Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Public Grading

I’d like to inaugurate a new feature here at Deo volente. Public grading. It’s always terribly difficult to explain to students why grades aren’t anything more than largely pointless evaluations or unnecessary obstacles. After all, no one really grades your work on the job in precisely the same fashion as that which occurs in a class. That is, no one evaluates your work with the level of attention and care that grading and commenting requires. Perhaps that’s a good thing, but it does mean that we allow students to imagine grading as the end of teaching, not a part of teaching. Moreover, we allow students to think of grading as the evaluation of apprentices, something that you move beyond once you leave a primarily academic world. But looking at the world through the lens of grading’s intense precision is important and we should try it more often. At the very least, it would allow us to stop letting “good enough” be “good enough.” That is, if we’re not demanding more from the documents and the authors that we read every day, I do not see how we can expect our students to believe us when we demand precision, care, and sound argument from them. Please don’t hesitate to post your own versions in the comments (no anonymous grading, though, please). I think that seeing competing rubrics and comment patterns would help not only our students, but also faculty readers. After all, grading is sometimes a very isolating experience. So on then to our first installment:

Office of the Chancellor
Message from the Chancellor
— This title is redundant and gives no substantive indication of what the remainder of the missive will contain. It’s as if you simply titled your paper “Ms. Johnson’s Paper,” after putting your name at the top. In addition, offices don’t send messages: people do.

To the University Community:
Throughout this academic and fiscal year, we have strived to keep you informed of the budget challenges facing the institution. I am pleased that over the current academic year, several collective bargaining units have recognized the extraordinary circumstances facing our campus, and have worked with the administration to avoid serious and permanent reductions of staff to ensure that the central mission of our institution continues. I am also well aware of the personal sacrifices that many of you have already experienced, and truly appreciate your cooperation and commitment to SIU.
— This is the sort of patronizing tone that you want to avoid in a document intended for adult readers. One’s personal pleasure at another’s actions, much less sacrifices, positions one as a lord of the manor, not someone who respects and is really trying to persuade an audience. A similar problem occurs in the succeeding paragraph, in which passive aggressive hopefulness appears as the high-handed emotion. You really don’t need to do this sort of empty flattery as a warm-up exercise. It’s the pathetic equivalent of “free beer.”

On Tuesday, the University bargaining team concluded two days of federal mediation with the SIUC Faculty Association, which followed months of negotiating sessions that began in April 2010. We have been unable to reach an agreement and therefore are at impasse, yet I remain hopeful that the Faculty Association will accept and ratify our last, best, and final one-year proposal. Details of our last best and final offer, and of the Faculty Association’s last set of demands, are available at http://news.siuc.edu/news/March11/032911tew11019.html
— I understand that you’re adducing the weblink as the chief evidence for your claims, but as we discussed in class you want to cite primary sources, particularly if you’re going to make such a strong assertion in the succeeding paragraphs. Secondary paraphrase isn’t going to cut it. In addition, this link is essentially a restatement of your position, not supporting evidence for your argument. The citation itself isn’t a problem, but without some sort of real evidentiary reference, you might consider scaling back some of your later evaluative assertions.

Recent statements in the media from some individuals characterize the University as engaging in unfair labor practices or as being unwilling to bargain. These statements are just not true. The administration’s team has bargained in good faith. The negotiation process for an agreement to cover the current academic year began almost a year ago. The administration’s team was readily available and, expressed a willingness to meet frequently, including evenings and weekends. Throughout the process, the team met with an open mind and a sincere desire to reach agreement. On an entire range of issues, the conversation showed that there was no chance to reach agreement with the Faculty Association.
— This requires more substantive explication. One cannot just assert “that’s just not true” and then offer only assertions. You’re saying, not showing at this stage.

Economic issues
Despite deep budget deficits and declining revenues, the Faculty Association’s bargaining team insisted on multiple new financial commitments that add to, rather than address the structural budget deficit of $5.7 million. Those included across-the-board pay increases for the current year, equity increases on top of the across-the-board increases, longevity in addition to promotion increases, and payback for furlough days. This insistence comes in the face of severe financial challenges facing not only the University but the entire region, state, and country. In light of the budgetary uncertainty, I will not commit additional University financial resources for the current fiscal year. I am committed to honestly and forthrightly addressing the financial challenges as part of the overall effort to put our University on a solid and sustainable path for future growth and financial health.
— Split infinitives like the one in this last sentence are usually examples of overcompensation. Even if that weren’t the case, asserting that one is honest and forthright is protesting too much: see my previous comment on showing and not saying.

Claims that the Association was willing to consider the four furlough days necessary to achieve a balanced budget for this fiscal year are misleading. The Association insisted that the members be repaid next year for any pay missed during the furloughs, and insisted that Faculty receive across-the-board pay increases this year, which would offset and undermine any savings from the furloughs.
— Most of your claims lack the necessary supporting evidence. It’s not that you can’t make this claim, but that the absence of any real undergirding explication makes this critique of “The Association” seem hollow. In addition, in the preceding paragraphs you state that such claims are “not true.” Here, you’re using a much weaker characterization: “misleading.” As a result, you’re backtracking from your strong opening salvo.

