A College Teaching Experience

December 21, 2013

As described in another post, I spent a great deal of time sorting among PhD programs in fall 2011 and winter 2012, after abusive administrators at Indiana University prevented me from finishing my PhD there.  I finally wound up entering a PhD program in Educational Statistics and Research Methods (ESRM) at the University of Arkansas, commencing in August 2012.

One of my duties, during that fall 2012 semester, was to teach a course called Statistics in Nursing.  The large majority of students taking this course were freshman and sophomore pre-nursing students.  Apparently this course was required or strongly recommended for those who sought to get into the university’s moderately competitive nursing school.

What and Why Am I Teaching?

For reasons elaborated elsewhere, it was not immediately clear what purpose this course was intended to serve.  George Denny, the complex and now deceased director of my program, was not sure either.  He said maybe the nursing school used it to weed out the less competitive applicants.  I did not see how that could be, though, because it turned out that grades given in courses in the School of Education averaged 3.8.  In other words, there were four grades of A given for every B – and that assumes no Cs, Ds, or Fs, else there would have to be an even higher percentage of A grades.

Some will gawk at the rampant grade inflation.  An average of 3.8 was obviously ludicrous within the traditional concept of what grades are for.  But that was the reality of the situation.  I was not going to penalize my students by giving them realistic final grades that would falsely portray them as necessarily being worse than their peers in other sections.  If American higher education insisted upon giving top grades to the lazy and the inept, it did not appear that I had much latitude to do otherwise.

George was the one who told me that the average grade was 3.8.  But he didn’t tell me that in August, when I asked.  I asked him in August because I said I was planning to grade my class on a curve, and I wanted to know what a typical curve for this course would look like.  I told him I had asked the university’s data analysts, but they said they did not have, and could not generate, the average grade for a particular course.  The closest I came to a sense of how to grade these kids came on a November day when George finally let that number slip.

Since George did not seem to know what the purpose of my Statistics in Nursing course was, I emailed the director of the nursing school and asked her.  It appeared that nobody in the ESRM department had thought to do this.  She did not reply.  That may indicate that she was busy or that my email just slipped through the cracks.  It could also indicate that she was no statistician and was not sure what to tell a PhD student in statistics.  I emailed her again.  This time, she did reply.  She sent me one long paragraph that unfortunately displayed some wishful thinking.  Here is the bulk of it:

The rationale for nursing students taking statistics is driven by their need to provide evidence-based nursing care.  In order to do that, they must be able to critique current literature (research studies) that applies to their specialty area – and population of study.  For example, there are journals of nursing that report the result of nursing interventions that target improving patient outcomes for a specific disease/syndrome and/or how specific interventions effect patients from a specific age group or culture.  At the baccalaureate level our graduates will find that to be compliant with standards of practice, they will need to critique and apply findings from the current body of knowledge.  Should they continue their education with a master’s or doctoral degree in nursing they will be the change agents of practice based on their own or the implementation of others’ research studies.  The basic statistics course will serve as the foundation for further statistical courses – combined with nursing research courses that foster their original research, replication of existing research, or implementation and evaluation of current research.  Therefore, the statistics course is very pertinent – and crucial – to their educational program.  Also, it is crucial to the health care setting – evidence based practice effects patient care outcomes.  It has legal and financial implications, as in the future, hospitals will be reimbursed from the federal government based on patient outcomes.  Nurses who practice “outside” these evidence based practices could be charged with malpractice, and possibly lose their license. To fully promote and evaluate evidence based practices and promote optimal patient outcomes, statistics will be necessary for nurses.  The implementation of appropriate practices, and the measurement and reporting of patient outcomes is dependent on statistics.

These were nice ideas.  The problem is just that they were largely irrelevant for college sophomores.  To cite a few examples discussed at greater length elsewhere, were these kids indeed going to critique the statistical aspects of sophisticated research publications, when the PhDs who wrote those publications had most likely consulted professional statisticians for guidance on which statistical procedures to use, and how to use them?  Were nurses with bachelor degrees really going to make the determination on what their hospitals would consider evidence-based, for purposes of minimizing malpractice liability?  My information was that there were no further statistics courses in the undergraduate nursing program; were they going to remember any of their statistics learning when (and if) they returned to graduate school, years later?

