Tag Archives: academia

Must the tenure process really be like this?

Like a lot of people in higher ed, I’ve been following Friday’s deadly shooting at the University of Alabama-Hunstville. (Click the link for background in case you missed the story. I have no idea how much press it is or is not getting in the national mainstream media.) It’s known that Amy Bishop, the UAH biology professor being charged with the shooting, was denied tenure in April and had made an unsuccessful appeal regarding her tenure denial. It’s not clear that the shooting was related to the tenure situation, but the speculation — especially in the article at the second link — is that there’s a connection.

What is clear, at least from my perspective as a professor and as somebody in the fourth year of a five-year appointment to my college’s Promotion and Tenure Committee, is that something is really badly wrong with UAH’s tenure system, and perhaps with tenure as a concept. Listen to this description of Prof. Bishop’s situation from William Setzer, chemistry department chair at UAH:

As for why she had been turned down for tenure, Mr. Setzer said he had heard that her publication record was thin and that she hadn’t secured enough grants. Also, there were concerns about her personality, he said. In meetings, Mr. Setzer remembered, she would go off on “bizarre” rambles about topics not related to tasks at hand — “left-field kind of stuff,” he said. […]

While there were those who supported her tenure and promotion, Mr. Setzer said, he didn’t believe she had any friends in the department.

There was no doubt, however, about her intelligence or pedigree. “She’s pretty smart,” said Mr. Setzer. “That was not a question. There might have been some question about how good of a [principal investigator] and mentor she was. Yeah, she knows her stuff, and she’s a good technical person, but as far as being the boss and running the lab, that was kind of the question.”

Mr. Setzer might not be giving an accurate description of how people get tenure at UAH, but is this really what tenure is all about? Publication records? Grants? Personalities? Whether or not you have enough friends, or the right friends?  UAH does state up-front that it is a research-intensive university, but where is teaching in all of this?

Now look at the depressing remarks of  Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, about the realities (?) of tenure:

“The most likely result of being denied tenure in this nonexistent job market is that you will not be able to continue teaching,” said [Nelson]. “You probably can’t get another job.”

Nelson, who teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said the review is a period of great stress for even the most likely candidates. They feel judged. Denial can lead to isolation.

“If you have underlying problems,” Nelson said, “then there’s a good chance that they will surface during the tenure process because you are under so much stress.”

We do not know, yet, just how much Prof. Bishop’s tenure denial contributed to her actions, which (I stress) are not justifiable under any circumstance. But honestly — if this is what getting tenure is like at your school, then your school is doing it wrong.

The tenure process can, and should, be an open and transparent process whereby junior faculty are guided in their professional development by senior faculty with a view towards making positive contributions to their institution for 30 or 40 years or more. Done right, tenure can be a transformative and powerful experience for faculty, institutions, and students alike. Done as it is described above, though, it is bound to be petty, political, focused on all the wrong things, and producing professionally unbalanced faculty who have merely learned to play the game properly. No wonder so many schools are considering dropping tenure. But isn’t there some middle ground where tenure can be redeemed?

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A prayer for those taking final exams (bumped)

We’ve finally made it to final exams week in the second semester of what seemed like the longest academic year ever. I thought I would bump this old post from December 11, 2005 (original with comments here) to give props and encouragement to all the students out there who are getting ready for their exams.

————————–

(Inspired by seeing so many students on AIM tonight studying for finals, which for us start tomorrow.)

Dear Lord:
Let those who are filling the library right now with their bodies and their thoughts
Study hard, but also eventually rest.
Let them realize that success on their exams comes
Not from pulling allnighters
Not from cramming
Not from losing sleep
But as the sweet fruits of a long semester
Of diligence, patience, humility, and sweat
Of losing themselves in the laborious doing
That comes when a long-held dream is finally pursued.
Let them know that their final exams not only measure their knowledge
But also, in the ending of the term, show how faithful You have been to them.
They know more now than they did in August.
They are better students, better stewards, of Your blessing of intellect.
Their thoughts are more like Your thoughts.
And no matter what happens, this cannot be taken away.
In that, let them rest
And tomorrow, Tuesday, and Wednesday, let them learn and be satisfied.
In Your Name: Amen.

