Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Against Those Year-End Faculty Meetings to Discuss the Graduate Students

Every year's end at UC Riverside, the philosophy faculty meet for three hours "to discuss the graduate students". Back in the 1990s when I was a grad student, I seem to recall the Berkeley faculty doing the same thing. The practice appears to be fairly widespread. After years of feeling somewhat uncomfortable with it, I've tentatively decided I'm opposed. I'd be interested to hear from others with positive or negative views about it.

Now, there are some good things about these year-end meetings. Let's start with those.

At UCR, the formal purpose of the meeting is to give general faculty input to the graduate advisor, who can use that input to help her advising. The idea is that if the faculty as a whole think that a student is doing well and on track, the graduate advisor can communicate that encouraging news to the student; and also, when there are opportunities for awards and fellowships, the graduate advisor can consider those highly regarded students as candidates. And if the faculty as a whole think that a student is struggling, the faculty can diagnose the student's weaknesses and help the graduate advisor give the student advice that might help the student improve. Hypothetical examples (not direct quotes): "Some faculty were concerned about your inconsistent attendance at seminar meetings." "The sense of the faculty is that while you have considerable promise, your writing would be improved if you were more charitable toward the views of philosophers you disagree with."

Other benefits are these: It helps the faculty gain a sense of the various graduate students and how they are doing, presumably a good thing. If a student has struggled in one of your classes but seems to be well regarded by other faculty, that can help you see the student in a better light. It's an opportunity to correct misapprehensions. In the rare case of a student with very serious problems (e.g., mental health issues), it can sometimes be useful for the faculty as a whole to be aware of those issues.

But in my mind, all of those advantages are outweighed by the tendency of these discussions to create a culture in which there's a generally accepted consensus opinion about which students are doing well and which students are not doing so well. I would prefer, and I think for good reason, to look at the graduate students in my seminar the first day, or to look at a graduate student who asks me to be on her dissertation committee, without the burden of knowing what the other faculty think about her. It's widely accepted in educational psychology that teachers' initial impressions about which students are likely to succeed and fail have a substantial influence on student performance (the Pygmalion Effect). I want each student to meet each professor with a chance to make a new first impression. Sometimes students struggle early but then end up doing a terrific job. Within reason, we should do what we can to give students the chance to leave early poor performance behind them, rather than reiterate and generally communicate a negative perception (especially if that negative perception might partly be grounded in implicit bias or in vague impressions about who "seems smart"). Also, some students will have conflicts with some of their professors, either due to personality differences or due to differences in philosophical style or interests, and it's somewhat unfair to such students for a professor to have a platform to communicate a negative opinion without the student's having a similar platform.

I don't want to give the impression that these faculty meetings are about bad-mouthing students. At UCR, the opposite is closer to the truth. Faculty are eager to pipe in with praise for the students who have done well in their courses, and negative remarks are usually couched very carefully and moderately. We like our students and we want them to do well! The UCR Philosophy Department has a reputation for being good to its graduate students -- a reputation which is, in my biased view, well deserved. (This makes me somewhat hesitant to express my concerns about these year-end meetings, out of fear that my remarks will be misinterpreted.) But despite the faculty's evident well-meaning concern for, and praise of, and only muted criticism of, our graduate students in these year-end meetings, I retain my concerns. I imagine the situation is considerably worse, and maybe even seriously morally problematic, at departments with toxic faculty-student relations.

What's to be done instead?

One possibility is that the graduate advisor get input privately from the other faculty (either face to face or by email), in light of which she can give feedback to her advisees. In fact, private communication might be epistemically better, since communicating opinions independently, rather than in a group context, will presumably reduce the problematic human tendency toward groupthink -- though there's also the disadvantage that private input is less subject to correction, and perhaps (depending on the interpersonal dynamics) less likely to be thoughtfully restrained, than comments made in a faculty meeting.

Another possibility is to drop the goal of having the faculty attempt an overall summary assessment of the quality of the students. For awards and fellowships, early-career students can be assessed based on grades and timely completion of requirements. And advanced students can be nominated for awards and fellowships directly by their supervising faculty without the filter of impressions that other faculty might have of that student based on the student's coursework from years ago. And students can, and presumably do, hear feedback from individual faculty separately, a practice that can be further encouraged.

As I mentioned, my opinion is only tentative and I'd be interested to hear others' impressions. Please, however, no comments that reveal the identity of particular people.

[image source]


jbb said...

At my institution, one of the main things we do at our version of this meeting is to collect factual information about the progress of students, in order to evaluating, using largely mechanistic procedures, whether a given student is making sufficient progress, as defined (by things like course completion, grades, etc.) in our graduate regulations. It doesn't feel like the most efficient way to get that information, but it does seem to be necessary at least sometimes.

