Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Because We All Know That Professors are Slackers

A number of posts recently have been floating around the blogosphere about professors who shirk their responsibilities, particularly with break on the horizon. It all started with this post at University Diaries, which then Historiann riffed off of and followed up on, and then finally Dean Dad wrote a post dealing with similar issues yesterday.

I've read all of the above posts with a kind of detached interest. See, at my uni it is university policy (and we are reminded of this every semester) that we must have some kind of "culminating experience" during the final exam period, and as far as I'm aware, people take that seriously. In other words, I'm not aware of any of my colleagues - whether within my department or outside the university - who take off for greener pastures as soon as the regular semester is done. I'm sure some may exist, but I don't know 'em. I've been on campus both Monday and Tuesday this week (although I didn't have a final Monday), and while I will be at home grading today, I'll be back there tomorrow to accept seminar papers from my grad students. I'm not sure whether I'll go in Friday, but I may well do. I won't be on campus next week because the reality is that with the electronic submission of grades there is no need for me to go in.

What's interesting about all of the above posts is that while the central issue appears to be "Professors flee during final exam week! How dare they?!" the subtext is really much broader, and has to do with an anxiety that somehow professors selfishly seek to short-change students in a variety of ways (whether it's not assigning substantial writing projects, not giving "real" finals, not offering an exam during the exam period, not grading their own students' work, not checking in over the holidays, not being available outside of regular business hours and the regular semester via email or to meet, not holding enough office hours, etc.) in the service of their own personal convenience. This narrative creates a binary opposition between privileged tenured folk and students/administrators/adjuncts/TAs, with privileged tenured folk on the side of all that is self-centered, lazy, and wrong and those others on the side of hard work and fairness and right. This opposition is, to my mind, very simplistic and not terribly useful. While I'm sure there are some professors who abuse the autonomy, flexibility, and lack of accountability (i.e., the lack of a clock to punch) that the profession affords, I'm willing to venture that the narrative about professorial slackitude, while convenient, doesn't present a realistic picture of the motivations and actions of most professors.

First, let me address the issue of exam week.

Mitigating circumstances:

1. How does the university schedule the final exam period? This is crucial. My university schedules it M-F during the week immediately following the end of classes, and finals are scheduled at roughly the same time that the course typically meets. This scheduling makes sense, and it encourages faculty to administer some sort of graded work for that period for a number of reasons including a) students won't have legitimate reasons why they can't attend the final; b) profs have at least four days after the exam period is over in which to tabulate final grades; c) there is enough time after final grades are due - even if one doesn't get them in until the very last minute - to complete holiday travel (and let's note that for the majority of faculty, holiday travel is likely because of the nat'l job market and the fact that one can't settle in his/her hometown near to family, though I suppose one might argue that faculty should just ignore things like "family" over the holidays).

2. Number of students/number and type of preps/the presence or not of grading assistance. If one is teaching two comp courses, say, and then two other writing-intensive literature courses, one might be inclined to have one or more "final" equivalents due prior to the regular exam period of the course, if one is responsible for all grading. In that case, the issue may not be about fleeing from campus but rather about having the time to conscientiously grade the work submitted before submitting final grades.

How I have come to approach exam week:

In writing courses, I typically will have a portfolio due on the first day of the finals period (regardless of when the scheduled exam period is) that includes revisions of previous work and a final research project. This amounts to about 30 pages of writing per student, and the only way for me to get it all read and evaluated by the time grades are due, I really need a week for grading/commenting. Students know about this deadline from the very start of the semester, and this is an excused exception to our "you must meet during the exam period" policy. In courses that count for general education, I hold a traditional cumulative final exam, with a mix of types of questions, from identifications to matching to short answer to essay, and it's typically worth about 20-30% of a student's final grade in a course. In upper-level classes, I've moved to having a short oral presentation during the final exam period for the final that is worth only around 10-15% of the final grade, in which students are asked to synthesize what they've learned over the course of the semester and to link it to their final paper project. This is a relatively new development in my teaching, and pedagogically I find it much more beneficial to students than a traditional exam, since as students become more advanced in my field, what matters more than their ability to spit back plot information or definitions of terms is their ability to write and speak about the literature and the theory. The paper is really the most important thing they'll do for me, and a more traditional final doesn't really show me anything substantive in addition to what this oral assignment does. It's also less stressful for students, which I think is a good thing. And the presentations are easier/faster to grade than a traditional exam. For graduate students, they write a seminar paper. The idea of testing my graduate students is absurd to me. If they need a test, they shouldn't be in graduate school. (Note: this is the norm in my field.)

So am I slacking? I'd say I'm not, but I think a person could ostensibly read the above information and say that I am. I only give traditional exams in approximately 1/2 of the courses that I teach. But I'm not jetting off to glamorous locations as a result of my pedagogical choices. Because my choices are pedagogical - they're not about me getting out of work. Why would we assume that professors are, when they choose not to give a certain kind of assignment or a certain kind of test, that they make those choices without regard to their students? It seems to me that those assumptions are underwritten by a kind of anti-intellectual suspicion that I find deeply, deeply troubling.

