20

I'm in a Phd program right now and it seems there are some unethical practices going on in my department. Examples include: testing over irrelevant material or material that was not really covered, not grading/giving feedback on homework, instructors breaking college and department policy for convenience, dishonest course description and listed prerequisites.

When I got my masters in a different discipline at another institution, I felt everything was so well put together and my instructors really cared about the class and the students. I have considered leaving with a masters in stats since I feel slimy for participating as a TA in what I mentioned above, but I would like to reach out. Does anyone care? Would anyone listen? Who should I reach out to? How should I phrase my concerns?

I can include more details if that would help.


EDIT I wanted to give more details:

I'm in a Phd stats program right now and I have a masters in math (I was all but dissertation)

I TA for a masters level core class. The instructor doesn't grade, lecture or make notes for the class (they are reusing the video-lectures and notes of another instructor from previous semesters). As far as I am aware, the instructor just pulls questions from a bank of questions for tests/homework. When I learned the material, I took a two semester sequence to cover everything and we still didn't cover all the material this class does. Every semester, masters students spend more than 1000 USD on the course and have to drop due to lack of background even though they work hard. Last semester about 25 out of 80 students dropped. The only prerequisite for the course is calc III.

For another course, the boss (instructor) of another TA in my cohort tried to make the TA create the assignments and tests which is against department policy.

In my case, I have had several instructors whose exams don't reflect the material covered in the homework and I feel that I could have not studied and done just as well (bad) because the exam questions end up being some difficult honors calc II question instead of using the material we cover in class. In fact, one instructor got stuck for a few minutes when giving us the solution to a problem that no one was able to solve on an exam. A subgroup of my cohort is unable to attend office hours for a required class due to having another required class and the instructor was unable to accommodate them due to "being too busy with research".

In summary, I feel that the department is trying to make money off of master students and is more focused on research than being good teachers.

Maybe this is normal and didn't know since my last institution was really good. Just let me know if it is. Thanks for your time.

3
  • 2
    PhD classes are usually somewhat "casual" and you may be expected to go well beyond what was covered in class (compared to a master's). So it's hard to say whether this is truly unethical or just a change in expectations based on your limited descriptions – Azor Ahai -him- Mar 31 at 15:55
  • 2
    One point: if you are a TA, then the instructor for your class is probably not your boss. If you get asked to do something which is against department policy, you might be able to get away with refusing, or even with ignoring the request. I'd recommend asking your graduate director and/or department chair. – academic Mar 31 at 17:20
  • 3
    I'm actually noticing this is mostly a duplicate for this question: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/86438/… – Dawn Apr 1 at 2:40
27

The fact is that institutional norms and expectations regarding teaching vs research for faculty vary widely. At my current institution, teaching is very important. At my previous institution, no one really cared. Basically, I would not voice this opinion in any strong way unless you want to make your life difficult. It would only work if the faculty member you are working for is disliked and the person you complain to is firmly on your side.

I did have a similar situation as this in my PhD institution and "voiced my concerns" in a very tactful way. I argued that the course was extra challenging because it was a new advanced level course and had not been given enough resources. (Note that I was careful to say nothing about the effort or quality of the instructor.) The department was able to pay me extra as a TA to take over some of the instructor’s responsibilities. But the instructor was someone who got on the other faculty’s nerves, and my advisor was the associate dean for academics.

1
  • 6
    Thank you for your response, it was useful. I think I will remain silent for the time being and think about if I want to continue here. – student Mar 31 at 17:36
12

Keep in mind that as a grad student you are not part of the permanent faculty. You are supposed to be there for a few years, get your degree, and leave. It is the responsibility of people like the Chair or Director of Graduate Studies to decide on these bigger issues. If it really bothers you, you could discuss with them, if you trust him/her. But if they don't seem interested in changing things, don't press them on it.

Don't create any drama, don't lecture the tenure-track/permanent faculty about how teaching should be done (or more broadly about how the department should be run), don't send passive-aggressive e-mails to the department, don't complain on Twitter or social media about what you believe is a neglect of teaching quality in your department, etc.

Remember to maintain a good reputation in the department. In the meantime, just observe and think about what kind of department you would like to be in if you want to continue in academia. Use that to inform your job search. If you get a position where you have more of a say in how the graduate or undergraduate program is run, you can bring up your experiences and ideas.

All of this applies if you are a postdoc/Visiting Assistant Professor.

