Tag Archives: higher education

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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Filed under Education, Higher ed, Life in academia, Tenure

A school for grown-ups

My 6-year old is in kindergarten and fascinated by school and schoolteachers. Last week she asked me: “Daddy, are you a teacher?” I told her I was. “What’s your school?” I told her I teach at a college. “What’s a college?” I told her: “A college is a school for grown-ups.” And in that off-the-cuff answer, we have an economical way of describing the difference between college and pre-college education, and of encapsulating the hopes and goals of higher education.

College students, even the wide-eyed freshmen who show up every fall, are not kids. They are emerging adults, having worked 12 years for a high school education and who now enter a 4-5 year buffer zone before entering into the world with nothing more than the things they know, the experiences they’ve had, and the people around them. Therefore we college professors aren’t serving students if we treat them like kids, refer to them as “kids”, or in any way give them a reason to conceive of themselves as children. If we do any of these, students will simply model what we do and stay children. Indeed, I hear my own students talk much more frequently about “the other kids in my class” than “the other students” or even “the other people“.

What we hope to do in higher education is not so much to convey academic subject matter but rather, when you boil it all down, we are trying to teach people how to think like grown-ups. Of course we want our students to retain the best aspects of childhood — curiosity, energy, and so on — but we also want them to temper their child-likeness with adult sensibilities. We want them to think about other people besides themselves; to be self-motivating and responsible; to judge information objectively; to trust but verify what they see; to draw freely from a depth and breadth of experiences to make sense of what they encounter; to be able to think and act for themselves.

Since this is what higher education aims for, I’d like to give a good-natured challenge to my colleagues in higher ed, and by extension all those high school teachers who teach “college preparatory” courses. Very simply: From now until the end of classes this spring, don’t refer to your students as “kids”. Think of them instead as adults, “emerging adults” if you like, and refer to them accordingly. And take a look at your course policies and the ways you make decisions about how to deal with and treat students. If these are set up in a way that places grown-up behavior as the basic assumption, or at the very least provides a road map for younger students to ramp up into grown-up behavior, then I’d say that’s on the right track; otherwise think about ways to change.

I did this recently. I was visiting a high school class I had been working with as part of a dual-enrollment course. During my visit, the teacher allowed the students to have some open Q&A time with me, and several of the students asked me about the differences between high school and college. After spelling out some specifics, I told them, “At my college, we’re going to treat you like men and women when you come in. Not like kids. You won’t be kids and you shouldn’t be treated like kids.” Those young men and women got the message immediately — they straightened up in their chairs and more than a few got smiles on their faces. If we college profs all agree to treat students like men and women — daring students to believe in their own adulthood — I think we’ll see the same positive effect.

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Should everyone go to college?

I’m reading through a number of books and articles related to the scholarship of teaching and learning this summer. One that I read recently was this article (PDF), “Connecting Beliefs with Research on Effective Undergraduate Education” by Ross Miller. There are lots of good points, and teaching tips, in this article. But Miller makes one assertion that doesn’t seem right. He brings up the point, under the general heading of “beliefs”, that “questions arise, both on and off campuses, about whether all students can learn at the college level and whether everyone should attend college” [Miller’s emphases]. As to the “should” part of that question, Miller says:

According to Carnevale (2000), from 1998 to 2008, 14.1 million new jobs will require a bachelor’s degree or some form of postsecondary education—more than double those requiring high school level skills or below. Given those data, it makes sense to encourage all students to continue their education past high school. Consistent high expectations for all students to take a challenging high school curriculum and prepare for college (or other postsecondary education) benefit everyone. Our current practices of holding low expectations for many students result in far too many dropouts or graduates unprepared for college, challenging technical careers, and lives as citizens in a diverse democracy.

So, Miller answers, yes — everyone should attend college. But the reasoning seems spurious for a couple of reasons.

  • How much of the increasingly common requirement of a bachelor’s degree for new jobs is the result of an existing oversupply of people with bachelor’s degrees? Miller claims that people need to have a postsecondary education because more and more jobs require it. Maybe so. But is that because the jobs themselves inherently use skills developed only through a college education? If so, we have to ask if our higher education system is consistently giving students that kind of education. If not, and if students should get a BA or BS  merely because there are so many people out there with BA’s and BS’s that you have to have one to avoid the appearance of intellectual poverty, then this encourages superficial education at the postsecondary level, and the reasoning here is more mythological than anything and needs to be repudiated.
  • As Joanne Jacobs noted back in early 2008 (quoting an article by Paul Barton) it’s not at all settled that the claims about jobs here are even valid. According to that article, only 29% of jobs in 2004 require college credentials, and the percentage is expected to rise only to 31% by 2010 — not exactly a clarion call for all students to matriculate. Also, Barton notes that the wages earned by males with college degrees have slipped, which indicates an oversupply.

