A Debate with a Social Work Professor

At one point in my PhD education in the School of Social Work (SSW) on the Indianapolis campus of Indiana University (IUPUI), I questioned one of my professors.  In response, she reported me for disciplinary review.  That outcome was consistent with my larger experience at three different SSWs.  Educational and scientific ideals — involving a free exchange of ideas, or a search for the best explanations — are not very strong in social work education.

This post presents the debate I had with that professor.  Her name was Lisa McGuire.  She was co-teaching the course with Kathy Lay.  Dr. Lay did not participate visibly in this exchange.

The debate took place via email.  After the first couple of class sessions, I had switched to taking the course as an independent study.  The reason was that I had already taken a course in qualitative methods — the topic of this course — and we agreed that I should use this class to take a more advanced look at discourse analysis, as one dimension within qualitative research.

The following exchange of emails occurred very late in the semester, in early December.  Dr. McGuire’s grading to this point had been harsh.  It was pretty clear that she intended to give me a very poor grade for the semester.  I was slow to defend myself.  But eventually it seemed that I had really better speak up.

The debate began when Dr. McGuire graded yet another paper poorly.  The text of that paper, with the original assignment and her comments, appears elsewhere.  The following paragraphs begin with my reply to the remarks she wrote on my paper.  In presenting this material, I am particularly interested in the educational environment — the treatment of students, including the style of response to their questions.

In reading the following exchange, it may be useful to consider excerpts from Indiana University’s Code of Academic Ethics:

Respecting students as individuals, the teacher seeks to establish a relationship of mutual trust.

The teacher makes every effort . . . to assure that the evaluation of students’ scholastic performance reflects their true achievement.

A teacher will emphasize high standards and strive to protect students from irrelevant and trivial interruptions or diversions.

Faculty members exercise power over students, whether in giving them praise or criticism, evaluating them, making recommendations for their further studies or their future employment, or conferring any other benefits on them.

Trust and respect are diminished when those in positions of authority abuse or appear to abuse their power.

Each academic person retains the right to criticize and to seek to remedy, by appropriate means, regulations and policies of the University.

The exchange began as follows:

*  *  *  *  *

From: Woodcock, Ray
Sent: Tuesday, December 02, 2008 8:54 PM
To: McGuire, Lisa E.; Lay, Kathy
Subject: S726 Paper Grading – Questions

Dear Lisa and Kathy:

I have attached a PDF of the Structured Critical Reflection paper with your marks.  Given the number of marks and exclamation points, and the grade I received, it seems important to present the following comments and questions:

