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Clarissa's Blog

An academic's opinions on feminism, politics, literature, philosophy, teaching, academia, and a lot more.

Need Advice

Folks, I need your help. I’ll tell you a story and you’ll let me know if I’m completely deranged and need to get over myself, OK? I’ll be very happy to do so if there’s a popular consensus.

I’m on a committee that audits the work of one of the University’s academic departments. We talk to students and faculty, conduct surveys, visit the facilities, and in the end rank the department’s performance. If we rank it as unsatisfactory, it has to cease operations immediately because that means it’s not doing its job. This is called academic self-governance. The administration doesn’t do this. Only faculty revise each other’s work in complete anonymity. I happen to think it’s a very important principle, and I take this work very seriously.

Usually, we get together as a committee, decide the ranking, create a list of recommendations for the department and the administration, and write a report explaining our recommendations. That’s how it usually works. 

This time, though, everybody decided (without me) that we will write the report first, and then the recommendations will somehow come out of that. We will all be writing separate sections in Dropbox without meeting in person and agreeing on what we want to recommend and why. There was never any discussion of anything. 

So now I’m completely stumped. I don’t want to be difficult and complicate anybody’s life but I can’t figure out what I’m supposed to be writing about the recommendations nobody has outlined. This is all supposed to be done over the weekend, so I have no chance to talk to anybody. This is the fifth time I’m doing this committee, and I never had a problem before. I simply fail to understand this method of collective writing in complete isolation.

Am I being rigid? Am I a contrarian bitch? Should I just write any vague bullshit and agree to sign my name to the recommendations I never approved?

Sorry for a long post.

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31 thoughts on “Need Advice

  1. Object. Writing in isolation in Dropbox never did anyone any good.

    Also: how was this committee formed? Is it elected? Who invented this process? What other universities use it? I find it disturbing that some committee could actually be empowered to cancel a department like that & also don’t believe it–you cancel biology, nobody from your place can prepare for medical school, etc.

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    • Nobody is going to shut down a department unless the situation is dire. Like if there is some sort of massive corruption or abuse. We are all very conscious of how serious this is.

      We volunteer for these committees. Usually, they do great work. We have helped departments a lot over the years to get funding , for instance.

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      • I’m just curious on how governance works. Is it a regular university committee, or an ad hoc task force…if there are too many volunteers, who selects the members?

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        • We never get too many people willing to serve. Normally, we get 3 or 4 people in every review committee for each Dept. It would be great to have 5 or 6 but there aren’t enough volunteers.

          Every department gets reviewed once every 7 years. Or after 3 years if the review was not great. So it’s a yearly thing. I participate every year because it’s serious, real work not just dumb busywork.

          The lowest ranking is only given if the Chair asks all students to fellate him in order to graduate. Or something equally egregious.

          Liked by 1 person

      • (Realize that where I come from, corruption and abuse are rampant and are seen as justified or not depending on whose friends are talking to whom.)

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      • (I’ve got a colleague who wants our department shut down for corruption and abuse, and is not entirely wrong about this, but our department is beloved and is a center of excellence from the university’s p.o.v., and its use of resources is justified by the strategic plan; and the said person isn’t themself really capable of functioning on any committee, so everything is gray. There are committees and task forces from above that do this kind of review but they are very partial and their actual comments are not divulged, so one does not know how one has been rated unless there is some repercussion, and reasons for repercussion are never made clear [as in, one does not know whether it is actually a repercussion from this review]; I’d love to have external review or review by a committee that wasn’t faceless and that could be more objective)

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        • Once on this committee the Dean’s office was very interested in using us to hurt a department. But we saw right through them and stood up for our colleagues. That was a wonderful experience. We pushed back really hard. Well, that Dean is gone and the department in question is still doing great work.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. JProf on said:

    Since I don’t know any more details about the situation you describe, I’d say that you’re probably writing about observed strengths and weaknesses of the department and then you all come up with recommendations based on each person’s report. The way your committee is doing things this year–mainly, the decision not to meet for a brief discussion before writing your reports–is perhaps not a great way to proceed. But in situations like this, I generally decide to accept the fact that this is the way it’s being done this year, and since there’s nothing I can do about it now, I just have to do it. My report may end up being crappy, but it’s not my fault given how things were decided without my input.

    What surprised me in your post was the following: The academic department has to cease operations immediately if it’s ranked unsatisfactory. This seems a little harsh–there’s no chance to improve, based on your recommendations, before it’s closed down?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hate being around people and detest wasting time on meetings. But this new trend of doing things without ever talking to a human being is bizarre. Maybe I’m too old to get into this new way of doing things. But everybody on the committee is even older.

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    • It’s ultimately more work and lower quality. Who compiles all the discrete points made in the Dropbox?

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      • There is a file and we all edit it simultaneously. Which I’ve never done before.

