Saturday, February 12, 2011

Pet peeves, Vol. [moderately high arbitrarily-chosen number]

It can be argued that the most important goal of a good university faculty member is to guide successfully her or his students through their development as scholars, specifically as practitioners of one another field and more generally as members of a greater community of rational and reasoning thinkers. (Alternative arguments, many of them cogent, are beside the point of this post.) As such, it's natural that faculty members be critical of their students' work: through careful and constructive criticism we make our and others' expectations clear, and through these means are our students led to understand how to reason and relate with others more clearly.

But as faculty, how critical are we of our own and each others' practices?

I wanted to mention a couple of indirect encounters with Colleagues (a capitalized universal subcommmunity of fellow academics) I had yesterday which really got my goat.

First. Not to harp on this (I know I bitched about it last year, too), but, Colleagues, how in the world can you sleep at night knowing how lousy are the recommendation letters you write on behalf of your students? I'm thinking in particular of a rec letter for an REU applicant I received yesterday which was roughly five lines long, clearly typed directly into the email, and sent all at once (with generic head and foot) to directors of all of the programs to which the student was applying, without even using blind carbon-copy. Never mind the utter disregard for standard email courtesy: five lines is barely long enough, in my experience, to give the merest context, including the student's name, the course(s) in which she enrolled with the writer, and her baseline performance in those courses, to say nothing of individualized evaluation including (a) day-to-day performance in class (was she outgoing, creative, clever, computationally fluent, quick, friendly, supportive, etc.?), (b) her academic work outside of class (did she take on elective projects, undergraduate research, etc.?), (c) her ability to work with others (was she a joiner, a leader, a follower, a groupie, popular with her peers and professors alike?), and (d) her writing ability (which is likely superior to your own)?

Letters like this one embarrass me on behalf of my entire profession. I pity students whose teachers show this little concern for their careers. Sending such a letter says this, and says it loudly: "you are worth roughly ten minutes of my time. I either don't remember you well enough or don't care enough for you to compose a genuine letter of support. I don't really care whether you get into these programs or not. I have better things to do." These letters usually come from faculty at schools like Princeton, Stanford, and Harvard, from faculty who like to think that they're the best in the world at what they do...they may be right, if "what they do" is taken to mean straight-up academic research. They're dead wrong if you interpret their function more broadly and take it to mean enriching the lives of their students, colleagues, and communities (academic and non).

There is a silver lining, of sorts: letters like this one make me realize why it is that my students have a strong track record of getting into graduate programs and REUs. For even the weaker students who ask letters of me I take two or more hours to write a decent letter, almost never under a page in length. Quantity is not quality, but clearly I can and do say much more in fifty lines than I could in five.

Second. On a somewhat related note, I had occasion to read a couple of a colleague's syllabi, and was deeply chagrined by their brevity and wanness. Less than a page long, they did little more than lay our the most basic mechanics of the course: professor's name and contact info, course website, texts, meeting times, grading scheme (bare-bones and anachronistic), and an obligatory statement regarding writing intensiveness and other disclaimers required by the Office of Academic Affairs and the Faculty Senate.

Missing was any kind of statement of purpose, articulation of learning goals, context, description of activities...and in the absence of this matter, the faculty member in question conveyed (as did the letter-writers above) his disdain for his students. Allow me to read (uncharacteristically pessimistically) between the lines: "I don't really care enough about this course to make it clear what we'll do together, or how what we'll do will enrich your experience at this school and provide you help as you grow as a scholar. On most days I'll likely make up class as we go along, because I consider myself too intelligent to have to do much preparation: I can do it on the fly. I'll spend most of my time working on my latest book. If you're outgoing and eager and seek out your own learning opportunities, you'll come by my office and I'll talk to you as I talk to my colleagues (silently applauding myself for empowering you by treating you as a peer and equal), while if you're not so outgoing or eager, however much you may wish to learn in our course, you'll suffer through the semester without any guidance or direction, you'll learn next to nothing, and I'll reward you with a B at the end of the term simply for not bothering me and so that you don't call on me to defend the lousy grade I've given you once the semester's done."

Sound like anyone you know? The kicker: more than once I've heard this colleague help up as a model for excellent teaching.

All right, enough mewling. On to grading. I'll check in later, after I've had another crack at Chapter 1 (a first draft of which I hope...optimistically! finish this weekend).


Anonymous said...

Wow, that was uncharacteristically pessimistic. I think you need to take some things into consideration though on the topic of recommendation letters. While it certainly isn't always the case, it could be that the student who's rec letter you received simply wasn't very involved in the class and the professor doesn't remember much about him/her. I imagine I would have a similar letter written about me since I was never very close to any of my college professors.

Also I disagree with you on the syllabus issue as well. In my personal experience as a student I found that some of my favorite classes had a simple one page syllabus, while classes that had a very long syllabus seemed more like the professor stroking their own ego with wordy explanations of how their class will change your life forever. (I'm looking at you, psycho-biological aspects of drugs.)

Jean Marie said...

I agree with you on rec letters. I've been writing a lot lately, and for each one I ask the student to come talk to me and tell me more about themselves so I can write them a better letter. I've asked a few if they didn't have someone else who could write them a better letter than me because they weren't doing that well in my class. That's what I think a faculty person should do if they can't do better than a 5 sentence letter!

I had one student who got a B in my course and whom I asked "why do you want me to write this letter" come back with a really good reason to have me write the letter, and I did it with pleasure.

I can't remember ever talking to my profs about the letters they wrote for me. I didn't come visit them in office hours; it was very clear (at the Univ. of Chicago) that wasn't encouraged, and I was smart enough, on the most part, to not need help. I wonder what the letters about me looked like? Probably 5 sentences long.

It would have been really broadening for me to have someone ask me to come talk to them ... if only I had gotten some guidance and mentoring when I was younger. I wish.

Students deserve better. If they need some mentoring on how to ask for letters and get good letters, I try to give it. That is my job.

DocTurtle said...

@Justin: I'm afraid that I can't agree. A professor shouldn't even agree to write a letter in the first place if she doesn't know the student well enough to write something meaningful, positive or negative. Even for my weak students who, even after my warning that the letter might not be so strong, still ask for a letter, I take the time to write a decent letter explaining my reservations. This is simple professional courtesy. To not do this is disrespectful and dismissive.

Regarding syllabi, I disagree as well (obviously, considering my original comments!): the syllabus is ideally a reflective document as much as it is an informative one. It is a record of the professor's reflection on her engagement of her discipline. A sparse syllabus betrays similarly sparse reflection and introspection.

This isn't to say that a great class can't have a lousy syllabus, but you're arguing anecdotally here (one can always find exceptions). More often than not a lousy syllabus will be the go-along of a lousy class: the first is evidence that the professor has put exceedingly little thought into the design of the course, and the second is generally little removed from the first.

Obviously I know the author of the syllabi in question in this instance, and I know his pedagogical attitude...admittedly that's painting my interpretation a bit here!

Anonymous said...

I see where you're coming from, and I'm not saying that it isn't occasionally true that a short syllabus indicates a lack of thought given to the class. But I think it's a harsh generalization you're making. Throughout my college career I never found the syllabus to be an indication of how much I could learn from a class.

DocTurtle said...

@Justin: I'm just being cranky! As I said, I have to admit that this one colleague in particular is guilty of much more egregious pedagogical sins than writing lousy syllabi.