Skip to main content

A prologue to some notes for external reviewers about Grinnell

Within the next year or so, Grinnell’s Computer Science department will undergo its decennial [1] external review. External reviews are a normal part of academic life. You reflect on the state of your department and the state of the discipline. You identify some questions of interest that might benefit from an external perspective. You also gather a variety of data, including what I’d call standard Registrar data (enrollments, lists of offerings, numbers of majors, etc.) and, at many institutions, survey data from alumni or current students. You write a report. You bring in a few faculty members [2] from other institutions to read over the report, talk to a variety of people [3], and then report back to the department on issues of interest, both those you’ve asked about and those the reviewers have identified. It’s an exhausting process. But it’s also valuable to think carefully about the state of your department and to get some carefully considered perspectives.

There’s a long-standing joke that every external review in every discipline comes up with the primary conclusion that This department needs more faculty, which makes it hard for a review to say This department really needs more faculty. So my hope is generally that our external review will speak to other curricular issues, such as how to preserve and grow diversity in our department or how best to address the increasing number of students who enter college with prior experience.

We spent a week this past summer discussing the state of the department and reflecting on some issues of import [4]. We’re now starting to gather data and to put together the report. In comparing what we wrote in our prior report and the template provided by the Dean’s office for this year’s report, I was surprised to see that the section on institutional background had been dropped from the template. I wrote to the Dean’s office and pointed to the part of the review guidelines that say that the review should include Basic information about the College to frame the review (Dean’s Office can supply this section). They replied (approximately) Oh. We just do that as part of the meeting of the reviewers and the Dean. I replied that, as a reviewer [5], I would prefer to read the report with the contextual information, rather than to have it supplied afterwards and that I would rather spend my limited time with the Dean understanding the Dean’s goals for the review and talking to the Dean more broadly, rather than hearing information that I could have just read. Amazingly, I won that argument.

But then the Dean’s office said, We think Communications should write the section. I appreciate my colleagues in Communications. But my long-term experience is that Communications does not know the detailed ins and outs of the academic side of the College [6]. And, well, my other experience is that Communications is swamped with work. But the Dean’s office thought it would be a good experience for Communications to write the piece [7]. And so they did. I don’t think it’s appropriate to share their piece with you, but it’s clear that the task was not clearly conveyed to them. As we tell students in classes that involve writing, when you write something, you should know and pay attention to your audience and their goals. They did not. I will share my criticisms [8]. (And, again, you should understand that the goals of the piece were not necessarily conveyed clearly to Communications. So it’s not surprising that they missed some of these things.)

  • We should be accurate on the count of students. I thought we use 1650 as the number of students. The letter has 1700.
  • We should be accurate on the percentage of international students. The target is 20%, and I’m pretty sure that we’re close to that.
  • The document states Outside of the major, students are required to take only one course, the First-Year Tutorial, which emphasizes critical reading and writing skills. That’s misleading, at best. It also mischaracterizes Tutorial, which speaks to more than reading and writing. How about Grinnell does not have general education requirements beyond the First-Year Tutorial, a course which builds student skills in College-level work. While students are required to take 124 credits to graduate, they and their faculty advisors craft an appropriate program of study which includes the requirements for a major.
  • The mission statement should be explicitly described as the mission statement.
  • The middle paragraphs, while potentially useful, are secondary to the main contextual data reviewers need. Certainly, the level of detail and tone of Global Grinnell is not useful to most reviewers.
  • The letter should indicate that a typical major at Grinnell consists of only eight classes plus, perhaps, a few required courses from outside the major. Most institutions require more.
  • The letter says nothing about class size. It should. Average and maximum class sizes are useful data.
  • The letter says nothing about teaching load. It should.
  • The letter says nothing about normal advising loads. It probably should. (Issues of advising load are of particular import to our department, but I think the institution as a whole also has issues.)
  • The letter should say something about the size of the faculty (particularly the number of tenure-line faculty). It might also indicate that Grinnell generally expects tenure line faculty to have the terminal degree in their discipline. Faculty:student ratio is also an important number.
  • There’s nothing on faculty governance. The structure of governance at Grinnell should be clear. I’d include information on department chairs and expected term (and course releases) and division chairs.
  • There’s nothing about the Research Opportunities for All initiative, which is supposed to have significant impact on our curriculum.

I would suggest throwing away the piece from Communications, going back to the description I sent you from our previous review, and editing that to match the current state of the College. If you’d like me to do the editing, I will.

I thought they’d say You’re right. However, once again, they said that they thought it would be a good experience for Communications to write the piece. So we waited. And waited. And waited. It’s probably not surprising that we waited. It wasn’t an easy job in the first place. My comments were not pleasant, which probably made it a bit intimidating to come back to the piece. Would you want to write something, knowing that I’d be there to criticize it? I wouldn’t [9]. After three months, we wrote back to say, If Communications does not have the time to draft the piece, which will require them to gather information that they likely do not know, I am happy to draft something and send it along.

I won. I think. But now I have another task. I get to write the damn thing. I planned write it as part of this piece, but it’s taking longer than I thought. I’m not sure how many departments we have. It doesn’t help that the Web site lists some non-departments as departments. I don’t know how many Trustees we have. I have to figure out which current curricular priorities are worth writing about. And, well, I’ve had other work to do. So … stay tuned. It should appear in a few more days [11].

[1] Or not-quite-decennial.

[2] Or others, depending on what kind of program is being reviewed.

[3] Deans, faculty in the department, faculty outside of the department, students, department staff, and perhaps a few others.

[4] We still keep coming up with new issues.

[5] Yes, I’ve served as a reviewer for multiple departments. There was a point where I was on tap to be a frequent external reviewer but started turning down opportunities because I wanted to prioritize family. Opportunities now come up less frequently, and I choose them judiciously.

[6] I also don’t think that it needs to know the detailed ins and outs of the academic side of the College. But I do think it should know a bit more about our academic programs.

[7] I don’t know about you, but I sometimes worry when someone says to me It would be a good experience for you to do [this task]. It usually means that it will be hard and not obviously fulfilling.

[8] Some come from other members of the department. I just got charged with sending the thing.

[9] Oh. Wait. I’m always there to criticize my work. But I’m not sure how I would feel about writing I document that I was told that I had to write when I knew that whatever I did would lead to criticism. I hope that I wouldn’t mind if it were a document I wanted to write and that I cared deeply about. After all, careful criticism helps, right? [10]

[10] Or is that Careful criticism helps [you] write?

[11] Never mind. I got carried away and wrote the draft tonight.

Version 1.0 of 2018-02-18.