Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Competence and Accreditation

5 inch stack of documents
In the last month I have been harassed (and so has the Chairman of my department) to document that I am qualified to teach the course I invented, designed, developed and have been teaching for three years (EDM310).

Why the harassment? Well, the University is getting ready for a SACS (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools - the regional accrediting body) visit this spring. Someone must have discovered that the University was supposed to document the qualifications of faculty to teach what they have been assigned to teach. Not a bad idea on the face of it.

But... the policy was adopted by SACS in January 2007 (six years ago) and updated in January 2011 (two years ago). And only now has the University of South Alabama gotten excited about doing the documentation required by SACS.

So they notified my chairman in early December and she notified me on December 3 that I had to generate the necessary supporting documents for the University within one week as fall term ends and Christmas break begins.

I find it somewhat ironic, and very inappropriate, that I have to do this 25 years after I was hired to teach the kind of courses that I have been teaching since I came to the University of South Alabama in January 1988 and that I have exactly one week to do it.

Nevertheless, I tried to help. I gathered materials that I thought would meet the requirements of SACS inspectors (should they deem to look). Our local consultant on how to prepare for SACS rejected my material because it summarized activities and lacked specifics such as dates and places of speeches, etc.

After several rounds of rewriting and revising materials, I obtained a copy of the the SACS requirements myself and prepared a document specifying exactly what SACS wants (in my opinion) that was organized using SACS’s headings for supporting documentation. The document I prepared is 13 pages long, contains 4,261 words, and is highly specific (listing dates and places but omitting moon phases). It also has links to a large number of documents that can be accessed online, movies and other video material that I have created for the course and otherwise, a series of podcasts I that I have done with my students and others, and numerous blogs including the EDM310 Class Blog.

This too was rejected and now I (and others) have stacked over 2,000 pages of printed material (most of which is accessible in electronic form) into a very tall stack of paper which will be put somewhere by the University secretaries for potential examination by SACS visitors.

An Update The powers that be have now certified that I am qualified to teach EDM310 Class Blog.. The 5 1/2 inch stack of paper has satisfied them. I had insisted (but lost) that since EDM310 has a policy of "No Paper In - No paper Out" that all of the material be in electronic form. I even generated a blog post with links to all of the printed material in .pdf form plus links to numerous videos, podcasts and blogs that constitute my course, my professional publications and other activities. Only five printed book chapters and journal articles remained in print form. That would not do. I had to submit everything in print. So I printed and printed and printed. I even bought my own ink for my color printer since printed copies of the EDM310 Class Blog are much better than black and white versions. Success. On Thursday January 31 I was approved to teach EDM310, the course, as I said earlier, I invented, designed, developed and have been teaching for three years . But the story does not end there. On Monday February 4, two working days after approval was granted, my Chair was told that everything in print form had to be converted to .pdf documents. I did not hear of that until after three secretaries had spent several hours each running the printed material through our laser printer converters. From .pdf to print to .pdf. Nietzsche was correct when he wrote "Insanity in individuals is something rare - but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule." Just add university bureaucracies and you have it!

It may sound like I am complaining, and I am. But there are many serious issues that these events raise which should be discussed.

First, I contend that SACS places the burden on the University, not the individual, to gather, organize, and make available when requested the documentation SACS requires. Here is SACS statement: ”For all cases, the institution is responsible for justifying and documenting the qualifications of its faculty.” I think institution means the University and not me. I expect you will agree with that conclusion.

Second, I would suggest that December 3 before the SACS visit in the spring is rather late to begin collecting this material, especially since the SACS policy requiring such materials was adopted six years ago (or maybe even before). It is also interesting to note that I taught first taught EDM310 (the course in question) in the Summer 2001 term (two years before the last SACS visit). I must note, however, that even though it has the same name it was a very different course at that time. I began developing the new version of EDM310 in the Spring of 2009 and I implemented it in its current form in the Summer 2010 term.

Third, the University consultant helping prepare for the SACS visit still contends that I have not provided the material “they need” and that the material must be gathered in print form. My response was that I have provided what SACS needs but I will never be able to provide what “they” (whomever they refers to) want. I meant to suggest they look in the dictionary to find the difference between need and want. Perhaps in our next bureaucratic exchange I will do just that. I also contend that the provision of links to all of the material that I have now printed is not only sufficient but a much more intelligent way of gathering and storing information. We are talking about a course which teaches aspiring teachers to use technology and then we prohibit the use of such technology in making available material for SACS? Absurd. Maybe insane would be a better word. EDM310 in its current incarnation has always been green ("No paper in and no paper out") and we have to print the materials that are easily available online?

