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01 July 2013

Bureaucracy, Legalism, and Their Effect on Pedagogy

There are two kinds of professors: those who have encountered problem students who unjustly challenge grades and those who will. The best cover for professors in these situations is documentation. Traditionally, this is covered by a syllabus. Sadly in my case, my syllabi have ballooned because of this. I am as explicit and as precise as I am able to be. This generally is a good thing, but since most students don't read the briefest of syllabi, there is no chance that they're going to read my 15-page monsters. Beyond the syllabus, emails can be a great form of documentation. If I have a record of telling a student that he needs to include more sources in a paper and the students later claims that he had no idea that was a requirement, I can simply print out the email exchange. This bureaucratic push for documentation that we faculty are encouraged to track and save devalues the important exchanges that we have with our students both in the classroom and, more importantly, in face-to-face office meetings. At my institution, a small liberal arts college, we actively market the fact that students will have intimate and regular contact with faculty, something that generally does not happen at larger state institutions. Because there is no audio recording of the instructions that I give to students who stop by my regular office hours, those students could later challenge grades, and it essentially would come down to a chair or dean being forced into the horrible position of having to adjudicate between the faculty's word and the student's word. To avoid all of this, increasingly, I find myself preferring to interact with students via email instead of in my office. This is unfortunate because it nullifies the very interaction that is so central to a liberal arts education.

What of solutions? I could start recording office meetings, but aside from the legal issues that would undoubtedly arise with that practice, a rolling tape recorder would most certainly affect the quality of the interaction I have with my students. Instead, I think an institutional solution is more appropriate. The most important role that administrators can play to this end is in removing institutional burdens from faculty, freeing them to focus on their actual jobs in research and teaching. The unintentional push for documentation does the opposite, shifting the bureaucratic onus onto faculty and endangering the relationships that faculty are able to foster with students. This means that the administration has to be less accommodating to those problem students (and their parents). Yes, this might encourage formal actions and even lawsuits, and it does open the door for unethical faculty to abuse the system, but it is in the best interest of the overwhelming majority of the students and the faculty, and if it's good for students and faculty, it's ultimately good for the institution. Avoiding long-term problems often means confronting short-term inconveniences.

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