Saturday, January 11, 2014

Colleague Misery


What is it with Colleagues and Passive Aggressive Emails?

My Research Center teaches students how to conduct their research projects. We hold seminars, tutorials, multi-week programs, and a semester-long advisory program that helps Seniors conceptualize, propose, write, and publish (if applicable) a unique research project. It's a pretty cool program and a great way to get a sense of the interdisciplinary strengths of our school.

But the term has ended, and we still haven't heard from the person who originally conceived of this program. There have been demands coming in fits and spurts, but few instructions. Technically, all of our final grades were due before Jan 1. But this program isn't like normal classes. They don't have finals, they aren't taken for credit, and they don't always end with the term itself. But they are graded. So we've had a little leeway, and that grace period is coming to an end.

The person "in charge" who isn't really "in charge" designed the program but decided not to run it. He keeps intervening, and the Dean says he is in charge, but he hasn't provided us with any direction for how to finish things off. He keeps saying "you can't dictate research" and other nonsense things.

Because look: yes, your research needs to follow its own path. But at the same time, deadlines exist. Fellowships begin or end, research grants have end dates. Research can be nebulous and it can hold form.

Grades are due. We need to figure out who is in charge and how we are going to provide feedback. This dude designed the program but refuses to direct jack. So what am I supposed to do?

I emailed him for something direct. I was clear and polite. I wanted to say : either fuck or pull out. But I didn't.

His response was a winding philosophical diatribe about how I need to take ownership of the research idea. That research cannot be tempered. That his worksheets and require milestones are necessary, that I must use them, but I cannot grade them and I need to stop leaning on him so much.

He did that thing where he quoted me back to me. In order to make some point about how I already have the answers I am looking for. He told me to embrace my research background and do research on running a research program (please kill me). He mentioned something about a pedagogical approach that has NOTHING to do with grades. He then reminded me that some of my students are "failing" even though we have no basis for grading anyone because he WON'T ANSWER MY QUESTIONS.

I just want to explode right now. What the fucking fuck. Why is this guy even around? He isn't technically my boss, but my boss won't listen to anything I say unless this guy has given it a pass. It's a bunch of bull shit.

So I decided to do that thing where you respond to a bull shit email by pretending that it said everything I wanted it to say. I thanked him for his clarification and told him how pleased I was that he had confirmed that I could rely on my expertise to finish the projects, submit the grades, and drop the worksheets when they were unnecessary.

However will he respond? If it's something about Buddhism, I'm going to go insane.

(other than that my job is pretty sweet but my GOD this is irritating)



  1. He sounds like my last department head at the place where I used to teach. His main ambition was to get promoted as far and fast as possible and spent as little time as possible doing his actual job.

    Since our institution was run on the student-is-customer model, he had a habit of "empowering" us and encouraging us to "take ownership" of what we did. That was just a fancy way of telling us that if anything went right, he claimed all the credit and we had to acknowledge his infinitely wise leadership and benevolent guidance. If anything went wrong or, worse yet, might prevent him from becoming dean, we not only got all the blame, he would make sure we would burn in hell for it.

    The buck didn't stop at his desk--it simply bounced off it, unless, of course, he could profit from it coming to rest there.

    1. God this totally sounds like my guy. Wonder if he's the same! Haha.

  2. I have a former colleague who was so good at this.
    On a good day it would be Buddha; less good was Yoda; a very bad day more like Matrix 3.
    Strongly hoping for an update, AM.

  3. Good that you got his response through email. In case something goes wrong. you can provide evidence that he's MIA.

    "Fuck or pull out" is a nice phrase which I hadn't heard before. "Shit or get off the pot" is my common choice but I like yours.

  4. Graded, but not for credit?

    Was this a pilot project (with or without your awareness of it being such)? Perhaps some of your higher-ups would like to make these grades "for credit" in the future, but they didn't have the pull to make them "for credit" right from the outset.

    Dr. Bubba's Unsolicited Advice: Act as if these grades are "for credit" and use your best judgment. Impress the shit out of the person who conceived of this program (TPWCOTP) and his pals. Propose to turn these seminars/tutorials into "for credit" next year. Take the bull by the horns. Maybe TPWCOTP is being passive-aggressive--or maybe he just wants you to take charge. Assume the latter. Show him what you're capable of. Don't merely submit the grades. Exceed TPWCOTP's expectations. Blow his fucking mind.

  5. The rubric, he says
    Up to you it is
    So just grade them as you'd like
    And send him the numbers
    (Save his emails, in case he complains)

  6. Is there an option for you to fuck or pull out?

    1. Yes, but only to my subordinates. And they're pretty cool, so.... :/

    2. Any chance of emailing whomever is above both of you with HIS email to ask what that person thinks he means?

  7. More drama unfolds.... This might need another post.

    Taking deep breaths and trying to remember that this is a good job, it's a good job, it's a good job....

  8. Looking forward to the update. This guy sounds like the worst sort of big-picture thinker: the one who wants to hand off the details to someone else, but still wants veto power over said details. Ugh.

    You know this already, but from what I've seen at two universities where the undergraduate thesis was a long-established tradition, you're right. This kind of project has the power to bring out the best in advanced undergraduates, but it can also bring out the worst (just like the Master's thesis or the dissertation). There absolutely have to be firm deadlines, and clear procedures for everything, from proposal/permissions to evaluation of the final project. It sounds like you've got the guidance/support in place for all those things, but not the enforcement structure, and you need that, especially in the present snowflake-ridden era. Whether there should be grades and/or credit or not is another question; I'd argue for grades and credit, but some sort of procedure for converting a failed/aborted project into a less-prestigious independent reading class, or something of the sort (basically, I think the integrity of such programs suffers when students absolutely have to finish their projects to graduate. That leads to too much pressure to accept unacceptable projects.)

    But how you get from here to there I don't know, especially since your boss is being so unhelpful. It sounds like the idea man wants statistics, or metrics, or something along those lines, except it sounds like he also doesn't want them.

    Am I correct in assuming you/your institution belong to the Council for Undergraduate Research? If so, is there any way to turn to them/their literature for best practices, model rubrics, etc.? As I'm sure you're aware, there is a literature on undergraduate research out there; perhaps you can find something in it to make your point, to either or both of these people? (Yes, I know, that's not how one is supposed to use existing scholarship, but everybody does it from time to time, I suspect, and now seems like a good occasion, especially since Idea Man is pretty much asking for it.)