Quick thoughts on Alex Coward and UC-Berkeley

Read this first. Briefly: Alex Coward is (was?) a lecturer in mathematics at UC-Berkeley who has been informed by the Chair of the Mathematics Department that his employment would be terminated in June 2016. Alex claims that he is being terminated wrongfully. He lays out evidence of strong teaching effectiveness (remember he is/was a lecturer, not a tenure-track faculty member). Rather, he argues that the cause of his termination is that he deviated too far from the “norms” of the department, which he identifies as, quote:

It means teach from the textbook. It means stop emailing students with encouragement, handwritten notes and homework problems, and instead assign problems from the textbook at the start of the semester. It means stop using evidence-based practices like formative assessment. It means micro-manage the Graduate Student Instructors rather than allowing them to use their own, considerable, talent and creativity. And most of all it means this: Stop motivating students to work hard and attend class by being engaging, encouraging and inspiring, by sharing with them a passion for the beauty and wonder of mathematics, but instead by forcing them into obedience with endless busywork in the form of GPA-affecting homework and quizzes and assessments, day after day, semester after semester. In a nutshell: Stop making us look bad. If you don't, we'll fire you.

There’s a lot more after this quote. Like I said, read the whole thing.

A few quick thoughts on this:

  1. Situations like this always make me wonder just what exactly is going on in the situation that we don’t know. Alex has laid out in great detail his side of the story. What is UC-Berkeley’s side of the story? Is it really as bad as it sounds? I’m not suggesting Alex is exaggerating or makig things up, but there are two sides to everything and I would love to know the other side.
  2. If Alex’s depiction of the working environment in the department at Berkeley is even partly accurate, it’s still pretty damning to the department.
  3. I am inclined to believe that a lot, at least, of what Alex is saying in his post is completely accurate, only because I’ve seen it before in research universities. There are universities so single-mindedly focused on research that teaching is left in the dust, and there are faculty at these universities who cannot distinguish between giving a conference talk and teaching a class, and therefore think that excellence in one is the same as excellence in the other. A person who comes along and does things differently – who shows some care about his craft and his students and gets clearly superior results, quickly becomes persona non grata. Not all universities and not all faculty. But a lot.
  4. But like I said: I’d love to hear Berkeley’s side of this. Part of that is found in the grievance letter that Alex linked to his post, and in that grievance are some legitimate issues that the department could have with his teaching. For example, he didn’t post his office hours and he didn’t collect assignmed homework. (The latter isn’t a firing offense, necessarily, but if it’s part of a larger pattern of not doing summative assessment to go along with formative assessment, it’s a problem.) And so on.
  5. The question that kept coming to mind as I read Alex’s post and his grievance letter was: Where is the system? Not the grievance system. I mean the system for professional development that the department could have had in place, so that if Alex really did have issues with his teaching, the department could come alongside Alex, give honest feedback, and then give him a chance to improve. The best math departments have such a system. Where was UC-Berkeley’s?
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