other than their own paychecks and the financial bottom line of the college is flawed here.

    3., that only holds to the armies "in freedom"; in the RKKA, a bluecap lieutenant could give orders to a full field general, as long as those orders came from The Boss.

    4. Yuri, have you ever been in a university? Deans, Provosts, and Vice Presidents live in their own little well-insulated bubbles, which cannot be pricked by reality or even their own demonstrated incompetence. Even when tenured full professors like me point out quite serious problems to them, the way I do frequently, their vapid smiles fade from their faces momentarily, and that's about it.

    5. Strel, I'm not talking about orders. I'm talking about being invited to give your opinion, or having anything you say in conversation about policy taken seriously

    6. Froderick, yes, I've been in a university or two. Your experience with Deans and such sounds like you've had one bad institution with serious problems, as you describe. That's unfortunate.

      Your experience, however, is not the same for every other academic, not even on this blog.

      I've seen competent and extraordinary administrators who came from the faculty and always remembered that. Of course there are dunderheads.

      But it's not thus everywhere.

    7. Again, it just seems that everyone has decided that these are all unwinnable situations. Every Dean is going to fuck me. Every chair is going to thwart me. Sometimes, absolutely.

      But not always, and not everytime. Courage, I say again. Even though this appears to be a land where encouraging that notion is something to be mocked. And, in my brief visit here, I am as sure of that as anything.

      I stand by my own experience as a faculty member and administrator. Of course there are dickheads in power. Who else would seek it anyway? But occasionally the good guys (us, all of us) can find ways to win.

    8. Yuri: Having done three postdocs and gotten "real" teaching experience as an Accursed Visiting Assistant Professor, I've been from an Ivy to a quasi-Ivy to large public R1s to a small private R2, and I'm now at a teaching university, Middlin' State. I've seen many, many deans and other university administrators come and go, but then even at one university that's not difficult since they only ever seem to do any job for four years, tops, before moving on to something more lucrative. Responsive ones such as you describe are the exception, not the rule. As Ed Nather points out in "Advice to Young Astronomers":

      A good chairman will protect you from the Administration who think they can correct imperfections by passing new rules for everyone to follow; he will intercept these things, or deflect them, and let you get on with your work. Cherish the good chairmen: they are rare.

      Good ones were a major reason I came to Middlin' State. For a while there, we had a genuine feeling of being on the same team. It sure was great, and we provided excellent opportunities for our students. Heck, I even served as chair of the physics department myself, and I had a blast. It sure beat being treated as a serf, as I was as an Accursed Visiting Assistant Professor at the R2. (The R2 was a curious case, though. It was a small, private engineering school just outside a major NASA facility. In a way, it was wonderful: it was like getting to teach at Starfleet Academy, and during a more interesting period in history. Nevertheless, we were still serfs, and the admin never let us forget it, as if our paychecks could.)

      That’s all gone now. Four years ago, we got a Provost full of stupid ideas such as the way to improve “student success” is by lowering standards, and who had an unfortunate tendency to act before consulting, or even thinking much. He’s since moved on to become president of another university, and God help them, I say. In his wake, he hired a dean with virtually no research or teaching experience, who is the worst kind of snake-oil seller possible: one who actually believes the advertising copy. I went to every one of the interviews for this position, and I made it known loud and clear I was against hiring this person. As usual, it was ignored. But then, 573rd impressions can be misleading.

      Also, this being College Misery, you might consider the effect that confirmation bias will have on what the people here will be discussing. Not all that many will be raving about how well their universities will be run: there’s not much misery in that.

    9. Yuri: I don't think YOU understand, either, that just because people complain on here or are upset, that doesn''t mean they DON'T go to the Administrators to try to get something fixed. How many experiences on here have we seen where contributors did just that, only to be shut down and had their authority undermined by an Administrator who didn't give a fuck and sided with the student. Time and time again, that behavior shows faculty that they aren't valued as much as a student with a shitty attitude is valued. Does that mean the faculty stop trying? NO, but they do come on here to complain and gain empathy from others. What you're essentially saying is: "If you complain about it on this blog, you must not be attempting to change anything." That's just not true.

      What Froderik says: I have a great chair. She listens, she sympathizes, she takes our cases to the academic dean. She comes back with the message: the administrators don't care; they want to see higher graduation rates and more retention. I do the same as a program coordinator: I talk with administrators every six months when we discuss the plight of our most at-risk population. I give them our perspective that we cannot possibly pass all of the students that Admissions admits. They. Don't. Care. When we lose 20% of the in-coming class because they couldn't pass our most basic remedial course, we are asked to justify why we didn't lower standards even further. Our most basic remedial course teaches students how to construct sentences and paragraphs. Those students do not belong in any college. But administrators don't want to hear that. They want to hear that we were able to teach them in 10 weeks what they didn't learn in 12 years of school because, by God, if Robin Williams can get a class to spout poetry, we must all be doing something wrong. We're just not collaborating enough or incorporating enough high impact learning strategies. Going to Administrators time and again in the seven years I've been here with this problem hasn't made a lick of difference. Instead, we are told our retention rates are below what's expected and to shape up. The underlying assumption is always that faculty are at fault for not being able to get underprepared students to learn, never that the students should never have been admitted in the first place.

    10. > I've seen competent and extraordinary administrators who
      > came from the faculty and always remembered that.

      Yuri, your writing this makes me wonder how long it's been since you've served on the faculty. How could you not know that a trend over the past 20 years in universities internationally has been the rise of "professional administration"? These people have minimal or no experience in research or teaching, have been taking over university administrations in increasing numbers, and their primary objectives seem to be propagating their own kind, increasing their salaries, and driving up university costs? It's much the same way as in health care, since the advent of HMOs, and of course in government. Have you tried watching the 1939 film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" lately? It's seems so quaint.