College is just not the best choice for every person, and to say that it is merely sets students up for wasting four years of their lives. Some people may have a vocation into a field for which four years of college are a massively inefficient use of time and resources. If you’ve got a vocation to be an electrician, go learn how to be an electrician. If it’s to be a stay-at-home mom, then go do that. Both of these vocations can benefit from a college education if the person is inclined to get one, but neither requires a college education. If you want to go to college and then do those things, fine; but let nobody say that you should go to college, irrespective of your life situation.

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Publicly exposing cheaters?

Is this going too far to punish and deter academic dishonesty?

Texas A&M International University in Laredo fired a professor for publishing the names of students accused of plagiarism.

In his syllabus, professor Loye Young wrote that he would “promptly and publicly fail and humiliate anyone caught lying, cheating or stealing.” After he discovered six students had plagiarized on an essay, Young posted their names on his blog, resulting in his firing last week.

“It’s really the only way to teach the students that it’s inappropriate,” he said.

Young, a former adjunct professor of management information systems, said he believes he made the right move. He said trials are public for a reason, and plagiarism should be treated the same way. He added that exposing cheaters is an effective deterrent.

“They were told the consequences in the syllabus,” he said. “They didn’t believe it.”

Young was fired for violating FERPA. Young, and some of the commenters at the original article, don’t seem to understand the idea that a syllabus is not a legally-binding contract, and a course syllabus cannot overrule Federal law. So it doesn’t really matter whether he had this public humiliation clause in the syllabus or whether the students read it. Choosing not to drop a course does not amount to acquiescing to the syllabus policies if those policies are illegal. You might as well say that cheaters will be shot on sight and then claim immunity from assault charges for putting a cap in a plagiarizing student, because after all the student knew the consequences.

There’s also a sort of moral issue here too. Young lost his job because what he did violates FERPA. But if there were no FERPA, would it be OK to publicly humiliate a student who had been determined — let’s say beyond a reasonable doubt — to be guilty of cheating?

UPDATE: Young’s blog no longer has the offending article on it, but he has this response to TAMIU in which he claims he “analyzed FERPA at the department chair’s request” before posting the article, submitted his analysis to the university, and got no indication that his analysis was incorrect.

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Filed under Academic honesty, Education, Life in academia, Teaching

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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Monday GTD moment: Scholarship and GTD

This is the third installment of Monday GTD Moment, where I take a post to blog about Getting Things Done and how it applies in an academic setting. If you’re unfamiliar with GTD, here’s a good overview, and make sure to read David Allen’s book that started it all.

Last week I wrote about grading and GTD. I noted that grading is kind of a poor fit in traditional GTD. A prof can grade anywhere, so the idea of contexts fits awkwardly; and grading “tasks” are usually projects, although we think of them as tasks and although the next actions contained in those projects are usually nothing more than smaller projects. GTD wasn’t really made for the academic profession, and so the staple activities of academics don’t often fit well.

Another area similar to grading in its relatively poor fit within the canonical GTD philosophy is research, or more generally scholarship. By “scholarship” I am including not only the usual pure research that most profs do (at least while they are getting their terminal degrees) but also any significant creative activity based on one’s expertise that contributes to a discipline or the application of a discipline. This is Boyer’s model of scholarship, and it is finding increasing purchase at colleges and universities all over. So, for example, an applied mathematician who contributes her skill by consulting “on the side” for some external project is scholarship; so would be research that she does on the teaching of applied mathematics or using her expertise to  do a math workshop with a bunch of elementary school kids.

Scholarship is hard for many reasons, perhaps the main one being that original creative work is amorphous. When I was working on my dissertation, the hardest aspect of that work was that at any given point in the process, although I could always measure how much work I’d done, I had no way to tell how much more work I needed to do, what course of action was really the best next action, or even if my previous work was going to remain or be wiped out by the discovery of a mistake or a more elegant and general theorem. It wasn’t like reading a book, where you knew not only how far you’d read but also how far you had left to go and which page was next, and you had a reasonable assurance that the pages you’d read wouldn’t disappear from the book once you’d read them.

Even now, I have all these scholarly projects I want to finish (or start), and I struggle to GTD-ize them. For example, I’m currently working through this book on probability as a self-study course. Some parts of this project are pretty linear and predictable and therefore have clearly-defined next actions —  “Read and work through examples in section 1.2”, for instance. But then the nonlinearity hits. I will eventually read through all of Chapter 1 and will need to work through the exercises. Do I do them all in order, or do I skip around? Would it be fair to lump exercises 1-5 together as a single task, or is that another project? Is even a single exercise a task, or a project, and how can you know in advance? Academic or intellectual work is a black box — you have no idea how long it’s going to take, what resources you will need, whether it is properly thought of as a task or a project, or indeed even if David Allen’s idea of a “task” (a single physical action) is even appropriate at any level.