“The Faculty Association also maintained a position requiring two more, separate, increases to Faculty pay: equity and longevity. The Association insisted upon continuing support of an “equity fund” for certain faculty members. This demand is unrealistic and unnecessary at this time. In its most recent agreement with the Faculty Association, the University allocated an additional $3.2 million - in addition to across-the-board raises - to achieve equity in the salaries of Faculty. Moreover, the data shows that we have achieved “equity” (based on comparative data with our peer group). Finally, the Association maintained a request for longevity increases. This increase based on “longevity” would be in addition to across-the-board increases, equity increases, and promotion increases and would reward employees based solely on their time at the University rather than being merit-based.
— This is better and in some ways responds to the problems I noted in the preceding comment. However, this is almost over-detailed and lacking in context. Thus, it appears that you’re hanging your argument on a tiny piece of evidence and then making unsupported larger claims as a result of it. In addition, you’ve made no substantive case for the superiority of “merit-based” increases. The adjectival characterization alone doesn’t make this case. For example, why isn’t “longevity” a valid criterion? Why isn’t “longevity” a type of “merit”? I don’t doubt that this case can be made, but you haven’t taken the time to make it here.

Non-economic issues
To be clear, there were many other unacceptable terms included in the Faculty Association’s final position, including non-economic issues. These included priority consideration for summer teaching opportunities, priority consideration with regard to reductions in force, complex workload assignment and operating paper disagreements, and an insistence on mandatory “fair share.”

For example, the Faculty Association demanded changes to its contract that would grant priority consideration for summer teaching opportunities. At the same time, the Association insisted that in the unfortunate event of staff reductions, faculty reductions should be delayed or postponed until layoffs from all other employee classifications are exhausted. Neither provision can be accepted. I remain committed to balanced support across all represented groups and constituents, and will not agree to Association demands that would place the Faculty Association in an unacceptable premium position.

The Faculty Association also demanded excessive and stifling control of faculty workload assignments, based on a one-size-fits-all model for all departments. I will continue to work with the Faculty Senate and Graduate Council in the spirit of shared governance on matters of concern to the faculty. I am deeply committed to programs that are flexible and responsive to the changing needs of our students, and, I believe workload should be defined in the operating papers of the individual academic units thereby allowing the faculty in each unit to have input into the process. Based on these considerations, we were not able to reach an agreement.

Finally, the Faculty Association demanded that any deal include a requirement that all Faculty pay fair share to the Association. I have reservations about unilaterally imposing fair share on all Faculty members covered by the Association. Any faculty member who wishes to support the Association by paying membership dues is free to do so, and moreover, the University provides the appropriate payroll deduction process to accommodate that choice.
— This section of your argument is fairly convincing but, as before, you need to provide some sort of textual support to make any of these claims stick. Frankly, without them, it just appears that you’re creating a straw-man.

The two teams remained far apart on all these topics, as well as others. Despite our best efforts, we were unable to reach an agreement. Some have tried to argue that because we were not able to reach a mutual agreement with the Faculty Association, this means that we were not truly bargaining in good faith, or that I am personally opposed to unions. This is simply nonsense, and nothing could be further from the truth. There was no failure to bargain; there was merely an inability to agree. During the negotiations, the Faculty Association insisted on several issues that the University could not, and will not, agree to. Similarly, the University’s final proposal included items that were apparently unacceptable to the Association. These issues are important to the University, and at the same time the Faculty Association was unwilling to yield its position on them. While this is unfortunate, it does not mean that we were anything less than genuine and sincere.
— As before, the mere assertion of authenticity and sincerity is dubious. If you have to say it, it means that you haven’t shown it. Basically, this sentence encapsulates the problem that I noted with the first paragraph as well.

I highly value public employees and their contributions, and continue to be impressed by the quality faculty and staff at this great institution. I have been a public sector employee all of my life, working in four states in civil service, administrative professional, graduate assistant, faculty and administrator positions. I have enjoyed a strong relationship with organized labor and labor organizations throughout my professional career and that will not change.
— See my previous comments. Here you’ve added empty pathos to the saying-not-showing problem.

Thank you once again for your support during this challenging time. There are so many strengths on our campus that grow each day in research, teaching, and commitment to the community. The future health of our great university depends on the shared vision, commitment, and sacrifices in the immediate future. Working together we can set the stage for a stronger SIU.
— Given the argument that you’re trying to make, this concluding paragraph is facile and platitudinous. It undermines everything you’ve written up to this point by appealing to vague, airy concepts like “vision” and “commitment.” What do these terms mean? Instead of this, you should cut all of these platitudes and use the space to provide more substance for your central claims: that’s the chief issue here, which we’ve discussed repeatedly in class—one must show and not just say. This message exhibits solid mechanics, but often undermines its authority by doing nothing more than affirming its own authority. You need to develop authority with ethos, not simple assertion: i.e., imperiousness is not authority. You should concentrate on solving the recurrent problem with demonstration in future messages.

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