    11. I'm tenured faculty now, with no official administrative jobs. 2/2, full committee work, all the regular post-tenure responsibilities, unofficial mentor to a bunch of folks.

      I really don't understand how I'm seen so differently. Perhaps I'm too old and dense.

      If it's impossible to have courage because most readers here are part-time, and if it's impossible for well-intentioned faculty to go to administrators to seek change, well then we're all doomed. Maybe I'm quaint and old fashioned, but at 52 I don't want to be.

      If so many of you are in these dire situations, I truly am sorry for you. I cannot know what it's like in your shoes.

    12. Yuri, you're the whole fucking problem. If you can't see that, then you really are dense.

    13. Whoa, whoa, Prickly Prof:

      Yuri is not "the whole fucking problem." That's a pretty low blow. His experience may genuinely not be the same as some of our experiences, as he's pointed out. That doesn't mean he is the problem.

    14. It is not hard to read "Have courage!" as "You're all cowards!"

    15. Yuri, if you're still around, I hear you and I understand you. But I, too, have tenure and perhaps am on the outside of the most dispiriting misery that plagues the profession. Perhaps the mass of CM readers despise me as well for my good fortune.

      I think "have courage" is about the best goddamned thing you can say to anyone in any profession. And if this is a blog where that is some kind of curse, then I am embarrassed.

      I hope you stick around. I like different voices and hearing from academics at all different levels with all different experiences.

    16. Hiram, I love you. You're one of my favorites.

      And while "have courage" said with compassion and fellow feeling is a fine sentiment, "have courage, you dolt, and quit your job or march into the president's office, and do this, and do that, and do this, and do that . . . " feels a bit insulting. It assumes that all we do is this blog.

    17. I agree that there's a difference in an empathetic "Courage!" to the miserians and the kind of courage Yuri was advocating, but I still don't think he deserves to be told he's the whole problem.

      Part of the problem with an online forum is that we don't know everything about each other (thankfully), and as a result, we make assumptions based only on what people share on here. I recall being lambasted when I first posted because I said I was sick of the parents in my dept demanding special privileges and adjustments to their schedules. Everyone jumped on me for not being sensitive to women's rights and said I needed to take a course in gender. Once I had shared THE WHOLE situation, which wasn't what I thought I needed to do in the interest of keeping the entry fairly short and to the point, then people conceded I wasn't the complete misogynist they'd first labeled me. I didn't know the blog as well and was eager to jump in without knowing my audience. And I got blasted for it. And yet I stayed because I found common ground here and saw different perspectives that made me realize the misery is bigger than all of us and that I had found a community that, while quick to judge, was also quick to welcome... I hope that Yuri sticks around and sees that, too.

    18. I hope you stick around. I like different voices and hearing from academics at all different levels with all different experiences.

      Just wanted to second this comment from Hiram. I know I express my unhappiness with various aspects of my contingent status more directly here than I would with most of my tenure-track colleagues, because I don't have to worry about the possible consequences of making someone I need to work with feel guilty (even undeservedly guilty). And I know there are things my tenure track colleagues think about contingents, full- or part-time, that they wouldn't say directly to me (and I realize that some of those things, little as I may like them, are at least partially true). I want to hear those things, and I appreciate Yuri saying them. Mind you, Yuri, I'll give you as good as you dish out when I think it's warranted, but that's not an attack on you, or an objection to your expressing your opinion; in fact, it's my way of showing that I value the chance to have the conversation.

      Our administrators are a mixed (and changing) bag, I think: some very good, some less so. But I'm not entirely sure, since I'm generally several layers away from communicating with them directly -- which is itself part of the contingent picture, and the problem; sometimes, by the time one has brought an issue to one's chair, and waited for an answer from somewhere up the decanal ladder, it's not entirely clear what question has been asked, or who answered it. Even in my department, which I consider to be fairly well and humanely run, there are moments when I feel like administrators are using the car salesman's "I have to ask my manager" routine with the dean's office playing the role of manager. I could probably figure out the power structure, and how to operate within it, better, but that would take a lot of time and effort and I have a 4/4 load. My time is better spent trying to do a bit of research and writing, I'm pretty sure. Being easily able to get the attention of an administrator above the department level, is, I think, one of the privileges of tenure; one of the unspoken components of contingent jobs -- perhaps especially full-time continuing contingent jobs -- is that we're to accomplish as much teaching as possible while bothering the TT faculty, let alone the deans and deanlets, as little as possible.

  3. Forgive me arriving late to the party, but I'll just offer an observation. The following two sentences are remarkably similar:

    "If your administrators are making terrible choices, find a way to change that!"

    "If your students are making failing grades, find a way to change that!"

    Both sentences are paraphrased from comments in this thread, and both can be read either as a stirring call to action, or as a dunderheaded denial of reality (and rarely does the person making either statement consider the second possibility).

    Whatever your interpretation of the King Canute story, the admonition "If the tide is coming in, find a way to change that!" is pretty vapid advice, unless you're willing to acknowledge just what kind of an investment is going to be needed to effect any meaningful change.

    1. ^ This this this this this this this this this this this this this this this this this this

  4. I'm fortunate in that our university has a new provost who is what you might call a new broom, and I and the other academic staff, as well as junior faculty, are working as hard as we can to push for reforms before the poor guy gets burned out.

    Our biggest headache is by far the senior faculty in our own departments, who are able to cause the most trouble through threatening promotion, tenure, and retention decisions, but the admins do little to help us, or harm us for that matter.