Sunday, September 13, 2009

Rules and Committee Hell

I'm on a college committee now; our job involves a lot of looking at what's being taught, what people want to teach, and so forth.

But, of course, we don't actually go into a classroom to find out what's being done; instead, we look at the syllabus. And we have a lot of rules about what has to be on a syllabus. Sometimes, these make good sense. A syllabus should give students an outline of the work involved, contact information for the instructor, and so forth.

One of our rules says that we all have to put the NWU goals on every syllabus. On one level, this makes good sense. Students should look at the goals of their school, and if they don't like those goals, they should go somewhere else. That's what I tell students when we're looking at the goals. I can imagine the horror in the retention tsar's face. I also tell them that if they don't like the GE requirements, they should find a different school or work through student government to change them.

But, no matter how many times you tell students that they're here to learn critical thinking skills, telling them that doesn't make them critical thinkers. In fact, if they put their critical thinking skills to work, they may recognize that having a bunch of supposedly smart, critical thinking instructors mindlessly obeying the rule to put the goals list on each and every syllabus doesn't suggest a lot of active critical thinking on the part of those very same instructors.

I digress.

In this committee, we look at a course renewal proposals. It's basically a procedure that's supposed to happen every five years wherein the last instructor for a course says, "yes, we should continue teaching this, and here's what I do" and the department (or its curriculum committee, depending on the department structure) says, "yes, we should continue teaching this, and this approach seems good to us." They hand in the syllabus, fill out the form, and turn it over to us. And we look at it and ask if it fits our curriculum broadly, fits NWU's mandate, and so on. And if it does, we stamp our approval and the department continues on its merry way.

It's a system that depends on a lot of cooperation; there's no way to make a faculty member fill out the little form, no way to force a department to do it if they have other big things happening. If we want these done, then making them as minimally onerous as possible is a good idea for everyone.

The other day, we looked at a renewal proposal. It seemed like a good course, interesting, well-fitted to our curriculum, suited to the department. At least to me. One of the other members of the department wanted to know how the instructor grades, what the number breakdown looks like.

The secretary to the committee said she'd email the instructor for further information, and the first guy said she should email the chair, too, because chairs have to know when an instructor isn't doing a good job. The secretary declined to email the chair, however (because there is no evidence that the instructor isn't doing a "good job"). (Have I mentioned that sometimes I love this faculty member?)

And sure enough, at the next meeting the secretary explained that the instructor had a full set of information on our web system about grading stuff, and the secretary was satisfied that students had access and could understand the requirements.

And we looked at another renewal proposal, this one for a very different course, equally interesting, appropriate, etc.

This time, the same member wants to see the grading rubric for the course. The other member chimes in, saying, that he has no clue what the course is about, because he can't even pronounce the words (hard words such as "Allende" and "Anzaldua"), so he sure can't tell if it's a good course, but he wants grading rubrics because he can judge grading.

Dude, I did not say, Dude, do you really think you can judge the grading on an essay, exam, or quiz for this class? Really? You can't say "Allende" and yet you think you know how to judge grading for this class?

But instead, I suggested that many instructors don't find grading rubrics particularly helpful, and to impose a grading rubric rule from outside would be a problem. Further, I suggested, I tend to trust that my colleagues know how to teach and grade in their field.

Apparently, it didn't occur to this member that someone might do something differently than he does. At any rate, it's clear that he thinks we should all do exactly as he does.

And then he wanted to make sure that the chair would monitor this person's grading because we just can't trust instructors.

At which point, thank goodness, the (yes, male, and quite white and authoritarian looking) chair of another department said that chairs get information about each instructor's grade distributions, and if they perceive a problem, they can talk to the faculty member about it. And he also hears complaints, and follows up when appropriate. And the department has a committee that looks at course evaluations and such, and looks for patterns.

As I listen to members #1 and #2, and their anxieties, I really am glad I don't have many departmental colleagues like them. There's this real privilege that comes through, the privilege of white men (though not exclusively) who are used to having a lot of power to tell people what to do and how to do it, and whose own methods are rarely questioned. He really wants the authority to tell people what to do and how to do it. Where does that authoritarian impulse come from that didn't go away when he hit 8 or 9? (Because little kids LOVE the rigidity of rules, especially when they can impose them.)

Hearing member #1 talk, I get the impression that he really doesn't respect his chair. Yet his chair is widely well-respected on campus for being smart, thoughtful, and really understanding the way the university works. His chair is one of the people who quietly gets a lot of good work done across departments and throughout the university.

And it's not that I'm an anarchist. I just don't see that imposing my way of doing stuff on everyone is practical, and I sure don't have the energy to police the whole world. I want rules to protect people but not oppress them, and I realize that's a hard balance, but here at NWU, we're not talking about deciding whether torture is necessary to save the White House from a nuclear attack by rogue terrorists ala 24.

Bleargh. This committee's work has the potential to be really interesting and educational (for me), but I have a bad feeling that members #1 and #2 are going to make me wish I weren't there a lot of the time.


  1. Bardiac:

    I've seen this same rigidity syndrome (on a committee to document student competencies) , but (and you know I agree with you on 99.78 percent of what you say) I haven't identified it with the white male in the least. I've seen it cutting across gender and ethnicity.

  2. Peter, Good point. There may be sampling bias, for sure. It's not like only men have privilege or are authoritarian, of course. Thanks.

  3. Yeah, the worst one about wielding this sort of dominance at our U is a white female. But (as I am certain we all know) all of us got raised by the patriarchy. None of us are safe from being made into its tools.