October 25, 2007

Response to Dean Dad on the Brett Favre chemistry lecture series

Dean Dad responds to my recent post about teaching with a discussion about what to do with tenured faculty who are poor teachers and resistant to improving what they do. I think that's somewhat separate from the issue I discussed (what happens when students complain about teaching in the middle of a semester), but he raised an interesting challenge:

Rather than making this post #480 in my ongoing series on the evils of tenure, I'll ask for solutions within a tenure-based system. How would you handle the tenured professor who would rather discuss Brett Favre than his course's subject matter?

He specifically pointed to my advocacy of strong peer evaluations of teaching and asked, "What incentive would a peer have to take on somebody disagreeable?" I'll freely admit that faculty find productive confrontations a very difficult challenge. So do administrators. So do people in a variety of work situations, which is why there are shelves of various books on what to do in dysfunctional work environments and with dysfunctional colleagues (e.g., Bob Sutton's work or the Harvard Negotiations Project).

Because I blog under my name, it would be unprofessional for me to describe any specific situation at USF where faculty have taken on peers, but I know of a few locally and elsewhere. Admittedly, these are at either liberal-arts or research institutions where peer reviews are fairly important to promotion and merit pay (and unlike Dean Dad's institution, my university has had merit pay in the majority of years I've been here--far too little money has been available for productive negotiations over what should be across-the-board, merit, compression/inversion compensation, or adminsitrative discretion, but we do have merit money regularly in at least token amounts).

But I'm digressing. To Dean Dad's challenge: someone has to confront the tenured professor who consistently likes to talk about secondary coverage instead of covalent bonds. That's best done when there is a consensus of both peers and chair/administrators that someone's work is consistently inappropriate. It can be from a peer who has the guts or a chair who has no choice. But both have to be speaking with some considerable backup (in documentation or collegial support, and preferably both) to get beyond the prickliness Dean Dad anticipates/has experienced. As in all such confrontations, it has to be with some sense of humanity and sympathy.

I think this is necessary regardless of whether there are any tangible reward structures tied to evaluations. Even if there are career consequences to peer evaluations, I think leaving it up to a dry sheet every year announcing evaluation ratings is a particularly dysfunctional and academic form of passive aggression (see my academic lightbulb joke from last year for a tongue-in-check example, a truth that Dean Dad recognized). For junior faculty, any exercise in annual evaluation sadism is proof that a department is not mentoring an assistant professor. (Good heavens, folks, nominate someone to talk with your colleague.) For senior faculty, it is a sign that everyone needs to start talking with another again (or for a first time).

Even in aggressive unionized environments with written policies that go far beyond AAUP minimums, after you have talked with the recalcitrant Brett Favre fan, offered support, demonstrated that the person's behavior is considered unacceptable by peers, administrators, and students, and given the tenured faculty an opportunity to change, there are steps to take that fall under the general scope of discipline: letters of counsel, formal discipline that does not affect pay, formal discipline that does affect pay, and termination. As one of my local's vice presidents, I can explain that a union has a duty of fair representation when a faculty member is disciplined for just cause, to make sure that there has been due process (and I hope Dean Dad has memorized the tests of just cause). But that is a protection of due process, not a defense of poor behavior or incompetent teaching. If a faculty member has been dealt with fairly (which includes the judgment of peers), discipline up to and including firing can be an appropriate response to stubborn incompetence.

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Posted in Higher education on October 25, 2007 10:47 PM |