Monday, November 05, 2007

Free Speech?

An interesting conundrum has arisen in my neck of the woods of late. When the advising season comes around, we have a habit of handing out lists of courses that will be taught in our program next semester. It has been my habit when doing this to give the students a few moment to look over the list and then ask whether they have any questions. The students often have questions.

The questions that the students ask are usually quite sensible. However, one kind of question is of the "Which section for class X do you recommend?" It has been my practice to try and answer these questions as best I can. As a faculty member, I have a much better idea about the relative virtues of various sections than the average undergraduate.

Consider our Critical Thinking classes. We have one faculty member who, quite frankly, is notoriously problematic. S/he teaches this class. This semester, in the first six weeks of this semester, this individual managed to teach 5 out of a potential 12 classes (the section meets on a Tuesday-Thursday schedule). No reason was given for the cancelled classes, yet the faculty member concerned told the students that they were still responsible for the material. I know about this, because some of the students came to ask me about what they might be able to do about the situation. Of course, this should be a matter for our program coordinator, but s/he is too useless and busy harassing productive faculty members to do anything about the situation.

When students ask me about whether a section of Critical Thinking taught by my often missing co-worker should be taken, what should I say? It seems to me that the reasonable and honest thing to do is to warn the students that they should try and take this course (that is required for many of them) from another faculty member. Apparently, the moronic coordinator believes that such candour should not be allowed. I got one of his/her harassment write ups, for telling the students the truth!

In an analogous case, one of my favorite courses has now been given by the coordinator to their new faculty friend (the newly hired unpublished assistant professor). In exchange, I get a 101 hell class. When the students asked me about the course I used to teach and for which I got great evaluations, what am I supposed to say? The individual now slated to teach this class has never passed a comprehensive exam in the area. From what I have heard, chatting to them, his/her knowledge of the area is sophomoric and superficial. I know of at least one major scholarly mistake that s/he made in another course, in the same philosophical area. Indeed, the only qualification this individual appears to have for teaching this class is that they wish to and our coordinator appears to be in love with them. I think that it is morally dubious not to warn students that there could be 'issues' with this class, especially as it is the follow on from the one I am teaching this semester. Apparently, this too is reprehensible, according to the coordinator.

I am thus in a bit of a bind. Should I obey the silly dictates from my 'glorious leader', or should I continue to be honest with the students? Now, the obvious move is to file formal charges against the administrative moron. This I intend to do, but what with publication obligations, conference talks to give etc. I have had little time to do this. I will get to it, should I ever get some time. Currently, it will have to wait a while longer, so I can do a good enough job to ensure that the coordinator is removed (and also, setting up the grounds for the legal action against him/her).

As I think about it, I have a recollection that freedom of speech was one of those things that was supposed to be guaranteed in this country. Perhaps I should continue to just shoot from the hip, tell the truth and 'damn the torpedoes'. However, any suggestions on this matter would be welcome.

The CP


Anonymous Anonymous said...

How I do enjoy reading this blog! As a former student (a much older student at that) my perspective from a student point of view is, that had I asked such questions of a professor, I would have appreciated greatly complete honesty. However, I did not generally ask such questions of professors as I can see where it could create an atmosphere of , for lack of a better word, tattletale about professors by professors. And hence the high drama in academia continues - sort of like a soap opera in high gear! I would think that students could have multiple motives of querying about classes, not the least one being that s/he would be looking for the easiest class. I would also have to wonder how the program director would have knowledge about such answers, unless of course s/he attended a class where the questions were asked - the alternative being that students have repeated your valuable input to any and all, thus giving the director the fuel needed for harassing write-ups. Honesty has always seemed the best policy in my opinion, even if it must be tempered with a bit of civility about the other person. As for the 101 hell class - who better to shape up these young students than you!!!


7:30 PM  
Blogger Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

I have had this problem in the past.

I've handled it as follows, by being quasi-honest... I give them a look like "I can't say anything negative..", then I look at the available options and say "this class is good, this one is also good" or "do you think you could work in T/Th at 11:00? etc..."

There is a BIG difference between spreading negative sentiments about someone and simply giving positive recommendations about other courses.

I've also found ways to warn students without exactly telling the whole truth. If someone misses a lot of class, you could say 'you'll need to be an independent learner', or if someone is a real stickler for details you could say, 'she has high standards and expects her students to hold them as well'.

8:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that the last comment about using conversational implicatures is right on the money.

"Well the prof for Phil 100 is a great speller, and has amazing hair. By the way the Prof for Phil 145 is brilliant and will teach you much. Both have their good points."

8:27 PM  
Blogger Joseph said...

"You don't want to take that section." is my usual dodge. It works infallibly.

3:18 PM  

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