Saturday, December 2, 2006

Last minute mania

At 6:40 a.m. I sit in front of my computer on a Saturday morning wondering if the semester will truly come to an end. Next week is the last week of classes and then finals but I still have trouble seeing the "light at the end of the tunnel". For the last two weeks, my inbox has been very active. Not only have I been receiving the usual administrative, committee, listserv, and research related emails but a new breed of student email called "last minute mania" has infiltrated my inbox.

Some start with "What did I miss?" Okay, sounds quasi-reasonable until I look at my attendance records and see that they have failed to come to class 6 out of the 8 classes in the last two months. How am I supposed to address that question? Well, read the second half of the textbook? I maintain a pretty strict attendence policy. The university allows for two absences (or 3 hours) without academic penalty. In a course worth 250 points, I deduct five points per unexecused absence. I just want to point out that if a student tells me ahead of time or has a plausible excuse afterwards the absence becomes excused. Most don't bother to notify me. Additionally, I make my attendence policy very clear throughout the semester. At the end of the semester I get emails about "I missed a class". Usually, this can be loosely translated into I missed so many classes I am going down a letter grade - can you help me with this. Again, not an easy one to respond to. My personal favorite is "Will this be on the exam?". No matter how many times I let students know what they are responsible for this still occurs. I provide a review sheet and a jeopardy style exam review in class all to no avail. "Please let me know what I need to study for the exam" appears in my inbox without fail. But the one that truly wins the award is a student who wisely took the time to come to see a colleague of mine during office hours. He asked him why he had missed the final exam. His response was something to the effect that he was unfortunately incarcerated at the time and provided his release papers. Hmmm. Does that qualify for an excused absence? I still have a week and a half to go until the final exam. Let's see if there are any creative souls in my classes his semester.

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.