Adventures in Ethics and Science

In comments on my earlier post about what happens to a college course in progress when the professor teaching it dies, a lot of folks raised interesting questions about what would be the fair policy to adopt with respect to student grades. I think actually implementing whatever we might agree was a fair grading policy could be complicated by practical considerations, like whether the professor had left behind updated grade records that were accessible to his or her department, whether he or she had already written a final exam (and a guide to grading that final exam), etc.

It’s an interesting set of questions, but that’s not the subject of this post.

Something else that came up in those comments was that a goodly number of commenters had actually been in a course where the professor died, or fell ill, or had to withdraw from teaching the course to deal with a pressing emergency of some sort. In such situations, someone either has to jump in to take over teaching the course — sometimes without much information from the original professor about how to teach it, or with very different views than the original professor about how the material ought to be covered — or the course ends up being concluded prematurely. I think this, as much as the issue of how to calculate grades at the end of the term raises some big questions, many of them connected to what the students enrolled in a course are owed.

For example, if you enroll for a particular course, you have some reasonable expectation that you will be taught a particular clump of material. Usually this material is described broadly in the course catalogue, and in somewhat more detail in the course syllabus distributed at the beginning of the term. Often, you’ve enrolled in the course because it fulfills some requirement — maybe for your major, or your school’s general education program (or “distribution requirement” as some schools cast it), or possibly even a prerequisite for another course you are planning to take. Learning what you are “supposed” to learn in the course can matter to you because failing to do so may jam you up at some future point. It can also matter because you wanted to learn that material. (Believe it or not, some people choose their courses because they want to learn what’s taught in them.)

It’s not just the material, though, that influences class enrollments, but the professor’s manner of teaching. There were some professors I had in college who were so compelling in the classroom that I would take pretty much any course they were teaching. Even if the subject matter wouldn’t have interested me on its own, I could count on those professors making it interesting (and relevant, and challenging, too). There were also the professors (happily, many fewer in number) who were the inverse of that, who could take the most interesting subject matter in the world and make it drier than dry.

Not to take teaching style into account when choosing classes would have been foolish.

But, as much as students enrolled in a particular course may want or need to master a certain body of knowledge by the end of the course, and as much as students may have done the legwork to find the courses taught by professors whose style works best for them, professors are human beings and sometimes unforeseen stuff happens before an academic term reaches its happy conclusion. The more unforeseen that stuff, the less likely it seems to be that departments will have had time to mount a well-considered response.

Back in the last millennium, when I was in the third year of my philosophy graduate program, I was part of my department’s response to unforeseen stuff.

If memory serves, it was the second week of the Fall quarter. I had already started going to lecture meetings for the writing-intensive philosophy course for which I was slated to be a teaching assistant. (It was sufficiently writing-intensive that the TAs for that course were given an extra $500 for the term to compensate for the additional grading volume.) But then, I was asked to go to the ancient cosmology class and talk with the professor.

The situation was that he had been very recently diagnosed with cancer (which had already gotten into his lymphatic system), and he needed to start chemotherapy. He had been warned that the chemotherapy would probably leave him feeling pretty crappy, and that he should get someone to cover his classes. I had been a student in his history of cosmology sequence my first year, and had been the TA for the modern cosmology course in the sequence the spring before. He thought that if I were willing to take on the course, I could do a good job with it. And, he’d be somewhat available to consult with me as I jumped in and planned lectures, even coming to observe those lectures on days when he didn’t feel too crappy. (He also let me borrow his notebooks for the course, but it took a fair bit of work to decipher his handwriting.)

As the professor was floating this idea before me, my department was exploring other options. If the situation had presented itself before classes had started, they would have simply cancelled the class, but apparently in the culture of the university, canceling a class once it had started meeting was viewed as one of the worst things ever. Thus, they had contacted a couple of actual professors at schools in southern California (one a classics professor, the other a philosopher and historian of science who had actually studied with the professor whose cosmology course needed coverage). The way I heard it, there was some worry about whether either of these fellows would be happy actually teaching the material as mapped out in the syllabus the students had already received. Plus, each was already teaching courses that had gotten underway at his respective school.

Plus, as bona fide faculty members, each would cost a lot to employ as a substitute. A graduate student, on the other hand, was pretty darn inexpensive.

For some reason, at the time I didn’t think much about the economics of covering a course whose professor needed to fall back partway into the term. Instead, I attended more to the fact that I had taken the course that needed covering pretty recently, that I had assisted in teaching a related course even more recently, that I had a really good working relationship with the professor who created the course, and that I was already there and ready to step up to the task. Possibly it was also a way for me not to have to think too directly about the fact that a faculty member who I really liked and respected was pretty sick. There was material to be taught (and notes to be deciphered), and I was in the right place to help him by doing that.

It’s a good thing an academic quarter is relatively short, because from week two of that quarter to the end, I ran on adrenaline. Teaching a subject with a lot of technical details while keeping the philosophical “so what?” in clear focus is a lot of work, certainly much more work than it is to learn that same subject. I was grateful to have really good mentoring from the professor. In fact, he made a point of telling me that I should take his assigned readings and broad storyline for the course and make them my own, giving my own take on how different scientific advances connected with overarching philosophical questions.

I don’t know whether the students in the course that term actually knew that my version of it departed somewhat from his. The times he was well enough to come to my lectures, he was nothing but supportive. And by the end of the term, the students seemed to have learned the material that he and I had wanted them to learn.

Meanwhile, I now had experience teaching a course essentially independently (and with very little prep time). Plus, I had been able to take away some stress from a professor who mattered a lot to me at a time when he needed to conserve his mental and emotional resources for other things.

