Thursday, April 16, 2015

Instead of Bitching About the Big Thirsty, Here's One From Me. And Yes, I'm Baffled & Thirsty.

I GET to mentor new faculty. Whee. They're so young and flexible. They have smartphones and talk Game of Thrones with the students before class. Oh my God they're such little dears.

Yet, my guy, the guy I drew, was a guy I pushed for. A guy I said we HAD to have.

So I went to his classroom Monday afternoon with no fear.

And the class was a disaster. I teach the same class and the same book and *I* was confused about what he was talking about. He gave part of the assignment out loud, some on the fancy projector, and they didn't match. Students raised their hands and asked for clarification, and he smiled and said, "It's all there!"

And it wasn't. Students would start discussions and he'd overtalk them, leading them through his own view of things. He started a nice small group project, and then gave them far too little time. I know because like him, I was moving from group to group and sitting in. That part of things was going great. The students seemed more engaged with each other and the material than they were with him.

The class was awful, confusing, and after the students got tired of asking perfectly reasonable clarification questions, they just shut up and started looking at Instaface on their phones.

I have to meet my young charge Friday afternoon and I just want to take a sick day.

Q: What part of the existing faculty's job is the training of colleagues, even new ones? Am I to blame because I was part of the group that pushed for his hire? Should I evaluate what I saw or just launch into some steps to improve? He's t-t. He's friendly. He gets along swimmingly with everyone. I'm the only one to actually see his class, and it was JUST one class.


  1. He's young, but I wonder how much teaching experience he has.
    The 3rd question is a bit of an "It depends."
    Are these are ingrained habits of his, or is he new to teaching?

  2. Well, assuming I'm correct in my impression that you're at a teaching-oriented place, Hiram, you aren't really responsible for creating the problem (universities which stress research over teaching, even/especially for grad students, are). But you're certainly responsible for helping to solve it (and, to be fair, anyone who actually manages to pursue something resembling a traditional academic career path, instead of getting stuck adjuncting forever -- in which case (s)he probably isn't going to make it to the TT -- isn't going to be all that experienced a teacher when (s)he lands the first TT job anyway).

    You could start by asking him what he thought went well and what he'd like to work on. I've seen that technique used effectively (on me). You may find that he's aware that he didn't spend enough time on legitimate questions, talked too much, etc., etc., perhaps partly because he was nervous about being observed. He may also have been worried that an older faculty member wouldn't understand that group work is real teaching, etc., etc. (though it sounds like you made it pretty clear, through your actions, that you see the value of such activities).

    When it's your turn to talk, since the group work did go well (which presumably means he's been doing something right, in terms of framing questions for the groups, and fostering skills throughout the term), perhaps you can start with praise of that, and work your way around to his needing to step back a bit more to let his well-constructed exercise fully do its job? Much as we joke about "shit sandwiches," starting with praise does often work.

    Then you can address the unclear assignment/assignment procedure, which seems like the most important issue. It sounds like the written assignment was missing key elements, and/or they were hard to find (as the writer of "long, confusing" assignments I'm somewhat sympathetic, but when I say "it's all in there," that's usually true, though it isn't all in the most obvious place. When student questions make it clear where they expect to find information, I try to move it there.)

    I wasn't there, so I'm not in the best position to judge, but, from your description, I think your final observation, that this "was JUST one class," may be significant To me, this sounds less like a disastrous class session that signals that the whole class is a disaster than a class session that got a bit chaotic because the instructor was nervous about being observed, hadn't prepared some things (e.g. the presentation of the assignment) as well as he needed to, and didn't handle things well when students' confusion over the assignment messed up his intended timeline for the class. Of course an experienced instructor would have found a way to revise that plan on the fly to spend more time on the assignment (maybe using the material from the planned exercise as a way to model some part of the process), but, as noted above, entry-level TT professors aren't necessarily experienced. That, presumably, is why they need to be observed, and mentored.

    1. I would agree that starting with self-reflection questions is the way to go. Also, I would suggest picking one or two things, the most egregious, to focus on rather than laundry listing.