  • African-Americans cannot be racist (p. 2).  This was news to me.  Your statement:  “Racism is at the societal level, depending on who holds power – they can be biased but not racist!”  I’m not seeing support for that in e.g., the Merriam-Webster definition (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/racism).  What authority should I be using?
  • Citations to page numbers (p. 3).  I think this came up in the previous paper too.  I’m looking at the APA’s Publication Manual, 5th ed., p. 213.  It says, “To cite a specific part of a source, indicate the page, chapter, figure, table, or equation at the appropriate point in text.  Always give page numbers for quotations (see section 3.34).”  I don’t read that as saying that an author can only cite page numbers when s/he makes a direct quotation.  It seems to say that I can draw the reader’s attention to a specific page without having to make a direct quotation.  Is that not correct, or is there another APA guideline that I am missing on this point?
  • Relevance in “Examination” section (p. 6).  The assignment sheet says, “Thinking about your research project for this course, identify and discuss a potential ethical issue associated with your study.”  The issue I identified was “the possibility that my discourse analysis of employment might also deemphasize empowerment” (p. 6).  This was a concern because empowerment is a prominent point in the preamble to the NASW Code of Ethics.  I seemed to be deemphasizing empowerment insofar as I was contemplating “a style of discourse analysis that does not presuppose sociopolitical content . . . [and] in which the sociopolitical is not necessarily predominant” (p. 6).  Your comment:  “This is relevant to your paper on discourse analysis but does not seem logically connected to THIS paper on research ethics!”  I do not understand what logical connection is missing.  Ethics > empowerment > sociopolitical content > discourse analysis > “a potential ethical issue associated with your study.”  Since there are many kinds of discourse analysis, some clarification did seem unavoidable.
  • Ethical research in “Examination” section (p. 6).  Your comment:  “This sounds very dissmissive [sic] — you seem to have missed the ethical point that research should NOT risk harm to clients.”  But to the contrary, as you point out yourself (below), there are instances of research that do risk harm to clients or participants, but are nonetheless justifiable because of the tradeoffs.  My statement was simply that, in this matter of empowerment, the mundane might be more effective than the glamorous.  The question of glamour had come up on the first page, where I criticized Brunner for seeming to indicate that we should “climb on the bandwagon, perhaps, and condemn dead and therefore safe-target unethical researchers.”  There, you suggested, without explanation, that my statement “seems a bit tangential to research ethics!”  Since it was not at all tangential, and since you have thus twice reacted negatively to my criticisms of Brunner, it appears that critical thought about her writing, however accurate and appropriate, will simply not be accepted.
  • Clarity in “Examination” section (p. 7).  My remark:  “I would need to frame my views within the differential realities represented by the discourses I would study.”  Your comment:  “This is a reasonable + relevant issue — HOW might you do that!  CLARITY!”  This comment appears to call for greater detail on the discourse analysis procedure I planned to use — but you had just indicated, above, that details about discourse analysis would be irrelevant.  Also, in our previous paper, you had criticized me for providing too much detail and for going over the page limit.  The present assignment simply asked us to identify a research role that we might be at risk of, and to indicate how we might guard against it.  I indicated that the Advocate role was a risk in this research, and that I would guard against it by (a) resisting a famous Marxist exhortation that workers would likely consider inapplicable and (b) framing my views within differential realities represented by the selected discourses.  This answered the question you asked.  If you had asked for more detail, I would have provided it.
  • IRB documents in “Articulation of Learning” section (p. 8).  Your comments:  “[Tuskeegee] also spurred the development of the IRB which was a key issue for you to understand!  The IRB documents were assigned also!” and “As a social worker following the Code of Ethics (also assigned reading) the point is that we need to be convinced that the benefits far outweigh risks + that people have informed consent.”  Your comment implies doubt that I have read the Code of Ethics.  You may not know that I published an article on the Code of Ethics last month.  As for the IRB documents, you are aware, of course, that we worked through those materials a year ago.  Also, you know that I have already had several other research methods courses.  In this regard, and in previous remarks, you appear to be thinking that we are operating at an undergraduate level.  It is as if we had never seen this material before, and should not be questioning any sanctified verities.  To be sure, I have much to learn on relevant topics.  But it is not possible to answer all of your questions, and also to experience and express much new learning, within the page limits you have insisted upon.  Your criticisms were pretty harsh, last time around, when I did try to do what you have demanded here.
  • Informed consent (p. 9).  Your comment:  “You missed an opportunity to discuss issues of risk/benefits to research as well as informed consent.  You may already know about them but you still have a responsibility to demonstrate your knowledge in course assignments!”  The assignment did not ask us to “discuss issues of risk/benefits to research.”  It asked about “a risk for you as a researcher in your chosen area.”  My chosen area has nothing to do with the IRB, as we have already discussed.  Again, if your assignment had asked for a discussion of risks, or of informed consent, I would have provided it.  [Informed consent was not relevant to my proposed research.]  Your remarks on my paper repeatedly emphasize relevance — and a brief explanation of the connection with discourse analysis was plainly much more relevant than informed consent for my particular research.

In response to the general tone of these many criticisms — even if they had been well founded — I must say that it appears somewhat disingenuous to describe these assignments as “reflection” assignments.  Reflection has a generally positive connotation.  To reflect means to be thoughtful — as if to imply that you and I would be reasoning together, toward a constructive outcome.  It seems unfair to invite students to share their thoughts with you, and then to attack them for what they have said.  What you appear to expect, in these papers, is not a reflection, but rather a defense, claim, or argument.

I want to mention that, as before, I did appreciate the several items of positive feedback that you wrote on my paper.  I suggest there is much to be gained from joint efforts in that direction.