It was clear, at least, that the nursing school had not gone through a formal process in which each of its prerequisite courses would have been evaluated, and its essential contents would have been specified.  For instance, the school’s leaders might have worked up a policy statement in which they said that, after careful consideration, they felt that pre-nursing students needed to know what a t test was, so that they could get a sense of what a published journal article was saying when it referred to that sort of test.  A policy statement of that nature would have helped me focus the course on the interpretation as distinct from the calculation of t tests.  Homework would be very different in the two cases:  comprehension of published articles versus doing math drills.

While the matter was not entirely clear, it seemed we were operating in the typical academic zone where a bunch of professors make an ad hoc decision that no education would be complete without a pinch of this and a touch of that, at the course-title level (e.g., English Literature, Statistics), never mind what specifically is taught or how it is taught.  This can quickly become a good way to waste a lot of time and money, as I can attest from personal experience.

In summer 2012, as I prepared to teach in the autumn semester, I was particularly interested in whether it was necessary to emphasize statistical procedures like t tests and ANOVA.  Those were the sorts of things that our required textbook covered.  I was not, myself, able to choose the textbook; George said that the Arkansas legislature required colleges to finalize their lists of textbooks months in advance.  The one that he (or someone) had chosen was not exactly getting rave reviews, and my students and I would soon learn why.  But as described in another post, even if the textbook had been good, there was the additional problem that professional statisticians had long considered t tests and other traditional procedures obsolete.  It seemed there were newer procedures that would be more valuable and possibly easier to understand and use.

I needed to ask someone about that.  I hesitated to ask George or other professors, because I wanted to start out on the right foot at the University of Arkansas.  I did not want to repeat the experience of alienating professors by asking obvious questions that would embarrass them.  Fortunately, George had said that I should feel free to contact a certain PhD student, if I had any questions that she might be able to help with.  He said this student was helpful, knowledgeable, and a very nice person.  And to him, her boss, I believe she probably was.  It didn’t hurt that she was young and cute, apparently a former cheerleader who also happened to share his Christian fundamentalism.

I did email her, to ask about this problem in which I might be teaching obsolete material.  She had replied to a couple other emails, but she didn’t reply to that one.  This was back in June, before I arrived on campus.  I asked her again about it in person, one time in the Statistics Lab.  She said she did remember my email; she admitted that she had not replied to it; but she said she was busy right now and would have to get back to me on it.  But she never did.

This did not mean she was not a nice person all the same.  For insight into that, I would have to refer to her chronic coldness toward me.  Though she never explained that behavior, I suspect she may have resented my criticisms of the traditional approach (used by her, among others) to teach statistics.  One might assume that a statistics PhD student who was motivated to excel in his/her field would perk up pretty quickly, if someone raised the thought that his/her training might be conveying outmoded information.  Something like that could affect the competitiveness of the program’s graduates as compared to graduates of other statistics PhD programs.  Then again, maybe no one would know the difference, at the kinds of small Christian colleges where she wanted to teach.  I still wouldn’t think she would take it personally, though; if anything, it would be a reflection on the department, which was apparently not preparing people like her on the question of whether traditional statistics teaching was obsolete.  George, himself, certainly didn’t seem to be concerned with such matters; to the contrary, he prided himself on his undeniable skill in traditional statistics teaching, and expressed pleasure in the revenues that the department received from the system of having very low-paid PhD students use traditional methods to teach large sections of Statistics in Nursing.

Improvising

As sketched out above and elaborated in the other posts linked to, then, I began the fall 2012 semester with the understanding that I was required to use a retrograde textbook to teach obsolete subject matter that my unwilling students would not remember or find useful.  In addition, although George Denny did not say so, Ronna Turner (another professor in the department) would eventually remind me that I was obliged to “cover” certain topics (e.g., t tests) so that students would be prepared for more advanced statistics courses – even though, as I say (and as one might expect from the “Statistics in Nursing” title), few if any of my own students actually intended to do anything with statistics other than to take this one required course and thereafter to avoid the subject to the best of their ability.  (Other departments, notably the university’s Statistics department, did offer courses that might have been more suitable in any event for those who planned to seek advanced statistical training.)

George believed there was value in exposing students to statistical concepts, so as to make it easier for them to relearn those concepts in a later course.  He may or may not have had research backing this belief; if he did, he did not share it with me.  My own experience (and the research I had seen) suggested that, yes, one could retain a dim idea of the kinds of mathematical operations that one might be performing, and might meanwhile encounter some reinforcement of a few general ideas; but for the most part one’s prior introductory statistical training would not produce anything remotely resembling a foundation, and especially not when (as noted above) years were certain to pass between these students’ pre-nursing program and any subsequent statistics coursework.