Related issues:

And I think that anti-intellectual suspicion drives other complaints related to professorial workload that have nothing to do with exam week. For example, it's unclear to me why it's so unthinkable for a professor to have a teaching schedule that is only two or three days a week. I have had a schedule like that for the past few years. It doesn't mean that I'm not on campus five days a week - much of the time I am. It's just that having a schedule where I'm not teaching every day allows for me to use those "off" days for other things - like research, advising students, meeting with students in my courses, committee work, professional service, and course preparation. It also means that I have to cancel fewer meetings for conferences, which I need to attend in order meet the basic requirements of my job. While it's true that I may not come to campus if I don't have something scheduled, I do check email on the days when I don't come in, and I do work on the days when I don't come in. Similarly, when we talk about things like course releases or sabbaticals, we're not talking about professors "getting out of work." We're talking about a redistribution of workload, an acknowledgment that there are aspects of this job that exceed the work that we do in the classroom.

So here is the thing. I'm not a fan of the discourses about how professors don't do their jobs, or about the discourses that reduce professorial workload to time spent in the classroom and to specific approved classroom practices. This isn't because I'm all "poor me! look how hard I work and how much work I do!" It's because I think it's stupid and fails to produce any productive results or productive conversation about workload. And perhaps more important than that, it fails to acknowledge that maybe there are multiple ways of doing the best we can for our students, and maybe doing our best means allowing for some flexibility.*

*Within reason. I am not saying that I think the whole thing should be a free-for-all wherein professors are completely unaccountable. It's just to say that it's important to realize that pedagogical choices are not uniform across disciplines or even across individual instructors, and that it can be the case that deviation from "the norm" isn't about slacking or the desire to slack.


FrauTech said...

Good points. I think though that students are not sided with the administrators on this one. Students prefer stuff to be cleaned up as soon as possible. Students, like professors, don't want the pressure of too much work too late into the semester. Back when I was in lib arts major, I loved having papers due for finals instead of exams, and generally they could be turned in up until the final exam time. That meant those of us who wanted to could write them all ahead of time, and turn them in early finals week and so get an extra week off. I think students and professors are generally on the same side on this one...professors struggle with the pressure to turn in grades very soon after finals, and students want that to be easier so as to get their grades quickly after finals.

Dr. Crazy said...

Frau Tech,
I think it depends with students. The post from uni diaries to which I linked linked to an editorial in a student newspaper, so I think that in some places, students really resist having things due before the final, or resist having a paper/project in lieu of a test.

Earnest English said...

I understand the original complaint, which seems to me to be mostly about losing dead week -- a time for most students and faculty to catch up. But my students, for example, love that we don't have a final exam -- and their final project is important but a small part of their grade.

I think a lot of this depends on context.

Students calling faculty slackers? Hmmm. Can we say payback?

Dr. Crazy said...

EE - we have no "dead week" policy at my uni, so I can't really speak to that. (also, I don't entirely understand the concept of this, as it also wasn't a policy anywhere I've attended/taught.) I also take your point about faculty getting back what they give (i.e., if faculty call students slackers). I'd say this, though: I think that my students work hard, and I think that I work hard. I don't think it's an either/or. What struck me about the ongoing conversation is that it is primarily faculty/administrators participating in this suspicion of faculty, and that strikes me as unproductive, much as conversations about faculty members mowing their lawns on a tuesday afternoon is unproductive, and obscures any real inquiry into faculty workload.

gwinne said...

I feel like there's a no-win situation here. I have never required students to turn in final papers before the final exam period. This semester one class has a "final" the last day of exam week; I gave students that deadline (they've known about it since day 1) and also told them they could turn in material the last day of class, or the first day of exam week. That's two opportunities earlier than the university-mandated final; still, people grumbled that they weren't allowed to meet me to turn in material on days 2-4 of exam week.

I'm crabby. Must go grade more exams.

Shane in SLC said...

Crazy, how big are your upper-division undergrad classes? Even the senior seminars are capped at 25 in my department. For the final presentation idea to work in my context, the presentations would have to be 5 minutes each, or shorter. Is that enough to satisfy the pedagogical goals of the assignment?

I give exams only in the 200-level introductory class, which is skills-based and requires students to memorize a lot of terms related to literary analysis. In my classes for majors, I don't give exams, for the reasons Dr. C offers above: I don't find them pedagogically useful for testing the sorts of skills and knowledge I want students to develop at that level. (I don't teach first-year writing these days, but never really gave exams in those classes either.)

Instead of an exam, students in my upper-level classes write a final research paper, which I generally schedule to fall due in the middle of finals week, with an annotated bibliography due the last week of classes or the week of Thanksgiving. Mid-exam week is a nice compromise, as it gives students time to do their best work (in theory), but also gives me plenty of time to grade the results.

