Thursday, January 19, 2012

Examgate in the DE

Today's DE has a story on examgate.

This is the sort of squabble this place excels in. Both sides agree on the basic goal of the Provost's memo: final exams should be given, as scheduled, during finals week. There would never have been any debate if the Provost had simply written a memo telling chairs to remind faculty of this university policy. Not every university policy requires a cumbersome and intrusive enforcement mechanism. If faculty giving early finals are and continue to be a problem, that problem will come to light from student complaints--especially if not only faculty but students are informed of the university policy. Most faculty offenders, if there are such, would be sensible enough to clean up their acts.

Instead the Provost intervened in a heavy-handed manner, by attempting to impose a whole new level of administrative scrutiny of syllabi, scrutiny which would extend not only to the timing of final exams (where there is no disagreement), but to an individual faculty member's decision about whether or not to give a final exam (where there may well be disagreement). Vague language about "final unit exams" also interfered with a faculty member's ability to do any evaluative work during the last week of the semester. It didn't help matters that the Provost sent out his memo on January 3rd, during a break and just two weeks before the spring semester began, and tried to establish an enforcement mechanism that would begin during the first two weeks of the semester. The result was predictable--especially predictable had anyone remembered the similar brouhaha when Provost Dunn attempted to require "final cumulative experiences" (vel sim.) on scheduled final exam dates. Chaos and dissension: Happy New Year.

The FA for its part has reacted with a maximal interpretation of Faculty intellectual property, one in which the administration does not even have the right to see Faculty syllabi. I agree with the FA that on any rational reading syllabi are, in accordance with the FA contract (Addendum C, on Intellectual Property), intellectual property of instructors. I suppose it follows that I have the right not to share my property with you. The Chancellor is thus wrong to say, as she is reported to say in the DE story, that syllabi aren't intellectual property as they are only "outlines of the semester". Those of us who write ambitious syllabi lay out much of our own approach to a given class in those syllabi; they thus reflect a good deal of intellectual labor and hence intellectual property (at least, again, for those of us who do more than outline readings from the textbook and an exam schedule--perhaps a hint about the Chancellor's syllabi from back in the day?).

Rather like our friend Tony Williams, who is quoted in the DE (look out for what happens if you post named comments on this blog!), I myself don't have a problem with sharing my syllabi with my department when I share them with my students, so long as the department doesn't abuse this by giving my syllabus to another instructor or demanding to make my pedagogical choices for me. There are reasonable motives for a department to collect syllabi: the contract itself calls for certain commonsensical information to be included in syllabi, which the department can check (I have in the past been reminded by our office staff that I had forgotten to include rather important things like texts for the course--oops).  A department can also facilitate the sharing of syllabi with students interested in taking the course. But given the administration's effort during the strike to gather syllabi to aid substitutes and their effort now to impinge on faculty academic freedom by forcing faculty to defend the choice not to give a final exam, FA leaders have some good reason to fear a slippery slope, in which administration approval of syllabi becomes an increasingly burdensome intrusion on faculty prerogatives in designing and shaping their own courses.

How would we handle this if the union and administration had a functioning relationship? The Provost would consult with the FA , which would be happy to back his call for finals to be given as scheduled. If he feels that syllabi need to be scrutinized for adherence to university policy as outlined in or assumed by the contract, he could work to secure FA agreement about how to do so. While the FA's current position is that faculty need not share syllabi at all, it is not hard to imagine some possible middle ground here.* Faculty could be asked to provide a copy of their syllabi, should their chairs believe that was a good idea, but the administration would make it clear that the only things administrators should check or demand explanations for would be deviations from the criteria outlined in the contract, and any further university policies (as that regarding final exams) the FA signs off on. Here, finally, is what the contract says about syllabi:
The course syllabus is a document that must be provided to all students at the beginning of each semester (if possible at the first class meeting).  Its contents must include, at minimum, course goals and topics, types of assignments (e.g., readings, types of oral and written exercises, term papers, etc.), and the means to be used in the evaluation of students.  Additionally, the instructor is to provide his/her office hours, office location, and office telephone number as well as, if available, a University e-mail address. [From article 10.2]
* As that sentence should make clear, this is blogger Dave speaking, not FA spokesman Dave. I'm done with that job, and though I remain a member of the union leadership, the union doesn't pay me well enough for me to forgo uttering my own views (not that they've tried to stop me).


  1. "There would never have been any debate if the Provost had simply written a memo telling chairs to remind faculty of this university policy.

    Looks to me that is exactly what he did. Oh well, the FA gets another chance to play the victim card.

  2. Read it again. Perhaps the following words/phrases were redacted in your copy of the "memo of reminder": "enforce this policy" "verify" "expected to provide an explanation" "all deviations should be reported" "including no exams at all" "submit a list of exceptions to Provost"

    Dave's reading is on point.

  3. Many faculty's syllabi do not meet the requirement of the contract signed between FA and Admin. Should both FA and Admin say something about it? Could Dave post his syllabus on this site so that we can take a look to see what is an acceptable syllabus?

  4. This is not about Dave's syllabus. This is about silliness of Provost and this administration. This is bound to happen when you put incompetent and unqualified people in charge.

  5. So based on your claim ``the silliness of Provost and this administration'', so Faculty syllabi do not need to follow the contract signed by the FA? Does the FA still have credibility?

  6. How perverse is the twisted nature of the comments by Anon. above! The "silliness" refers to the overbearing methods used by the administration and not to the fact that all faculty supply sylabi to students at the beginning of each class. Another posting of desperation on the part of the opposition ignoring the essential issues!