I did, however, have to negotiate with my department, after the term was over, about pay. They had gone ahead and paid me the normal TA stipend for that term — not even the TA stipend plus $500 that I would have gotten if I had stayed with my original assignment to the writing-intensive course. If I’m remembering correctly, I got them to pay me that extra $500 for my trouble.

In this case, I think things went reasonably smoothly for the students, and less so for the substitute professor and the department working out the details of the personnel change — and this was a case where the personnel change took place really early in the term, with a lot of support from the professor bowing out, and taking full advantage of the fungible nature of graduate student labor. If it had happened later in the term, the transition would have been much harder. If the professor had been really incapacitated, the transition would have been much harder. If the department had had to secure the services of faculty from another school (whose own departments would then have to make arrangements to re-staff their own courses in progress), the transition would have been much harder. Even if I had been midway through a stack of grading for the course I was originally assigned to grade, the transition would have been harder.

All of which is to say that re-staffing a course already in progress is not trivially easy. Faculty members are not completely interchangeable, and all of them are equipped with a maximum of 24 hours per day. Getting a course covered at all when its professor suddenly falls ill or has to attend to an emergency is a major undertaking. Expecting that the person covering the course will display complete fidelity to the original professor’s teaching style or detailed plan for the term might be asking too much.

Comments

  1. #1 Kim
    December 7, 2009

    At my institution, this kind of problem crops up regularly, because we don’t give faculty a full semester off when a baby is born. (I say “we” as if I’ve got some kind of responsibility for it, although I argued passionately and at length in faculty meetings that a reasonable parental leave policy that was fair to students and new parents would involve giving a new parent an entire semester off.)

    If only state budgets allowed sane and sensible policies…

  2. #2 Isis the Scientist
    December 7, 2009

    I had a similar situation happen in graduate school with a faculty member who retired, but his course remained in the schedule. I ended up teaching it with his supervision and it was a phenomenal experience. Teaching a lecture course is very difference from TA a laboratory and I think this experience made me a better teacher.

  3. #3 Janet D. Stemwedel
    December 7, 2009

    Maternity leaves are at least somewhat more predictable than sick leaves (although there are exceptions). And I’m willing to bet that some of the sane and sensible policies taken off the table on account of state budgets might actually turn out to be more cost-effective than what ends up happening.

    Isis, I totally agree that teaching a course as the instructor is a totally different thing than TAing. I, too, feel like my teaching really got better with this experience, and I was grateful both for the mentoring and for the opportunity to help a professor I cared a lot about. Nonetheless, economically, I think my department made out like bandits on this one.

  4. #4 Noumena
    December 7, 2009

    It’s a shame more grad students don’t have an opportunity to do this sort of heavily-supervised/mentored independent teaching. (This is not meant to imply that it’s a shame more professors don’t have to take sudden medical leave!)

  5. #5 Vance Ricks
    December 7, 2009

    Granting that the circumstances that quarter were singular, I was in awe of your superhuman abilities. And a couple of the students I knew who were in the course always spoke highly of how you handled it — not just as a “second-best” substitute for what might have been, but in its own right.

    Wilbur RIP.

  6. #6 Julie Stahlhut
    December 7, 2009

    During my early years in grad school, two TAs had to take extended medical leaves — one after a serious injury from a freak accident, and another because of a chronic condition that had been misdiagnosed in childhood and recurred with sufficient vengeance to hospitalize her for weeks. I don’t remember much about how the former was handled, but I was one of four TAs on the staff in the latter case. Two of us each picked up one of her sections about a third of the way into the semester. The third took on the extra grading. All of us were still in the process of taking core courses ourselves. It was a long, long semester.

    The thing that stuck with me most was that the student eventually made a full recovery, but didn’t come back to school; she hadn’t been able to afford health insurance, and her illness left her in so much debt that she had no choice but to work full-time afterwards. She had gone to grad school in hopes of getting a professional job in a field of science that she really loved. I often wonder whether she ever made it back.

  7. #7 katydid13
    December 7, 2009

    I have to say all of these solutions seems better than “maybe if we ignore the problem, it will go away plan” a department used when I was an undergrad. A beloved professor developed a brain tumor that caused him to have small seizures where he would drop his chalk, stare off into space for a couple of minutes and pick up his lecture at some random point. He was department chair and no one wanted to tell him he couldn’t teach anymore. It was a small liberal arts college so no grad students.

    What amazes me is that the students all sat there and pretended like nothing was wrong either. Denial can be a strong force in a small community.

    That professor’s wife, a professor herself was on my grad school admissions committee. I always wondered if she noticed in my file that I was in one of her husbands last classes.

  8. #8 leigh
    December 8, 2009

    Sometimes nothing can be done. Last winter I had to cancel my evolution course, which doubles as a laboratory in the philosophy of science, because of a serious illness. (I had already given the course in the fall; I voluntarily added the winter one because the fall course was doubly oversubscribed.) Fortunately this happened just after the course started, so the students were minimally lurchified. The course is quite idiosyncratic, with no actual lectures after the first class, and there just isn’t anyone who could have taken it over.

  9. #9 Jim Thomerson
    December 8, 2009

    It was naive of you not to have had a revised contract to cover your extra work. It was sloppy and unethical of your administration not to have revised your contract. I have always believed in ‘No tikee, no washee!”. Never, never, never get in the position of having to negotiate pay after the fact. Something done in the past, somehow, is much less valuable than something desired in the future. I’ve done things for free, and, in fact, have turned down an offer of payment for doing something which I preferred to do for free.