Fourth, it seems rather odd that I could continue to teach the same types of courses for 25 years and not have been deemed competent (or incompetent) to do so. Of course during that time I have also conducted numerous training activities (John: you can’t say this - list dates and times) for faculty, developed training blogs (they are available, dated, and used by other institutions in fact), received two major grants totaling $135,000 to further the work in technology that I have been doing, and have been the recipient of one national and two local awards for outstanding teaching and lifelong learning. This does not include 5 other institutional awards and one national award for teaching excellence received before I joined the University of South Alabama faculty. I might note that SACS states that one way to document the qualifications of faculty is to provide evidence of “Continuous Documented Excellence in Teaching.

Fifth, and most importantly, it is clear from the SACS policy that it is sufficient to cite the degree as sufficient evidence where the degree is “in the teaching discipline.” So that means that my Ph.D degree from Princeton (awarded in 1966) would be sufficient evidence to demonstrate that I am qualified to teach politics (Princeton calls the discipline Politics) and perhaps Political Science (the term used by many other graduate schools). How absurd. Yes, there are aspects of politics that affect all areas of our life. And we are witnessing a bureaucratic example in the events described in this post. I am absolutely qualified to teach what I teach but I would have to work very hard to prepare to teach politics since it has been 40 years since I taught a course “in the discipline” in which I received my degree.

Shall we start a discussion about competence to teach? Competence is far more than having a degree in a specific discipline, despite the policies of SACS (and I suspect all of the regional accrediting societies).

Leave you comments to get the discussion going!


  1. Absolute craziness, Dr. Strange! They all tell us, "move forward and be innovative teachers" but it seems when we try, we hit many brick walls. Just remember what Randy Pausch said:

    “The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.”

    As you know, you have many people on your side!

  2. This was all a bunch of nonsense to me. I can't think of anyone more qualified to teach a course than the person who invented the said course! Also, all the awards you have listed that you have received should have been enough proof that you are qualified to teach, and since you have achieved all those awards, you are obviously doing something right! In regards to you having to provide your own documentation, I agree with you that the University should be the ones who provide that material. If they are doing the hiring then they should be able to provide material to back up why they picked you for the position.
    I personally really enjoy this course, and I'm glad you invented it! Wasting paper really rubs me the wrong way, and it's nice to be able to do everything electronically. It sickens me to know how much paper was wasted by printing all those documents when they turned around and wanted it submitted in a .pdf.
    I hope you feel encouragement knowing you have students who support you and are on your side!

  3. All I can say is wow. If this is a process SACS then where is the information from years ago when you first started? Or even better where is the information from when SACS came the last time to check on your college? This should have been kept and just added to as the class evolved into something better and bigger over the years. I think they put a lot of pressure on you to produce something which you are clearly able to do and that is teach this class.
    From what I understand they are not testing your capability but they want physical proof but why did the proof you gave them not work? It sounds like you are having to jump through a lot of hoops to prove what you are doing and what you have done for 25 years. Does SACS not look at how long you have been doing this with the SACS accreditation already in place? I am glad they said you are qualified to teach this class but keep all of that information for your files this time so next time you do not have to go through all of this.

  4. Dear Professor Strange,
    My name is Cari Raymond. I am an EDM 310 student at the University of South Alabama. I am commenting on your blog as part of our teacher blog assignment. I will be posting the summary on my blog Cari Raymond’s EDM 310 Class Blog on April 7th 2013.

    Thank you so much for going through all of that mess so that you can teach this class. I would not like the teach I would have been if it was not for your class. What if I got some new computers or a SmartBaord for my classroom? Before I might have used it for games or a PowerPoint because I did not know how to use it but thanks to you I know that and more. You have shown that the worlds that our parents and we had in terms of technology is gone and that to help get the new generation ready we needed this class. If we show them the first skills of technology, help lay down a solid foundation, then when they enter college they will be better writers and blogs than we are now. They will know where to go to ask experts questions, how to find credible information and why technology is so important in this world. Again, thank you for dealing with the SACS but then again if it was not for them then you may not had been able to create such a detailed check list for us. Many I have talked to want to use the same format in their own classes. As my mom tells me many times: "there is a reason for everything".

    Cari Raymond