Monday, September 01, 2008

Summer encore VII

Sunday, January 20, 2008
Anonymous Critics

(Note: One downside of the democratization of the Internet is the rise of the critic/stalker/bully who chooses anonymity rather than offer a face-to-face challenge to something you've said or written. This piece seemed to resonate with a number of people, especially friends of mine who work at universities and big law firms, where criticism is constant, mean and inexplicably personal. It really is amazing how a person who doesn't know you beyond an hour or two a week feels qualified to psychoanalyze you or get into a whole bunch of "and you . . . and you . . ." My experience is that people who go this route are usually angry about something else and have decided to take it out on you -- or me.)

God bless the First Amendment, right? Freedom of speech, the right to believe what we want . . . to say what we want, . . . to stick it to the Man and to know that the Man, bloodied and bruised, can't stick it right back to us because the Constitution won't let him (or her, or it, or whomever).

How great is that? I mean, given the choice of living in a country where criticism of the government, an outrageous statement about a public official or public figure, songs full of sexually explicit lyrics or hosting a website that allows visitors to fulfill their sexual fantasies of watching uniformed fast-food workers go at it in cheap motel rooms lands you in jail or just having to accept the often uninformed, crude and malicious commentary that passes for intellectual exchange and artistic expression as the price of doing business, what would you choose?

Freedom, right? Or as Richie Havens once sung, over and over again, "FREEEEEEE-DOM! FREEEEEEEDOM! . . . "

Freedom, though, for what?

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My point in this post isn't to take on the First Amendment or the right of free speech. I'm an ACLU free speech person, right down the line. Like any free speech "absolutist," I support the occasional exception or two, since I don't believe that all "speech" is entitled to the same level of government protection. Laws banning the production, distribution and sale of child pornography don't bother me one bit. Other exceptions, though, aren't always so easy to find and defend. Generally, I limit my thinking about the First Amendment to what the government can or can't do to individuals (or groups or companies, etc.) who buck the sensibilities of the majority, whose sensibilities aren't always so . . . well . . . sensible.

My question, rather, is this: what motivates the "anonymous" critic to launch missiles, often profane, personal, unrelated to a writer or speaker's point and often ignorant, against a boss, teacher, writer, musician, cookbook author or bagel store owner? And I'm not sure what's weirder -- a personal attack against someone you know or just directing anger against someone you've never met.

The blogosphere is an interesting place. On the one hand, the power and capacity to find and exchange information is infinite. Since I started by own blog, I have "met" dozens of interesting people from all over the world -- literally. I hear from one person on a regular basis who lives in Manitoba (that's in Canada) and another who is currently living in Spain. Pieces I've written have gotten "picked up" in some interesting places, ranging from on-line "publications" to sites that serve as cyber-kiosks for the exchange of information. I've received a "thank-you" note from a professional musician about whom I wrote a small tribute, and one from a youth sports organization in Massachusetts now includes a piece I wrote on crazy sports parents in the "beginning of the season" packet it distributes to participating families. I also get emails from time to time from interesting people who like things I've written -- and from equally interesting people who disagree with something I've written, yet have something interesting or constructive to say.

Fine, so far.

Really, though, what motivates the other class of correspondents and fans who personalize their comments to a point that I wonder what they might do their dogs or children on a bad day? And, to compound that mystery, what good does someone writing anonymously think they're doing by going off on me -- or anyone else -- in a manner so degrading and so personal?

I started writing a blog because I wanted to practice my writing. It's the same piece of advice I give to students or young professionals or anyone who wants to improve their ability to communicate with the written word. It's really no different than encouraging a young musician to play as often with other people as he or she can, or encouraging a kid who wants to improve her golf game or throw to first from shortstop to practice as often as she can. You don't get better at something by offering advice that you don't take yourself. Professional academics, by and large, don't write very much, and when they do it's often for an audience of specialists. It's not at all uncommon for an academic political scientist to go an entire year without writing so much as a paragraph for an audience beyond his or her colleagues. Some academics view infrequent and specialized articles or essays as a sign of their intellectual superiority. Trying to engage a broader audience, or just testing how well you can communicate an idea on which you have an opinion is seen as an exercise in dumbing ourselves down. And then there is the worst criticism a professional academic can receive -- that our contributions aren't "scientific" or "scholarly," and shouldn't be taken seriously by anyone, lest of all our peers or our professional superiors who decide our promotions and raises. I don't agree with any of that.

