Update: Welcome, InsideHigherEd.com readers! Please feel free to browse, and I’d suggest this Top 12 Posts page for starters.
My criticism of Ivy Tech’s handling of an adjunct who distributed alternate course materials to supplement his statistics class textbook needs a little clarification. I’m being critical here not so much of Ivy Tech itself as I am the model that sets Ivy Tech’s priorities.
I can accept that Ivy Tech, as an institution keenly interested in maintaining absolute consistency of course content across all sections, was simply acting within the dictates of its business model. Despite what its name might indicate, Ivy Tech Community College is not a single campus but a sprawling network of community colleges with 25 brick-and-mortar campuses throughout Indiana as well as a growing online education division. When you look at Prof. Norasteh’s statistics course, it is one of dozens, possibly hundreds, of sections of this course that are all running at the same time. Four-year colleges and universities have to be able to see this course listed on a student’s transcript and have some reasonable assurance of trust that that course with that grade indicates a uniform extent of mastery of the subject — regardless of where or from whom the student took it.
The same thing can be said for any franchise-based business, or any business that operates virtually as a collection of franchises. When you go to a McDonald’s, you expect to get the same experience and the same product, no matter whether it’s the McDonald’s up the street or one in another country. Uniformity of product is what makes McDonald’s and other franchise businesses work. Are you craving a Big Mac? Go to a McDonald’s — any McDonald’s. Are you wanting to take a statistics class that will transfer into a four-year university? Take it at Ivy Tech and don’t worry about which Ivy Tech or which instructor you are selecting. The same thing can be said for the for-profits like University of Phoenix, which have similarly highly-distributed populations and whose business model stands or falls on curricular uniformity.
So when I criticize Ivy Tech, it’s not so much Ivy Tech as it is the model that Ivy Tech uses which sets uniformity of experience as a higher priority than the quality of classroom learning. When you’ve got a system that actually ends up punishing professors who, on their own initiative and on their own dime, create course materials which help students learn the material better — because this creates a differential between that professor’s course and another professor’s — then I think you’ve got a broken system. What that system really does is reward the professors who do only what is required of them, no more — who stick with the incomprehensible textbook when they know good and well that their students aren’t learning from it. The incentive to do something to help students learn is rewarded by losing one’s job if not everybody else is doing something similar. Talk about your lowest common denominator.
Better to have a smaller, more concentrated educational environment where the uniformity-across-course-sections issue is minimized or nonexistent, and focus on making the classroom experiences as enriching as possible, where both professors and students are doing everything they can to learn, and everybody gets rewarded for doing so.
When you’re teaching a class and students are having trouble understanding the textbook, usually the responsible thing to do is provide them with some form of clarification in the form of a handout or some web links to additional resources. But apparently that’s a firing offense if you’re an adjunct faculty at Indiana’s Ivy Tech Community College:
Pejman Norasteh — like many adjuncts — didn’t have much control over the material he was supposed to cover [in his statistics class]. But students started to send him e-mail saying that the textbook was unclear. One student said he was getting “depressed” and giving up when he didn’t understand the required assignments. Another student wrote: “As usual, our textbook does a poor job of explaining concepts. I am adding this chapter to my list of examples of how poor our book is….”
In response to the e-mail messages and personal requests, Norasteh started handing out supplementary materials to cover the same subject matter as the textbook, but with his own explanations. While the students who complained were happy, some others were not. They sent e-mail messages to the division chair saying that they were being asked to do extra work on top of the syllabus because the supplementary materials were not mentioned on the syllabus as required reading. That of course was true, since Norasteh didn’t start the course thinking he would add to the reading beyond the textbook.
At that point, Norasteh received an e-mail from Mark Magnuson, division chair for liberal arts and sciences, and general education at the campus. Magnuson wrote that it was clear to him that “you are not using or following the syllabus or textbook,” adding that “all instructors, adjuncts and full-time, are required to use the syllabus and textbook in each course to meet the statewide agreed upon course objectives. Individual instructors do not have the option of straying from the syllabus and/or textbook.”
Ultimately, Noratesh was not kept on at the college. Never mind the fact that Noratesh was not “straying” from the textbook but merely doing his job as an educator to clarify the textbook and maximize the students’ learning experience.
There are actually two appalling things about this story. Perhaps foremost is the fact that Noratesh lost his job because he was doing his job, which is to teach students and give them the best learning experience possible. Apparently, according to Ivy Tech — which here in Indiana serves mainly as a transfer institution where students take courses and then transfer the credits to four-year colleges — the need for consistency in coursework trumps the need for clear exposition of the course content, which might (and frequently does) involve the instructor using his or her best judgment and creating materials of his or her own to supplement the standard materials. What’s more important here, Ivy Tech?
The other appalling thing is the reaction of those students who got upset because they were “having to to extra work”. God forbid that you should have to work harder than the absolute minimum to understand the course content — even if the absolute minimum, which involves using an impenetrable textbook, gets you nowhere. Will these same students be raising the same objections on their jobs after college if their bosses give them “extra work” to do or if they have to do “extra work” to make their clients happier? Shame on that attitude.
Final note for full disclosure: Jeff Fanter, Ivy Tech’s communications director who is mentioned in the original article, happens to be my next-door neighbor. He’s a good guy.