This is why administrators don’t teach

Academics get constant training — it seems like every week or two the university trots out a new “module” and duns our email with notifications that we are REQUIRED to take it, and if we defer the training to a more convenient time the notifications don’t stop. It’s a lousy system, but necessary. It’s just that the methods are so poor. For example, this article on sexual harassment in science offers up a few criticisms.

Sexual harassment includes forcing people into sexual activity, giving unwanted sexual attention to someone and making unwanted comments or threats to someone based on their gender. The negative effects of sexual harassment also apply to the people who witness it and the organizations involved. The first thing that experts say needs to be overhauled is traditional sexual harassment training.

The computer-based format of some training modules is familiar to anyone starting a new job, including us. We remember laughable scenarios that were, at best, out of touch with how real people behave, or showed only the most extreme examples of harassment. The training was unrealistic, unmemorable and something to click through as fast as we could. Such passive, simplistic training typically fails, as sociologists Frank Dobbin of Harvard University and Alexandra Kalev of Tel Aviv University found in a Harvard Business Review analysis in 2020.

Training needs to be more in-person, according to experts. People can interact with a live instructor who has specialized knowledge of awkward topics and how to talk effectively about them. The trainers can take the backgrounds and ages of people in the group into account, answer questions in real time, and tailor their program to the organization; what people at a nonprofit might need could be different from workers at a big-box store or in an academic setting. And even in academia, training for scientists who work in the field could be different than for those who work in a lab.

This past weekend, after a week of emails telling me I am REQUIRED to take training in “Fundamentals of Disability Accommodations and Inclusive Course Design,” I did it. It was fundamentally terrible. I am 100% in agreement with the importance of the topic, and I took it very seriously and cleared my calendar and went through this self-paced online program in about an hour and a half. It consisted of a series of simple web pages emphasizing specific points, interspersed with 2-5 minute videos of faculty and students talking about how they solved certain problems. There were also short quizzes (a question or two) occasionally. It was totally trivial. I quickly realized that all I had to do was respect the students and work with them, the core lesson of the exercise, and I’d get everything right. That’s what I want to do, of course, but even if I were a student-hating psychopath, I could have easily breezed right through it all, and gotten my required email notification that I had taken the training and done well.

I’ve taken all the sexual harassment training the university offers, and many others on racial sensitivity and grant management, etc. They’re all the same, screen pages and short canned videos. Like the article says, the “training was unrealistic, unmemorable and something to click through as fast as we could.” It’s unfortunate — they can do better. The best training I had here was on implicit bias, which was not done on a computer, but in a room with other faculty and a specialist who came in and talked to us and answered questions interactively. It also helped in that faculty who were opposed to the whole idea of the training publicly exposed themselves and made for great counter-examples.

I’m just thinking that this is a university, and we have a lot of people who are very good at teaching, yet somehow we have to take these training courses that are the modern equivalent of those horrible filmstrips we had to watch in the 1960s. Imagine if I were to teach my genetics course in the style of these online training courses — I’d be hauled in front of an academic tribunal and chastised severely for my incompetence at my job. You couldn’t even run an online course in any academic subject with this degree of rote key-clicking and low information density pages.

If universities were serious about rooting out and correcting sexual harassment, they have to do a little more than the equivalent of putting a check box online that says “I am not a sexual harasser.” That would take a little more money and investment of expertise, though.


  1. charley says

    When the student sues the U for discrimination or sexual harassment the U can say the offending professor received training, so it’s not their fault. That’s the main purpose of these I suspect.

  2. says

    Sounds very much like military training on “integration”† four decades ago, and it has the same root cause:

    The primary purpose of the training is to provide documentation that management did all it could to prevent the later, inevitable problems, so that management will never be held accountable — whether or not it deserves to be held accountable, or could have done something different and harder and better that might actually work.

    That something different and harder and better that might actually work isn’t going to happen until management (in this instance, senior leadership in both academia and in the state government that “sponsors” this institution) itself has not only the values and awareness of “respect[ing] the students and work[ing] with them” as the easy, only acceptable means. Which is about two more decades in the future, because that’s when those who expect such will both have experienced only that attitude and be senior enough in management to impose it as a given.

    † Carefully sanitized: Several decades back, as an IG inquiry officer I had to delve into a quite-senior-DOD-civil-service promotion-discrimination complaint at [military installation within 25 miles of the Washington Monument]. Leaving aside that some of the relevant “training records” had been pencil-whipped to completion after the hiring decision had been made — it’s really easy to spot that on paper using last century’s tech! — every single HR-mandated training item related to procedural mechanics, not to substantive considerations like “who should actually get this promotion?” But because the procedures did have “documentation,” it was very difficult to tease out what had actually happened… and impossible to either correct anything that was wrong or hold anyone to account.

  3. says

    I’m pretty sure any abusers who pop up at UM will have nice little checkmarks in their training records. That’s how it works.

  4. says

    I suspect a lot of these courses are aimed at corporate audiences, who are – judging from the news – pretty stupid about this topic.