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Accreditation nation

Higher education is awash with accrediting agencies, on the institutional level and sometimes on the level of individual programs. Losing one’s accreditation is the kiss of death. Accreditation is a big deal. But here’s one thing I’ve never understood about accrediting bodies: Why do we have them in the first place?

My understanding about accreditation is that it’s roughly analogous to getting a letter of recommendation or a certification — except accreditation is on the institutional level instead of the individual level. You have this body of higher ed people in the accrediting agency, supposedly experienced in how universities and their programs are supposed to operate, and they come in every so often and pore through mounds of collected evidence about how a university does business, and then give a thumbs-up or -down. That way, colleges that are nothing more than diploma mills and are not offering viable academic programming can be distinguished from those that are, and the outside world — for example, the people who employ college graduates — have some sense of what they are getting.

But, two things:

(1) What happens when institutions have viable academic programming but it’s done significantly differently than how the main stream of universities do it, or it’s done from a religious and political standpoint that the experts from the accrediting agency find intolerable? This happened to Patrick Henry College and to King’s College, two relatively new institutions who had to go to court to have their accreditation reinstated, or in PHC’s case revert to a Christian-college-only accrediting body, because accreditation was revoked on the basis of the Christian approach to the curriculum that those colleges employ. How can we be sure that accreditation is not just a political litmus test?

And more practically:

(2) Wouldn’t the free market perform the job that the accrediting agencies are supposedly doing, at much lower cost? If a college produces graduates who are employable and go on to have productive personal and professional lives in the real world, then what difference does it make if it has the stamp of approval of some higher ed bureaucracy? Or conversely, if a university produces graduates who are consistently unemployable or earn a track record for being poor performers on the job, then is the accreditation that the university has earned really worth anything? Why not just dispense with accrediting agencies altogether and let the market decide whether or not the degree is worth the paper it’s printed on?

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OMG! Another video on how to cheat on a test

When I put up this post, highlighting a hilariously bad YouTube video on how to cheat on a test, one of the things I discovered was that there is actually an entire genre of “how to cheat” videos on YouTube. I didn’t realize I had tapped into such a resource, but I did. Since the earlier post got lots of comments, I thought I’d do another. This one is much cleverer and better-produced. Enjoy (I guess):

Like I said, a lot cleverer — and a lot harder to detect. The big hurdle here is that many classrooms don’t allow food or drink in the classroom, and even if they did, a prof could simply ban food and drink to circumvent this particular trick. But the problem there is that a student could perform this trick on anything with a label, and so if you ban pop bottles you might as well ban everything. Which some teachers and testing facilities do.

This trick also assumes that the person cheating has enough skill with Photoshop to create the fake label, and that’s a very big stretch. And if somebody is that smart then probably they don’t need to cheat in the first place.

The main problem with both this cheat and the one in the earlier post is that the cheaters are assuming something wrong about the basic nature of tests, at least at the college level. They are assuming that tests are about storage and recall of information. Maybe some (most?) tests in high school are like this. But at least in my classes, having a few bytes of information embedded into some kind of object using steganography just isn’t going to do you much good if you don’t know how to use the information to solve a problem. You might be able to smuggle in the limit definition of the derivative successfully into a calculus test, but if you can’t use the definition to calculate the derivative, that successful smuggling won’t have helped much. In that case, trying to look inconspicuous as you squint nearsightedly at your Coke bottle trying to read off the value of Planck’s constant is the least of your problems.

If these two videos are any indication of the state of the art in cheating on a test, the simplest way to foil attempts to cheat is simply to make tests less about storage and recall of information and more about problem solving and logical deduction. On final exams in my freshman courses, I allow students to make up their own notecard on the front and back of a 3×5 index card and bring it to the exam precisely because I do not want them to think that the exam is about storage and recall. “Legalizing” the cheat sheet has basically eliminated academic dishonesty from my final exams, and in fact students find that making up the card is an excellent way to review.

