Sunday, November 21, 2010

Does required course content impinge on "Academic Freedom?"

Here's a story that may be particularly interesting to legal writing professors who teach in a "lockstep" program where part, or all, of the course's content is mandated by a director or other administrator.  From the popular columnist ProfHacker at the Chronicle of Higher Ed:

Recently, on a discipline-specific listserv, tempers flared and egos were bruised.  The subject of this virtual brawl, a brawl that went on for weeks?  A department’s (or chair’s) decision to control and standardize course content in that department’s course offerings.

. . . .

Advocates of control in large sections of classes made some very good points.  A common syllabus, for example, is often very helpful for large departments when graduate students and adjuncts teach many of the lower division, general education courses.  The common assignments and syllabi can help new instructors understand the rigor the department expects for its courses.  Common assignments and syllabi can help a new instructor understand the scaffolding that needs to occur for student learning to take place, and these tools can ensure that appropriate course content is being followed (that no one is teaching astrophysics or basket weaving in a first-year composition course, for example).  Lastly, the consistency of course content can also help students have a similar experience across sections.  This can be particularly important for first-year students.

On the other hand, many listserv members questioned a department’s right (authority?) to dictate to faculty what and how they will teach their courses.  To have a common syllabus for first-time graduate student instructors is one thing, many on the listserv argued, but to mandate that tenure-track or tenured faculty also follow the same common syllabus with little voice in how the course is structured, how the learning outcomes would be measured (assignments), or even which textbooks the course would use has gone too far.  Many listserv members in this camp of the debate question faculty members’ academic freedom if such departments impose such control.  Additionally, many wonder if students would learn to navigate a world of choices (easy / hard professors, one assignment type instead of another assignment type, for instance), if they are given no choices.

You can read the rest of the discussion, along with reader comments, here.


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