    When I was an exec at a company in Maryland, as soon as we hit a certain size we all had to take a checkbox “learned about sexual harrassment” course. To protect the shareholders, yadda yadda. Naturally I suggested HR tighten their hiring practices and include such material on job interviews. Maybe companies hire a lot of fucking idiots. Judging from news they do.

  5. robro says

    We have to do similar training at my job. I think it’s mostly legal cover…we told the rules so you can’t sue us for unjustifiable termination. Of course, I work in an “at will” state, so the business can terminate anybody at any time for any reason, or no reason. I’m confident people who violate the rules/policies aren’t ignorant of them and they probably do the trainings. Plus, mostly it’s just common sense and human decency. Perhaps the one useful bit of info in these training modules is a where to go if you witness or know of a violation.

  6. robro says

    OT: Chump is having trouble finding lawyers to represent him. Perhaps he’ll have to get a public defender…poor dear. Not only does he bilk them, but he’s put several of them in a position that might cost them their careers…poor dears.

  7. Snarki, child of Loki says

    The goal of the training, whether “discrimination”, “sexual harassment”, or “chemical safety” is primarily “legal butt-covering for high level admins”.

    All else is secondary, at best.

  8. ANB says

    Indeed, it’s totally a CYA operation. (Not that they don’t want offenders because–in any “business,” it’s bad for “business.”)

    Same experience here (public schools), and I learned how to either fast track through the videos or “listen” the fullness of the modules (let them play on one muted tab while I’m doing things on other tabs) and then take the test, all of which questions I could answer intuitively.

    Presently work in a hospital. Same scenarios, mostly, just different “uniforms.”

  9. Allison says

    A different take on these courses: I think the point is also to put employees on notice that this stuff is not allowed, so if they get fired, they can’t claim they didn’t know that this was not allowed. Back before I retired, I was required to take a number of courses on things like harassment and legal requirements and computer security[*], and I had the distinct impression that it was to put _us_ on notice as to exactly what was not allowed.

    I’m not a lawyer, but I think that the mere fact that an employee had taken one of these video “courses” would not absolve the company/university/etc. if it turns out they knew of a problem and didn’t act. And if they don’t know of a problem, even if they haven’t given the training, they are not likely to be held liable. (This is BTW the reason if you have a problem such as harassment or discrimination, you need to notify the relevant parts of the organization in writing and make sure you can prove you did so.)

    [*] Not that the message always got across — whenever I’d report a computer problem, the first thing the help desk would do is ask me to give them my password.

  10. says

    The mandated faculty training modules attract a lot of contemptuous comment from me and my colleagues. As a rule, the “lessons” are trivial, obvious, and predictable. The last time I was due to update my sexual-harassment training (to be clear, sexual-harassment prevention training), I cheekily skipped to the final segment of the online training and aced the exit quiz that was supposed to validate my mastery of the lessons (which I had skipped). But the gods of the checkmarks did not permit me to receive credit till I returned to the individual lessons and played them all the way through. Good thing I had quizzes to grade while the lessons droned on.

  11. euclide says

    I had anti corruption training, and sexual harassment training. Both of the CYA type.
    The first one was the most useful, since some suppliers are still dumb enough to try to get me an my colleagues fired over expensive gifts.

  12. drken says

    HR training isn’t going to solve the workplace sexual harassment problem because by the time HR gets a hold of them, most people have already decided on whether to be a sexual harasser or not. All HR can do is protect management (or administration) by making sure “due diligence” is done so they can say “we told them not to do it”, which is all they really care about. Maybe they’ll stop a few people who still think “it’s all in good fun” until HR sets them straight, but I don’t think too many people under the age of 40 are that oblivious. The ones who view abusing power as a perk of their job will simply sit though the workshops and say all the right things until they’re alone with somebody they have power over. I’m not sure how you can detect these people before they can do damage, but if there was a cheap and easy way to do it, I’m sure HR would have tried it by now.

  13. says

    The bank where I work uses a similar system for our annual required training. The anti-discrimination training made me say “bored now” when it stated with “in 1969…” Another training on UDAAP (unfair, deceptive, and abusive acts and practices) listed account types that aren’t covered in the legislation, effectively giving us the green light to be unfair, deceptive, or abusive regarding those types of accounts.

  14. Snarki, child of Loki says

    “I’m not sure how you can detect these people before they can do damage, but if there was a cheap and easy way to do it, I’m sure HR would have tried it by now.”

    SURE there is.
    Fire all the GOPers.
    That solves 90% of the problem.

  15. billseymour says

    We had to take lots of these where I worked, not only sexual harrassment, but also computer security (knowing the difference between viruses, worms, trojans, etc.).  All were pretty much like what PZ described except that there were sometimes several quizzes of about ten questions each.

    The one thing that struck me, aside from the totally unrealistic videos, was the stupidity of the quizzes:  multiple choice questions that we all about repeating verbatim statements that were made in the various slides.  No understanding of concepts was required.  All you had to do to get 100% on the quiz was to commit strings of buzzwords to short term memory, just long enough to get through the test.