Sunday, September 22, 2013

Haggling over grades (not the usual kind)

Scene: the Department Chair's office. Proffie P reports for his annual performance review interview. Proffies are graded on a scale of 1 (unsatisfactory) to 5 (greatly exceeds expectations) for teaching, research and service.

Chair (looking at P's report): Hmm, well, research is not a problem. You've published long papers in good journals recently and, hmm, I'd say you are, uh, hm, in, I guess, the top 25 percent of the department in terms of papers. So, hmm, you know, I have no problem giving you a 4 for research.
Am I Hank, or am I Walter?

Prof P: Good. I'll do my best to keep that up.

Chair: Teaching however, hmm, you know, continues to be an area of, uh, concern.

Prof P. How so?  I taught two graduate courses, and got two students in them to decide to do thesis work in my area. And for my undergraduate courses: is there anything extraordinary about my success rates?

Chair (looking at report): Well, hmm, you know, actually, both for course A and course B, the percentage of students passing was slightly lower than the mean, but within normal range. But enrollment in course A was, hmm, you know, quite low, and in course B about half of, erm, hmm, what it normally is.

Prof P: I have no control over that, over the number of students who sign up for my classes. This can't possibly be used to evaluate teaching.

Chair: Well, hmm, actually, as a matter of fact you do have some, hmm, er, influence over that, through your SNEF scores. And your SNEF scores for course B were, uh, you know, quite low, especially on this one question we use for comparison (out of 24).

Prof P.  As you know, less than one-third of the students do the online evaluations, and it is safe to guess which third of the class that is, right? We don't even know if all the students doing evaluations were still attending.

Chair. Yes, that's true, but nevertheless you know that, hmm, the administration and, well, uh, you know, students, pay attention to these numbers and so, yadda, yadda, yadda, same old story ad nauseam.

(Prof and Chair kick that around for a while. Then the Chair pulls his rabbit out of the hat.)

Chair: I would really like to see your graded finals for course B. Or to have a committee look at it, to see if, hmm, you know, your grading standards are, well, in line with what, hmm, most of the rest of us here do for this course.

Prof: That's out of the question. You'll use the same data to evaluate me as you have for the rest of the faculty. Colleagues have visited my classes and written reports, and there are no complaints from students that my tests are too hard. Academic freedom includes deciding on my own grading policies. What do you expect to find, anyway?

Chair: You're making it all about procedure, when I just want more data. Look, hmm, uh, I'll make a deal with you: I will look at your graded finals myself, and, well,  not use my observations in my report. In return, uh, you know, I'll give you a 3 for teaching (up from 1 last year.) This will give you, uhm, a "meets expectations" overall. I guess (so I'll be eligible for sabbaticals and merit raises).

Prof:  The answer is still no. I'm not about to agree to create a precedent and introduce inspections of graded finals as part of the evaluation of teaching in the department; it's intrusive and unnecessary. That course is over and done with anyway, and no students complained about their grades.

Chair: Are you sure about this? I'm making a big concession here, and, hmm, you know, you could make one in return. I'll give you about a week to think about it, and, well, not upload my report until I hear from you.

Prof.: I very much doubt I'll change my mind. (Stands up to leave.) I guess this interview is over, then.

The Prof leaves the Chair's office, and walks out of the building. Once at a safe distance, he pulls the tiny recording device out of his pocket , and turns it off. The interview took about an hour, it will be a lot of work to transcribe it; but well worth it. And then he starts thinking: I grade my finals like Santa; maybe I should take this deal. Hank wouldn't, but Walter would. Am I Hank, or am I Walter?



  1. It's a shame that, in some states, it's actually illegal to tape record a conversation without the other person giving consent. Oh how I've often wanted to do that!

    What say we tar and feather your chair?

  2. I take notes in my meetings. I am very conspicuous about taking notes. It makes my chair very nervous when I do this. It's free and legal!!

  3. Yes, it is a shame, and luckily I don't live in one of those states (I checked.) I think he is quite capable of bringing about his own demise without help, though.

    1. Thanks, I'll post an update when there's something new; but by then this post will have long left page one.

  4. Holy crap. Burn that asshole down, dude. He absolutely has it coming.

  5. I would be cautious about this. If it's standard practice to use teaching evals for annual performance reviews, then your chair is on firm ground. (Although the respondants do not represent the whole class, that's true for all other professors. If yours are lower, that could indicate a problem - maybe with your teaching, maybe with the way students respond to your teaching style.) He was doing you a favor though you are free to decline the offer. If you are getting the lowest possible grade in teaching, you have to find out what your colleagues are doing and try to fix things. Worry about that more than how to trap your department head. What's your end game? If he is removed, you've still got to improve your teaching.

    Better call Saul.

    1. Ben, none of this is about teaching (as I said, numerous class visits and reviews of my tests failed to detect problems), but student evaluations. And as I'm sure has been amply discussed in these pages, the only consistent pattern in evals is an inverse correlation with rigor, and with the demands placed on the students (show work!)

      Regarding the rating last year (given one month after he became Chair), the evidence given for it was reviewed by two independent university-wide faculty committees; both found it was not justified by the data and recommended it be vacated. It is natural, but still discouraging, that anyone who doesn't know the detailed history automatically assumes that formal authority correlates with competence/fairness, meaning in this case, that the dept chair wouldn't have just pulled this out of his..., which is just what happened.

      I'm considering taking a version of his offer, but I still think (given he was rebuffed twice last year, which puts him in a weaker position than myself vis-a-vis the dean) it was at best borderline ethical to propose what amounts to a trade, and I'm glad to have it on tape (especially if, at some point, I do have to call Saul.) My "end game" is to get another job, and I'm working on it.

      And my goal isn't to entrap anyone. But since the interview last year, I decided I'd wouldn't have a meeting with an administrator without recording it; just as an aide-me'moire, nothing else.

  6. Oy vey. What a farkakte schmuck (the chair, not you). I would say to stand your ground on this--because if he does it to you, he will do it to others with even less power than you (adjuncts).

  7. Good on ya, Peter, for standing your ground. If you'd have put the recorder on the desk between you he'd have plotzed.

    1. He had his smartphone on the desk, so for all I know he could be recording it too.

  8. Hot damn, Peter. I hope the sound quality is good.

    1. It is excellent ! This little toy was a good investment.

  9. I love it! Please post updates, and link to this article for anyone needing a refresher! I hope those to whom you would send the tape will care and be able to use it!


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