Ray

*  *  *  *  *

Comment:  To summarize, Dr. McGuire had criticized me for some very minor items that other professors would have disregarded.  An example was the citing of page numbers when an author was not being quoted verbatim.  It seemed like common sense that a reader who actually wanted to look up the source of a comment might appreciate an indication of where, exactly, the comment came from.  For instance, I, myself, had repeatedly had the experience of seeing an interesting statement, supported with a citation — to an entire book.  That is, I might have to read a good chunk of the book to find the single thing that was being cited.

I would think that most people, including Dr. McGuire, had likewise had that experience, unless maybe they just never consulted sources to verify claims.  It did not make sense, in other words, to make a point of interpreting the APA guidelines in a way that would prevent this kind of helpful information from being published.  It has not been an issue for actual journal editors, in the articles that I have published in social work and elsewhere.

Dr. McGuire had also criticized me for less trivial items.  For instance, as in previous papers, she had faulted me on matters of relevance and detail.  But these criticisms whipsawed me – requiring me, for example, to supply both more and less detail.  It certainly appeared that I was receiving an unusual and excessive level of scrutiny.

To clarify one remark in the “IRB Documents” bullet point (above), Dr. McGuire did not know that I had published an article on social work ethics in one of the profession’s better-known journals because — for me, unlike other students — Dr. Margaret Adamek, director of the PhD program, did not circulate that news to faculty and students.

The exchange continued:

*  *  *  *  *

From:   McGuire, Lisa E.
Sent:   Wednesday, December 03, 2008 8:27 PM
To:     Woodcock, Ray
Cc:     Lay, Kathy
Subject:        RE: S726 Paper Grading – Questions

Ray – You have some interesting thoughts here.  Dr. Lay and I want to remind you that the assignment is titled “Structured Critical Reflection” and the intellectual standards for critical thinking are expected to be incorporated into your discussion.  Therefore, you are expected to support your ideas with evidence from the assigned readings or other outside reading.

With regard to meanings of racism and other systematic oppression, you might want to review the academic literature rather than relying on the dictionary.  The Encyclopedia of Social Work would be a good place to start.  Other authors include Gil and Iris Young (The Five Faces of Oppression).

In regard to APA, it is common and accepted practice to use page numbers ONLY when quoting.

We have not yet received your research protocol assignment with was due Nov. 25th.  Even though your discourse analysis does not require an IRB, our expectation is that you will complete the documents for an Exempt study.

To provide oversight for your independent study, we require you to meet with us to review the PowerPoint and bibliography your have previously sent, as well as the research protocol.  Please email us within the next week, some possible times that would allow us to go over these assignments.

Lisa E. McGuire, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Indiana University School of Social Work
902 W. New York, ES4152
Indianapolis, IN  46202

*  *  *  *  *

Comment:   Given that Dr. McGuire has a PhD and has spent years in universities, it did not appear that she considered my thoughts truly “interesting.”  Her brief response, in light of subsequent developments (below), suggest that she meant the word in a less flattering sense — that, as far as she was concerned, I was saying odd things, and she wasn’t going to bother with them.

Most of the paragraphs in her reply convey a posture of putting the student in his place.  For example, she used my citation of the dictionary as an opportunity to find fault.  A more thoughtful and less belittling approach would have been to say, “Yes, the dictionary does contain meaning A, as you say; but you will observe that the Oxford English Dictionary also has meaning B, and in social work we are especially interested in meaning B because of reasons X, Y, and Z.”  But this would assume that Dr. McGuire was familiar with the nature of the OED, whereas her belief seems to be, rather, that real scholars simply don’t use dictionaries.

The debate continued as follows:

*  *  *  *  *

From: Woodcock, Ray
Sent: Thursday, December 04, 2008 1:22 PM
To: McGuire, Lisa E.
Cc: Lay, Kathy
Subject: RE: S726 Paper Grading – Questions

Lisa — thanks for your reply.  On your first point, could you direct me toward some specific regard in which my ideas failed to be supported with suitable evidence?  I thought I went over your comments pretty carefully in my comments, but maybe I missed something.