A far more dangerous form of cheating would be a system where a student taking a test communicates information about the test itself to another student, such as two students sharing solution techniques in real time to a problem on a test they are taking. There are ways to do this, but I haven’t seen a clever (or un-clever) video on YouTube yet about that.

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New venture: Young Mathematicians’ Network

I’m happy to announce the start of a new blogging project that has been percolating for about a month now. I will be joining a team of bloggers who will be contributing posts on a more-or-less weekly basis to the website of the Young Mathematicians’ Network. The YMN is an organization devoted to giving support to graduate students and new faculty in the mathematical sciences and raising awareness of issues to that group of people and others who share their interests.

My co-bloggers and I will be putting up articles about all kinds of topics. Some of the other bloggers are blogging anonymously because they’ll be writing about their own job searches or their activities on search committees. Me, I’ve always found anonymous blogging to be too much work, so I will be sticking to posts of particular interest to young math faculty and to grad students — posts that might be a little out of place or perhaps too much of niche pieces here at Casting Out Nines. I plan on either cross-posting or linking to the posts over at YMN, though, so people can go read the stuff if they want.

In fact, here’s my first post — The hiring process as risk management. (You have to register and log in to comment.)

UPDATE 10.18, 11:00 AM: And as soon as I made this announcement, there was a pretty serious technical problem with YMN’s server, and the site’s offline. I’ll update again once it’s fixed.

UPDATE 5:00 PM: It’s fixed.

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Academic subjects of the future?

Question for you in the video about what might be on the horizon in terms of academic subject areas.

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Fall preview

It’s August, which means the start of school is just around the corner. The public schools and my kids’ preschool start on August 11. Classes start for me on August 26, but there’s a run-up of meetings and other activities that consume the entire week prior to that. With all this stuff about to commence, here’s an overview of what’s on the plate this fall. I don’t blog about what’s going on at work or what my students do, but I do use CO9s to flesh out thoughts or experiences I have about what I’m doing. So this should give some context.

  • Teaching two sections of calculus. Although I didn’t blog much about it, I taught calculus in an 8-week evening format this summer and I thought it went very well. I was running the class with an eye towards reusability; I’m hopeful that I can reuse all the stuff that I prepped during the summer for my fall courses so that my energy can be devoted to teaching and grading and not so much on prepping.
  • Teaching my sophomore course on Methods of Problem Solving. This will be the eighth running of this course since I first designed it back in 2001, and frankly I’ve never quite gotten it to where I want it. I am breaking with my usual form and using a textbook this time around and doing a few other different things to try and be more effective with a very difficult pedagogical problem: how to teach students who have been immersed in a basic calculus course for a year and who tend to think of math in terms of calculus exercises how to experiment, conjecture, and prove theorems.
  • Teaching my upper-level course on Geometry. Actually I have a lot in store for geometry in general, and if it works out I will blog some more about that separately.
  • Being chair of the Promotion and Tenure Committee this year, which is a huge responsibility — although we have a lighter-than-usual load of faculty coming up for tenure or promotion this year for whatever reason.
  • Continuing to direct our new dual-degree engineering program. This program has generated a lot of buzz, but since it’s not a major on campus, I really don’t know how many actual students it’s going to attract. But regardless of population, this programs gotten me to think a lot about how engineering and the liberal arts interact.

And of course there’s a thousand little things that are always on the task list, but that’s life in academia.

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Letting teaching and research feed each other

Good article here at the Chronicle on balancing teaching with research, from a neuroscience professor who makes it work for him.

The reality of modern academe is that, no matter what your institutional affiliation, the time you can devote to research is being squeezed by multiple competing demands. No simple solution to that problem exists for any of us. But I have found that rethinking the nature of our professional commitments, such that teaching activities bleed into research ones (and vice versa), can be an effective way to reduce the time crunch. Academics describe their workload of scholarship, teaching, and service as if those were entirely separate entities. In reality, the line between teaching and research is usually much fuzzier.