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        • This is better than I thought! Such collaborative editing is actually pretty common in many research teams, especially large ones. If you really care about the material, you can have a lot of say in what’s in it, and there is usually version control software so you can go back to previous versions and look at which edits others have done, etc. It’s pretty useful (if you trust the other people doing the editing).

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          • But don’t you first need to agree what you are going to write? At least, define the general direction? How can I write a section explaining the rationale for the recommendations when I don’t know what they are?

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            • I think the idea is that you (or whoever is the first one) draft whatever you think should be in there as recommendations, then others will tweak your writeup (if they care to). That’s how we collaboratively write papers, too–someone drafts it and then others work from that, reword, change, cut, comment… It can be effective, give it a shot.

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              • It does give you a lot of power if you are one of those who write a lot. I still find that many do not write much, and it becomes a document by (and decision of) whoever gets to it first.

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              • I followed the advice and got to it first. I agree that this is the only way to have any control over it.

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    • tired old hag on said:

      Nothing ever gets done in academia because everyone just goes along with things, especially because in the end what does it matter. Well, sometimes it does matter, and it’s important to speak up.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The science fiction scenario. Next year, robots will do it all in NewSpeak

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  4. tired old hag on said:

    You are totally right and they are totally misguided. Their method is guaranteed to produce bad results. I was once on an MLA committee that awarded a prize using this method and it was a travesty. But in the case of your committee there is more at stake than a stupid book prize, so you are totally right and should speak up and insist. That’s what tenure is for! (In the case of the MLA book prize I complained to no avail, to the chair and then to the MLA itself, but for my pains was invited to chair the committee the following year and changed the system, for what it was worth: not much, really, but still.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s great that you got to transform the committee in the end.

      I don’t mind making a stink. I just need to know that I’m not being difficult because I’m a bitch. Which I totally am and I know it.

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      • tired old hag on said:

        By bitch I take it you mean a woman who speaks her mind even if it may annoy those around her who count on everyone’s passivity. Well then, so be it. Good for you. More bitches all around are what we need, in academia and the world in general.

        Liked by 2 people

        • I notice that people look at me with fear whenever anything is discussed because I always speak out and do so in a very direct way. I don’t want people to be afraid of me but I can’t make myself into a silent wallflower. It just isn’t who I am.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I have the same problem. But it seems it happens before I even say anything — I have a scary look in my eye. And it seems it is not about outspokenness even, or in itself, it is that I look to people like their conscience or superego. And, I look like someone into whom it is convenient to project self-hatred. All of these things. I catch them in lies, they feel. All sorts of things. I ask questions that I don’t realize are scary questions and they then hate me.

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  5. I’ve been on various versions of this kind of committee over the years, some where the entity under review was a federal funding agency. I’ve seen scenarios not unlike what you describe. It’s not sinister, but signals that whoever is in charge views this as a pro forma exercise rather than a substantive review.

    It seems that each committee member will make some observations for themselves (write a few strengths, weaknesses, and possible avenues for improvement), then the chair or whoever will copy and paste from all individual reports to cobble up a joint report. They will do the same for recommendations, and call it a day.

    I don’t think you’re crazy, but this is definitely a pro forma attitude of the cte leader and is not that uncommon. Do what you can on your own part, but don’t lose much sleep over it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s just that this is such a fantastic department. It deserves better from us. But I think you are right and I should get over it.

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      • You can certainly write a glowing review yourself; much of your text will likely make it into the final report and recommendations if you do a bang-up job that I am sure you will. That’s one way you can help them.

        Liked by 1 person

    • tired old hag on said:

      I agree that the outcome will doubtless be fine and certainly one can make a case for not losing sleep over this sort of thing, but I would argue that it’s worth resisting the growing trend of doing everything via Dropbox or whatever and avoiding all discussion. This is a terrible method and the more it’s accepted the stupider everyone will get and the worse the decisions.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I completely agree. However, I personally have long ago realized that the amount of stupidity and negligence that is produced per unit time in an academic environment greatly exceeds my capacity for caring. One simply has to choose one’s battles. I personally think that in this case, as Clarissa says the department is strong so it will be fine no matter how the report is cobbled up. I’d be much more inclined to fight for more discussion if it’s borderline or in danger of closing, but in this case no matter what the department will live to see another day and Clarissa probably has other things on which she can dispense her limited time and energy.
        I think we ultimately see eye to eye, but stupidity and laziness in academia is simply boundless and one cannot fight every instance of it.

        Liked by 1 person

        • tired old hag on said:

          Yes, agreed. But my capacity for righteous indignation is great and I find myself unable to shut up about things like this, however seemingly pointless. I can’t even decide whether it’s more of a good or bad thing (waste of breath, energy time versus occasional effectiveness), but it’s just in my nature. As (obviously) a bitch.

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