Interview with Eve Proper (’98)

“Students enter programs with ideas of their own about what is acceptable and what is not, but they are strongly influenced by what they can observe during their three or six or ten years of graduate study. They graduate with clearer ideas of what is ideal, what is wrong, and what isn’t optimal but ‘everybody does.’”

1. Is faculty misconduct something that has only now come under a concerted, more public scrutiny? If so, why do you think that is?

 I think three things have happened. First, some of our standards have changed. In my parents’ day, for example, faculty/student relationships were viewed with less opprobrium. Our views on relationships, sexual and not, with unequal power dynamics have shifted. Second, I think the internet has helped make us aware of more cases of faculty misconduct. A student mentions something on Facebook or a blog, and the media or interest groups can easily find it. Third, perhaps the most important, is that faculty in general are under much more scrutiny. The faculty role continues to deprofessionalize; part of that process is more external scrutiny, because we as a society no longer trust professional self-regulation. We are eager to catch tenured professors indoctrinating students, only working 20-hour weeks, or treating grad seminars like speed-dating parties.

2. You base your findings on faculty surveys that you conducted. How did you choose those surveyed?  Were you surprised at what you found?

Because we were interested in graduate faculty, we focused on the faculty who are most likely to teach graduate courses – faculty members at universities that the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching calls “high” or “very high” research activity institutions. We also expected there to be differences in faculty attitudes based on their disciplines. Faculty in the sciences are much more likely to do research in large, collaborative groups than faculty in the humanities, for example, so they might be expected to have different ideas about collaboration and sharing research credit. In order to keep our sample to a manageable size, we focused on four disciplines: history, chemistry, biology, and psychology.  Biglan developed a typology of disciplines in the 1970s based on whether disciplines were hard/soft, life/nonlife, and pure/applied. We focused only on the “pure” disciplines and chose one discipline from each of the remaining combinations. From there, we used random sampling to choose institutions and surveyed every full-time tenure-track faculty member in a given department.

Most of the findings were entirely unsurprising, such as the result that professors strongly disapprove of their colleagues ignoring or encouraging research misconduct.  I was surprised at how the factor analysis shook out; some of the behaviors that naturally grouped together weren’t ones I would have predicted. Misappropriation of Student Work includes such diverse behaviors as asking students to review manuscripts under the professor’s name, failing to write letters of recommendation, routinely borrowing money from students, and asking students to do personal chores as part of their assistantships.  Perhaps what surprised me most were some of the behaviors included in the inviolable norms that are actually quite common – requiring students to lead most class sessions, neglecting students with less promise, taking on too many advisees, speaking negatively of one’s fellow professors, and failing to give thesis feedback in a timely fashion. If we are collectively opposed to these behaviors, why are they so prevalent?

3. Could you talk about some of the types of misconduct identified and dealt with in the book?

Survey respondents rated the inappropriateness of 124 specific behaviors, and then we used factor analysis to group them into five inviolable and eight admonitory norms. The process is similar to Amazon’s system of suggesting that “people who bought this book also bought these items.” Two of the five inviolable norms were about research misconduct (Whistle-blowing Suppression and Directed Research Malfeasance) and one was about harassment of students. These are important, but they are also straightforward. Yes, research misconduct occurs, but we have a pretty good consensus on what is ethical and what isn’t – and an awareness of what that consensus is. They are also the scandals that are most often in the news. More varied were Disrespect toward Student Efforts and Misappropriation of Student Work. There were seven admonitory norms, that is, norms that agreement was not quite as strong on.  These include Inadequate Advising and Mentoring, Insufficient Course Structure, and Graduate Program Disregard.

The last one is curious, because it is less about the professor’s relationship with the students directly; it gets into service, the third part of the faculty role after teaching and research. While there is little research on graduate faculty, there is even less on faculty service at any level. There’s a major gap in the research on the professoriate here.

4. How can the process of socialization during graduate school help ameliorate this problem?

I was a graduate student while we were working on this project, and I couldn’t count the times another student said to me, “Hey, I’ve seen that.” Most of the behaviors they indicated were ones I consider harmful but less egregious than, for example, having a sexual affair with a student – behaviors such as showing favoritism to more promising students, requiring students to lead every class session, or taking a long time to provide feedback on thesis work. Students enter programs with ideas of their own about what is acceptable and what is not, but they are strongly influenced by what they can observe during their three or six or ten years of graduate study. They graduate with clearer ideas of what is ideal, what is wrong, and what isn’t optimal but “everybody does.” If students see that there aren’t negative consequences for doing wrong, it doesn’t necessarily change their own values, but it might change how willing they are to challenge their colleagues over misconduct. There is so little consistent formal socialization in graduate school that students really soak up what they learn informally through practice and culture.

The lack of formal socialization is related to the lack of consistency; even within the same program, students can have wildly disparate experiences depending on who their advisors are. Anathema as it is to academia, I think departments need to consider setting guidelines for how they ought to treat graduate students.

5. Could you talk about the collaborative process in writing a book? Of course, it would be different for each group of authors, but how did it work for you?

John Braxton was the first author on the book, and he took the lead in designing the study, analyzing the results, and organizing the chapters. For us it went very smoothly, in large part because we all wrote separate chapters, and everyone involved met their deadlines. John Braxton and Alan Bayer had written together before, so in my case the challenge was to match my style to theirs. I’m working on another book now, and the voice is different, even though it’s still academic prose.

6. Is there something about your time at Case that made this project possible?

One thing that stands out about my undergrad years at CWRU is the number of courses that were taught by tenured or tenure-track faculty, including small seminar courses. And those professors were very accessible. So I went into grad school knowing more about faculty life than some of my peers did, although that’s not to say I wasn’t naïve still in many ways. It’s easy, when reading some of the literature on graduate and even undergraduate education, to get very jaded and cynical about the state of the profession. But I had these excellent examples of professors who genuinely cared about their students, even while they were doing world-class research, as a counterpoint.