  7. How is Dave violating the CBA by not posting his syllabus here? I won't opine if the Chancellor and Provost are being merely "silly," but you certainly are Anon 6:38.

    It says so much about the Chancellor's view of our work that she sees a syllabus as merely an "outline" of the semester. No creative or intellectual labor involved at all in sorting and assigning literatures, designing and sequencing assignments, or crafting framing statements and rationales. It's just all so much nothing that belongs to the university if not the universe.

    They do like to double down on a faux pas, don't they?

  8. "'The literature demonstrates that providing a cumulative final during a set-aside period like finals week strongly correlates to better student learning outcomes,' he said in an email."

    Could someone point me to this literature? I'd like to read more.

    - Sorry to be repeating a comment I left elsewhere. It seems like the discussion has moved on to this post, and I sincerely would like to read this literature. By repeating myself, I hope to improve my chances of finding someone who has citations to share.

    1. @Paranoid, Your question is well taken; may I answer with other questions instead of citation? Like you, I would ask the person (Provost?) who made the assertion to provide citation/context for this claim and to open that claim to interdisciplinary discussion. For example:

      Is the sentence/claim referring primarily to the importance of a 'set aside' time frame? the ubiquitousness of examinations as a learning measure? Cognitive skills vs behavioral or affective indicators of (which) goal-specific learning? For which student demographics do cumulative, presumably written, exams 'strongly correlate' to high learning outcomes? Can this assertion so smoothly apply to an institution like SIU whose demographic include significant numbers of international students/non-native English speakers, students with physical and learning disabilities, first generation college kids and adult learners with jobs and families . . . not to mention the breadth of graduate teaching assistants currently apprenticing 'on the job'. Who is "The Student" in this universal assertion, seemingly 'tossed over the shoulder' but which stands as sole, or even governing, rationale?

      Amidst the 'deep bench' of award-winning teacher-scholars at SIUC, an institution nationally known for an historical mission and a current breadth of graduate programs in discipline-specific PEDAGOGIES, (both face-to-face and online) . . . I wish that policies would *reflect* our various pedagogies more than *police* them; I wish a Provost level 'request for explanation' were actually an invitation to gather creative innovations on capstone assessment from the best 'market-immersed' & research-informed Task Force around--our teaching staff. I even wish "the literatures" referenced in this memo included our Syllabi --those detailed complex conceptual maps (with disciplinary claims and supporting literatures) it can take a great deal of intellectual labor and expertise to design and narrate (thank you very much). And while this Syllabus as 'strategic plan'-- certainly becomes "public property" when I distribute it to students or file with my Chair; that property is not in the "public domain" like an offhand memo.

      Another example. My syllabi (like my colleague Jonny Gray's) can be 4+ pages of text (not including daily schedule) that synthesize disciplinary arguments/'lit reviews', include detailed descriptions/rationales for assignment trajectories & cited (!) pedagogical research supporting goals & objectives. Since we coordinate a doctoral program in communication pedagogy--a Syllabus is a serious & substantive thing. It is the codification of a lot of considered scholarly decisions and I'm just not sure how succinct an "explanation" of its 'deviance' I can provide beyond my Chair to the Dean and the Provost when the Chancellor understands my syllabus as "merely an outline of the semester" and not part of "traditional academic work".

      Perhaps my 'explanation' should be just what I say to each of my classes on the first day: "Your first reading assignment is the Syllabus; next class we will discuss how this articulated vision of our semester's learning together connects to the discipline's core questions, research and methods of inquiry."

      And when my syllabus goes out the door in their hands, my name is on that document. Cause 25 years in the classroom has earned me the right to claim that as intellectual property.

      And I think that's what 'academic freedom' means and tenure protects; the earned right to claim substantiated expertise & relative-but-accountable autonomy in deciding what/how to do things in my classroom.

    2. Elyse,

      Thank you for your thoughtful response.

      I'll withhold judgement on The Literature until I see it.

      My reason for the request was to open up a conversation about pedagogy (or pedagogies), much as you describe. I don't have 25 years of experience and want to learn. Asking to see The Literature under a pseudonym was one relatively safe way to do that.

      As for turning over syllabi, if the chancellor believes syllabi aren't traditional academic work worthy of intellectual property rights, then those are the syllabi chairs should receive: 1-page summaries that contain the bare minimum required by the contract and university policy and nothing more. The detailed map can go in a separate document for students.

  9. Well stated, Elyse.

  10. I wasn't paranoid enough about the syllabus issue.

    The reasons given for requiring syllabi to be turned in are now down to the point of, if a student wasn't in class during the first week and can't find a syllabus online, the chair's and the dean's office has to have a copy for that student to student access it. After all, what student would ask for a copy just before or after class, contact the professor by email, or come come to office hours to get a copy? Who would want the professor to communicate with the student directly about what the course requirements are?

    From page 15 at

    1. Certainly the admin's explanations of the syllabus policy remain inconsistent with the professed limited goal of ensuring final exams aren't early. I fail to see why a department or dean's office should hand out a syllabus to a student after the class begins rather than sending them to their instructor. If the instructor is somehow unable or unwilling to provide a syllabus after that date, then we've got bigger problems than we think. While there are certainly some rational reasons for departments to have syllabi on file (primarily to give to perspective students rather than current ones, or perhaps as a service to past students, who occasionally need copies of syllabi when seeking transfer credit or the like), the administration's sudden interest in getting copies of syllabi before the strike is an obvious justification for a certain dubiousness about the whole enterprise.


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