Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Get It In Writing

As we progress through our academic careers, there are various documents and other items that need saving and organizing. Back in the Paper Epoch, my organization method typically involved sticking all important or potentially important documents into a single file drawer, to be further organized if the need arose. This was not a great system.

Now I do the electronic equivalent and put assorted important documents in a folder or three. This is not a great system either, but it is better than the method of one of my colleagues (says me) -- he keeps everything on his desktop until his desktop his full of overlapping icons, then he makes a folder called "Desktop DATE" and puts it somewhere (probably on his desktop), and then hopes that he can find what he needs by searching on key words.

I suppose we each find a method that balances our like/dislike of the effort of organization with the inconvenience of not being organized.

Nevertheless, there are essential documents that need to be located when needed. For example, early- to mid-career faculty need to keep track of any documents that might one day be included in a tenure or promotion dossier. It is good to find out in advance what those documents might be and whether you or your department are responsible for these documents.

That sounds like an obvious statement, and I can't believe I am even writing about this, but I am writing about this because of an egregious example of disorganization by a certain academic department (not mine), with negative consequences for a tenure-track faculty member. Here's a cautionary tale:

In some departments, every faculty member teaches the same number of courses every year -- in theory. In reality, faculty may be given "course releases", reducing the number of courses taught. Course releases can be given for a variety of reasons, including the need for faculty to have sufficient time for:

- course development or curriculum revision if these activities require a substantial amount of time (i.e., more than could normally be considered an acceptable level of department service);

- administrative duties: some administrators are part-time administrators, part-time faculty;

- research: for example, early-career faculty may teach less so that they have time to establish their research program, or faculty with a grant may "buy out" a course (or two) if time is needed for research activities (including supervising students, writing papers, traveling to conferences or research labs/sites etc.).

My department doesn't do course buy-outs, but faculty may be granted a term leave or some other decrease in teaching for a specific purpose. When this happens, the chair writes a short letter outlining the purpose and timing of the leave. The professor gets a copy, and a copy goes in a file somewhere. (note: I am not talking about sabbaticals, which involve a different level of administrative involvement and paperwork.)

An early-career professor in a different department was given a number of "course releases" during the probationary (pre-tenure) period. Most of these were for curriculum development and other teaching/service activities. The timing and purpose of the course releases were worked out informally with the department chair.

Fast forward a few years: The tenure-track professor (TTP) is criticized by some colleagues for not getting more research done despite having some course releases. TTP replied that most of these course releases were for the specific purpose of curriculum redesign or for organization of a new cross-disciplinary teaching initiative etc. There was a clear record of accomplishment of these things.

Hmm, maybe, but where is the documentation of the purpose of the course releases? Without that, who knows how the time was supposed to have been spent? Maybe this professor volunteered to do all this extra service in an effort to avoid doing more research? Without a letter, we just have the word of the TTP. Apparently, for some people, that was not enough.

Surely the chair hastened to step in an clarify the situation? No, not in this case. The chair said "I don't know" when asked to explain the purposes of the course releases. Perhaps they were for the specific purpose of research? Yes, probably, one could assume that.

This is corrupt. This is what Bad Academics do when they want to blame someone else for their incompetence (in the case of the chair) or find a reason to criticize someone (in the case of the zealous colleagues).

It would never have occurred to me, as a TTP, to ask for documentation of the purpose of a decrease in the number of courses I taught in a particular term. I was lucky to be in departments that routinely provided this documentation or that would not have used the lack of such as a criticism of me. Unfortunately, the TTP in question is in the worst of all departmental worlds -- one without course release agreements, but one with colleagues who place the burden of proof on the TTP, not the department chair.

How many of you faculty out there reading this have a formal vs. informal arrangement for course releases, term leaves, and such? (again -- not talking about sabbaticals).

In this case, I would define a "formal" arrangement as one accompanied by documentation of the timing and purpose of the course releases, and "informal" as one without documentation, perhaps worked out in a conversation with the chair. Documentation need not be an actual letter on letterhead. Even an e-mail from the chair would suffice (especially if you save the e-mail).


GMP said...

I have everything in writing, no exceptions. I am a bit paranoid in that respect (don't really trust anyone to just keep their word). And I kept a tenure folder (a physical three-hole-punch folder, where all the documents that had anything to do with my pre-tenure career were dumped: all the student evaluation summaries, peer evaluations, notices of grants awarded, invitations to give talks, notices of paper publication, and especially anything sent to me by the department).

Anonymous said...

Put it up in Evernote, then don't worry about it, ever. Get a quality document scanner (scansnap etc.) to make this initial import easier. The OCR can help you search through years of paperwork to find that crucial reference or letter.

Anonymous said...

I save everything about my arrangements with the dept with respect to teaching, research, service, etc. Unfortunately, I have the situation of a chair who doesn't believe that because something was in writing (in the form of an e-mail for example) that that should mean that he is in any way beholden to that agreement. Things agreed upon are changed post-fact with a shrug and whatever needs to be done to deal with this change then becomes my responsibility. So, what do you do in this case? Sometimes I feel like I'm just saving it as memorabilia of a time when I believed that people felt that a written agreement had meaning.

Meadow said...

This is a good discussion, just what I need FSP, glad you brought it up.

GMP could you kindly elaborate. What do you mean by especially anything sent to me by the department? I think I may be falling short on the documentation front. Thank you FSP and GMP.

Anonymous said...

