Sunday, December 11, 2011

Overreach versus Outreach: The "Sidney memo"…

First, let me say that I am in complete agreement with my colleague, “Corday” who posted recently about the “Sidney memo” (see below). Never before have I seen at Chicago State (or any other institution of higher education at which I have worked) a promulgation like the Sidney memo is claiming to be just a “reminder.” For the time being, I will give Ms. Sidney the benefit of the doubt as it is equally unlikely that she would have seen such a memorandum written to university and graduate-level educator as an undergraduate student. However, perhaps some reminders for her are in order:

The university under President Watson has strongly encouraged improving “writing skills” for our students as they have often been underserved in this area by their prior educational experiences. Indeed, I agree. Having graded papers for fifteen years (30 semesters plus 15 summer sessions), I can attest both to the underpreparedness of our students (and in this regard they are little different from undergraduates nearly everywhere!) and the importance of improving this skill before they receive their baccalaureate degree and make their way further into the world as a CSU graduate. In order to improve one’s writing skills (not an innate skill), many hours of practice are required. This should also indicate why my colleague “Corday” was particularly irritated by the Sidney missive. GRADING PAPERS TAKES HOURS to do well and fairly!!

When I received the “Sidney memo” last night, I had just completed grading a stack of papers for the entire day. From 10 am until nearly 11:30 p.m., that was almost all I accomplished. This term, I received approximately 75 term papers (between 6-8 pages each). For the math challenged, this means somewhere between 5-600 pages of content not including cover pages, summaries, endnotes, bibliographies, etcetera. The stack is about as high as two or three reams of papers or nearly half a foot high. There are not many who can read a 600 page book a week and still maintain a teaching schedule, personal and family obligations (which I confess I often ignore this time of year in addition to the hour long commute each way to campus). And I should add, I do this every week for the last six weeks of each semester because I assign and must grade many other paper assignments to provide “feedback” to students before their term paper is due (full disclosure: I have three short essays due per class before Thanksgiving). This is one way of saying; all I do is grade papers at this time of the year. I do not do Christmas shopping, the holiday tree is on the ground in my backyard, and Christmas cards to 100+ people are on hold till next week. Given the approximately 2,000 pages I actually grade in November and December (not counting other assignments and daily quizzes), I can assure Ms. Sydney that I am acutely aware of the deadline this term and every term.

There is a solution: I could give multiple choice (multiple guess?) exams. These can be graded in about 5 minutes by a machine. And I remember all of the questions/answers to these types of exams from my own undergraduate days very well while I have already forgotten most of the papers I wrote back then (full disclosure: I still remember many of the paper topics from my undergraduate coursework and could explain several in great detail. And in fact, I remember none of the questions from the multiple choice tests.) Another solution would be to “skim” the papers. I could read 600 pages very quickly if I needed to do it. But since final grades are involved, my concern would be that the consequences of doing this never outweigh the benefits. If I skimmed too quickly (and missed that signature progress I had been hoping to see), I might underreport a student’s progress or worse, not recognize the profound accomplishments of those rare students I get in every class who really “surprise” me on the term paper in unexpected and usually positive ways.

However, none of these remedies to increase the speed and efficiency of my term paper grading are reasonable in a manner that would conform to standard indicated in the “the Sidney memo.” What Ms. Syndey seems to require would be that I always finish grading all of my term papers three or four days early and that I only work during office hours in my office on campus (as needed to count on my CSU timesheet I must submit). In fact, I spend hours at home usually well into the “wee hours” because my office hallway is too loud with many students just now visiting their professor’s office for the first time that semester for me to concentrate effectively on grading. I estimate that it takes twice as long to grade a paper in my office this time of year than it does at home. Yet none of these concerns hit the mark.

The real problem is overreach. Why is staff from “enrollment management” bothering to contact faculty? This is a non-academic area of the administration where Ms. Sidney’s competence (or awareness of professional standards for university faculty) is severely lacking. If any such memo were desirable, it should have been sent to ALL FACULTY reminding them of the timetable to submit grades; not apparently a punitive one sent to academic deans. Given the fact that there remains two days to submit grades and that the timetable for submission had already been sent out by the Interim Registrar, I can only speculate on the reasons Ms. Sidney choose from to send this memo out.

Perhaps there is a turf war in the administration? Perhaps AVP’s are fighting over which areas are under their “control.” or perhaps enrollment management is assuming the functions of the Office of Academic Affairs and simply desires to let faculty know “who is in charge.” Additionally, it could be that Ms. Sidney did not realize that professors are also “professionals” and you do not need to “make a list and check it twice” as the song goes this time of year. We are not “bad” and “good” professors; only professors who have to get their grades in by Monday. For the most part, CSU faculty do fulfill their professional obligations to their charges and to the institution with integrity and in a timely manner. I guess another reason might be that Ms. Sidney just hit the send button on an email message too quickly and now wishes she hadn’t but cannot retract the memo. Yet another possibility might be that she had a bad meal and wrote something she later regrets. Finally, the real likelihood is that she has no experience dealing with university level administrative work and doesn’t really understand the nature, purpose and function of the faculty at a university and what the vocation of the professoriate consists of in real and concrete terms.

As one not given to premature speculation, I won’t claim to know what Ms. Sidney’s motives are for sending out the memo I received last night. But I do hope I never receive another one again as I know what the deadline is after only one memo and I am a professional. Furthermore, I am also fair and I shall take all the time I need to ensure that I have respected my students work and effort in submitting their final term papers (even if it means getting grades in at 11: 56 p.m. on the final day).

Part of being a professional means “self-determination” with regard to professional duties, not just skimming stuff and following orders.

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