Robert Dillon teaches genetics at the College of Charleston…or rather, he is officially assigned the job of teaching genetics, but one might question whether his students are actually learning anything. He’s tenured, but is currently suspended from teaching over a dispute about his syllabus that has snowballed into a mess of a case.
I started reading this article with some sympathy for Dillon. I teach genetics, too, and I’ve been teaching it almost as long as he has. I’m a little bit demanding in the classroom — this is conceptually difficult material for many students, and you can’t lead them by the hand through every step of figuring out every problem, and at some point the students have to figure out for themselves how to do the work, or they haven’t succeeded in being independent thinkers. I also get annoyed at some of the dictates from on high, where we are told to fit our work to a template designed by people who don’t teach our classes. I can feel for his resentment.
But we also have a job to do. It looks like he’s not doing it.
The initial trigger for his suspension was his refusal to modify his course syllabus. He was asked to make the ‘learning outcomes’ section to be a bit more specific, and he refused. Which is weird; that’s a short piece of the syllabus, it doesn’t take much effort to adapt it, and the refusal to rewrite it at all moves beyond resistance to change directly into calcification into stupidity.
Here are the ‘learning outcomes’ for his genetics course that he refuses to change. It’s a short quote from Woodrow Wilson.
The object of education is not merely to draw out the powers of the individual mind: It is rather its right object to draw all minds to a proper adjustment to the physical and social world in which they are to have their life and their development: to enlighten, strengthen, and make fit. The business of the world is not individual success, but its own betterment, strengthening, and growth in spiritual insight. “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom” is its right prayer and aspiration.
Personally, I don’t care much for that specific quote, but OK, as a statement of his own personal teaching philosophy, I can see that he ought to be allowed to include it. But the problem is that that is all he says about the goals of his genetics course. That doesn’t help at all. It’s too generic. You could throw that quote into the teaching philosophy of a course in English literature or Latin American history; it doesn’t tell anyone what the course is about.
Here are the goals of my genetics course, for example, straight from my current syllabus.
Students should understand basic principles and mechanisms of inheritance and variation, including cytological, organismal, developmental, and population genetics; mechanisms of evolution; and the genetic problems of humans.
It’s rather broad, too, but at least you know what the heck I’m teaching. I also follow up that brief paragraph with a more detailed breakdown of the chapters covered in the text and what concepts I hope to get across to the students. That’s useful information to the students, and also very importantly, to the administration, which actually has a legitimate need to know to some degree of specificity what material is being taught in the courses they administer. It’s required for accreditation, too. It’s also important to other schools; our students may transfer, or may go on to graduate or professional schools, and they need to know in a little detail what background our students are bringing in.
So, for example, just last year a student going on to veterinary school got questioned about the credits in genetics; they wanted to know exactly what the students were taught, so I sent them the syllabus. They wanted to know more, so I rewrote and expanded parts of it. That’s part of the job. Dillon’s syllabus was inadequate, too, but when asked to include more specific information, he refused.
That’s just weird. So now he’s been stripped of all of his teaching duties, and is facing more severe penalties, like suspension of pay and ejection from the university. He’s fighting back.
“My argument is this: Think of the students,” Mr. Dillon wrote back.
He sent the provost excerpts from messages that he said had been sent to him by students. One message praised the professor for making the student feel less insecure about his faith. Another said Mr. Dillon’s “bluegrass and social commentary” would be missed.
Mr. Dillon asked that all the charges against him be dropped. “I have not changed the way I teach my class,” he wrote in his plea, “nor changed the learning outcomes I expect from my students, in 34 years.”
He’s teaching genetics, supposedly, as am I. His job is not to make students more secure or less secure in their faith, and while bluegrass might add some color and social commentary some flavor to the course, they are not the primary goals. That’s no defense at all.
And that last comment is devastating to his case. I’ve been teaching genetics for only 25 years, and at the level of the undergraduate understanding of fundamental genetics, the content hasn’t much, but I’m constantly trying to improve how I teach the class. Every year is an experiment where I change something to see if it helps more students better grasp the subject. I started in an era where the professor lectured, the students took notes, and then grappled with long lists of problems in their homework. Now I try to do more assisted problem solving in the classroom, with a mix of lecturing and dragging students into group work and coaching them through independent problem solving. I think I’m a better teacher now than I was starting out, and I also hope to get better year by year. You don’t accomplish that by announcing that you haven’t changed the way you teach in 34 years.
Then Dillon describes his teaching style, and all my sympathy evaporates. By his own confession, he’s a terrible teacher.
Mr. Dillon describes himself as a “prickly guy,” but it may be more accurate to say he is the antitenure crowd’s straw man made flesh. In his 34 years at Charleston, he has received three official letters of reprimand, along with many negative evaluations from his supervisors and his students. (A sample review from RateMyProfessors.com: “Dr. Dillon likes to make you look like an ass for asking him a question. He will never help you and enjoys confusion. … DO NOT TAKE THIS CLASS.”)
That prickliness has cost him. Mr. Dillon, who studies snails, says he has not been promoted since getting tenure as an associate professor and has been shot down three times in bids for a full professorship. By his own reckoning, he has been marginalized — moved first from 100-student survey courses to 40-student lectures and, now, to labs with 10 to 15 students. He says about 40 percent of his students earn F’s or D’s, or withdraw before the semester is over.
Mr. Dillon’s teaching methods run to the Kafkaesque. He refuses to answer students’ questions with anything but questions. He says he sometimes purposely misleads students by making factually wrong statements in class, reasoning that students who did the reading should be able to correct him. (They rarely do, he says.) The professor is not interested in meeting students halfway; he believes it is more edifying to put them in a crucible and see if they are “critical, rational, mathematical, analytical” enough to intuit their way out.
“Isn’t that horrible?” says Mr. Dillon. “For 14 weeks to have to walk in and make Rob Dillon happy? It’s misery. It’s like being boiled in oil. They have to walk in and make this crazy, wild, demanding, critical, nasty person happy. Horrible. Horrible.”
Ugh, never ever cite RateMyProfessors.com. I detest that site, and it’s a very poor way to evaluate teachers. I tend to ignore even the official student evaluations of my classes, because, like Dillon, I’m not running a popularity contest. What’s more important to me is student performance on exams and in their writing; if I give an exam and a lot of students demonstrate a failure to understand linkage, for instance, then I figure I taught that stuff poorly and that I need to go back over it and make sure the students know it. The primary basis for my ongoing adjustment of how I teach the course is how well students demonstrate comprehension of the material.
40% of his students fail his course? 40% of his students are not stupid or incapable of understanding genetics. Those 40% are students that Dillon failed, who were screwed over by his inflexible, unresponsive, archaic teaching methods. That 40% is screaming at him that he’s ineffective and is doing a poor job of teaching, and that he needs to adapt and pay attention to what he’s doing. And then he declares as a point of pride that he hasn’t changed his teaching methods in 34 years.
”Think of the students,” he says. Please do. Being critical and demanding are good attributes, and I’d praise him for that, but you’ve also got to do more, you have to reach out and connect with students and help them learn. And you have to grow and learn, too. If you think teaching exactly as you did in the 1980s is a good thing, then you’ve failed to learn, and aren’t doing your job.
Dillon has just been put in a crucible of his own making. We’ll have to see if he’s smart enough to “intuit” his way out. Hint: it’s going to involve changing.