When I mention my own experience, I am referring to the statistics courses I had taken.  My statistics education had consisted of introductory graduate statistics courses taken in 1980, 2004, 2006, and 2008.  This list will suggest, first, that all sorts of graduate programs (in this case business, social work, parks and recreation, and social work again, on the doctoral level at another university) require at least one statistics course, and that they will not necessarily waive that requirement for students who have already taken such a course (implying that they doubt much has been retained); second, that for the most part the alleged learning from such courses does not in fact carry over, insofar as each of those introductory courses was a struggle for me; and third, that my own statistics education had not progressed beyond an introductory or barely intermediate level, and yet now I was being tapped to teach a college-level course in the subject.  Some of my classmates in the ESRM PhD program, teaching their own sections of Statistics in Nursing, had undergraduate if not graduate degrees in math and/or statistics, along with prior math teaching experience.  When I saw what I was getting into, I did tell George that my statistics knowledge was rusty and I was OK with sitting it out for a semester, in favor of another student who had expressed an interest in teaching, but he said no, he wanted me to teach.

I was glad that George had that kind of confidence in me.  And, in fact, I lived up to it.  There was not a single time when I did not know the answer to a student’s question.  On the other hand, there definitely were a few times when I was looking at what I was writing on the blackboard and wondering, What the hell am I saying?  But I would check it out, after class or while students were working on a problem, and it always came through.  Occasionally I have run across sources indicating that, actually, this is a common experience among first-time college-level teachers.  I guess everybody has to be a beginner sometime.

Not to get ahead of the story, but later George would be viewing video recordings of my teaching, and at that point he would affirm that what he saw was good teaching.  (The video system would record only what I wrote on the Smartboard, along with my voice.  Anyone interested in a demonstration of my basic presentation ability might instead be steered to a video from another class.)  Here, for instance, are two quotes from his emails commenting on my teaching during that semester:

  • “Everything I have seen of your class has shown me that you are a dedicated teacher who wants to make the class meaningful and helpful.  You have demonstrated creativity, availability, hard work, and patience in adversity.”
  • “I have learned from observing you and realize how little I do to stretch the strong students in my classes.  Cut-and-dried solutions are easier to grade and to assign.”

Along with an attempt to incorporate the findings of contemporary research into statistics education (e.g., Hagen et al., 2012; Hassad, 2009), I was spending an enormous amount of time to re-master the material, on each statistical topic that I was teaching.  Teaching that course was so demanding that I had to significantly pare back my own courseload that semester, ultimately winding up with only three credits in statistics and three in educational research in fall 2012.

So I had several things underway that semester.  I was teaching myself introductory statistics; I was taking two graduate courses; and I was trying to reinvent the course that I was teaching to these undergraduates.  Reinvention was constricted in terms of substance – as I say, I was obliged to “cover” certain topics – but I did what I could within those parameters.

One step that seemed essential was to focus on basic numeracy.  I found that these young pre-nursing students were proposing to step forth into the world – indeed, into the operating room – without knowing how to calculate or interpret percentages, without any clue in the use of a basic spreadsheet program, and without the ability to read a chart.  Consider, for example, this graph:

On a quiz, with a somewhat more readable printout of that graph, I posed questions like these:

  1. About how many Londoners died of smallpox in 1770?  _______________
  2. Smallpox accounted for about ________% of total deaths in 1770.
  3. The image seems to indicate there was a vaccination campaign in 1800.  If that is true, the image shows that vaccination had the most obvious impact on:  (a) Total Deaths, (b) Zymotic Diseases, (c) Smallpox, (d) The population of London.

Students really struggled with this.  It developed that I could ask questions about this same graph for week after week.  And I did.  I put it on three separate quizzes, each time asking questions like the three just shown.  We got past the part where the students would complain that the graph was old and hard to read.  For the most part, we also overcame the challenge of a percentage calculation (question 2).