A colleague, a student or some other reader who believes my blog is worthless and/or stupid shouldn't waste their time reading it. In this morning's papers, there are columns by George Will, William Kristol, David Broder, Charles Krauthammer, David Brooks and Robert Novak that I'll skip, just like I always do. I'll also skip Richard Cohen, Maureen Dowd, and, increasingly (and unfortunately) E. J. Dionne for the same reasons. The reason I'll skip them is because they're all predictable exercises in conventional wisdom intended for an audience that accepts convention as its discussion and policy parameters. I read conservative and liberal writers in other places that have more original and interesting takes on ideas and policy, some of whom are well-known -- Harold Meyerson, John Tierney and Gene Robinson, for example -- while others are so far off the charts of the opinion-making class that dominates the mainstream media that you couldn't find them without a AAA Trip Tix -- or Google.

Regardless of what I think about any of the above writers, I'll give them credit for one thing: they sign their name to what they write. Bill Kristol's recent receipt of a New York Times column has engendered some snarly comments in the blogosphere and elsewhere about the Gray Lady's motives in choosing someone so reviled by liberals, who view the Op-Ed page as their personal sanctuary from the conservatism that dominates the mass media. True, Kristol is pretty much wrong about everything, from Iraq to the moral sensibilities of the American middle-class on social and economic issues. But being right or wrong bears no relationship to one's status in the Washington punditry. Pedigree, social class and adherence to the norms of Washington's political-media complex are what result in professional advancement and one's place on the social ladder here. Whatever Kristol has to say -- and once you've read one column you've read them all -- he signs his name to what he writes. Give him credit for that.

In my insignificant corner of the cyber-universe, I now moderate all comments to my blog. I did this because I underestimated the immaturity and vitriol of readers who insist on reading pieces they find stupid, silly, intellectually weightless and so on and then firing anonymous comments for public view. I sign my name to everything I write because that's how I was taught many years ago in journalism school and by professional writers and editors for whom I worked in college. In the blogosphere, a clever name like, "Hempmaster," or "Liberalhater" is just as anonymous as signing your name as . . . anonymous. If you have something to say, sign your name and leave your contact information. Hiding beyond a computer screen under a pseudonym so that you can trash someone might help you feel better, but it adds nothing to a debate or exchange of ideas.

Perplexing as well is the inability it seems of some readers to distinguish between satire, political commentary, observational humor or what might just be my taste in art or music. An anonymous critic wanted to post a comment on the recent piece I wrote on wacky student behavior that accused me of "hating" my students. Only someone who doesn't know me could ever make an accusation that I "hate" my students. I find teaching and mentoring, at this point in my career, much more rewarding than writing hair-splitting "scholarly" articles on obscure topics for journals that no one, even academics, will read. In the last two weeks, I have received three absolutely lovely and touching letters from former students thanking me for contributing to their personal and professional development. I think that a teacher's "influence" is often overstated, but I'm not about to argue with a student for whom such a feeling is real and genuine. Just the other night about twenty current and former students came out to watch my band, Zeebop, play a local gig. Some new each other and some did not. Some I've known for a year or two and others I've known for fifteen. My children were the ring bearer and flower girl at one former student's wedding and our entire family was invited to attend another's recent wedding. Another former student who baby sat my now 13 year-old son when he was a year old just sent me pictures of her second child. Here's my point: if I "hated" my students so much, why would I have such long-lasting relationships with so many of them? Why do I find current and former students so interesting and inspiring to be around? Poking fun at the immature and silly behavior of undergraduates doesn't say anything about my feelings towards students as whole or any one student in particular, just like laughing at myself, my hockey buddies or my neighbors is just that -- laughing at the absurdities in the bigger world or the little one in which we live.

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As far as I know, anonymous attacks in the blogosphere don't really affect anyone's professional standing or compensation, unless those attacks cross the line from stupidity to defamation. At that point, things can certainly get messy. In my profession, though, anonymous criticism plays a huge role in whether professors get promoted and tenured or, in the second stage of their career, they get promoted to full professor. Anonymous criticism comes from two sources. The first is the anonymity given to scholars who are asked to review the research and professional contributions of a candidate up for promotion. That makes sense, as an evaluator should feel comfortable making a complete assessment of a candidate without fear of reprisal. Professional academics generally behave responsibly when evaluating a colleague. Like with everything, there are exceptions for academics behaving badly. In my experience, I have seen reviews thrown out because something other than professional norms appeared to motivate a reviewer. I know one reviewer who was discarded from a tenure review because her attack on a candidate up for promotion was motivated not by the professor's record, which was outstanding, but by a very clear animus towards her dissertation director. Usually, you can catch things like that. A candidate for promotion can also rebut a review, not always successfully, but at least the opportunity is there.

