Bidding Adieu to George Denny’s Concept of Statistical Education

December 21, 2013

This post discusses certain aspects of my experience as a PhD student in the Department of Educational Statistics and Research Methods (ESRM) at the University of Arkansas – Fayetteville during the 2012-2013 academic year.  It focuses on George Denny primarily because he was the PhD program chair and was its face to the world, including its PhD students.  I was in far more frequent contact with George than with any other ESRM faculty.  For many purposes, including particularly purposes related to PhD students like me, it is evidently unnecessary to distinguish George from the department:  he, and it, seem to have been virtually synonymous.

George died in June 2013, at the age of 55.  I was sorry to hear of it.  I did not particularly like him, but on the other hand I also did not actively dislike him.  He was a decent supervisor in some regards.  I’m sure his loved ones were shocked and deeply saddened.  We must all go sometime, but I would certainly prefer that he had been able to continue living.  He had as much right as anyone else.  It has seemed odd and unfortunate that he is not there anymore.  There have also been things I have wanted to ask him about.  I don’t know that we would ever have become friends, but we would surely have had meaningful discussions when I finally got around to blogging the experience of being in his department.  I would have sought his reactions to what I would write, as I have done with others.  Depending on the outcome of those discussions, which I expected would unfold gradually, we might have managed to remain relatively cordial acquaintances.

As the title suggests, this post takes a critical view of George.  This criticism is necessarily limited to his professional as distinct from his personal side.  He did not seem to have any interest in a personal friendship with me. He was a generally agreeable guy who kept a bit of distance, or was busy with other things, or maybe just felt awkward about relating warmly to people.  He never invited me or, to my knowledge, other PhD students over to his house, or out for coffee or drinks.  He did make conversation with me about a few events in my life, but was plainly inclined to interact solely as my supervisor.  Hence, I am interested, here, in the sort of critique that people indulge toward leaders and public figures.  We contemplate what they did well and poorly, deriving lessons for our own guidance and tips for future improvement.

To me, George represented one concept of a Department of Educational Statistics and Research Methods.  I think it was, and is, a poor concept.  Its core characteristic is that the department exists,  first, for the benefit of faculty rather than of students.  Yes, it must have students; but it must also have faculty – and between the two, the interests of the latter far outweigh those of the former.  George seems to have functioned as, frankly, a complacent Baby Boom bureaucrat who never really faced hard times and who felt himself perpetually entitled to a comfortable life, provided in exchange for creating and promoting the George Denny type of ESRM department.  As discussed elsewhere, I think such a department can and should do much better than that.

Serving faculty interests seems to have required bureaucratism.  In the George Denny model, that is, higher education must be, before all else, an institution with assorted administrators, procedures, and restrictions.  Those three words may be entirely appropriate for many kinds of entities, including the university.  It is worth remembering, nonetheless, that none of those words necessarily has much to do with education, and particularly not with critical or creative learning.  To the contrary, as my own experiences attest, institutions are fully prepared to squelch creativity and criticality when such states of mind interfere with the bureaucratic imperative.

In service of vested interests, bureaucratism tends to entail corruption.  When you choose faculty and administrators for their politically savvy, careerist mentality, as often happens in university environments, you get people who put themselves first.  The bureaucracy devotes inordinate time and expense to securing and expanding its powers and privileges; it grows indifferent to relevant ethics, except where someone is actually watching to make sure that unethicality is discouraged.  It is a culture in which, to cite one example from my own experience as an instructor, nobody is really surprised when young female students let me know that they would do “whatever it takes” to get an A in my course.  No one was watching; no one would know.  We were just processing people through the system.

Higher education has to begin with the question of whether people are learning, and this is another failure vector for the George Denny ESRM.  George said that if students couldn’t learn statistics from him, they probably couldn’t learn it at all.  It was a remarkable fantasy.  The first time he asked his graduate assistants to look at a homework assignment that he planned to distribute to his students, I found it impenetrable.  I ventured a small suggestion, to rectify an especially baffling piece of text.  He ignored it.  What he saw, and therefore assumed that his students saw, was entirely clear and straightforward.  What I saw was a fundamentally confusing document that, among other things, needed to clarify which parts were the assignment and which parts were the instructions.  I obtained confirmation when, as a tutor in the Statistics Lab, I had to provide that explanation to some of his students.  No doubt others asked him rather than me.  It did cross my mind that he may have been lonely, or uncertain of his self-worth; he may have been unintentionally compelling students to seek out his guidance, during office hours, and thereby revalidate him.  One thing I liked about him:  he certainly seemed to enjoy visitors.

George’s system of incentives, worksheets, and other materials and techniques did tend to keep students scooting along, throughout the semester, to learn how to answer the questions he would be posing on the exam.  But for reasons elaborated in a separate post, the papers I graded, and the student progress I witnessed, tended to support my doubt that he achieved much in terms of statistical reasoning.  People are not going to remember crib sheets a year or more later, out in the working world.  There was no doubt some valid orientation to various concepts, but I suspect the educational opportunity was otherwise largely wasted.

