Friday, December 1, 2006

Academic norms

Through the course of one's graduate studies you develop an image of the "typical" professor. Personally, my image went something like this: older, wise, and distant. I concede that the sociology department from which I received my Ph.D. had not hired a new faculty member in over 15 years (hard to believe, but true). Most faculties demonstrate tremondous diversity. Such is the case when looking at my colleagues. Yet, regardless of the composition of the department it can be argued that there are some academic norms which most faculty adhere to. For instance, don't have sex with your students. Or, don't bribe your students for good course evaluations. It's the latter that was brought to my attention by a Ph.D. student who works closely with me.

Ethics 101...when administering course evaluations do not remain in the classroom. Second, don't buy pizza (or any other food) for the class prior to administering the evaluations. Third, don't ask your students what you should choose as you main objectives for evaluation. Fourth, don't go drinking with your students prior to evaluations. Finally, don't change the syllabus right after administering course evaluations (i.e. the content and due date of the final exam).

Maybe I'm crazy but this all smacks me as unethical behavior. I can appreciate the importance of course evaluations and their impact within the faculty evaluation system for an untenured assistant professor. Every January I face the very same pressures. However, I am not convinced this is the way to handle the situation. This student in my colleague's class was understandably perturbed about the situation. In fact, the student was completely distressed about the change in the final exam. Yet, what to do about it? Or, rather, should something be done about it at all? Perhaps this is a case where these actions are not entirely inappropriate. I'm really not sure. What I am sure about is where I stand on the issue. I cannot imagine doing any of the above. I also taught a Ph.D. course this semester and administered the evaluations with decorum by emphasizing how seriously I took their opinions of the course and my appreciation for any written comments. Then...I left the room without a word. Did I mention that I gave them at the beginning of the class with no fanfare?

What are the academic norms for administering course evaluations? I have read the rules at my university and they are quite specific. None of the aforementioned behavior would qualify as acceptable. Beyond the official rules and my personal ethics, there is nothing written on this matter. I'm not surprised due to the subject matter (on the surface not very interesting). But I find that right now discerning the academic norms is my "other" full-time occupation. There are so many unwritten rules to follow. It seems as if you only find out about them once you have broken them. It's unfortunate that untenured faculty are not given more guidance during the first few years. I find this one of the most frustrating aspects of being a junior faculty member. Maybe ethical transgressions would not occur if this mentorship were in place.

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