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Criticizing faculty proposals

Themes/tags: Rants, Grinnell, the faculty

I left today’s faculty meeting angrier than I’ve been a long time. Why? It will take a bit to explain.

One of today’s topics generated a lot of heated discussion. Some of the discussion stemmed, in part, from ways in which a proposal could have been interpreted (or perhaps misinterpreted). I, for one, have had too many experiences in which the interpretations of policies that are presented in faculty meetings are very different from those that administrators decide to enforce. I raised that issue. I also suggested some alternative wording. I was not alone in raising concerns; I wasn’t even the first to raise concerns.

After the discussion, we took a quick straw poll on the proposal. I was surprised that more were in favor of the current language than against it. I thought those who opposed the current language had made a good case. The poll results made me sad, but they are not what made me angry; I accept that my opinion is not always the majority opinion. The differences of opinion also didn’t make me angry.

So what set me off? Nothing that happened during the meeting. But after the meeting, a few faculty members were chastising the nay-sayers. One of them said something to me on the order of Why can’t you trust your fellow faculty? it feels like you’re always challenging the recommendations that a committee worked really hard to develop.

That’s what made me angry. It’s not just the tenor in which it was said. It’s the whole idea that We worked hard on it; you have no right to question our conclusions.

But that’s the whole point of open discussion. We acknowledge that people outside a small circle may have different opinions and may even have something to add to the discussion. I know, for example, that our end-of-course evaluation system is much stronger because, in a faculty meeting in which we were voting on the system, Lee Sharpe suggested that they add sections for students to add textual comments to the Likert-style questions [1]. Executive Council worked really hard on the end-of-course-evaluation system. But the faculty discussion led to them changing the form to include comments and to the faculty voting to limit their use in most merit decisions.

I could list dozens of other instances in which the folks on a committee had limited their consideration of an issue because of their own backgrounds. One that particularly stands out is when a committee that was making recommendations as to whether or not Grinnell should cancel classes on labor day recommend something like We will not cancel classes as policy; each faculty member can make their own decision as to whether or not to cancel class. But they seemed to have no sense that students react very differently to a woman faculty member who cancels class on labor day because her children are home from school than they do to a male faculty member who cancels class for that reason, or even just because he doesn’t want to teach [2,3].

I’ve certainly seen my fair share of committee-authored proposals that I worked to develop get critiqued, changed, rejected or even ignored. It happened with proposals that I helped write when I was on Council. It happened to proposals I wrote on the Patent task force. It happened with many other committees on which I served. It still happens with proposals from my department [4]. I’m not happy, but I accept that it’s part of the process.

I also accept that not all critiques are helpful. For example, it’s not clear to me that the concentration I like to call History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Science, Technology, and Health [5] really needed to go through as many rounds of discussion of its name as it had [6].

Nonetheless, In the end, critique is part of shared governance. And those who question that kind of critique frustrate me.

Where do we go from here? I don’t know. I did not react politely to these colleagues, colleagues who I respect highly. They are clearly upset with me [7]. But I’m not sure how one bridges the gap between those who seem to believe that you don’t raise concerns about recommendations that people worked hard on [8] and those who seem to believe that it’s our obligation to raise concerns [9].

Nonetheless, I do know that I should be more polite when I raise my objections to fellow faculty. I’ll make that a personal goal.

Postscript: I had hoped that writing this musing would help me consider both sides of the situation better. Perhaps I should have reflected on their perspective better [10]; it’s just so foreign to my experience and so far from my approach to the world. At least writing things down made me less angry.

[1] I will admit that I remain frustrated that we continue to treat Likert-scale answers as numeric and compute things like averages of strongly agree and slightly disagree.

[2] I apologize for the gendered, somewhat heterosexist, way that I describe the situation. But it’s pretty clear that students still react very differently to women than to men when they prioritize family. For women, it’s often viewed as a failing. For men, it’s a positive character trait.

[3] What’s the term for It seemed like they needed a male faculty member to raise that point?

[4] If folks just accepted the hard work and careful thought we put into our proposals, CS would have more tenure-line faculty members.

[5] I believe the current proposed title is Science, Medicine, and Society. For now, it’s still Technology Studies.

[6] For discussion, you can read critique. For example medicine is a Western term; you should use something more inclusive and it should not have Science in its name unless you require a certain number of credits in core science disciplines.

[7] One of their comments suggests that they’ve been upset with me for a long time.

[8] There’s a small chance that I misunderstood their concerns. But I don’t think so.

[9] Well, to raise appropriate concerns.

[10] I definitely could have reflected on their perspective better.

Version 1.0 of 2018-04-16.