Regarding racism, I just looked at the online version Encyclopedia of Social Work.  My simple search for “racism” didn’t turn up an entry on that topic.  I thought you might have a specific reference you could point me toward, given that your definition seems to be an exception to general usage.  I hope you’re not telling me that I have to read a book to understand your mark on my paper.

On page numbers, I have drawn your attention to a statement in the APA manual that seems to disagree with you.  I just did a brief Google search (http://tinyurl.com/5utdfr may take you there), searched the first five hits, and found nothing along the lines of what you suggest.  A doctoral student should ask, I think, whether you can point me toward some authority that supports your criticism.  As I say, I wouldn’t bother with this, but it has come up twice now, so apparently I had better seek a resolution of it.

Regarding the research protocol, did you not receive the e-mail message I sent you on November 23, attaching a paper on discourse analysis?  You had written to me a few days earlier, indicating that you wanted to talk about my plan for the research project.  The paper indicates how I plan to proceed in that research.

Your request for the documents for an Exempt study is new.  You had not stated any such requirement previously.  I have attached the IRB checklist page indicating that the IRB does not require a filing in my case, as we had already discussed.

Certainly we can meet to talk about the bibliography and the PowerPoint but, again, the paper presents the primary direction of my proposed research.

The other thing about the meeting is, could you tell me why I am required to meet with both of you, given that other students have had, as I requested, the ordinary courtesy of a one-on-one meeting with you or Kathy?

Ray

*  *  *  *  *

From:   McGuire, Lisa E.
Sent:   Thursday, December 04, 2008 4:36 PM
To:     Woodcock, Ray
Cc:     Lay, Kathy; Adamek, Margaret E.
Subject:        RE: S726 Paper Grading – Questions

Ray – I double-checked and you did indeed send your paper.  I missed it since it was attached at the bottom.  Per my email to you, dated 10/07/08, we expected to meet with you in person, in late November/early December.  That is the meeting we need to now schedule.  Please give us some possible times when we can meet together.  As I have stated before, Kathy and I are co-teaching this class and we are working hard to stay on the same page with assignments and expectations.  We expect to meet with you together to discuss your research since it is considerably different that what other students are proposing.

We are expecting all students to fill our IRB forms, to ensure that you understand the IRB process, regardless of whether they will be submitted for this study.  It is one of the assignments for the course.  Since you have had previous experience, it should not be difficult for you.  However, you still need to demonstrate your knowledge of this.

When I put “racism” into the Encyclopedia electronic search, I got 62 responses.  The third one was the entry on Oppression, which gives a clear overview of the concept and the entry cites both Gil and Young (who we mentioned in our earlier comment) which you are welcome to do as ongoing reading.  Because oppression is such a critical concept in social work education and practice, and it is also part of understanding a critical perspective that informs your research, I strongly suggest that you do some of this.

Lisa E. McGuire, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Indiana University School of Social Work
902 W. New York, ES4152
Indianapolis, IN  46202

*  *  *  *  *

Comment:  Dr. McGuire admitted that I submitted my paper, but did not seem willing to acknowledge the legitimacy of anything I might say of an intellectual nature.  Far from giving the student an encouraging response on salient topics, she contined to seem oriented toward putting me in my place — reminding me that I had to submit to her orders regarding a meeting, the IRB, and so forth.  I would think that surely, by this point, a good instructor would be sensitive to the student’s potential loss of face — that his responses thus far would provide a clue that he might feel backed into a corner, in terms of grades and basic self-respect.

I saw that Dr. McGuire was now copying Dr. Adamek on her emails to me.  It appeared that she might be grandstanding — deliberately selecting the points to which she would reply, and the way in which she replied to them, to give the director of the PhD program an impression that I was unreasonable if not absurd.  This apparent ridicule, provided gratuitously to a previously uninvolved third party, did not enhance the quality of my learning experience.

What I did not realize, at the time, was that Dr. Adamek was now collecting information about me that she would then convey to the university’s Dean of Graduate Students, Sherry Queener, for purposes of seeking my dismissal from the PhD program.  In other words, I perceived insincerity and grandstanding in Dr. McGuire, but did not discover until much later that I might have misunderstood the situation — that, behind whatever agreeableness Dr. McGuire presented to me, she was apparently helping Dr. Adamek build a case for punishment.