It is true that I was emphasizing descriptive rather than inferential statistics.  But I knew that more advanced courses (indeed, even our introductory course) required an ability to interpret a graph (of, say, a normal distribution) and an ability to calculate percentages (of e.g., the area beyond two standard deviations from the mean).  It is also true that, by emphasizing Excel, I reduced the amount of time available for drill in statistical calculations.  The tradeoff was that the Excel assignments gave them a tool they would be able to use in daily life and in other courses – a tool that, my investigations suggested, might make a career difference in some nursing contexts.

It is worth mentioning one other improvisation that I implemented in this course.  In one of the three questions on our first exam, I had students interpret a data table from the U.S. government’s Statistical Abstract.  When students saw this exam, they freaked out.  This was not something we had done in class.  I was expecting them to confront an unfamiliar situation.  Then again, the exam’s instructions were very supportive:

  • It was a take-home exam.  Students had a week in which to work through it, in mid-September, when few other instructors were scheduling exams.
  • I was available for ten hours each week as a tutor in the Statistics Lab, and I made clear that I was willing, throughout that time, to do everything but answer the questions for them.
  • The instructions said this:  “You are free to draw on any sources of information and assistance, without limit; but the final product needs to be your own work, in terms that you understand and can defend if called upon to do so.  Of course, if you do use anyone else (including classmates) for words, ideas, editing help, reviewing, or otherwise, you must give them credit in a footnote, endnote, or parenthetical comment.”

In other words, I didn’t care how they got the answer.  I just cared that they got the answer.  This, however, was not as simple as it might seem to a capable adult, who might just do exactly what the instructions said:  find some person or webpage that provides the answer; present the answer; and cite that person or webpage as the source of the answer.  Done!

For my students, it was not that easy.  Their educations, it seemed, had rendered them dysfunctional for purposes of actually solving problems.  For an apparently large majority, the response was to fall apart and, in a few cases, complain to the dean of the School of Education.  Far from overcoming that initial sense of helplessness, their training (and the dean’s response) reinforced their belief that nobody really expected them to tackle unfamiliar problems – even when that task was at a baby level, allowing them to use my tutoring hours in the Statistics Lab and any other source imaginable.

Moreover, as I had made clear, the grading itself was extravagantly supportive.  Since I was grading the course on a curve, it was not absolutely essential to get the right answer; it was just a question of getting as many points as possible from a sincere effort.

To answer this question, then, students were best advised to start by actually reading that table from the Statistical Abstract.  Doing so would reveal an Internet link, at the bottom, that led to an extensive discussion of the table.  That discussion had all kinds of relevant information.  Without any help from anyone else, it would provide everything they would need to produce a coherent report.  There was no need to be held back by a fear that only a statistician would be able to do it right.

I do believe these were examples of good innovations.  Like all student teachers, I made mistakes.  Yet on another level, at least I was trying.  I perceived a nonworking educational situation surrounding this statistics requirement, and I appeared to be the only one in that department who actively sought ways to improve upon it.  As I told George, I was hoping for the kind of committed teaching environment where people would say, “Ray, that is an interesting approach.  How is that working?  Have you heard of so-and-so’s technique for achieving a similar outcome?”  And as explored elsewhere, this department was just not that kind of place.

Helicopter Parents in the Big State University

The preceding paragraphs have described some of the beliefs and objectives I entertained as I began teaching statistics at the University of Arkansas in fall 2012.  I had been a teaching assistant previously, but this was the first time that I had been the responsible instructor in a college course.  Despite my years as a graduate student, I was in for some surprises when I began teaching these undergraduates.

I did not expect them all to be smart and motivated.  The professors at various universities for whom I had been a graduate assistant, and doctoral classmates at Indiana University who had already had teaching experience, had exposed me to the sometimes absurd expectations and poor academic preparation evident in their undergraduate students.  In some ways, I had once been that kind of student myself.  It would take some effort and patience to grow desirable qualities.

But there was a separate issue, one that I had rarely encountered during my own college days.  Even for mediocre and poor students, higher education was now seen as much more of an entitlement or a right.  As already hinted, it could be alien, to some of these students, to think that a professor would impose expectations and enforce rules.

Of course, undergraduates do not simply construct themselves; they tend to be a product of their times.  My own inordinately privileged Baby Boom generation, and Gen X after it, had not consistently experienced nor accepted the values of my parents’ World War II generation.  At the height of America’s wealth and world standing, we’d had much handed to us, relatively speaking; we expected it to continue to be handed to us; and we expected the same to continue on into our children’s generation.  If anything, parents of my generation were determined that their kids would get every last thing to which they considered themselves entitled.  Hence we had the “helicopter parent,” constantly hovering, often prioritizing the credentials (e.g., an A in my statistics course) over the actual learning.