Education aside, bureaucratism can take a toll on its practitioners.  I do not know precisely why George died.  I was not present in the Graduate Education building on the day when he fell over dead.  Someone said it was a heart attack.  But why a heart attack?  Well, surely because he was overweight and did not exercise.  But again, why?

The fact of the matter is that George was unhappy in his job.  Would he have taken better care of himself and lived longer if he had been happy?  I don’t know.  I think probably so.  If I am correct in that surmise, then one might suggest that his job, or more precisely his unhappiness with it, killed him.

But why was he unhappy?  He was well-known and seemed to be generally appreciated.  He laughed often enough.  He had a wife, a home, and kids who were grown and apparently successful.  He had just won an award for being a good instructor.  Yet I know he was unhappy, because he said so.  And not just said so; he openly told me, in my first weeks in the department, that he considered himself to be in, I forget, a prison or a salt mine.  Something like that.  And he repeated similar sentiments later.  He had the golden handcuffs, keeping him there for the income and the benefits; but he was miserable.  It reminded me of a professor at Indiana University, who after retiring seems to have been so very done with the place – through, finished, out of there – that, within a year or two, she did not even know or care who her own department’s administrators were.

But, again, why?  For George, it was apparently because they did not promote him to full professor.  He said he had, I think, 51 publications.  He said that was more than anyone else in the department.  And yet he said his five colleagues, the full professors who voted on his promotion, all turned him down.

It surely was not a question of merit.  I think it must have been politics.  What the politics were, precisely, I don’t know.  My guess would be that they could not trust him.  I would guess that because I couldn’t trust him either.  He was the only professor I have ever encountered who would initiate a conversation with me about my personal academic progress in the presence of another student, without my permission – and where that student was not a peer, but was rather an undergraduate enrolled in the statistics course I was teaching.  I suppose that would be one way to undermine an instructor.  I had to switch on my computer’s screensaver when George showed up in the Statistics Lab, because otherwise he would sit there and stare at what I had onscreen, while we talked.  Most damagingly, as described in another post, George grossly flip-flopped on the question of my competence as an instructor, going in one week from strong praise to complete rejection, taking his cue from the dean’s act of removing me as instructor to prevent me from proceeding with a citation of academic dishonesty by several well-connected students who had cheated on an exam.

Sometimes it almost seemed like George was playing games with me.  For instance, when attempting to grade his students’ homework, I repeatedly asked him to give me a copy of the printed notes he gave his students. With those notes, I could direct students to specific information explaining their errors.  The notes weren’t George’s own intellectual property; he said he had downloaded them from somewhere online.  Why on earth would he not just give me a copy of the notes, so that I could help his students learn?  I have no idea.  But he never did.

All in all, it was quite an experience.  I vaguely intended to compose draft blog posts that would raise such matters piecemeal.  I don’t know what would have emerged from my anticipated attempt to discuss those drafts with George.  I did hope it would be possible to arrive at a truthful but relatively moderate formulation, with some attempts to repair the damage on his part.  But at the point of his demise, none of that had transpired, and I was left with the stark and unsettling impressions related here.

On that basis, it seems to have been a case of swimming with the sharks.  For all his aw-shucks manner, George was willing enough to behave like a cutthroat academic, and he seemed to think that key peers did likewise.  He really should have made determined efforts to find or create something better.  He failed to do that, and as a result it seems he almost literally dug his own grave.

From this perspective, I could not entirely blame George for helping to make the place intolerable for me:  others had made it intolerable for him.  I would see him talking with a certain dean, and would wonder what they might say about me; I would see him with the chief computer guy, and wonder whether they were reading my email.  I would wonder why such people would sometimes respond to my smile and greeting with a grimace or a look in another direction.  These were questions for me because, in that place, he had similar questions of his own:  despite the smiles, he could not be too sure what key others might have been saying, doing, and thinking behind his back.  It’s not so much that such things definitely were happening; it’s that they may have been, that there were no reliable integrity checks.  George’s sin in that regard was one of omission – of, that is, the collaboration that would permit such an environment to fester, that would accept many evils for the sake of that paycheck.

Again, I don’t say these things to slight George.  He’s gone.  I say them to warn other academics, especially but not only in research universities.  Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow . . . and eventually you run out of tomorrows, and it is finally Today.  If you do not work to create a good learning environment, you will pay.  You will probably not keel over in the hallway on a Thursday, though as we see that is not beyond possibility.  But you will pay in other ways.  I am sorry for the environment that you will experience.  Unfortunately, change agents within the gulag are few and endangered.  The question George Denny poses is whether you will ameliorate or exacerbate that sad reality.

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