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  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  from other institutions to read
over the report, talk to a variety of people , 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
needs more faculty, which makes it hard for a review to say
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 . 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
Oh. We just do that as part of the meeting of the
reviewers and the Dean. I replied that, as a reviewer , 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 . 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 . 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 .
(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 statesOutside 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 aboutGrinnell 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 theResearch Opportunities for Allinitiative, 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 . 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 .
 Or not-quite-decennial.
 Or others, depending on what kind of program is being reviewed.
 Deans, faculty in the department, faculty outside of the department, students, department staff, and perhaps a few others.
 We still keep coming up with new issues.
 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.
 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.
 I don’t know about you, but I sometimes worry when someone says to
It would be a good experience for you to do [this task]. It usually
means that it will be hard and not obviously fulfilling.
 Some come from other members of the department. I just got charged with sending the thing.
 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? 
 Or is that
Careful criticism helps [you] write?
Version 1.0 of 2018-02-18.