The bulk of our discussion concerns these kinds of questions -- has this student completed the necessary number of courses? There is no transcript grade yet; is the professor still waiting for a final paper, or is the student waiting for it to be graded? Etc. And also, depressingly frequently: what should we do about the students who have not met the criteria? There's an official process that involves a warning and a list of things that need to be done, followed by removal from the program the next year if criteria aren't met, but we usually find excuses to bend the rules. This is the only point in the meeting where subjective opinions about how good students are play any significant role.

Eric said...

All excellent points. At UMSL, the DGS asks the faculty to send relevant feedback about grad students via email. Works very well, and it saves us a meeting, which is also nice.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

jbb: That does seem worthwhile to do, and yet it is probably more efficient, and without the disadvantages I note, if it's done privately by email, as Eric (in the next comment) says is the practice at UMSL.

Nick Byrd said...

For departments with toxic student-faculty relationships: perhaps having constructive feedback given from faculty to grad student, in person (with the DGS present) would help improve the faculty-student relationship since people are, presumably, kinder and more charitable when talking about someone within earshot than when talking (or emailing) behind one's back. Also, it gives students a chance to clarify or correct misunderstandings. More importantly, it gives students the opportunity to know how their performance is being perceived by various people (which could be useful for professional development).

Also, I think the idea of allowing grad students (or maybe only graduating grad students) to have similar meetings (the notes of which could be added to tenure case files) could be fruitful since this could also allow toxic relationships to manifest before it's too late (e.g., before tenure is awarded or before the toxicity gets out of hand or turns into a departmental nightmare). It could also serve as a healthy departmental self-assessment and improve the department over the long-term. After all, grad students are already voicing their praise and complaints (and other dirty laundry) about faculty, but probably not always to the right audience. If this information reached the right people more often, then I t might be more useful.

But I am open to being wrong or shortsighted about both of these points.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting points, Nick! I think there will probably be practical problems in implementing either of those suggestions, though. The first one would seem to require either (a) having each faculty member meet each graduate student with the DGS, which would probably be too time consuming; or (b) trying to target faculty and students with toxic relationships, which also seems impractical.

On the second suggestion: I suspect it is just too dangerous to the welfare of graduate students for them to criticize their professors in that way, especially publicly, and perhaps especially the professors who most need to be publicly criticized. Even anonymous feedback is probably too risky.

Mike LeBuffe said...

Having recently moved from a U.S. program, in which students take courses across distribution areas and therefore from a number of different professors in different fields, to a program where a three year PhD with no classwork is the norm, I like this sort of meeting (which we have frequently). Without them, many faculty would not know many graduate students and many opportunities to help graduate students would be lost. Perhaps, Eric, your concerns are more appropriate to programs that include coursework?
On a different note, I don’t follow your concern about initial impressions. Is one’s initial impression of a student a more reliable guide to who the student really is and how he or she can best be helped than the studied impressions of ones’ colleagues? If that initial impression doesn’t have some close relation to the student’s actual ability in one’s subject, why value this clean slate? In asking, I recognize, as you mention, that colleagues can have had sour relationships with students and that might color their impressions. But I take it that we all have ways of interpreting what our colleagues say in light of what we know about our them. I think I’d prefer to take my chances with their input and my own efforts to be fair and helpful rather than intentionally to seek not to know information that could be relevant. Questions do of course remain for me about whether a general meeting is the best way to gather such information.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Mike -- yes, you're right that these concerns might be more relevant in US programs with coursework. Regarding initial impressions, I suppose a case could be made that having expectations for a student based on what other faculty have said will lead to a better instructional environment for the student than if one sees the student more "fresh" (which will also involve having snap first impressions which might be biased and inaccurate). It's an empirical question, tangled up with a normative question, and tricky in both respects. However, my hunch is that trying to keep faculty's impressions of students relatively independent of each other is overall best for the students, especially the students who have struggled a bit early in their program.

Nick Byrd said...

Sorry for the delay in my response. I've been moving.

I totally accept your concerns about the suggestions, especially given your experience as a faculty member.

I am a bit disappointed to hear that even anonymous feedback could be problematic since it seems that without such feedback, issues would remain buried. Personally, I am a fan of this kind of assessment, done in-house (by department itself) and by third parties (e.g., APA's CSW visits...although I do not necessarily fully endorse the existing methods of the CSW). Without these, it seems like the only way to learn of these problems and resolve them is formal channels, which are probably helpful, but by no means singularly effective or without issue.

Still, I am inclined to give credence to your view given your experience is greater than mine.