*  *  *  *  *

From:  Adamek, Margaret E.
Sent:  Tuesday, December 09, 2008 1:35 PM
To:  Queener, Sherry F.
Subject:  FW: S726 Paper Grading – Questions

Here are some recent exchanges between Ray and his 2 instructors for the qualitative research course. The 2 instructors have been in my office at least 3 times this semester at a loss with how to respond to Ray.

Margaret E. Adamek, PhD
Professor and Director, PhD Program
Indiana University School of Social Work
902 W. New York St. ES 4138H
Indianapolis, IN 46202

[To this message, Dr. Adamek attached other emails reproduced in this post.]

*  *  *  *  *

Comment:  In this message, obtained through subsequent investigation, Dr. Adamek clarifies that she was not just receiving copies of email messages.  Rather, she says, Drs. McGuire and Lay were affirmatively complaining to her about me.  Dr. Adamek did not call me into her office to discuss these matters, and did not otherwise notify me of this activity.  It seems, in other words, that there was no actual interest in resolving a potential misunderstanding.

The complaint that Drs. McGuire and Lay did not know “how to respond” is odd; obviously they did know that they could respond to me by email, as Dr. McGuire was doing.  That is, Dr. Adamek seems, as elsewhere, to be embellishing the available information.  She appears to have thought that Dr. Queener would be receptive to flimsy evidence about me — such as Dr. Adamek’s urgent report of (believe it or not) a nightmare that I had in 1983.

It is not clear what Dean Queener might have said or done to convey that impression to Dr. Adamek.  That impression was, however, consistent with my own experiences with Dean Queener.  In other words, there appears to have been at least a tacit understanding that these people were going to cooperate to prevent me from graduating, even if it took rather extraordinary efforts to do so.

As I say, I did not know all this.  I did detect, however, that something did not add up.  I could tell that something was not right; I sensed danger; and I responded with understandable exasperation.

*  *  *  *  *

From: Woodcock, Ray
Sent: Friday, December 05, 2008 12:42 PM
To: McGuire, Lisa E.
Cc: Lay, Kathy; Adamek, Margaret E.
Subject: RE: S726 Paper Grading – Questions

Lisa — thanks for your responses.  Here is further information on several points.

IRB Forms

On the IRB forms, I see what you’re saying about the October 7 e-mail, but here’s what you said the next day:  “We would also like you to make an appointment to meet with us in late Nov./early Dec. on the IRB submission assignment so we can decide how to process on this research.”  The understanding was that we would need to make a decision on what would be appropriate for the IRB submission assignment, not that I would have to turn in a pointless IRB application no matter what.  It seemed likely that I would not be doing an IRB application, when I spoke with you and Kathy during the break in my last day in class, and my work since then has confirmed that.  (As for the “we” portion of your October 8 statement, at that time I was relying on your assurance that you were not having individual meetings with my classmates.  Unfortunately, that has turned out to be untrue.)

I’m not sure if you realize this, but Ph.D. students in this program recurrently echo frustration with the busy-work, some of it at an undergraduate level, that wastes so much of our time.  Having already prepared multiple IRB applications, and having passed the IRB test, I have demonstrated that I know how to do it.  If you already realize that it should be easy for me, then there would seem to be no reason to insist on it.  As assignments go, this is one of the more indefensible time-wasters.  I do not understand why you would want me to do this instead of something educationally productive.

Racism and Oppression

Regarding the encyclopedia, I’m with you.  I got, I think, those same 62 results.  I just didn’t get one for racism, which is the topic we were discussing.  It looks like there’s only one entry for Oppression, so I think I know which entry you’re talking about there.  Searching that entry for “racis” I get the following, which seems to be the only relevant part of that entry:

A third common element of all oppression is that it is institutionalized. This means that racism, sexism, and heterosexism are built into the norms, traditions, laws, and policies of a society, so that even those who have nonracist, nonsexist, and nonheterosexist beliefs are compelled to act in accordance with institutional interests, that is, “business as usual.” Institutionalized racism, specifically, ensures white entitlement and benefits regardless of the intentions of individuals in those institutions.

