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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...


  1. Jennifer, as always thoughtful comments. The one time I took a pie in the face around student conduct it was because my syllabus was unclear. Marty Olney in Econ here at UCB has taught me a lot about syllabus rigor. Your thoughts about peer evals in particular are very helpful. I wonder if giving students a way to contest or comment on their peer evals before grades are submitted would be helpful, in the same way vendors are allowed to respond to bad reviews online in some places. You'd need to have clear expectations about documentation or support for the complaint. Regarding hand-tying policies, my general observation is that chairs and deans and colleagues can be supportive at low cost, but provosts and chancellors and presidents are more likely to engage in CYA, like everyone else who would rather put three steel walls between themselves and a law suit so they can get back to their mile-high stack of tasks. I don't see much reason to be optimistic on that front. One thought that has occurred to me is that instead of waiting for top brass, and even legislators to come with wrong-headed restrictions and requirements, faculty could craft their own set of restrictions and requirements and then ask/cajole the muckety-mucks to impose those constraints on all faculty. The idea of mandating CTL participation, or mandating wider reporting of bad outcomes, are examples of what I have in mind. If such policies originated with the faculty they would affect, they might wind up better crafted and better accepted.

  2. Thanks Dan! For my semester-long teams, I always give two sets of peer evaluations - one in the middle of the semester, which is purely for the students' benefit, and then the one at the end which is used in their grade. The mid-semester feedback gives them ample opportunity to either let me know that their peers' are being 'unfair' or (more often) to change their behavior. Either way, the final evaluation is rarely a surprise.

    At SDSU, I think any policies that impose consequences on faculty would have to go through the Senate and maybe the collective bargaining process too. That's both good and bad... I'm not super-hopeful about anything really getting done through those channels but does motivate me to work harder to support a culture on campus where such consequences might be meted out less formally.


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