October 23, 2007

Poor teaching != indoctrination

The response to the AAUP's statement Freedom in the Classroom (released September 11) has been fascinating, from Peter Wood and Stephen Balch's tendentious attempt to fisk the report (thereby burying the legitimate criticisms) to Erin O'Connor's more focused criticism to Stanley Fish's column this Sunday, where he takes the statement (rightly) to task for an inane example. First, let me quote Fish's distinction between teaching with controversial subjects and indoctrination:

Any subject -- pornography, pedophilia, genocide, scatology -- can be introduced into an academic discussion so long as the perspective from which it is analyzed is academic and not political.

This is Fish's "academicizing" (see the end of an August 2006 article about Kevin Barrett), and apart from the suggestion that properly teaching a subject requires anaesthetizing the student, it is one reasonable slice at the definition of indoctrination.

The AAUP subcommittee made its largest mistake in choosing a horrible example of teaching that should be protected from political scrutiny:

Might not a teacher of nineteenth-century American literature, taking up Moby Dick, a subject having nothing to do with the presidency, ask the class to consider whether any parallel between President George W. Bush and Captain Ahab could be pursued for insight into Melville's novel?

In contrast with Fish, I think that this choice of examples should be protected from claims of indoctrination, because faculty should be allowed and even encouraged to insert passion into the classroom, even when an attempt fails. But a teacher using such an example should not be protected from claims that this is simply an awful instructional choice. One of my college teachers claimed that Dostoevsky's portraits of psychological imbalance predicted Hitler's rise and the Holocaust. I suspect that he was trying to enliven the class, not indoctrinate us (and what would he have been indoctrinating us into, the Cult of Heterodox Dostoevsky Social Criticism?). We stared at him, mouths agape, wondering what he had been smoking. Great books, mediocre class.

So, like Timothy Burke (both in talking about ACTA's "How Many Ward Churchills?" screed and in discussing teaching in general), I am more concerned with inept teaching than indoctrination, in part because I strongly suspect that most students read crass political didacticism as incompetence as well as or rather than indoctrination.

The practical question is what no one (including the AAUP) has addressed. Suppose that a student complains about the Ahab/Bush comparison. What do we do? I agree with Stanley Fish that the comparison is not professional. Does that mean we toss the professor out on his or her ear? The AAUP statement refers vaguely to academic due process:

When that [allegation of improper conduct] happens, sound professional standards of proper classroom conduct should be enforced in ways that are compatible with academic due process. Over the last century the profession has developed an understanding of the nature of these standards. It has also developed methods for enforcing these standards that allow for students to file complaints and that afford accused faculty members the right fully to be heard by a body of their peers.

That's all fine and pretty but while the statement seems to imply that universities have developed ways of addressing improper instruction, such a conclusion is simply unwarranted. We know how to handle allegations of research misconduct (or at least we think we do until politicians get involved), there are reasonable guidelines from the AAUP on extramural utterances and behavior, and I suspect most universities have formal academic grievance procedures (where a student can appeal an academic decision), but we professors don't have a clue how to handle allegations of teaching misconduct except where there are bright-line standards such as showing up to class and not hitting (on) students.

I don't mean that faculty always stand idly by when they observe or discover a peer's teaching behavior that they find troubling in a variety of ways. But in terms of formal investigations -- what warrants special attention apart from annual reviews and how to gather and evaluate evidence -- I suspect most institutions have absolutely no procedural guidelines. And therein lies the problem: without procedures set down somewhere, administrators under pressure will resort to ad-hoc decisions and processes, which will inevitably violate academic freedom and erode institutional integrity.

The first line of defense against ad-hoc-ism is some proactive evaluation of teaching, the type of thoughtful peer observation and probing that Timothy Burke advocates. Yes, that requires some time and resources. Many good things do, and in many places (such as my institution right now, under enormous budget pressures), that ideal is unlikely to evolve quickly. Most institutions have some annual evaluation, which has an indirect evaluation of teaching through student surveys and materials submitted by the faculty member. This is better than nothing from a variety of perspectives and much worse than the ideal.

The second line of defense is a procedure for screening and evaluating allegations of serious teaching misconduct and incompetence. Here is where most institutions are susceptible to pressures. While most institutions have established procedures when students gripe about a grade, no one has thought through all the other grievances and griping. Even the vaunted-by-ACTA University of Missouri-Columbia Ombudsman program has "Under Development" as the entire content for the Grievance Procedures of Academic Units page. The world will have to see if and how such procedures develop or if they remain largely ad-hoc.

The third line of defense is a system to coach students on reasonable assertiveness, how to raise issues in a course that expand discussion and educational opportunity. This coaching is necessary both for the shy and the brash student. I try to give students opportunities every semester to give me early feedback on a course in an anonymous way, and while I provide that structure and generally try not to bite students' heads off, some students will not tell me their concerns until long after they become worried about an issue (whether it is instruction or assignments or grades or something else). Other students are simply brusque, either with me or other students, and while (I hope) I'm fairly easygoing about criticism, some faculty are thin-skinned or may misinterpret student expressions of concern. There are right and wrong ways to point out that a class omitted an important perspective, and we do students a disservice in assuming that they come to college knowing the right way to criticize class.

This need for education starts with the usual front-line "ears" in a university: chairs and the secretarial staff of university presidents. My chairs have always tried to redirect the student back to me and also let me know when a student raised a concern with them. Presidents' secretaries don't often have the professional experience to tell students to go back to the professor, and when the presidential staff sends a "here's a heads-up" message down the line through a provost, dean, and chair back to the faculty member, sometimes carelessness with the wording and inevitable gaps in communication turn an intended "here's a heads-up" message into an assumption that the message is really "you better deal with this or else."

The fourth line of defense is a bright-line standard for when administrators should even be thinking about intervening in the middle of a term, in contrast to gathering evidence about an allegation at the end of a term. Starting an investigation in the middle of a class is a serious step that can interfere with the learning environment as much as many of the practices that students might complain about; think about what would happen if the Proper Instruction Police interview students in a class regularly, asking what they thought of the politics of the instructor and the assignment du jour. I don't think any administrator would ever imagine that could happen, but starting an investigation about classes in the middle of a class always carries the risk of educational iatrogenesis. Here are my suggested standards:

  • Investigate when the allegation is of behavior that is dangerous to students.
  • Investigate when a prudent and yet reasonably thick-skinned person would agree that a student's right to education is jeopardized by the alleged behavior (e.g., screaming at students, racial discrimination, etc.), if allegations come from several sources that are credible. Thus, if the majority of a class complains that the instructor is swearing a blue streak and failing to teach physiology when the course is a required part of the nursing sequence, someone needs to look into those allegations, but one student's complaint should not trigger a full-blown set of interviews with all students in a course.
  • Gather evidence passively during a term if the allegations are serious but the claims come from isolated sources. By passive data collection, I mean planning how to gather evidence at the end of the semester and waiting to see if there are other complaints from other credible sources.
  • Refuse to use evidence that is gathered illegally or without provenance. For example, Florida law prohibits audio recordings of people who have a reasonable expectation of privacy without the permission of recorded students--thus, I have been told that surreptitious video on Youtube of Florida classrooms would almost always be illegal unless the faculty member agreed to such guerrilla recording and the student used a shotgun microphone so no fellow student's voice was picked up.
  • In all cases, the faculty member must be told promptly of student concerns and, where the administrator has decided no immediate intervention is required, that should be specified (i.e., in the vast majority of cases).

Comments are most welcome on this sketch.

Listen to this article
Posted in Academic freedom on October 23, 2007 11:58 PM |