Scholarship is highly nonlinear, which makes it much different from the business tasks for which GTD was originally created. But it’s what also makes scholarship fun and rewarding, and it’s why most of us eggheads went and got PhD’s in the first place. So, what’s a scholarship-enthused, GTD-powered prof to do in order to bring this important aspect of his work under the GTD framework? Here are some thoughts.

1. Use the review process — all six levels — to craft a coherent and realistic scholarship plan. The heart of GTD is the weekly review, but don’t forget the other kinds of review that Allen talks about in the book. Specifically, Allen gives a six-level model for review in terms of altitude: 50000+, 40000, 30000, 20000, 10000 feet and “runway”. The weekly review often tends to stay on the runway — which, if your work looks like mine, resembles the runways at O’Hare around Christmas — but those higher-level reviews are important. Scholarly directions change rapidly and often at the discretion of the individual. In the business world, you don’t often get the opportunity to change the fundamental direction of your work on your own initiative. But in academia, every day has the potential for such change. If I decided tomorrow to stop studying cryptology and start doing mathematical finance, I could do that. That ability is liberating but also a recipe for stagnation. It’s important to see your scholarship, regularly, not only in terms of current projects and areas of responsibility but also in terms of where you want it all to head in the next year, the next two years, and so on. The tenure and promotion process at an institution, if that process is well-designed, will help profs to think in these terms, but only once a year or (post-tenure) every five years. GTD, done with these higher altitudes in mind, would say to think about the big picture a lot more regularly so that your overall plan is more coherent.

2. As much as possible, concretize your research agenda. Since scholarship is amorphous, once you get down to the level of 10000 feet and lower, some superimposition of structure on scholarship is necessary. It doesn’t always fit well, like a nice suit on an unruly young boy. But it’s still important to break the scholarship plan you’ve created down into manageable projects with a list of concrete next actions. Having “Write a paper” as a project will lead nowhere; most scholarly activities are projects within projects, and at bottom you find one project that can finally be broken down into discrete next actions, each of which has a well-defined context. The challenge is to get to that point. (This is a major similarity with grading.)

3. Don’t be bothered if the plan changes. The nature of research puts all scholarship-oriented action lists into an automatic state of flux. That nice, tidy list of actions under the “Prove the twin prime conjecture” project stands a good chance of being brutally rearranged if, say, you discover a journal article that shows your main theorem so far (which you thought you proved 3-4 next actions ago) to be false, or somebody proves it first, or if you get an unexpected opportunity to work on something else which requires dropping or postponing the project. We all know that research and scholarship are highly volatile areas. But one of the strengths of GTD as a workflow management system is that GTD assumes that tactical decisions will change fluidly and constantly, and that’s OK. The system doesn’t fall apart if things change; you just adjust your next actions and move on.

4. Subdivide your Read/Review folder and make it more like an inbox. Read/Review means something very different to an academic than it does to a business person. The entire life of an academic could be summed up by the term “Read/Review”. So I think Allen’s conception of the Read/Review file needs to be expanded for academics. In my system, I’ve got three Read/Review folders for physical stuff and three for electronic stuff — the three folders in each medium being Teaching/Service (articles about the profession, articles about GTD, articles about pedagogy, etc.), Research (traditional research papers from journals), and Popular (math-related but not from journals; sometimes ed tech items make it in here). I treat these folders like inboxes in the sense that I make them part of my weekly review. Sometimes I gather articles that look good at the time, and I do intend to read them, but they get crowded out by something more urgent. I find that I need to go through Read/Review at least 2-3 times a week to process stuff. Expanding on the Read/Review idea helps keep fresh ideas coming onto your radar screen and into your brain.

5. Stick to your guns with GTD on everything else besides scholarship. Being a prof involves wearing lots of hats — we teach, we serve on committees, we grade, we mentor and advise students and colleagues, and many other things. In order to have the time and flexibility to carry out these amorphous, nonlinear scholarship projects, we have to exercise discipline in getting things done that are “morphous” and linear — stuff like grading, prepping courses, working on committee proposals, and so on. If a person can use GTD to get those tasks and projects under strict discipline and control, then there will (for the most part) be time and space in our schedules to do scholarship. But if the manageable stuff is running all over us, then we can forget about research, unless you are one of the tiny minority of professors who do research and basically nothing else.

I think there’s a great deal of connection between being happy in your academic work and being balanced. The more we enable ourselves not only to be excellent teachers but also active scholars, the more we benefit and so do our students and institutions. I think GTD can help in that regard.

Have a productive week!

[Photo by Jay Lichtman; artwork by ynot2006]

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Filed under GTD, Higher ed, Life in academia, Profhacks, Scholarship, Study hacks, Tenure

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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