Teaching is another matter altogether. Despite what universities say, and this includes mine, all that matters in the end when assessing a professor's teaching "effectiveness" is his or her course evaluations as determined by students. Professors are not evaluated by their peers. No committee or academic officer, such as the Dean of Academic Affairs or the Provost, observes and assesses a teacher's style or their efforts to prod their students through unorthodox methods or simply for holding them to task for what their assigned to do. In short, there is no professional evaluation of professional academics. Students, who are told by their professors throughout the semester that their knowledge is subordinate to their own, who are taking a course presumably because they don't very much about the subject matter, who can be held responsible for not turning in their homework or attending classes and who are evaluated by professional scholars, in the end have complete control over a professor's fate simply by filling out a bubble form. This "evaluation" lasts about 5 to 10 minutes, involves no collaboration or discussion among students or between professors and students. There is no "adjustment" for professors who assign more reading or more papers than their colleagues, who require lots of writing or who are demanding graders. A professor who doesn't meet my university's definition of what constitute "good teaching," i.e., student approval in the 80%-plus range concluding you are very good or better at pleasing them, will get fired. There is that temptation to say that poor teachers shouldn't keep their jobs, regardless of their reputation as a scholar. In principle, I'm fine with that. What I'm not fine with are professors getting pressured to please their students instead of teach them because the students are our "customers," and our job is to keep them happy.

I stopped taking students evaluations seriously the moment I got promoted to full professor six years ago. I didn't take them terribly seriously beforehand as a measure of whether I did my job well or not. During any one part of the semester, students will make suggestions to me about what they want from the course. Can we read this book instead of that book? Can we do a group assignment? Can we have more or fewer exams? I listen to what they have to say and sometimes I will make an adjustment. Other times I will offer a change to the course and let the students have some say in whether we include or exclude something or not. In the end, I am going to do what I think is right for me and for them. I am a professional academic, and after almost 21 years of teaching at the college level I am pretty sure I know what I'm doing. I don't always do it as well as I'd like to, and I never get as frustrated as when I can't get across an idea that I believe is really important or that I didn't sufficiently challenge a class. In the end, though, I am more qualified than my students to evaluate my teaching. Students should have the right to offer their opinion on certain aspects of a professor's responsibilities to them. Does the professor miss too many classes? Does he or she appear unprepared for class? Does the teacher offer useful assignments? Was she polite to you when you came to her office to discuss the course? Did he answer questions completely and ask if there was anything else you needed to know?

Assistant professors up for tenure live in fear of their teaching evaluations. Associate professors awaiting promotion to full professor are not above manipulating their evaluations to boost their numerical scores. A well-timed assignment returned a day before the evaluations are given out that allows students to "improve" their grades will do wonders for professor's evaluations. Cutting back assignments and not making daily assignments mandatory will also help. Gasp! Do professors actually do this? Yes. Academics love what they do and want to keep doing it. If manipulating a process that is so unfairly weighted in favor of the student and riddled with bias and incompetence helps them, they'll do it . . . sure. This surprises you?

So is there a way to improve how professors are evaluated? Yes. Allow professors to evaluate other professors. We are within two hours of a dozen universities, including schools of national stature, such as Johns Hopkins, Georgetown, the University of Virginia, the University of Richmond and George Washington. Let them make "site visits" to assess the professionalism of a college instructor. Why not have university officials actually get involved in the substantive evaluation of the professors they are going to promote? Do you know that it's possible for a professor to get tenure and never have the Dean of Academic Affairs or any other ranking academic officer, including the Dean or Associate Dean of the school or college in which they teach observe their work? Crazy, isn't it?

And here's a radical concept: eliminate the anonymity of the student evaluations. Professors do not see the student evaluations until well after they have turned in their grades. Why do they need to be anonymous? Students who don't like us won't take us anymore, and students who do like our courses will take us again. A student who likes my courses enough to take them two or three times is welcome to make suggestions to me anytime. I may or may not incorporate them into my courses. But I will listen.

Put the student's name on every bubble sheet distributed during the end-of-the-semester evaluation. Put the student's name of every narrative comment sheet they fill out, the ones that our academic officers don't read. The narrative evaluations, as I've written before, are intended for professors, a chance for a student to offer suggestions they can't make on the bubble sheets. I could be wrong, but I bet students who had to be accountable for what they said to or about a professor might be a little more temperate in their assessment. Hopefully, they might be a little more mature in their narrative comments. I mean, it's all well and good that I'm "hot for a straight guy," and "good at remembering Supreme Court decisions," but that doesn't help me anymore than someone calling me a "dick," or concluding that I'm "secretly gay because [my] clothes match" does. Commentary like this is useless, as is 99% of the narrative comments we get. Frankly, I haven't read the narrative comments in years, except when my assistant goes through them to pull out quotes for my web page. I evaluate everything my students do, from how often they come to class to the contributions they make to class discussion to how well I believe they carry out the assignments I give them. In fact, I spend more time in one week evaluating a student's progress in my class than that same student will spend evaluating me over a semester's worth of work.

I sign my name to everything I do. If professors cannot hide behind the cloak of anonymity in their evaluation of student work, then students should be held to the same standards when they evaluate ours.

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