Department redesign raises questions in Faculty Senate


Curtis Almeter

Vice President of Academic Affairs AJ Anglin speaks at Monday’s Faculty Senate meeting. The communications redesign was the primary topic.

Nathan Carter


Interim head of the communications department Kelly Larson and assistant professor Shanna Slavings spent the last hour of Monday’s Faculty Senate meeting fielding questions from concerned faculty.

Dr. Cliff Toliver, associate professor of English and philosophy, sent Slavings a list of the issues in advance to prepare for the bulk of questions and concerns, but potential student grading, as part of the department’s plans for redesigning course structure, became the primary issue. Larson said half of the student’s grades would be based on four speeches uploaded to the Internet and graded by the lab assistants.

“I find it very troubling to have, undergraduates actually grading other undergraduates as opposed to actually giving advice or feedback to speeches, and if I were a parent I would not want my child to take a course that is not being graded by a qualified academic with the appropriate training and degree,” Pat Murphy, professor of English and philosophy said.

Murphy said the fear is that people would look at Missouri Southern as cutting corners to provide education, which she feels is unacceptable.

“Although I certainly understand the importance of economizing and saving the University money, I am adamantly opposed to the idea of undergraduate students giving grades to other undergraduate students,” she said in an e-mail. “Students applying to and attending a university have the traditional expectation, and rightly so, that they will not only be taught by individuals with the appropriate academic degrees and credentials, but also that the students will be graded by these specialists as well.  

“Having students without academic credentials responsible for assigning half of a course grade to other students is, at the very least, not appropriate and risks conveying the message that our institution cuts corners in providing a university education.  The one place we can’t economize is quality of education.”

Larson and Slavings made it clear that students would not be allowed to grade exams.

“We’re using students to grade speeches, so I think there’s delineation between the two things you’re talking about,” Larson said. “I can tell you that there will be some undergraduate grading in some of the other redesign courses in the state of Missouri. One that I know of is happening down the road at Missouri State.”

Another factor in student grading is the training the students will receive. The lab assistants will receive paid training for the rest of the semester to get prepared for next semester’s classes.

“Students will be taught this semester how to evaluate speeches, how to give proper feedback to students and FERPA [federal education rights protection act] training and other skills for working with students,” Slavings said. 

Slavings also said that multiple lab assistants will grade each speech in order to maintain a checks and balances system. Larson later said students will not be allowed to grade the speeches of friends and students they share a major with, which he has planned for.

“All you have to do is hire students from a myriad of majors from across campus and just make sure that they aren’t going to be grading their own major,” Larson said.

Larson defended the University’s decision to choose the communications course because other schools had already begun redesigns in other courses

“There were already people lined up to do the redesigns in English and in political science and in biology and in psychical science and in creative writing and in math,” Larson said. “Those had already been selected by other Universities. So I guess I could have said we’re going to redesign English or we could have went to English and said you’re going to do the redesign for English whatever, and I thought that the selection choice at that point would not have put us in the best position to be involved with the grant.”

He also said the differences in teaching style from teacher to teacher were so varied that it was difficult to assess whether or not students were getting what they needed out of the course.

Another concern is the lack of guidelines Southern has for student employees. Slavings said Larson and herself are working on setting those guidelines up for the class.

“We are gathering material but I’ve been told that there is actually no student employee handbook which really surprises me,” Slavings said. “But we will have FERPA training where we will cover confidentiality, professionalism, what’s considered a conflict of interest, training with lab equipment and software, tutoring and the grading rubrics.”

The University Experience classes were brought into consideration as the measuring stick during the arguments, but Toliver said peer mentors were never designed to grade.

“That was explicitly removed from their obligations so peer mentors in the UE classes did not assign grades,” he said.

Natalie Bruce, coordinator of the first year experience, said the level of student involvement in grading is strictly up to the teacher.

“The level of grading done by the peer mentors depends on the instructor,” she said. “The instructor is still the leader of the class. Some instructors give full reigns of the gradebook to the peer mentors. 

“For some, the instructor still handles that [the gradebook] while other responsibilities in the class. Again, they’re not the primary instructor. They’re kind of like an assistant in a way. They are not taking out the role of the instructor.”

There were also questions of ethical concerns in using students to grade work. One member of the faculty senate asked if using students would be exploited. Larson disagreed.

“An adjunct is grading activities, is grading their tests—probably their own that they came up with—they are putting their syllabus together, they are determining in their research book what they’re going to use in the activities of the book deciding the things they’re going to use. We aren’t asking the lab assistants to do that,” Larson said.

Other possibilities for redesign were mathematics and biology but were turned down because they had already been selected by other schools and department chairs. Both had reasons they did not wish to be involved in the projects this year according to Dr. AJ Anglin, vice president for academic affairs. Anglin said interest in the project came from Dr. Jay Moorman, former head of the communications department.

“Jay Moorman was actually involved from the very beginning in terms of going to the meetings and indicated an interest as we explored possibilities with various department chairs,” Anglin said. 

“[He] was very excited about it and he was excited about it primarily because of having so many adjuncts and he was aware that there were so many different approaches teaching that course that you would not know they were working off of a common syllabus and learning objectives.”

The University’s budget also played a role in the discussion. Larson and Anglin said Southern paid $10,552 into a fund last fall to bring NCAT [National Center for Academic Transformation] to the redesign process, saying Southern lost money to bring them in. However, the costs will be made up in one semester according to Larson. 

“The reason the adjuncts will not be brought back is for costs,” he said. “If you do the math and sit down with the assessment sheets you’ll see that it doesn’t meet any of the cost reduction strategies that are outlined by the grant.”

Attendees of the meeting also asked why the University had to use this model of redesign. Larson said to use NCAT and receive their technology and help; Southern had to use NCAT’s guidelines. Anglin defended the use of NCAT, saying the program has set the national standard. 

 “[NCAT is] interested in delivery of course with better results and achieving course outcomes so we get better quality and do it cost effectively. 

I can tell you the reason we had to rewrite this nine times is because all of those issues had to be answered to her satisfaction,” Anglin said. 

“I just want to say to you that they’ve been doing this for 20 years and they have the national reputation as the standard and the thing that they’re going to protect is the standard. 

“They are not going to approve a program that is going to fail because that works against them.”

Pat Murphy made a motion to submit the syllabus to academic policies, but withdrew the motion after it was argued that it would be a violation of academic freedom and instead made a motion to study the use of student graders.

“This is a dramatic difference from the way that oral communications has been taught in the past,” she said. 

“I understand that it’s the same course but the way that the course is going to be handled is…very different from the way it has been handled in the past and I think that the notion of student graders is something that should be discussed.”

Larson said even if the current model of redesign does not work, the school cannot go back to the previous way it ran things.

“Hopefully what we’re going to get out of the pilot in the spring is whether or not this is a good idea. 

“I continually stress to people in my department that we don’t know how this is going to work. We don’t know. 

“We’re one of the first institutions that have tried it in the field of oral communication. My hope is that it will increase student learning and decrease costs.”