Read the whole thing, in which Prof. Gendle writes at length about the potentially prosperous symbiosis between teaching and research. He points out three key scholarly skills which teaching reinforces: developing your presentation skills, responding appropriately to odd questions, and making connections across fields. He emphasizes his success in maintaining an active research agenda while keeping a “moderately heavy” teaching load, which for him is 5-6 courses per year. My teaching load is 8 courses (6 preps) per year, and to that situation Prof. Gendle says:

I am fortunate that my teaching load still allows some dedicated time for research. That may not be the case at institutions with teaching loads of seven or more courses in a single academic year. Teaching loads of that magnitude often pass a tipping point for most faculty members (myself included). With that many courses, there simply are not enough hours in the day to conduct classes, grade papers, etc., and still have time left for research.

Gendle is in the psychology department at Elon University, which is well-known for being an undergraduate institution with a reputation for engaging students in meaningful scholarly work.

Do any of you teach at institutions with a 7+ course-per-year teaching load, and still manage an active research program of some sort?

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If I were the university president… (v. 2)

…then I might be driven to drink because of the job stress, but I don’t think I would drive around drunk either:

The president of the University of Evansville was arrested for driving while intoxicated Wednesday evening.

Stephen Jennings, who has been president since 2001 at the dry campus, was driving with a blood-alcohol content nearly twice the level at which a driver is considered intoxicated, according to a probable cause affidavit posted online by the Evansville Courier and Press.[…]

“I have obviously made a very serious mistake, and I apologize to the campus community and the community at large,” Jennings said in the statement. “I will take every necessary action to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.”

Jennings pleaded guilty to two counts of operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated Thursday morning via video from the Vanderburgh County Jail, according to court records. He was allowed to enter the deferral program because it was his first offense.

If Jennings successfully completes the program, the charges against him will be dismissed.

According to the article, Jennings was pulled over after weaving his car between lanes on a major highway. Then, after police “immediately smelled a very strong odor of alcohol beverages” and noticed his “bloodshot and glassy eyes”, Jennings refused a field sobriety test; then he claimed he hadn’t been drinking; then he admitted to having two beers. Then they found his blood alcohol content to be 0.14, which is way more than you’d get after two beers. Unless those two beers were in addition to a bottle of scotch.

The trustees at UE are rallying around Jennings:

“The board feels he has done a wonderful job for this university and this community,” board Chairman Niel Ellerbrook said in the statement, “and it is our intention to do whatever is needed to help Steve.”

That’s nice, but if I were a trustee and not just a university president, I’d have to think that raising money and representing the institution to the public — which are two of the main jobs of the president — are going to be a lot harder when you’ve been arrested for DUI.

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Handling academic dishonesty

Virusdoc, always the prolific commenter, has left another comment that raises the issue of how a professor should actually deal with academic dishonesty when it occurs. What follows is my own procedure for handling these situations; I’m sure it’s not perfect, and I’m open to suggestions for improvement, but it’s worked pretty well for me over the years. 

The overall strategy for dealing with academic dishonesty is that the students involved should be confronted with the issue promptly after it’s been discovered, given a chance to give their side of the story, and then the professor can move forward on the dual basis of the evidence in front of her/him and the student’s own statements. This strategy is opposed to two other possible strategies: 