I think your point may have been this:  African-Americans cannot be racist, in America, because they are not in a position to oppress people.  This “third common element of all oppression” assumes that people must be white in order to be in a position of oppressing others.  But we have only begged the question:  says who?  Yes, the encyclopedia entry cites a number of sources but, again, I shouldn’t have to read a book in an effort to figure out why you made that comment on my paper.  I think you can surely point me to specific authority, specific pages, that would provide a solid basis for such a sweeping assertion that, so far, appears to be somewhat mistaken.

Not entirely mistaken.  There is surely some truth in the quotation, in some parts or aspects of American life.  But African-Americans in a nearly all-black neighborhood are certainly in a position to oppress non-black residents of that neighborhood; hence the tensions in e.g., south central L.A. vis-a-vis Asian shopowners and Hispanics.  Social workers need to be culturally aware of such things — not just waltz in with ideas that are a half-century old, and that no longer apply in many geographical areas where social workers are especially likely to serve.

Can you imagine how the public would view social work, if social workers went around openly proclaiming that only white people are capable of oppressing others in America?  It would be an absurd remark, and if publicized it would make social work look ridiculous.  Or, if you disagree, let’s put it to the test:  let’s jointly write an article, expressing our divergent views on this point, submit it to a relatively mainstream non-social-work publication, and see what responses we get.

For that matter, even in lily-white areas of the country, it seems reasonable to question whether racism is always an inseparable part of the fabric of society.  If it were truly “business as usual,” as the quote suggests, Iowa would not have chosen Obama.  It may have been business as usual, once upon a time; but why, in this rapidly changing world, should a social work professor or doctoral student pretend that things are as they were in the 1960s or before?

By the reasoning presented in that quotation, white (or black) kids would not be in a position to bully other white (or black) kids, or perhaps, oddly, bullying would be excluded from the scope of oppression. Sunnis would not be able to oppress Shiites, or vice versa; white Nazis in Poland in 1940 would not have been able to oppress white Poles.  In this light, it does not appear that commonly understood meanings of “racism” or “oppression” support your argument, not even in the past.

A different example, closer to home:  some institutions may well be, by the quoted definition, intrinsically and societally sexist against men.  I haven’t attended a school of nursing, for example, so I can’t say; but I would at least be curious as to whether men have long been in a distinct minority in schools of nursing throughout the U.S. and whether, as a result, societally institutionalized oppressive practices may have grown up that could call for some rebalancing on their behalf within those institutions.  It seems like a reasonable question.  [In that remark, I hoped that Dr. McGuire would reflect on the case of social work, which is more than 85% female.]

I suspect that empirical work on oppression (as distinct from more ideologically predisposed but empirically unsupported works) would challenge the doctrinaire rigidity of the quoted statement.  In practice, oppression appears to be quite dynamic.  As illustrated in Animal Farm, power tends to corrupt, and people in a dominant position within a particular setting, of whatever gender or race, can easily be corrupted by it — including, sometimes, those who were formerly among the oppressed.

The Meeting

My most recently submitted paper provides a fairly comprehensive statement of topics raised in the PowerPoint and the bibliography.  I don’t know why you didn’t read it.  It’s not because the attachment appeared at the bottom, as you claimed; the second line of the message itself says that a paper is attached — not to mention that I sent it to both you and Kathy.

It appears, rather, from that instance and also from your largely dismissive response to another message, that even though we have an independent study arrangement, you are not reading what I send you.  Instead, you seem to be operating on the basis of preconceived conclusions and/or in pursuit of a preconceived agenda.  That hardly suggests that we will have a productive meeting.

The impression of some other agenda becomes stronger when you indicate that you have received my paper, have not read it, and yet continue to insist upon a meeting where it is not clear what we will talk about.  The paper expresses the direction and progress of my research clearly and in detail.  Given your statement that I should allow an hour and a half for the meeting, I am once again reasonably questioning whether this may be an unnecessary time allocation.

There is another consideration.  I have recently suffered some strange and abusive behaviors by members of our university community, including specifically some whom I trusted with my time and my good-faith responses to their questions in meetings.  I am reasonably concerned about being subjected to more such abuse.  You, in particular, have displayed something that certainly resembles hostility — in, for example, your many strident remarks on my previously submitted papers.

