Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Difference of opinion.

One of my former students came to me to complain about an exam he'd had in another class, that has some overlapping material with a class the student had taken from me.

He read me one of the exam questions, and outlined the solution that the other professor had been looking for. In my opinion, the question and the solution were such an oversimplification of the real problem that the "solution" was actually incorrect. The student, having discussed this topic in greater detail in my class, knew there was a problem with it also, but wasn't sure if maybe he was missing some big idea.

I encouraged him to go talk to the other professor, and see what the prof was thinking, and explain what he (the student) was thinking, etc. Just to see where the disconnect was. So, he did. The professor agreed that his solution was "not technically correct", but said, "I was just looking for a quick answer, and for back-of-the-envelope purposes, my way is fine."

Okay, maybe. (Having seen the actual question, I feel like his approach was still no good, even for rough estimates, because it was all based on some very sketchy relationships). But, it rankles me that the students were asked to come up with a ridiculous and inappropriate answer, and then penalized for trying to go about it in a better way.

But, that's the weird thing about grading. There's no recourse when the professor is wrong, or wrong-ish, and doesn't care.

This has come up once before; a student came to me in deep confusion over a subject in another class, and since I'm very familiar with that subject matter he wanted me to try to explain it to him. When I looked at the problem, I saw that the prof was using the wrong approach for that type of situation - and then I wondered what my responsibility was towards the student. I decided to explain how *I* would do it, and gave him some references, but pointed out that I wasn't teaching the class, and so it would be worth his while to know the other guy's approach (but, it bothered me a lot, because out in the real world, that approach wouldn't be right). I even, very gently, asked that prof, if he didn't mind, to explain to me why he was using that approach, and his explanation didn't make sense to me either. But I left it there because I wasn't sure if it was any of my business.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Management of senior colleagues

I'm working on a project with a group of faculty from across a few disciplines. While I like them all as people, one of them is a real challenge for me. He's the PI for the project that originated the group, and is an extreme micromanager. He's in a discipline fairly distant from mine, and so while understands the premise of my work and how it connects with the project, he understands none of the technical details - and yet, he questions my every move on said details. I don't take this personally, because he does it to everyone else in the group as well - so I know this isn't an issue of rank or gender, it's just his style.

We're working on another proposal related to this project, but with the focus of this one squarely in my area of expertise.

Dr. Micromanagement is again making me crazy by:
1. Demanding that he be listed as the responsible party for all objectives in the proposal, despite the fact that most of them are way, way outside his area of expertise, and despite the fact that I am the PI on this proposal,
2. Not submitting any verbiage for the proposal for the pieces he actually IS responsible.

My husband, listening to me vent, wonders why I just don't kick the guy off this proposal, and find people who are easier to work with. It's not really in my best interest to do so, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that I am just an assistant professor and he's a full professor well respected and rewarded for his research.

And also, I am developing a thick and diplomatic skin about issues like this, so, I can deal. (But still!)

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Maybe we're just TOO nice.

So, I had this student last semester. This semester he enrolled in another class of mine, which I co-teach with another faculty member (one of the ones from this episode), and it's pretty much the same story: nice kid, NOT up to graduate level work.

My colleague, having felt burned by our struggle last semester with the grad student thesis issue, wants to do something or say something to somebody - and I can't say I totally disagree. On the one hand, graduate school is this student's responsibility. On the other hand, we accepted him, and we're paying him to be here.

But, what would we say, and to whom? Perhaps the major professor? But in many ways, it's also a college and departmental issue. I'm starting to think that problems like these - students kind of languishing in a program that's maybe not a great fit for their skills or aptitudes - are more widespread than just one or two students here and there. A friend of mine in another department relayed to me that he'd recently been on a master's committee for a student in my department that he felt was clearly not up to the task, and whose thesis he thought was a total joke (but as the most junior member on the committee, and as somebody outside the department, he felt hamstrung, and ultimately went along with the rest of the committee, and just decided never to serve on any committees in my department again).

Other faculty members in my department, when I was consulting with more senior folks than I during my struggle with that grad student of mine last year, have pretty much told me the same thing, that there are some problems with quality control, but there's not really any mechanism to catch that and act on it early. (I think that was something at the root of my problem with that grad student - if there had been a way to reroute her to a more appropriate program, perhaps a non-thesis option, I might have done it. But, having already invested a year of money in her that would go wasted if she left or went non-thesis, I decided to take my chances that we could squeeze her into a more researchy mold, which was only marginally successful).

Maybe it's no different when this is not the case, but the fact that all these students are funded on grant money, where you are on the hook for delivering some results, creates a weird dynamic when things go wrong, because as a faculty member you absolutely NEED your grad students to be successful, and you can't really afford to have ones that aren't. So maybe we sometimes push or coddle students that we really shouldn't be pushing.

My department is nationally ranked, in the low single digits. So we ought to be attracting and recruiting high-quality students (of course, there's another issue of it being difficult to know the quality of a potential graduate student just based on their undergraduate academic performance, and it's even more of a struggle when the applicant is from a foreign university - which most of them are). And we ought to be fair to the students that do come here, and not let them slip by when there's palpable trouble.