When the Shore is Out of Sight

>> Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Via James Joyner, I'm wondering whether this really characterizes a common experience in higher ed:

All course materials, including weekly presentations, must be submitted months in advance. This, I’m told, is not only to ensure that books are ordered and copyrights cleared, but also for the various documents to pass along the line of administrative staff whose job includes vetting them in order to be sure no rules have been violated, then uploading them in the appropriate format. Moreover, a syllabus, we are constantly reminded, is a binding legal document; once submitted, it must be followed to the letter. Omissions or inclusions would be legitimate grounds for student complaint.

While the focus is on online courses, many of the generalizations seem to be intended for all college teaching. Speaking for myself, I can't say that I've ever experienced anything like this. The last time anyone in authority "vetted" anything about a syllabus of mine was probably the autumn of 2000, when I began teaching my independent courses. Is the passage of syllabi through layers of administrative staff something common? Moreover, while I've often heard the claim that a syllabus is a "binding legal document," I've always found that it means much less than it implies. I appreciate that there are faculty who attach pages of legalese to their syllabi, but a) this has always been voluntary at any institution I've been affiliated, and b) it's not that onerous a task once you have the legalese; you simply attach the same handout to every syllabus.

Gone, then, are the days when I could bring my class an article from that morning’s New York Times. Now, when I stumble on a story, book or film that would fit perfectly with the course I’m currently teaching, I feel depressed, not excited. I can mention it, sure, but I can’t “use” it in the class.
Really? You can't bring a New York Times article to class and have the students read it? I find this... implausible. For one, including the reading of the New York Times as a class requirement in the syllabus is a remarkably easy way to cover many sins. Second, while I've heard many student complaints in my time that I've believed to be illegitimate, I don't think I've ever heard something quite as stupid as "she made us read a New York Times article that wasn't on the syllabus." More importantly, I can't imagine any administrator actually taking such a complaint seriously.
Nor can I reorient the course in mid-stream once I get to know the students; I can’t change a core text, for example, if I find they’ve all read it before; I can’t change the materials to meet student interests or help with difficulties, as I once did without a second thought.
Indeed, I suppose that a restrictive syllabus does make it mildly more difficult to completely restructure a course halfway through the semester, or to change out major texts that the students have, in many cases, already spent money on. I guess I'm unconvinced that either of these are bad things; one of the points of a good syllabus is to allow students to plan their semester, structure their time, and choose the most helpful course of study.

And so, while I guess that some frustration at "educrats" is merited, I'm not terribly compelled by any of the above complaints. Indeed, I'm sometimes inclined to think that faculty may be a touch too attached to some of the overly feudal aspects of their positions; it's really not necessarily to the benefit of undergraduate students that faculty be given nearly complete freedom over how to structure their courses, especially when some of those courses are required. As we all are constantly reminded, teaching undergraduates is very rarely the reason that particular faculty are hired or retained, and I can't fault elements of administration for believing that there are aspects of undergraduate teaching that should be monitored. Another way to say this is that while I think that there should be considerable deference to the faculty vision of how specific undergraduate courses should be constituted, this deference ought not be total. Finally, I'm still deeply skeptical of the ability of teaching evaluations to act as guides to good and bad teaching.


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