It does seem reasonable to ask whether you intend to put this meeting to some purpose other than a mere discussion and clarification of my research.  If that were the only purpose, surely you would not have disregarded the extensive paper I have recently submitted.  The rational response would have been, rather, to read the paper and decide whether additional information is needed and, if so, whether it may be efficiently provided in a supplement, without any need to schedule a lengthy meeting.  It could be different, of course, if we were going to talk about a variety of topics, but you have previously made clear that you want to keep discussions tightly focused in the interests of saving time.

Your approach to the meeting adds to the problematic nature of this situation.  I have expressed a concern about intimidation.  It is not an unreasonable concern:  I have seen you and Kathy working together, in class and elsewhere.  Moreover, as I say, I have experienced your hostility.  It is reasonable to resist being ganged-up on, especially when my classmates are enjoying normal meetings with just one of you at a time.  You have completely ignored that concern, however.  Indeed, your latest message suggests that intimidation may be just fine with you.  I note, in particular, that you visibly copied Margaret on that message, without the courtesy of an explanation as to why the director of the Ph.D. program suddenly needed to be apprised of our correspondence.

As before, I do wish it had been possible to engage you and/or Kathy earlier in the semester, when it did appear that (as your behavior suggests) there is actually a great deal of extracurricular content influencing the progress of matters.  It appears that some preexisting hostility may have been the reason for your resistance to any such engagement from the outset; though where that hostility originated and why you are unwilling to take positive steps in response to it, I do not know.

Again, if any of these impressions are mistaken, I am certainly interested in learning more about your perspective.  But before there is any more talk of a worrisome and probably unnecessary meeting, please read my paper.

Ray

*  *  *  *  *

From:   McGuire, Lisa E.
Sent:   Friday, December 05, 2008 3:25 PM
To:     Woodcock, Ray
Cc:     Lay, Kathy; Adamek, Margaret E.
Subject:        RE: S726 Paper Grading – Questions

Ray – Thank you for responding so promptly.  It is not our intent to assign busywork.  We do expect students to demonstrate proficiency with the IRB processes in relationship to qualitative research.

We wanted to meet with you as a part of the requirement for the course, and frankly, we hoped it could be a mutual learning experience.  We are very curious about discourse analysis; however we can forego this meeting.

In an effort to respond to your learning needs, we would ask that you to propose (via email) a contract for completion of S726 in accordance with the course objectives.  This means that you need to list products (with proposed due dates) that will demonstrate your competency in accordance with course learning objectives.  Keep in mind this would need to be completed before May 1st, 2009.  We both are open to your ideas and would suggest that you keep this simple, but with enough detail so that products are clear.  You may also self-evaluate your products for grading purposes.  We want you to be challenged in your learning experience and we want it to be a positive learning experience.

We look forward to your proposal however, if this is not acceptable, one alternative you might consider is taking the course at a different time, from instructors from whom you feel you could learn.  Please let us know your plan as soon as possible.

Lisa E. McGuire, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Indiana University School of Social Work
902 W. New York, ES4152
Indianapolis, IN  46202

*  *  *  *  *

Comment:  This message seems slightly different in tone from the preceding one.  I may be imagining that, or Dr. McGuire may have written it with input from Dr. Lay or others.

It was encouraging that Dr. McGuire here expressed interest in my actual work.  There was no subsequent discussion, however, and certainly no cordial invitation to get together and talk about it afterwards, when we would have just been talking about the topic of the paper (as distinct from a meeting focused on my duties, my performance, or other ways in which I could be depicted as problematic).  I handed in a paper; they made some comments on it; and that was it.  In short, it appears that this email’s profession of interest in “a mutual learning experience” may have been intended, again, for third-party consumption.

That reading gains support from the reference to “your learning needs.”  Dr. McGuire was portraying me, to Dr. Adamek and whoever else might read the message, as being in some sense a problem student with special needs.  Here, again, it certainly would have been possible to dispense with the patronizing language and just suggest, or ask me about, the option of using a learning contract.