  • Avoiding doing anything about the academic dishonesty at all, either by simply looking the other way and pretending it didn’t happen, or else using the suspected academic dishonesty as an occasion to give an alternate exam or some kind of second chance assessment. I’m not against second chances or mercy in general, but look: academic honesty is bad. It’s more than just youthful indiscretion, like drinking too much at a frat party or sleeping through an exam because you were up all night studying (or drinking too much at a frat party). Academic dishonesty is a willful, intentional violation of trust, and if you are a professor and have a shred of respect for the life of the mind, you have to do something about it, even if it might earn you a reputation as a mean SOB among students. (This goes double for new faculty, for whom academic dishonesty is often perpetrated by students as a means of testing boundaries.) 
  • Executing a summary judgment on the basis of evidence alone, without the students giving their side of things, even if you are within your rights as a prof to do so and even if the evidence for academic dishonesty is overwhelming. First of all, I’ve had many cases of something I thought was academic dishonesty that could be logically explained away by students when I confront them with the work; or at least, I could see that the student was so scared and authentically sorry that I can at least scale my recommendation for their punishment back a little. Second, many times students will simply confess when they are confronted. 
So now, my means of working through an academic dishonesty situation goes like this: 
  1. Make a paper trail. Make photocopies of all the suspected dishonest work. Make copies of the syllabus policy or any other pertinent document where the rules against cheating are stated. Make printouts of the Wikipedia article that was copied. Save and print any email exchanges on the subject that you have with the students. We do all this because you should never underestimate how litigious a situation like this can get. I’ve never been sued for writing someone up for cheating </knock on wood> but I have had angry parents show up in the office before, one time with a firearm. But that’s another story. At any rate, having good documentation takes a lot of pressure off. 
  2. Contact each student individually for meetings to discuss their work. And phrase it that simply: “I’d like to meet with you to discuss your work.” No mention of academic dishonesty yet. And if there’s more than one student involved, don’t meet with them in a group — because they will likely meet before your meeting to get their story straight. Or, phrased more positively, if it’s a group of students involved and they all have the same explanation with the right details even when meeting separately, you can be confident they are telling the truth. 
  3. Start each meeting by getting the student to discuss the work itself. This will help you gauge the extent to which the student really understands the material, and consequently how likely it is that the student actually cheated or plagiarized. 
  4. Then, after you have gathered some information about the student’s skills with the material, shift the discussion to the academic dishonesty. Something like this: “I had something else to discuss with you about this work. Here’s your work. [Lay out the student’s work.] And here’s [another student’s work | a Wikipedia article | a website | whatever]. These are very similar as you can see. Can you give me some context for what happened here?” I’ve seen this called “the reveal” ala Trading Spaces. In other words, confront the student with the problem: They’ve turned in something that appears to have been lifted from something else without attribution, and you would like to know what the deal is with that, from their perspective. 
  5. One of three things will happen at this point. You will get (a) a believable explanation, (b) a crap explanation, or (c) a confession. If (c), then that student’s case is, sadly, pretty straightforward from this point onward. If either (a) or (b), then you will eventually have to weigh the student’s words against the evidence. But for now, all you do is listen and ask questions to clarify what the student is saying. And make notes — make notes and add them to the paper trail. Above all, be nice. The student is probably about to crap his or her pants out of fear and uncertainty, and so being a professional who is merely seeking understanding of a questionable situation will make the student more comfortable and more likely to think straight. 
  6. Once you’ve met with all the students and heard everything that needs to be said, you now have to take the evidence in the work, each individual student’s words, and the interactions between the words of different students, and figure out which student crossed the line into academic dishonesty and how willful and bad that crossing was. I can’t offer any rules or procedures for that, other than general advice to be professional and to seek a proper combination of justice and mercy. Also, I’d say that if you have any doubts about whether a student crossed that line, then it’s better to err on the side of mercy and give the student the benefit of the doubt — along with a serious lecture about how close they came to getting their grade nuked for cheating — rather than administer a punishment you’re not sure is deserved. 
  7. Finally, based on (and partially guided by) your institution’s procedures for academic dishonesty, you probably have to write a report and send it up the chain of command to the Dean. At my college, we profs have the option to suggest restricted punishments for academic dishonesty if the circumstances merit it. The standard penalty is a 0 on the offending assignment, a lowering of the semester grade by one full letter (on top of grade damages caused by the 0), and expulsion upon the second offense. If my interview with a student leads me to believe that they were guilty of academic dishonesty — but their behavior was closer to indiscretion than it was to cold-blooded cheating, and they were not giving me a crap explanation in step 6 — then here’s my chance to suggest they not be punished as badly. I almost always have plenty of cause to call for mitigated penalties, because students are usually pretty forthcoming in their interviews. 
I wish I could describe some specific cases I’ve dealt with to show how my way of doing things usually leads to conclusions that I can feel relatively good about, but there’s FERPA and all that. But suffice to say that while every academic dishonesty investigation for me has been distinctly unpleasant — it takes a lot of time and a lot of energy to do things this way — I’ve never come away from a case feeling like I did the wrong thing, either letting someone off too easy or being too heavy-handed. 

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