6
  • 6
    Apart from the bit about not complaining on social media, I strongly disagree with the 'keep your head down' mentality. It should be a matter of going through the correct channels instead of being silent for professional expedience. Every University I have been in has an academic assigned to oversee teaching for each department, and they take their position fairly seriously in my experience. If this is the case in OP's university, I think that voicing their concerns to the responsible academic may help. – Eweler Apr 1 at 11:32
  • 7
    The way OP has phrased the question, it seems like the problem goes beyond a matter of disagreement on teaching style and instead borderline negligent teaching. Keeping silent about such things just normalizes poor teaching practices and speaking (to the correct people) is fully warranted IMO. – Eweler Apr 1 at 11:36
  • That's reasonable. To expand on my response, there may be appropriate channels for OP to express his/her concerns - I had in mind the Graduate Chair, but there may be other people that I'm not aware of. However, if the Graduate Chair or Chair believes that things are fine as they are, then I wouldn't push any further. – Mehta Apr 1 at 16:00
  • Also, it's not just a matter of advancing oneself professionally. When grad students/postdocs are hired, they are not hired to inform the department about how it should be run. They should bring up issues of concern to the right people, so I hope OP does talk to someone. But I have seen enough drama created by supposedly well-intentioned grad students to know that, when done in a divisive way, it annoys everyone in the department, and not in a productive way. – Mehta Apr 1 at 16:12
  • I would argue that graduate student campaigns can be long-lived and effective, though the individuals may rotate through. Graduate students have a valuable perspective that can help the department stay more true to its goals: they are likely more diverse and better reflect the diversity of the undergrad population, they care about the institution and want to see it uphold its promises without being jaded, and they are more invested in the future of the field. Faculty management has less accountability and can get pretty ineffective and stale without grad student input. – Well... Apr 2 at 7:02
7

Agreed on all the answers above about the incentive for not making waves, and that any effective approach will create more work for you. It's probably in your best interest professionally to ignore these problems, do what you can to help the students you have access to, and spread information invisibly about highly dysfunctional people/classes to avoid, especially if your goals for your career path have strong research components (ie, you want to be an R1 professor or work at a national lab).

If you DO decide to take action, however, here are some moves you can make to put you in a position to affect positive change:

  • Look for department committees to join. There will likely be a curriculum committee, and they may have a spot for a graduate student to join. If they don't have such a spot, get in touch with the faculty on the curriculum committee and express interest in how the committee works/what it's like to be involved in that process. If you can't get on a curriculum committee, getting on some other committee could still put you in a place where you can affect change (for example, a soft committee like graduate student life or something could still put you in the right place at the right time)
  • Look around for student groups that are actively pursuing campaigns to change things (they will likely have a more euphemistic goals like "improve life" etc). Focus on groups nearby your department and expand outward as necessary. If there's a group like "EDI in math" and your department is math, start there. Sit in on a meeting or two to see if there is already an ongoing campaign to advocate for higher accountability when it comes to teaching. If no such campaign exists, voice your concerns about what's going on. If what you've noticed is a big problem negatively affecting a lot of students, you'll see that right away from the reaction of the group. If the group isn't quite the right setting, usually the people involved in these things are otherwise tapped in to organizing and can point you in the right direction.
  • Go to department town halls or other events where faculty directly ask input from graduate students in your department. Prepare what you're going to say a bit (you don't want to come of as complaining or nit-picky, but you do want to come off has having a few ideas that are easy to implement that would make a big difference). Voice your concerns about teaching, present your strategy for improvement. Get ready to be interrupted/talked over/shut down with off topic random opines from faculty, etc etc. This is hard but if you play it right you can germinate your ideas in a few faculty's minds. I brought up a problem in this setting, and got the distinct impression the faculty didn't really hear what I was saying in the moment. One member of the faculty, however, did follow up with me afterwards, and I actually got the wording changed on a handout given to students (small achievement, I know).
  • Literally take things into your own hands and start an activity that will create a better support system for students. Examples: create a website that compiles practice problems for a course that is frequently poorly taught and doesn't give enough practical examples, create drop-in tutoring sessions to give students more access to people who know what they're talking about and can actually help (and helps students get to know each other and work together to teach themselves).

I've seen these strategies actually make a difference in some departments, but I'm not going to lie: progress is very slow and very hard. The examples I provided in the last bullet point (website + tutoring center) I actually saw implemented in my PhD department, completely driven by basically volunteer work from graduate students. I think the best attitude is to accept that teaching quality is low and the resources individual professors are providing students now won't change. Instead, think about how you can give students more resources by utilizing the institution: set an example starting with your own volunteer work and hope the department will like it enough to keep the activity going after you're gone.

Also a lot of these courses of action are going to give you a reputation as someone who cares a lot about teaching, which may or may not be a good thing for you depending on your career goals.

0
2

Agreeing with people before me, I would say that you cannot change a lot. You have to understand that what you are observing, with number of students you are referring to, is not secret. People whose job is to change that (if they feel to) probably know about it and decided to keep it that way. So you have to assume that the institution is fine with that course, as it is handled now.

So your job if you decided to change how the course is executed would not just be "letting them know" or "opening their eyes". It would be convincing them that the course needs changes, even though the people think it does not, and base this opinion on fully knowing what it is going on. And this ... is a very very uphill battle and I am not sure you are in the right position to do it.

Now, I may speculate, why this is as it is. Maybe the institution prides on itself to be "extra selective" where the selection criteria is ability of students to do the work themselves. Or maybe they don't care. 1000 USD seems to me a low price for a course, so maybe the institution feels that the what the students get reflects the price.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.