I was likewise troubled by the tone of Dean Dad's correspondent on the 2-day-a-week schedule. I try to work from home at least two weekdays a week, because I'm more productive in my home office: the books I need for my research are at home; my own computer is nicer and faster than the one my department provides at work; I'm not constantly interrupted by used bookseller reps asking if I have desk copies to sell, random students knocking on doors looking for a stapler, etc.

The bottom line is, 50% of my role assignment is devoted to research, and my research is best done at home, where I work probably 40 hours a week, in addition to the 20 or 30 I spend on campus. I don't need Calvinist scolds chaining me to my office desk for 40 pre-scheduled hours a week.

Dr. Crazy said...

My upper-level courses in the major are technically capped at 22 I think, with a minimum to go at semester's start at 15. Typically, there are a handful of drops, but yes, the presentations are only 5-10 minutes long. I'm ok with that since the presentation is only worth 10-15% of the grade, and I give a very detailed assignment, which requires them to really review what they did over the course of the entire term and to make connections between material over the course of the whole semester as well as between work they did independently (their research paper) and the work we did together. So while they aren't talking for all that long, a lot of preparation goes into editing all of their reflection into 5-10 strong minutes of polished presentation. The reason I like the assignment is that they all get to listen to one another and it's a way of having students themselves do the overview/wrap-up of what the course accomplishes. It would be impossible to do with 25 students, I think, and I believe the highest number I've ever done it with was somewhere around 17. I think if I ever had a class that was totally maxed out, I'd do something different with the final, but since I've started doing this, my enrollments have never been so high that this was an issue.

The truth is that their "final" is really the research paper. But this is a way to comply with the university's demand for a final that doesn't put an undue burden on them and that constitutes a nice culminating experience for the course.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

I think you touch on a lot of important points. I also think that there are professors who do try to get out of giving finals during finals week because they are commuters who can save on coming in at all, or because they want to leave early.

We have a study week, and are supposed to have some sort of contact during the assigned final period. Some people just don't do it. I can see many reasons not to -- for example, I have had finals scheduled across from a major conference before. But skipping out for the sake of more time off? Not so cool.

I feel the same way about people who only come in on teaching days, especially if they aren't available for the whole day. We're a teaching school and what we advertise is lots of student contact time. Research is necessary, but if there's a meeting or a student can't come in on a particular day, it doesn't help when people aren't around. I'm not saying faculty should be on campus all the time, but I have actually heard faculty refuse to come to meetings, etc., because it's one of the days "I'm not on campus."

Dr. Crazy said...

ADM - I entirely agree with you about availability and about the fact that student needs, esp. at a teaching institution, MUST drive what we do. The whole "I only come in on teaching days" thing just isn't on if you've got a teaching schedule that's not 5 days a week. Now, if there's no reason to come in, I think it's fine if you work from home, as long as you're in touch with email. That's a totally legitimate way to protect one's research time. But - and this is the important but - if there's a reason why you need to be on campus, you need to haul your butt in.

(I'm a person who doesn't necessarily schedule a lot of office hours, but I do make myself available to meet with students whenever they need me to meet with them by appointment. Which often means I come to campus on days I don't teach, or that I hang around long after the teaching portion of my day is done or come in way earlier than I'd need to come in if I were just coming in to teach my classes. Similarly, while I prefer not to be scheduled for teaching 5 days a week, I never say that I can't attend a meeting on a non-teaching day unless there is some really clear time-sensitive conflict with me being there.)

PhysioProf said...

I am not saying that I think the whole thing should be a free-for-all wherein professors are completely unaccountable.

Well I sure as fuck am saying that!

Dr. Crazy said...

Physioprof - Let's note the artful rhetorical move there. I said I wasn't *saying* that - not that I wasn't thinking it :) Mwahahaha!

PhysioProf said...

Coattail rider!!!

Dr. Crazy said...

Is Coattail Rider the cousin of copy-cat? I feel like it is :)

Doctor Pion said...

You are not slacking by having an oral presentation during the final exam period for your upper division classes. You are teaching and evaluating their learning, which is all that is really required to satisfy any policy I know of for finals week. I'm sure they will get more out of that presentation than any written exam.

Unknown said...

I have followed much the same conversation on the blogosphere with interest as our dean has recently gotten a bee in her bonnet about this issue.

My rationale for 2 out of 3 classes this semester not having final

1. contact hours are met during the semester

2. take home paper v final, IMHO WAY harder to grade the take home final than an inclass exam

3. whiny students who complain that finals week is too crammed/too hard to write for 2 hours/too hard to actually think after the semester is over/need to get home to work, cheaper flight etc

4. two hour final period whereas I use three one hour class sections to give three part exam

5. document analysis portfolio in lieu of final

and YES I am totally willing to say that my PH.D. as well as years of exp make me and ONLY me qualified to decide what kind of "culminating experience" (is that like a 'happy ending') my students need.