In a previous post, I noted the helicopter parent phenomenon in relatively abstract terms.  In actual experience, of course, it was not abstract at all.  I was surprised at the confidence and enthusiasm with which a few students confronted me, disrupted the class, and solicited other students to join them in opposing me.  For instance, one student informed me that he had been asked to join in a plan to go to the dean and seek to have me removed if students were not happy with their grades on the second of three exams in my course.

There were some ironies there.  For one thing, the students doing the most complaining tended to be seniors who were meanwhile getting the best grades in this curve-graded class.  They were not stupid:  while persuading impressionable freshmen and sophomores to treat class performance as optional, they themselves were covering their bases.  In one case in particular, it seemed that the student – a senior who had begun the semester with the announcement that he had several difficult courses and would not appreciate a challenging statistics course – was seeking to assert authority, not because of anything particularly wrong with my teaching, but simply because he felt the need to be in charge.

Here, again, student behavior did not emerge from a vacuum.  According to George Denny, my supervisor, Dean Tom E. C. Smith responded to student complaints by requiring my teaching to be videotaped.  Students saw this and inferred that I was in a probational status.  The videotaping did have the incidental benefit of documenting some instances of disruptive behavior by the senior just mentioned, but this did not counterbalance the administration’s tacit encouragement of disruptive students.

Indeed, the School of Education seemed to be operating in a sort of cloak-and-dagger mentality, wherein students and administrators were conspiring together to spy on the instructor.  It was not a situation where a complaining student and I would first be required to meet one-on-one, to determine what the student was objecting to, and to see whether there was something I could do about it, or whether perhaps the student was operating under some kind of misimpression.  Indeed, the student was not even required to begin with George, my supervisor, or with Dean Miller.  In an approach that would be fraught with risks in the real world, the student seems to have started by skipping all of the supervisors and going directly to the CEO, at the first sign that the course might require some work.

In fact, the situation was even worse than that.  Administrators later informed me that, actually, one or more apparently influential helicopter parents had started by complaining to the provost and possibly to the chancellor of the university. It was hard to believe, but it seems they did go to that level, and they got a hearing, in response to their child’s anxieties about his/her midterm exam.  Of course, pressure from the provost and/or the chancellor would tend to limit the options available to a bureaucrat concerned primarily with his/her own survival, so I am not surprised that Dean Smith failed to exhibit a commitment to fair procedures or educational outcomes.  In essence, the administration was taking its marching orders from the student.  Obviously, such a corrupt process could operate to the detriment of those many other parents and students who lacked similar wherewithal to impose their own educational priorities upon the administration.

I wondered, in retrospect, whether I might have inadvertently fed this series of developments by signaling weakness.  In the first two weeks of the semester, I underwent a sort of cultural immersion.  That is, we had a couple of extensive classroom discussions in which I sought to understand my students’ perspectives generally and their attitudes toward statistics in particular.  There were tearful exclamations that students just had to get an A in my class in order to get into nursing school; there were remarkable statements.  Consider, for instance, the freshman who complained about my teaching because, in the first weeks of this introductory semester, I had failed to give her the advanced statistical techniques that her mother said she would need to succeed in graduate school, some years hence – and who then complained that she did not understand why I was teaching her all this statistical stuff that she would never use.

I grappled, then and thereafter, with the odd fact that some students would put enormous effort into getting the A, through various complaints and schemes, while determinedly minimizing the amount of effort devoted to earning that A, through study and learning.  My retrospective concern about signaling weakness is just that, by coming across as someone who is willing to discuss almost anything, and to work with almost anyone, I may have inadvertently sent a signal that I, a mere teaching assistant, would be especially easy to push around.  The irony here is that this person who may have been the department’s most adaptive and empathic instructor was thus subjected to authoritative commands unrelated to the actual classroom situation.  As a critic of bureaucracy, I do not place all of the blame for this state of affairs even upon the most corrupt parents; but plainly it would be difficult to run a university ethically with this sort of tawdry individual hovering in the background, ready to use his/her money to subvert the institution’s alleged principles.

