Do you colleagues put as much into their teaching as you do in yours?

10 07 2010

I always figured it would be a cold day in Hell when I agreed with anything the Texas Legislature did, but I like (via UD) this law a lot:

A law requiring Texas’ public colleges and universities to post detailed course information online will take effect this fall, stirring a debate between advocates of transparency and academic freedom.

Texas legislators unanimously passed House Bill 2504 in May 2009, making it the first of its kind in the nation. State universities will be required to post professors’ syllabi, curriculum vitae, published works and salaries. Attendance costs and departmental budget reports also must be posted.

Let’s get a couple of things out of the way before I go in a different direction. First, I’m an AAUP member and I sympathize with this argument:

The Texas Conference of the American Association of University Professors requested a repeal of the law in its June newsletter. The group said the law is an unfunded mandate that would have a chilling effect on classroom discussion of controversial subjects.

If professors are required to post detailed descriptions of class material online, those opposed to the discussion topics would be able to target specific classes and professors, the association said.

But can anyone really tell that you’re going to say something controversial just from your syllabus? After all, there’s a difference between explaining Marxism and endorsing it, which really shouldn’t be apparent from your syllabus. In this day and time, I can certainly imagine a witch hunt for anyone who assigns Marx, but that should be an argument the AAUP is willing to have. Perhaps I’m an optimist, but I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of a sympathy for book burning, even in Texas.

Second, even though I post my c.v. on my web site, I don’t think that requirement serves any reasonable purpose. If you don’t have the record to cut it as a college professor. After all, isn’t the rap against professors that they spend too much time doing research? Are students supposed to find well-published professors and avoid them then?

Third, in Colorado faculty salaries are public information anyways. As long as those numbers include administrator salaries, the Texas AAUP should be glad to have the data they’re getting for future campaigns.

Leaving the above aside, I think the law’s a great idea because it well help faculty check up on other faculty. While nobody has a write to dictate what professors can teach, I think we all have a responsibility to maintain a certain amount of rigor throughout a university no matter where we teach. I want to read other faculty syllabi every once in a while so I know they’re not just skating by doing the absolute minimum. All multiple-choice tests in humanities courses should not be acceptable, yet it is at many schools.

Sadly, that assessment includes my school. I remember how appalled I was when I started getting sociology majors near graduation in my upper-level classes who had never written a paper before. That’s why my department has a writing requirement. All courses, including survey level work, most have some kind of writing component. We don’t tell people what to assign, or even how much writing to assign, we’re just enforcing minimum standards.

On the flip side, I think the law will be good for students too. I get all kinds of people dropping out of my survey class after my first day because they don’t like the work I’ve assigned, particularly the crazy notion that I expect them to read books. This way they might look me up in advance and leave more room for people who are willing to work.

Seriously, I don’t think I’ve given any class a handout in the last ten years, ever since I learned Microsoft FrontPage oh so many years ago. Among the many great advantages to this is that nobody can claim they couldn’t do the work because they weren’t there to get the handout.

Try it, you’ll like it.


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11 07 2010
Doug Eskew

Leaving aside questions regarding the arguments the AAUP (or anyone else) could make, we should perhaps imagine how the disclosure of syllabi could get one on the radar of persons or groups who would seek other ways and reasons for getting a professor terminated. The official reason doesn’t have to be the real reason for termination (termination as overdetermination).

A friend of mine, for instance, has been fortunate enough to make a wonderful career for herself: she’s a full professor at an R-1, in a department that’s in the top three or four in her field. She was, however, fired from her first job, which was at a small teaching college in a very conservative part of the country. She doesn’t know why she was fired (the official reason wasn’t the real reason), but she’s pretty sure it wasn’t for assigning something everyday like Marx. One of the texts that could have gotten her on the watch list was Paul Feyerabend’s “Against Method.” I think we would be hard pressed to find a text more radical than that one.

Again: to my mind the danger isn’t the reasonable arguments that can be had about someone’s syllabus. The danger (or at least one of them) is getting the attention of folks who don’t know reasonable arguments from unreasonable ones (eg, the demagogic and fanatic).

14 07 2010
How long is your syllabus? « More or Less Bunk

[…] what they’d be doing for three-hour stretches each week, and since I believe in transparency for the professor’s and the students’ sake I think that’s […]

15 09 2010
The State of Texas wants to write your syllabus for you. « More or Less Bunk

[…] State of Texas wants to write your syllabus for you. 15 09 2010 Back in July, my friend from the other side of the Psychology Building, Doug Eskew, took me to task for […]

14 07 2012
The online education fairy. « More or Less Bunk

[…] actually think this principle is a good one when carried just to syllabi. However, the faith exhibited here in both markets and the extraordinary awesomeness of our online […]

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