  3. I would agree that you need to talk to your charge, given that you are his mentor (with whatever 'official' or 'semi-official' status that gives you being invested in making sure this guy makes it to tenure). Teaching is definitely the one part of a t-t job where many people go in with ZERO experience, and then get ZERO guidance on how to proceed ("Okay, you're hired, based on a strong research record... Well, go and teach your first course, what are you waiting for??"), so I imagine some mentorship would be appreciated, but I would also think that this can be one of the most prominent pillars of the Imposter Syndrome that can infect new faculty members, so, as others mentioned above, caution in how you present your guidance is probably a good idea.

  4. Teaching the teachers, baby, it's part of the deal at a teaching institution. Remember that new TT folks often have incredibly limited experience teaching, and even a couple of classes they have done have probably been under someone else's guidelines. They don't know WHAT they're doing.

    I like that Hi's place has a mentoring situation in place, because Hi and his colleagues can help prepare the new folks the right way. Of course it's above and beyond what anyone thinks a proffie's job is, but if you want a better department, make better instructors.

    Good luck!

  5. Either you want him to stay, or you don't. If you don't, then begin conspiring with the dean to get rid of him. Otherwise, take him to lunch. A nice place, not McDonald's or TGI Friday's. Listen to him. Be nice. Hold the door open for him. Address him not as "Bob," but as "Dr. Smezzlepoop." Sitting there, drinking a glass of beer or wine, say, "Dr. Smezzlepoop, when I was a little bit younger, the first time I was observed by some other faculty member, I was doing a demonstration. About fifteen minutes into it, I spilled something on my pants, and when I looked down at it I realized my fly had been open the entire morning. Both of my hands were full, so I couldn't immediately zip up. A somewhat socially awkward girl sitting in the front row quickly ran up and pulled my zipper up for me--which made me blush. Red like a tomato. I was standing there holding two or three beakers, purple stain on my pants, blushing, dead silence in the classroom as everyone sat staring at me. I don't even remember the rest of the class until the end when I was still blushing and the observing faculty member asked me if that was ethylene glycol that my pet dog was drinking on the other side of the room. So during less than an hour, I ruined my favorite pair of pants, killed my best friend, was utterly humiliated in front of my students, etc...."

    1. The use of "conspiring" here is meant to be a mix of droll and sad. Not sarcastic. Not ha-ha. Something closer to sardonic, yet not quite. Sorry. I can't think of the word--if there is a word. But I was reminded of going into a colleague's office, shutting the door, sitting down, sighing, dropping my shoulders, gazing at the floor, and whispering, "Well, shit, let's start conspiring to kick this bum out. I hate this part. I really thought he was going to work out."

  6. Let's face it, Hiram, this guy is a dickhead. He also sounds like the kind of dickhead who won't listen to advice from you, no matter how well intentioned or politely given. I agree that senior faculty do have an obligation to help junior colleagues, but if this help isn't wanted, it shouldn't be forced. It would be good if you were to try to tell him what he's doing wrong, face to face and in writing, but don't count on it having much effect.

    I need not lend you my staple gun, however, since it's likely that if this is how his teaching is going, you won't be the only one writing a complaint. The students in particular will likely react badly to this kind of treatment. Just write up an honest and factual report of what you saw in class, and turn it in to your department Chair. As someone who's served as Chair myself (and likely will again if we manage to remove the current incompetent one), I'd appreciate knowing what goes on in my department. For what more can one ask?

  7. Jeez, Frod. Doesn't the hapless newbie get even one round of feedback from Hiram before Hiram kicks him up the food chain? I think we need to see intractability before we can determine dickhead status.

    Hiram, I think this guy is lucky to have you as his mentor. I agree with what Cassandra suggested. Another suggestion might be to spend some time discussing how teaching will be evaluated for tenure, and that might allow you to shift a bit of the "blame"--e.g. "student evals are weighted highly and it's been my experience that if they're on their phones during class, they will eval you poorly." Just a thought.

  8. FWIW, I agree with all this advice except some of Frod's. If this guy does get tenure, he'll be your colleague for a long time, and if you help him improve rather than simply report him, he may also end up being your ally, if not your friend.

    You do have an obligation to write it up objectively, honestly and factually. Such an evaluation can and should also include suggestions. Show Young Professor Padawan professional courtesy by talking with him about the report before submitting it. I like the idea of meeting at an off-campus establishment. Don't make it a bar, primarily, unless you are absolutely sure he drinks.