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Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Nomination for Worst Professor


In my previous post I talked about the McGill education students that cannot calculate an average, but I glossed over talking about the lecturer for that course. We've all heard about bad professors, but I have proof this professor was beyond merely bad. This story also includes what happened when I complained to the head of the department and what should happen instead.

But first, who am I to judge the merits of a professor?

Lord of Undergraduate Credits
Over the years I've taken about fifty university courses from three universities and from over a dozen departments in arts, sciences, and education. Don't ask me to explain why! I also tend to go to lectures (because that's how I learn best). So I have a lot to compare this professor to.

Merely Bad
Lets get the usual "bad professor" stuff out of the way first.
  • His lectures were usually not specifically about the course.
  • He kept telling the class that the course is "boring" and "dry".
  • He liked to end class 30% early.
But if you've ever taken university courses then none of this sounds particularly bad.

Beyond Merely Bad
"Oh well!"
I asked the professor about what he thought when his students couldn't calculate an average in class. Note: math was directly related to the course objectives. His reply:

Knowledge varies considerably from student o student and from faculty to faculty.....the rest???  Oh well!

Oh well! He also told the class he was going to test us on calculating an average but he never did. Oh well!

Research
I'm pretty sure only one study was referenced throughout the entire course. If I'm wrong then it's close to one. So I'd describe the material we studied as "la dee da". Oh well! But the worst problem was with our essay.

Essay Feedback
When we had a research essay worth 25% of our grade, I took advantage of that freedom and wrote what I consider to be a great essay on assessment software. I figured maybe I could get some good feedback from the professor or the TA and actually learn something from the course.

Nope! I got a letter grade and it's been impossible to get any feedback. By the way, McGill students have a right (5.3) to get feedback from their professor. I asked in person. I asked three times by email. Finally, the professor gave me a wrong email for the TA. Oops:

Hey there,
I'm not the TA. He must have sent you the wrong name.
Goodluck!

Nice. My fourth email:

Hey. Turns out she is not the TA... What is going on here! :P
Who is the TA that graded my paper..?

The professor's last reply:

relax.....its [email address]

Relax..? Someone is certainly relaxing. I tried the second email but it was rejected - it's not a valid email. By now classes were over, and the professor was ignoring my emails. To this day I have no reply.

I still don't know who our TA was, or if they even existed. There's no evidence anyone read any of our class essays. And according to the professor, we all got As in the course.

Okay, so that's not proof nobody read them. But it's close enough I think.

Complaining to the Department
While I'm still concerned enough to write this post, the head of the department was admirably responsive and professional. He took my complaint seriously and he says he read the student evaluations and made an appointment to speak with the professor. He even took the initiative to keep me updated on the situation!

Please note I spoke with [him] and anticipate that this issue will be resolved in the future. Thanks for alerting me to the issues.

While I appreciate this, I doubt we agree on how to resolve this issue. We have a professor who:
  • Says he doesn't care about the course.
  • Proves he doesn't care about the course.
  • Refuses to accommodate student rights.
  • Doesn't use research to teach his course.
  • Ignores course objectives.
Even after a stern warning, we know this professor is never going to be a model teacher. There's only one reasonable thing for a department head to do: confirm these allegations and dismiss him. Unfortunately I sense this is not going to happen.

Why Does He Have the Job?
You could pick a graduate student from a lottery and almost certainly get a better lecturer. There's also a surplus of candidates with doctorates and masters degrees who can't find enough work in academia (1 2 3). So why not pick someone else? I've thought of a few possible reasons:
  • Research and prestige is enough to protect even the worst teachers at McGill.
  • Age and experience is far more important than teaching ability and caring.
  • Candidates with certifications "lower" than the professor are not being considered.
  • Students in the education program have been giving him amazing reviews because many students like getting an easy A and leaving class early. So maybe the department didn't know?
  • To maintain the legitimacy of the program, McGill hires lecturers that sound the best on paper. Nobody seriously investigates legitimacy beyond that.
  • The professor has friends in the right places. I regret saying this because the head of the department has been very nice, but I couldn't help but notice that the two of them share extremely similar research interests.
In this case I don't really have a clue which combinations of factors is fact, but it can't be good. Why do you think he has the job?

Anonymity
For now, I've decided to keep names to myself. I'm curious to see what is going to happen in September - will the professor be teaching more, less, or not all? I want to give the department a chance to improve themselves.

Why is this Important?
Professors like this are the reason I can write "True Story" at the bottom of this comic.

I'm sure that student will make a fine addition to the surplus of certified teachers one day. Dedicated educators get to compete at job interviews with this guy. Lets hope he's not a charmer.

Solutions
As usual I'll offer solutions instead of just complaining.

Balance
I understand that hiring professors requires balancing a number of factors: research for the department, funding, politics, prestige, teaching ability, etc. McGill desperately needs to adjust this balance in favor of teaching before losing more of its legitimacy. The value of McGill's business product - degrees - is going to continue to decline unless undergraduate courses only have professors that care.

Where's my Feedback?
To be fair, I did admit to the head that I didn't expect useful feedback by forcing it out of the professor. But why not show some initiative, prove me wrong, and get the professor to give me my feedback? It should be obvious that I genuinely want it.

It's great that the professor was spoken to about this, but given the circumstances is that really enough? If this professor can't or won't give me my feedback, shouldn't the administration step up and find someone who can? Their own policy says I must get professor feedback on written assignments.

Hiring Policy
I suspect McGill is strongly in favor of hiring the candidate with the most credentials. If McGill instead hires a candidate with lesser credentials, they are making a strong statement about the market value of higher education. Since degrees are the product that McGill sells, this would be devaluing their product.

I think hiring a candidate with lesser credentials but with more gusto and innovation makes a positive statement about a school, not a negative one.

Stepping Stone
Finally, this professor has professional experience that applies to the department, but not to the course whatsoever! I get the feeling that a low level undergraduate course is just a stepping stone for some faculty. But certainly there are some candidates with very relevant masters degrees out there? I bet there are people in Montreal who wrote a thesis on the course material. Next time, hire them.

Employing this professor proves there is tremendous bias in the hiring process. How can the public hold McGill accountable for this?

Response from the Department Head
I sent a draft of this post to the department head before posting so he would have a chance to respond. I also mentioned the popularity of my last post so that he'd take me more seriously (45,000 views in two days is alot for an education blog). I was profusely polite.

I got a response, but it was short and didn't demonstrate that he read any of this.

Update
The department chair took no action. Here's my next post: Guess Who's Still Teaching at McGill?

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