Author Archives: Mary Miles, Ph.D.

Grade Distribution Discussion

Dear Senators:

I read with great interest appendix O from the Undergraduate Studies Committee on Grade Distributions.

After noticing that grade distributions tended to play an uneven role in faculty promotions across various campuses and colleges, I began to study the issue more closely. I’m hopeful that our Senate might take some time to further discuss and emphasize the following lines in the report:

“With respect to the role of grades in performance reviews, it is important to note that authors such as Millet (2016) caution against solely using grades as a metric to evaluate faculty members as this may have unintended consequences; for example, instructors may, in an attempt to improve their grading reliability scores, use GPAs to assign grades in a course.”

If instructors take seriously the guidance given to them by senate documents and significant administrators, they would find themselves facing what Gregory Bateson termed a psychological “double bind” (1956). They receive two contradictory messages from authority figures and find themselves unable to accommodate both without extreme measures. As Bateson, supported by R.D. Laing, explained, these impossible to reconcile standards produce environments that make it extremely difficult for those entrapped in them to maintain mental health and productivity.

I have begun working on an essay to analyze the impact of efforts to externally influence individual instructors’ grade distributions. It is very much a work in progress that I would prefer to further vet before sharing. It seems, however, that the issues are set to be discussed this month, so I’ll (with hesitation, given that I wish it were stronger!) present it now:

In short, we really need to come up with some better solutions to the problem of grade inflation than expecting administrators to press their faculty into giving lower grades.

Senator Mary Miles

Why We Should Support Faculty Affairs Advisory and Consultative Report on Titles

Dear Faculty Senate Friends and Colleagues,

For those of you I haven’t yet met in person, I’ve served on Senate for almost ten years and Chaired multiple committees. It has been a great pleasure to work with all of you. Right now, I Chair our Liberal Arts Caucus and am in the Departments of English and History. I come from a Penn State family (Dad – also a Faculty Senator — and brother are both alumni and faculty). I graduated in ’94 (BA) and ‘97 (MA), then completed my PhD at Cornell before returning here to pursue an incredibly rewarding career off the tenure track. The vote on the Advisory Consultative Report from Faculty Affairs regarding Titles is probably the most important event that I have witnessed at Faculty Senate. I’m eager and anxious for a positive outcome. Please contact me,, should you have any desire to discuss these issues further.

Many of you have tenured positions. I admire you. You remind me of my professors. They were my heroes. Whether bringing the past to life for a college sophomore to mentoring an apprentice through pedagogical development, research, and endless exposure to the great theories and discoveries that shaped our discipline in the past and point us towards future avenues of investigation, they inspired and encouraged me. I wanted to do what they did and, for the most part, I do! They did all of this while creating pioneering works of research and scholarship, processes that made them even stronger teachers.

Speaking for myself and only myself (I know my non-tenure-track colleagues may have accomplished much more than I have), I hope tenured professors benefit from their hard work in their salaries, offices, and opportunities for distinguished and named titles. They took huge risks by starting the tenure track and worked hard. I made different choices and, if I’m honest with myself, some mistakes that I regret (again speaking only for myself and not for my non-tenure track colleagues). I did not discipline myself to hone in on high-tier publishing. I was unwilling to accept the uncertainties involved in a seven year “up or out” deal. I take full personal responsibility for that.

I, however, do research too. I wrote a dissertation, I publish articles and present at conferences. I create, develop, and teach courses at the university for college students in our classrooms, on-line, and in study abroad programs. I “profess” the knowledge, expertise, and lessons that my professors professed to me. For over fifteen years, I’ve been doing the job that the clear majority of educated secondary students and adults understand to be that of a “professor”. Unfortunately, my various proper titles lead to confusion: some extended family, friends, and students think I am a permanent teaching assistant or substitute teacher.

This simple change — having a title that suggests I have a “real” job — would add immeasurably to my life at no cost to others. The distinction between tenure track and non-tenure track faculty will remain crystal clear — no worries there! The university will not be “hiding” the fact that so many faculty are not tenured. If anything, title changes will provide units with MORE reminders and opportunities to articulate the precise differences between tenure-track and non — the emphasis on publication and the more precise, rigorous hiring process, for example. We will all continue to PROTECT TENURE as much as possible. Efforts to improve conditions for non-tenure track faculty will, as well, continue unabated.

Colleagues who already have access to robust titles off the tenure track will now be able to share this wonderful opportunity with their most vulnerable faculty friends and peers. The Medical School will run its own system, the Law School will identify its own terminal degrees, Smeal can continue to call its FT faculty “clinical”. Everywhere there will be opportunities to engage the new system in spirit and intent. If you do not have a terminal degree, you will still have access to professorial titles. A report such as this is VERY unlikely to come around again. This is our absolute best chance to see professorial titles in our lifetimes.

Part-time and FT2 faculty will not be forgotten. Anything that elevates the FT group generally is desirable for all of us. Now, the need to address concerns regarding benefits, raises, and promotions for part-time faculty can ascend to the top of the list.

I do not ask you to support this report, though, because it would make me happy. It would, of course, fill me with joy beyond measure, gratitude, and relief to finally be counted among my peers in the larger faculty as a functioning university professor. More importantly, however, I implore you to support our students, the whole faculty body, and the entire university by voting yes.

This proposal to set non-tenure track faculty titles is all about building a stronger Penn State faculty overall. For years, some units have hired non-tenure faculty ad hoc, on whims, and with minimal thought. Now non-tenure track faculty are a faculty majority, comprising many talented individuals, yet the group as a whole is an unorganized hodgepodge of random hires and titles.

If Departments and Colleges realize that their non-tenure track faculty will be represented on their websites as “Associate Professors of Teaching or Research”, for example (though distinguished from tenure-track faculty), they might begin paying attention to those faculty members’ areas of expertise and to future hires. With professorial titles for non-tenure track faculty, Penn State will attract the highest level of talented applicants (this has been irrefutably demonstrated by both the Smeal College of Business and the Medical School). Then we can use actual strategy to put together a coherent, dynamic, qualified non-tenure track faculty that complements the tenure track pool.

Of course, current Penn State non-tenure Faculty will benefit from being able to refer to themselves as “Associate Professors of Teaching”, for example, in their dealings with students, publishers, and grant offices. Even more importantly, though, it will behoove Penn State to attract ever increasing strength in all faculty areas and build the best possible faculty body that combines both tenure track and non-tenure track professors. No potential drawbacks outweigh this opportunity for exponential growth in excellence.

Thus, I beseech you from the depths of my heart and for all of the emotional reasons to vote yes. PLEASE, PLEASE consider it. Even more so, I urge you to follow so many of our peer institutions who have recognized that professorial titles foster a stronger, more stable, and more strategically cohesive faculty body of tenure-track and non, working in harmony.

Vote yes for yourselves, for your students, for the glory and — if you are so inclined — for me and others like me. Set us free from the daily stigma of being segregated from our tenure-track friends and peers and bearing the marker of that lower status in our very names, our labels. THIS MAY BE OUR VERY LAST CHANCE. Please, please don’t let it slip away.

With Respect and Affection,
Mary Miles