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Friday, May 29, 2015

The all-powerful syllabus

Two recent events have me thinking a lot about the importance of the syllabus. I'm guessing a lot of readers have heard about the art class at UCSD with the 'nude final'. The nutshell version: a student's mother complained to a local TV station that her daughter is in a class where nudity is part of the final project; predictable uproar ensues. The fuller version: the class is not required, the nudity assignment is clearly stated in the syllabus and discussed on the first day of class (when students still have three weeks to drop the class), AND the assignment does not actually require students to be physically naked as there is an option that merely requires students to do a 'nude gesture' (the whole point is for students to share their 'naked self', either literally or figuratively).

There are so many things about this story that drive me crazy, from the helicopter mom to the way-too-predictable reaction of conservative media. But I also think it's a great case of how good pedagogy offers strong protection against stupid/crazy/immature people. The professor's chair, dean and past students all have voiced their support, in part because the professor clearly explains the nudity requirement in the syllabus and gives students an alternative. Once that part of the story became clear, I saw a distinct shift to focus more on the helicopter mom angle (according to a friend who is a student at UCSD, "everyone" on campus knows about this class and many are embarrassed, not about the professor, but about the girl who ran to mommy).

On the other hand, a few weeks before the UCSD story broke, SDSU's Student Grievance Committee submitted a proposal to the faculty Senate that no more than 5% of a student's final course grade could be based on "peer evaluations". The Grievance Committee are the people who have to hear complaints from students such as "I failed the class because the group project is worth 50% of our grade and all the people on my group conspired against me to say I didn't do any work". They also hear a lot of cases, about group work and a host of other things, where the professor has not spelled out a clear policy in the syllabus. While I absolutely sympathize with the Committee's desire to 'fix' all these problems, I absolutely disagree that the appropriate solution is a blanket policy that ties the hands of instructors who actually know something about good pedagogy. That is, the problem is NOT that peer evaluations are a large part of a course grade; the problem is invariably that the professor has not structured or explained those evaluations in a way that is clear, fair and consistent. So it seems to me that the preferable solution is NOT to mandate a specific pedagogical approach but to work harder to make sure that faculty are better teachers.

Of course, that's easier said than done. The faculty who need that kind of help are not the ones who voluntarily show up for CTL events. Maybe part of the solution also needs to be greater accountability for individual instructors - when a student files a grievance and 'wins' the case against the professor, my guess is that the only people who know about it are the student, the instructor and the Committee. Maybe that should expand to at least include the department chair and Dean. That probably violates the collective bargaining contract, but it would at least put some pressure on instructors to fix whatever problem led to the case in the first place. According to the chair of the Grievance Committee, the majority of the cases they hear are a result of bad syllabi, particularly syllabi that do not clearly spell out policies related to grading. I wonder if policy could be created that says the 'punishment' for losing a case is that the professor must submit a revised syllabus.

At any rate, it all reminds me that one of the best things we can do early to avoid problems later is to be clear and transparent about our policies and expectations...