Friday, July 14, 2006

Understanding the Auburn "Directed Readings" Scandal

The Chronicle of Higher Education and New York Times are reporting on a scandal involving an Auburn University sociology professor who allegedly taught fake "directed readings" for atheletes in need of credit hours. As I read the NY Times version (which is more detailed), I realized that some of the readers might not understand why teaching a lot of directed readings could be considered an ethical violation.

First of all, people should understand that directed readings are not, in and of themselves, unusual. In my own department, they are called "Guided Independent Research and Study," and students theoretically are limited to 12 such credit hours, but the practical limit is much lower, being at the most two classes (or six credit hours). Most students take none. I myself took none as an undergrad, though I took several as a graduate student. The reason the practical limit is low is that professors generally do not like doing directed readings, since it requires a high commitment of time for no extra pay, and for a single student. It also can mess up a department's curriculum, but how that works is a little complex, and unimportant for understanding this story. The main point here is that most professors will avoid doing any directed reading if they can.

So, why would a professor teach a directed reading? Generally, there are two valid reasons. One reason is that a particularly bright student has a project they want to work on, but there would not be enough interest or ability among the general student population to justify creating an entire class. This reason usually involves a motivated student who has moved beyond the abilities of his classmates; for example, I once taught a directed reading for a student who wanted to do a project on the Popol Vuh even though we didn't have a class at that time which he could do such research (obviously, I was the one to do it because of my Fulbright research on the text).

The other reason is one of bureaucratic snafu. Sometimes, from no fault of the student, they will be caught in a Catch-22 curriculum bind. For example, we might have a transfer student who needs a class as a prerequisite to another required for graduation, but that class is only taught every two years or so. Rather than forcing the student to stay another couple of years for the cycle to repeat, a professor might allow that student to take the course as a directed reading. Other things can happen as well -- for example, internships fall through, the legal requirements for teaching secondary education may change faster than the curriculum, etc. In other words, this second use is meant to be a steam valve to reduce pressure on the curriculum to prevent buronic circumstances.

You'll note that neither of these reasons is to save poorly-performing students. The first is to offer opportunities to stellar students, and the second is short-term fixes to curricular problems. If the reporting is correct, neither was the case for Auburn.

Let's assume, though, that the reasons were legitimate. Were the directed readings themselves legitimate?

According to the reporting, the professor* dropped the number of directed readings down to 24, and one semester taught as many as 152 -- in addition to teaching his normal courseload (probably a 2-2 courseload, which means about six hours per week in the classroom, and at least six hours per week of prep. Let's call it 12 hours of regular coursework per week). When I teach a directed study, I usually spend an hour per week with the student (not counting prep). Let's assume, generously, that the professor only spent an average of 30 minutes per week on each student, with absolutely no prep. That would mean that with his reduced workload of only 24 directed readings, he would spend an extra twelve hours per week, or 24 hours total, without including any research or service. So assuming the professor taught a 2-2 load, did absolutely no prep, research, or service, it might be possible (though implausible) that he could have taught such a load.

Let's now apply the same formula to the semester he taught 152 directed readings. That would mean 76 extra hours per week, not including his normal, full-time workload. Assuming his department is closed on weekends, he would have to spend more than 15 hours per day meeting with students -- again, ignoring his normal teaching, research, and workload schedule. I can't think of any way this would be possible.

OK, so it isn't possible ... perhaps he never met with students at all (stretching the meaning of the term "directed" in the phrase "directed reading"). Maybe he just said, "Here, read one book and turn in a paper at the end of the semester." Naturally, that should not be considered enough work for a 3 credit hour class (or even one credit hour), but for the sake of argument, let us assume that it would be OK. What about when the papers come in? Assuming he spends only 30 minutes grading each paper, it would take him more than three full days to grade them all, assuming he eschews grading for his regular classes, eating, sleeping, and all other things necessary for human life. Auburn's academic calendar list 5 days between the beginning and end of exams, so let's assume 6 days for deadlines for grades -- directing 152 readings is a physical impossibility.

It is possible that things are not as bad as they look for Auburn. After all, the reporting could be flawed, or there could be some other factor that I don't know about (like the professor having an army of graduate assistants meeting with students and grading papers). As the story sits now, though, it looks pretty damning.

*Out of courtesy, I have avoided naming the professor here, though obviously his name is available in the linked articles. If further reporting/investigation continues to show that he is likely guilty of wrong-doing, I'll refer to him by name in the future. I just don't want to participate in the potential making of another Richard Jewel.

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