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.


Greyoke said...


On one hand, it is our business to make sure that our students have the chance for a good education - which they're not if they're getting taught incorrectly.

On the other hand, would the outcome of an 'intervention' with a colleague fix the situation, or make it worse? That's what you have to decide.

I've been on both sides of that. Once when I was a very junior faculty member, it was pointed out to me by a senior faculty member that I was teaching something incorrectly. I was so ashamed that I immediately went and studied that subject in-depth so that it would never happen again. When I've been on the other side of that, I usually start off with "Hey, I always thought that..." - trying to engage them without acting too know-it-all.

It also depends on the importance of the mistake relative. If my colleague is using an incorrectly simplified explanation, it's one thing. If they're teaching intelligent design instead of evolution, it's another thing entirely!

You can always take solace, though, in the fact that student probably isn't going to remember either your version or the other professor's in a couple of years!

Anonymous said...

I don't really know what the appropriate approach is: I guess it depends on the ego of the professor in specific. One of our professors is all sorts of great, but he's abnormally young (he started his PhD somewhere around age 17), and is so used to disrespect due to his age that while he can take criticism, it has to be *very* diplomatically worded. Hardly his fault, though: I imagine if more of us had to take the flak he does, we'd end up sort of raw, too.

As a student, I've never expected or asked a professor to approach another prof. for me. It's always been enough for me to

a) Hear a word of sympathy. I was once telling a prof. I work for (in his lab) about a teacher that graded I and my partner differently on lab results (which we shared, because we were partners - they were IDENTICAL results; not the write-up, mind you, THE RESULTS) and he exclaimed "What a dick!" That alone was enough: sometimes it's nice just to hear an encouraging word from one of the authorities.

b) It's nice to have confirmation. I can generally figure out the material very well. If a professor confirms for me that my interpretation is correct - that I'm not out of my mind - then I will take it to the other prof's superiors all on my lonesome: I don't need or want one of the profs I'm on good terms with putting their necks out for me.

But then, in my school it's accepted practice to go to a dept. chair over mis-graded exams. I go to a very inexpensive city school: the profs have the freedom to grade us w/o having the deans forcing them to inflate grades, and we've the freedom of transferring to multiple campuses within commuting distance so that we don't have to be afraid of pissing off the powers that be.