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'Dear Forums ...': I Have a Group-Work Grading Dilemma.

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Teaching From an Outdated Textbook. Q (from elle7350): I teach computer science at a trans-friendly women's college and I support inclusive and respectful language. A student pointed out to me (in a reading response that I read privately) that an assigned reading from the 1990s contained a joke that would now be considered transphobic (or at least insensitive). I agreed with the student and thold the class about that such jokes were considered acceptable at that time among people who considered themselves liberal. I pointed out how things have changed and said that such incidents make me wonder how things I do or say may look a generation from now.

I would like to keep assigning the reading and could use advice on what to say about it in future years. Can anyone provide me with advice or point me to resources on teaching from texts that might not fully meet contemporary standards?

New Fees on Chemical Purchases for Labs. Q (from caenozoon): My university wants to institute a new policy that charges additional fees (30 percent of the purchase price) when ordering chemical supplies for research laboratories. They are doing this, they say, to cover the increasing costs of chemical-waste removal. The problem is that these fees are not being grandfathered into future research budgets. Instead, they’re being added to current purchases made through existing grants, meaning that our direct costs for chemicals are now jumping 30 percent. That translates to less actual money for research; it also makes me question what the indirect costs are actually covering. Moreover, small chemicals that cost a lot, but generate minimal waste (e.g., 0.5 ml of antibody, ~$300-$500) incur a greater cost than 1 Liter of formalin ($50). This is lunacy, and to me, unethical, but I’m unaware whether there are any regulations in place on federal grants that permit this. Can universities act with impunity on this? How might someone argue against this policy and to whom might they take their argument?

… and Answers

Group-Work Grading Dilemma. I teach a project-based, undergraduate capstone course. I assigned students to teams of 3 per project and am assessing them on milestones (sprints/iterative software-application development), a final presentation, and a final report.

Based on the milestone presentations (and since no one complained), I thought things were fine and that all of the team members were contributing fairly to the project. Thus, I gave the same marks to each member of the project teams for the milestone grade (which is 75 percent of the total course grade).

After the final presentation, however, one student I’ll call Team Member A came to my office and told me that Team Member C has not contributed enough and that she (Team Member A) will be upset if Team Member C gets the same grade as everyone else on her team. Team Member A also said that while C was a good contributor last semester, C has not contributed as much this semester and so she (Team Member A) and Team Member B have had to do more work to pick up the slack.

Since only 25 percent of the course grade is based on the final report and presentation, I’d need to give Team Member C a score of less than 70 percent on both the team presentation and the report for C to receive a B+ grade in the course.

I have a meeting with Team Member B tomorrow, so I can learn more about what exactly went on and get B’s side of the story, especially since Team Member B praised Team Member C on a previous presentation.

But I’m wondering how I’d even justify giving Team Member C a lesser grade (B+), and what to do if I do and he petitions or complains to the dean or department chair.

Please advise.

A (from mended_drum): It is none of one student's business what grade another student earns.

If you have set up the projects so that each individual's contribution can be measured, use those measurements. If not, then set it up that way next time. I would never, ever alter one student's grade based on a complaint from another at the end of the term, especially if there were no previous indication of problems.

A (from reener06): I agree. When I do group projects, a part of everyone's grade is an evaluation of their team members. Extended group projects have multiple evaluations along the way. That way, I can identify problems early and have a written record of problems. Participation grades are based in part on these evaluations but also on my own evaluations, so I can offset any egregious/unfair evaluations due to interpersonal conflict. Students doing the evaluating are graded on their evaluations, mostly for completeness.

I also do peer review of in-class discussions. It makes students observe discussions closely, and learn each person's names, strengths, and weaknesses.

Students seem to like having the ability to rate their peers. It keeps everyone accountable to one another. I think the main reason group work falls apart is because people aren't held accountable; we have to teach students how to be accountable (and hold others accountable) so they can be successful in future jobs (and life).

A (from tamiam2016): Agreed. This is a learning opportunity for the students. One of the benefits of group projects (although it feels like misery at the time) is that the group members need to work through interpersonal differences and drama. Don't let them suck you into it; tell them that their ability to work things out is one of the reasons you made the assignment. It was up to them all along to get the members to contribute meaningfully.

Prepping for a Pre-Offer Interview With the Provost. I believe the faculty and dean have already recommended I be hired — yay! — but I’ve still got to meet with the provost. Help me keep my foot out of my mouth at this stage of the game. What's the provost going to be interested in that the faculty, students, and dean haven't already hit upon?

A (from ruralguy): S/he'll be most concerned with institutional goals, so know the "mission statements" and "strategic plans" and all that, assuming they’re publicly available.

S/he will probably also care about whether you are able to easily explain your research and teaching and whether/how it fits with the rest of the school.

A (from luckyday): Depending on the school (and I'm guessing it's fairly small if you are meeting the provost), provosts are often also interested in interdisciplinary projects. For example, if you’re in STEM and the natural sciences and engineering departments are in different colleges, the provost may be interested in hearing about how your fabulous research in fully autonomous basket-weaving submersibles would mesh well with work being done in mechanical engineering, chemistry, and geosciences.

I would also second how important it is to have the ability to distill your research into a short pitch that anyone with a doctorate can understand. The provost probably doesn't want to hear about the gory details of robots making baskets underwater, but s/he does want to hear about how automated basket weaving will solve humanity's long-standing quest for truth/justice/the American way. I suggest recording yourself while practicing your pitch out loud. You'll feel ridiculous, but it really does help, because most people tend to either drone on or revert to jargon in these situations.

A (from artalot): My provost talked about the competitive basket-weaving sports team the whole time. I nodded politely and agreed with his assessments. When he noticed that I wasn't contributing to the conversation, I admitted that I came from an area of the country where competitive book stacking was more popular, but that I looked forward to supporting the basket-weaving team. I think the provost just wanted to meet the candidates so he didn't feel like just a rubber stamp.

I think you should be prepared to talk about all of the things people have wisely suggested here, but don't necessarily read into it if the provost is more interested in sports than in your research agenda.

A (from eigen): I found both provost and president meetings heavy on the "ask me questions" angle. Here are some you might ask:

  • What's the relationship like between the university and the town?
  • How do you see the university changing in response to (insert field-specific trend here) in the next 5-10 years?
  • From your perspective, how does the balance of shared governance work here?
  • What advice would you give to someone starting a tenure-track job at this school?

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