The Grading Policy That Never Was

Conservative websites publicized and mocked a syllabus offering to let students grade themselves. Syllabus was pulled. But professor says he never intended the statement as more than a way to start a conversation.

August 14, 2017

In an era when professors complain that no one reads the syllabus, Rick Watson had more attention than he wanted on his.

And now he says everyone missed the point -- including the University of Georgia, which criticized the syllabus of the business school professor and is still criticizing it now that it's better understood.

Regardless of what one thinks of the syllabus, the incident may illustrate how easy it is these days for a professor -- even one who is not engaged in political discussion -- to become the subject of online ridicule.

The controversy concerns a “stress-reduction policy” section of the syllabus for a business course for the fall, which said that students could change their grade if they felt “unduly stressed” by the one they received, and leave group work at any time, without any explanation, if they felt stressed by the situation.

The policy also said that “only positive comments about presentations will be given in class.”

Conservative news sites such as Campus Reform, The College Fix and Media Research Center mocked the syllabus. CSC Media Group, which first reported on the syllabus, called it “a stunning but not-to-surprising [sic] example of the deteriorating quality of education and discipline in America’s universities.” The story went viral. Inside Higher Ed reported on the syllabus when it was removed from the university website.

Watson didn't comment at that time.

Via email this weekend, however, he told Inside Higher Ed that the syllabus was never intended to be taken literally. It was intended to start a conversation with his class, and not as a statement on grading policy.

He said he was "embarrassed by the damage I have done to reputation of the University of Georgia."

A spokesman for the university said that Georgia is now aware that the syllabus was not intended to set policy. "The primary issue, however, was not the professor’s intent. It was the way the professor presented this information on a public website, which was poorly executed and led to widespread misinterpretation," said the spokesman.

Benjamin C. Ayers, dean of the Terry College of Business, released an additional statement after the university confirmed that the professor never intended for his syllabus to be taken literally. "This statement never should have been included in the syllabus regardless of the professor's intent. The syllabus statement violates the university's strict guidelines and academic policies and is completely inconsistent with the reality of the outstanding education and opportunities that students receive at the Terry College of Business," Ayers said.

Rudy Fichtenbaum, professor emeritus of economics at Wright State University and national president of the American Association of University Professors, said via email that the original syllabus made sense to him as a conversation starter, since it addressed the kinds of issues that professors hear about from students all the time. If university administrators had a problem with the syllabus, they should have asked faculty members to review it, he said, rather than making judgments themselves.

"It certainly seems that the administration was more concerned about its public image than it was about insuring that faculty have academic freedom," Fichtenbaum said. "If this was really just a conversation starter, instead of reacting critically, the administration would then be in the position of defending this faculty member who was attempting to deal with a serious issue that impacts students and faculty."


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