I have one of each - 1 release for curriculum development (in writing) and 1 release for maternity (not in writing - and I'm doing some course development as part of it). I debate if I should get the 2nd in writing - our university has no maternity leave policy, meaning it is up to each chair. My chair is very reasonable, so in some ways it would be good to document it (for other departments) but it could also be bad (if the Dean or higher up decided we were too lenient).

Anonymous said...

Our dept is a bit paperwork crazy. Not only is everything in writing, but it's in writing in at least triplicate, probably 5 copies, not even counting email responses, and in filing cabinets for 3-5 people.

Anonymous said...

Getting things in writing is good advice for everyone, not just TTPs. I'd hate to be the grad students who has no way to prove that they really did place out of Course X when the issue of meeting graduation requirements comes up, or the postdoc who has no record of here advisor agreeing to the terms of her maternity leave, or the tenured faculty who can't prove that the chair agreed to create project/course/conference Y, or even the chair who forget to get evidence that the larger graduate program would pay for some of the interdisciplinary students, etc.... You should never rely on a verbal agreement -- memories of conversations can be faulty or even purposefully selective.

Anonymous said...

I think it is funny to see profs with collections of journals that date back 20+ years, 90% of which have never been opened.

Anonymous said...

I've never kept records of course releases, because I've never had a formal course release. I have had *higher* than normal course loads frequently, and never had documentation of the reasons for that either.

I've never seen a case where the department-level decisions about curriculum and leave planning were held against an individual faculty member in a promotion case. I have seen questions raised when someone goes up for tenure with essentially no evidence of teaching, which mainly happens when hiring a researcher from industry or a national lab.

Sam said...

I saw a case where someone being promoted to full professor had course releases held against him (by some people in our department, fortunately it was a minority viewpoint). While they agreed that the course releases were for valid reasons, they nonetheless held it against him. I think they were mostly looking for any dirt they could throw. None of the dirt seemed to persuade the other people in the room, I am glad for that.

Anonymous said...

I had one completely undocumented course release pretenure for what were really, in retrospect, fairly flimsy research-related reasons. Fortunately, no one ever questioned them.

On the other hand, I had a very well documented (read: tons and tons of paperwork) course release for maternity leave, and many of my colleague took issue with my "low" productivity during that time, despite the very clear documentation and university policy. I am convinced that I was held to higher standards than if I had taken no leave at all.

My view now from the other side of the fence: document everything and don't be afraid to use it.

Anonymous said...

I was almost in a similar situation having asked the chair for a teaching relief due to personal circumstances. His email response was "Yes." No quoting, no nothing. I replied and asked him to quote my entire message back with his affirmation. He did so and immediately realized the potential problem. He now reiterates strange and unusual arrangements in writing and, most importantly, in your file.

We have some faculty members who would have pounced on my situation to their advantage with nothing but my word and a "Yes." email from the chair to defend myself.

(All faculty email is archived by the University in perpetuity so we can always verify individual messages if need be.)

mathgirl said...

How about this. I was a TT for 3 years at university 1, and I got very little teaching. Part of the little teaching is due to maternity leave (well documented), part is due to somehow unusual practices by the math dept at university 1 (unusual compared to math dept in other universities), so no documented, because that's the norm in math-univ 1.

Now I'm in my first year at univ 2. I got again sort of an unusual teaching reduction as well. This time well documented (I have to learn a new language).

My TT experience from univ 1 is counting towards tenure here, meaning that I have to present my case next year.

I wonder if anybody is going to raise concern at the fact that I never taught more than one class per semester. Right now, when I ask for advice I'm always told that all they care if that I can teach in the new language (it turns out that I can)

Doctor Pion said...

It is formal, but the documents are likely to end up in a folder called DESKTOP-DATE on the Dean's computer! (Not really, but the mere existence of a formal system doesn't guarantee that the system itself is well organized.)

For Meadow: my version of what GMP wrote is to print out official e-mail that says "that policy means you only need to do X" and not trust the e-mail or file system to preserve it for when I might need it. You can always throw stuff away; recovery is much harder. If it is purely electronic, then copies must be backed up off site.

I was mentored very early on regarding several systems for recording things that need to be in annual reports/evaluations or multi-year (tenure or promotion) evaluations. What system you use is less important than simply using a system.

Although you didn't ask about it, one of those pieces of advice is to use auto-sequencing folder names like year-semester (2011-1 right now) followed by course name within the main folder for each class. That ensures that 2011-spr appears before 2011-fall when I open that course's folder! (Inverse alphabetic than puts the folder for the current class at the top.) Or you can put the season first if you want all of your fall classes grouped together.

michiexile said...

Most email readers will attach a message identification tag in the headers to each email message, something looking somewhat like:


This shows up again if you hit Reply on most email clients, as a reference-ID, something like:


In fact, this is how GMail and most other email readers keep track of how emails sort into discussion threads et.c.

The point here is you might be able to get further with a full (Long Headers, or Raw Source, or something similar…) printout of both your original request and the chair “Yes.” email pair, by calling attention to the In-Reply-To: tag of the chair's response.

EliRabett said...

Two pieces of advice

1: Get a MAC. The search function is awesome and lets you do sloppy filing.

2. Write memos for the file, e.g. if there is an informal arrangement, it sets out the conditions and reasons. You can Email the other party, starting


This is to memorialize our discussion yesterday where I agreed to develop course X in return for limited teaching relief.



Please check my recollection of our meeting yesterday. . .

Anonymous said...

I do not get my course releases in writing, but if my course release is due to a buy-out, there is be a record of my payment for the buy-out. Just look at my grant budgets and you will see summer salary and course buy-outs. I would think that would be evidence enough...