Denouement:  A Case of Academic Ethics

According to my syllabus, my statistics course had three exams.  The second exam was in early November.  I wanted to include a hands-on Excel component, but there were too many students to fit into the Statistics Lab, where the department’s computers were located.  Thus, I divided the exam into two parts.  The paper-based part would be completed in the classroom, under my proctoring.  The Excel-based part would be completed in the Statistics Lab, where a fellow PhD student was on duty.  I devised a PowerPoint to instruct students in the Statistics Lab how to proceed through the Excel part.  I then assigned student groups into two teams.  Team 1 would begin the exam in the Statistics Lab; Team 2 would begin in the classroom, with me.

One of the self-formed student groups comprising Team 2 consisted of a handful of especially disruptive students.  True to form, these students were talking among themselves, about the exam, when I returned to the classroom after briefly visiting Team 1, in the Statistics Lab, to verify that all was going well there.  It was.  The PowerPoint was displaying properly; everyone in Team 1 was sitting quietly at his/her own computer; the computer screens were all displaying the right material; there was no talking.

At the halfway mark, Team 1 members submitted their work electronically, and I collected papers from Team 2.  The two teams then swapped places.  Team 1 proceeded with the paper portion, and Team 2 went to the Statistics Lab and commenced the Excel portion.  The colleague working in the Statistics Lab reported to me, by email (which I did not receive until afterwards), that a number of students in Team 2 had ignored exam instructions and were talking about the exam questions among themselves.  One student was even walking around, looking at other students’ computer screens and commenting on them.  I verified the substance of this report with a professor who had arrived at the Statistics Lab to prepare for her own class, which was scheduled to use the Statistics Lab immediately after mine.

Later examination of exam scores would indicate that the scores on the Excel portion, for Teams 1 and 2, differed primarily in that there were no really low scores among the students in Team 2.  The cheating seemed not to have done much for the students who already knew what they were doing, but apparently it helped those who did not.

I contacted Monica Holland, the university’s ethics officer, to ask what I should do about this large, witnessed instance of academic dishonesty.  Based upon that and subsequent conversations, I contacted each student in Team 2 and asked them to tell me what had happened during the Excel portion of their exam.  Student reports were sketchy, sometimes excessively so.  To the extent that they did provide specifics, they tended to confirm the faculty reports just cited.  I reported these findings in the recommended manner and waited for the administration to respond.

Much of that was done by Friday.  The university’s response to this instance of cheating was unequivocal.  On Monday, George Denny informed me that I was being removed as instructor.  On Tuesday – the first post-exam class session – Dean Smith walked into my classroom, introduced another professor as my replacement for the remainder of the semester, and told the students that they did not need to worry; there would be no ethics investigation.  He was not entirely right about that – I persisted in the matter, and there were certain procedures resembling the form of an investigation – but he was correct about the outcome.  Consider the following example of what I reported, in that ethics process, and what Dean Michael Miller concluded, regarding one student’s behavior during the exam.  (Note that exam instructions specified there was to be no talking during the exam):

Excerpts from my academic ethics report:  Elise [a pseudonym] was not authorized to walk around the [Statistics Lab during the exam], nor to look at or comment on other students’ work on their computer screens.  That was the behavior reported by eyewitnesses . . . . [These] acts . . . meet the definitions of copying and collaborating. . . . [Moreover,] according to multiple sources, the collaboration [occurring around Elise] was loud and sustained.  Elise was positioned to see students engaged in such collaboration and to hear their words. . . . Yet she took no steps, incumbent upon all students, to react against such misbehavior or at least to report it afterwards.   In this sense, she engaged in facilitation of dishonest behavior . . . . It was profoundly dismaying to observe her nonresponsiveness to the three email messages I sent her, in the days following the report of unethical behavior during the exam.  In response to my repeated requests, she refused to provide even the simplest specifics (e.g., the names of the people seated next to her).

Full text of Dean Miller’s comments:  I met with Elise who was indeed disturbed by the charge of dishonesty.  She stated that she was asked to be the team leader, but was not given the responsibility of serving as the test proctor.  She indicated that she did indeed respond to Mr. Woodcock’s email and was not being unresponsive.  There is no evidence to suggest that she did conceal cheating on the part of her fellow classmates, and there is no evidence to suggest that she engaged in dishonesty.