Dr. McGuire closes with the offer that I could just retake the course in some future year, with some other professor.  It is difficult to see what purpose such a suggestion could serve, other than to make Dr. McGuire seem agreeable.  A student who wants to graduate is not likely to want to hang around until some unspecified future year in order to complete a course of uncertain quality with an unknown instructor.  The most appropriate step would have been for Dr. Adamek to step in and waive the course requirement, given that I had already taken several qualitative research courses; but that didn’t happen.

I do not presently have very positive views of the behavior of Drs. Adamek, McGuire, and Lay in this matter.  That’s because I subsequently obtained rather stunning information about the behavior of Dr. Adamek and others during this timeframe, including but not limited to the email from Dr. Adamek shown above.  But at the time, there in December 2008, I welcomed the relatively more agreeable tone that Dr. McGuire was taking, and hoped that would be the end of the unnecessary attacks.

*  *  *  *  *

From: Woodcock, Ray
Sent: Friday, December 05, 2008 12:42 PM
To: McGuire, Lisa E.
Cc: Lay, Kathy; Adamek, Margaret E.
Subject: RE: S726 Paper Grading – Questions

Dear Lisa:

I appreciate your interest in learning about discourse analysis from me.  That is a nice compliment.  A little intimidating, too!  Discourse analysis is proving to be a convoluted and variegated form of inquiry, and frankly I’m not entirely happy with my decision to start with Wodak’s version.  While I am proceeding with application to data, I also want to try to broaden out the conceptual underpinnings.  Hopefully I will be in a position, by the time of our final presentations, to provide a solid statement of a robust form of discourse analysis.

As for the final presentation and other proposed products for the spring semester, please give me another day or two to provide what you request.  I have been working on a paper for a presentation tomorrow.  After tomorrow, I should be able to work up a response to your request.

On the matter of busywork, I don’t mean it’s just you.  I have heard that refrain at multiple points along the way, during these past several semesters.  Hopefully my peers are expressing those concerns in course evaluations or classroom discussions — somewhere, anyway, where they will be taken into account for future course improvement.  I have expressed my own concern here, in the relevant context, since I think that’s where it is most likely to make sense and to facilitate better alternatives.  It looks like it has had that effect, so that’s good.

Finally, I hope you understand my reasons for asking why Margaret needed to be involved in this discussion; why you have been so indefensibly hostile in your marks on my papers; and why (from the beginning of the semester, even before I proposed a study of discourse analysis) you have insisted that I must meet with both you and Kathy, when you have not required other students to do so.  It may well be that there has been no intent to intimidate; I just am not presently sure what the better explanations would be.

Thank you for your willingness to seek out a good approach for the spring semester, consistent with the independent study format we have agreed upon.  I will get back to you on that in a day or two.

Ray

*  *  *  *  *

Comment:  Overall, this exchange of emails did seem to encourage Dr. McGuire to select her criticisms more carefully.  As was the pattern at IUSSW, she gave me an A- for the course.  There was no clear reason for not giving me an A, considering that I ended with a deeper understanding of discourse analysis than she or Dr. Lay had.  It was like the time when Dr. Adamek gave me an A- for a pass-fail course from another department.  The prof conveyed to Dr. Adamek that I had passed; Dr. Adamek just decided to convert it to an A-.  That’s not a bad grade, but it’s detrimental if you’re shooting for a 4.0 GPA, like that which I had earned at the University of Missouri, before coming to IU.

This exchange, like so many other experiences in social work education, had plenty of opportunities for mutual growth and learning.  But those sorts of constructive outcomes will generally be foiled when the instructor is wedded to a model of professorial infallibility — to, that is, the belief that teaching means pushing students around and showing them how terribly wrong they are.  Social work education is just not a place for give and take of ideas, among people who share a commitment to learning and discovery.  You can try to generate dialogue with these sorts of people on that level, but there’s a good chance that your only achievement will be to learn something about the conceptualization of “education” within schools of social work.

As a postscript, a few months later, IU awarded Dr. McGuire with an an award for excellence in teaching.

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  • Ray Woodcock  On September 26, 2014 at 1:00 AM

    Note — I received a comment in response to this post, but it appeared to be from a troll, so I deleted it. The comment space remains open, if the writer did intend to contribute something worthwhile.

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