No evidence, if you ignore eyewitnesses and related documents.  Dean Miller did not require Elise to produce the emails or otherwise specify how she responded, when I said she didn’t; he just took the word of the student over that of the instructor.  He did not indicate how the role of team leader was relevant:  university rules prohibited Elise from protecting academic dishonesty regardless.  Dean Miller’s conclusions, for this student and for the others whom I named, were indefensible; indeed, he did not even try to defend them with specific rebuttal of the evidence I had submitted.  This was not a complex matter; it was a straightforward, documented instance of academic dishonesty on which he refused to take appropriate action.

Of course, all of this was visible to students, who were learning quite a lesson in academic ethics.  Statistics, meanwhile, was treated as a secondary issue:  virtually everything that we were working on was curtailed, as the replacement instructor started off on a new topic after spending a considerable amount of time finding her place, responding to student anxieties, setting up a grading system that would incorporate work done to date, and so forth.  The entire episode was extremely disruptive for the class as a whole, when competent administration would have chosen instead to confine the upheaval to the handful of students named in the ethical report.

I contacted Monica Holland to try to understand how my efforts to follow recommended procedures could have had this outcome.  She was not interested in discussing the matter with me.  Just a few days earlier, George – who had not only praised my teaching but had also expressed exasperation with the behavior of certain students in my class – had called me in for a meeting to decide which section of Statistics in Nursing I would prefer to teach in the spring; but now his tune had changed completely:  he told me that I had not succeeded as an instructor and said, “You had your chance.”  He also refused to sign off on an appeal of the ethics issue.  And now events were transpiring in a manner more suited to a high school hallway than to an institution of higher education, with seeming deliberate avoidance or corruption of orderly procedure whenever possible.  Students complained about me anonymously; their parents manipulated events behind the scenes; private communications between Smith and Denny confirmed and effected my termination.

Over the Christmas break, I did speak with Dean Smith about these developments.  He admitted that he might have made a mistake in removing me from the course, and asked whether I would be teaching in the spring semester.  He seemed surprised to hear that George had no plans to allow me to teach again.

I thought his surprise was genuine, though puzzling; but in retrospect, I cannot be sure.  He did invite me to meet with him again, sometime in January, and continue our discussions.  It seemed that we both enjoyed our conversation.  Yet for some reason unbeknownst to me, when I contacted him in January, he indicated that there were no openings in his schedule for the next four weeks.  Although I saw him in the halls now and then, and at a Doctoral Academy Fellows event in February, he never again made eye contact with me or even acknowledged my presence.

Conclusion

In social science and education departments and probably elsewhere as well, academic ethics are drummed into students’ skulls ad nauseum.  This is disingenuous per se, at least in those universities where faculty and administrative processes exhibit the kind of corruption described above.  As a matter of principle, the instances of treachery noted here are not unusual and should not be surprising, in an entity built upon the survival and promotion of the individual, at the expense of his/her students and colleagues if necessary.

It was particularly galling to observe what happened with academic ethics when enforcement of the concept against students would entail some incidental pain to administrators and faculty.  This time, in other words, it was not going to be a cost-free matter of browbeating or punishing some student caught red-handed; this time, enforcement of the rules was going to cause some problems for the university’s administration, due to the intervention of hovering parents.  Events demonstrated that, in reality, the university’s so-called ethical principles were negotiable.

There is also the problem of what happens to the instructor.  Research-oriented universities are notorious for treating the quality of teaching as a secondary issue.  In this case, I recognized and articulated a multidimensional educational failure in our introductory statistics course.  Such a situation endures even though there are faculty members right there, within the School of Education at the University of Arkansas, who question the by-mathematicians, for-mathematicians mentality guiding the ESRM department.

To clarify, it is not that faculty necessarily care, one way or the other.  I could have been teaching hula-hoops in that classroom, and as long as the students kept mum, we might have gotten away with it.  But faculty and administrators most certainly do care when something atypical happens, when someone tries an unorthodox teaching approach oriented toward actual learning, and thereby disturbs students who are banking on a gentle, reassuring four-year academic ride.

In the end, I am not sure what all of this has to do with education.  If we were here to talk about education, I think we would be discussing substantive topics within statistics, their relevance for students, the best ways of teaching them – things like that.  There is some discussion of such matters in the companion post.  But this post seems to have more to do with the old familiar topic of bureaucratic infighting.  There was an underling; his boss screwed him; etc.  Upon witnessing so much effort and exasperation in the ostensibly education-oriented university, one might reasonably ask whether administrative overhead substantially supersedes or impairs actual education.

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