Rigorous, excellent, and extensive. These are words that I personally think of when I consider what a Grinnell education is. I think most Grinnellians (minus the few of us that have yet to face the harsh realities that surround us) would agree with me.
However, there are unfortunate exceptions to this rule. There are a few professors who can fall short of our expectations for Grinnell. Many of us have had one of these professors, and if you haven’t, you are lucky. Last semester I had one of these experiences, but it was probably quite unique, even for such a unique institution.
Grinnell’s administration is committed to the education of its students, and it goes to great lengths to ensure that the professors hired here are committed too. The entire process of hiring a professor can take up to an entire year, though the majority of the work gets done in the month after winter break. A department, such as Economics, must first submit a request to the Executive Council—the SGA for faculty—detailing the reasons that the department needs another tenure-track professor. If the proposal is approved, the department can start its formal process by forming a search committee. The Economics Department often accompanies its search with job postings on networks such as the American Economics Association (AEA) and Job Openings for Economists (JOE).
Then, the department collects all the received applications and narrows them down to three promising candidates who are invited to visit the college. This visit typically occurs in late January or early February.
While at Grinnell, every potential tenure-track professor must meet with the Executive Council. The hopefuls also present the work they have done in their academic field and meet with students during lunch, a tour, and “Q and A” sessions coordinated by the SEPC.
These visits and the applicants’ own references are all the department and administration have to base their recommendations and eventual hiring of a professor on. The College must trust that the applicants are being truthful in their descriptions of themselves, just as the College must trust the institutions that gave the applicants their degrees. That trust should be familiar to students: it’s the Self-Gov (is Love!) way. When that trust is breached, the college should only be judged on how it deals with the unfortunate situation. This is the manner in which Brian Swart was chosen in 2011.
In the first week of classes in September 2012, I transferred into ECN 262 Empirical Methods, which is basically a statistics class with a slight economic perspective. It started out as any other Grinnell class–the professor, Brian Swart, was quirky (perhaps a bit of a push-over), but he seemed to possess a comprehensive knowledge of the material.
Although it was an 8:30 a.m. class (good-bye nightlyfe), his eccentric charm made it difficult to fall into a daze or into sleep. All in all, although annoyingly timed, it was a pretty nice, relaxing class to have. As the semester went on, certain events would make this relatively happy period come to a close.
Around Parents Weekend, the students of Professor Swart received an email from Dean of the College Paula Smith announcing the professor’s decision to leave the faculty of Grinnell College. The reasons were not divulged to the student body for the sake of Professor Swart’s privacy. (Swart later wrote a personal email himself, which shed no light on the decision.)
And so the rumor mill started. Gossip and speculation streamed into our tight-knit populace. Whatever the as of yet unknown reason, Swart was gone and the college faced an immediate problem: Who would, if anyone, replace Swart in the classes he taught?
This was not an easy problem to fix. Most professors at Grinnell work just as hard as their students to make sure the Grinnell experience is as engrossing, fun, and challenging as possible. For any of them to pick up another class would be unfair, especially for such a specialized class. There was the possibility of canceling the class altogether, but Grinnell’s administration and professors say they are committed to their students, and this measure would only have been implemented if no other solutions could be found.
They chose to bring in outside help. The head of the Economics Department, Keith Brouhle, solicited many professors and other academics from the surrounding area and beyond using AEA and JOE as well as tapping into the Economics Department’s network of retired professors and other younger professors (given recent revelations, it can be understood why they may have been wary of the latter).
Most lived too far away for a reasonable commute or had conflicting schedules. The right person was finally found in Ben Jones, a teacher at the local community college.
Mr. Jones noticed a message on his phone asking him if Brouhle could speak with him in the near future. During their talks, Brouhle made Jones privy to the urgency of the situation the college had been put in because of Swart and implored him to take the temporary position. Jones initially refused, giving the legitimate excuse of there being an overlap of the class that he taught at the community college and the end of the 8:30 – 10:00 a.m. class on Mondays and Wednesdays. Empirical Methods was thus shortened by a half-hour, extended to Friday, and started a half-hour earlier to accommodate Jones’ schedule. This was acceptable to Jones and he agreed to take on the extra load. A Grinnellian himself, he graduated in 2003 with a bachelors in mathematics. He went on to attend Iowa State to work on his Masters and PhD.
Jones seemed like a fairly good choice, especially given the short time-span in which he was chosen. In our first class, Jones seemed a little flustered, tripping over his own words and going on superfluous tangents, but this could be easily explained. It’s one thing to teach at a community college and a whole other to teach at Grinnell. It must have been quite intimidating. He had also just received the textbook the Saturday before that Monday’s class, so it was understandable for him not to be prepared, especially because of the five other classes he taught at the community college. So first class aside, I was optimistic about the way the class would proceed.
From that class on, the lectures that were given to us degraded in quality and content to the point where I felt we were taking a class in high school or, perhaps, a community college. It became obvious that with all his other commitments, Jones could not teach at the level that students had hoped for.
It became obvious that with all his other commitments, Jones could not teach at the level that students had hoped for. While the flow of his lectures were logical (it was usually clear when he moved to a new topic), the lectures themselves were filled with so many details and tangents that it became hard for most students to pick out the useful information from the barrage of useless garbage. Mr. Jones acknowledges his shortcomings, saying he never felt prepared for more than one class ahead of time and, because of his already busy schedule, was not able to prepare as adequately as he’d like for each class.
The class had become a joke, and not the kind you want to take. The only students who could follow along with what was being taught were the ones who already had a background in statistics. The rest were left to struggle their way through the few assignments and exams we had and poor grades were a common characteristic for all.
By the end of December, the class was over. Break ensued and then ushered in a new semester, and most of us slowly forgot about the experience, moving on to other classes. Then, less than a month into the new semester, we learned the truth about why Swart left. Plagiarism. The majority of his dissertation.
While I had never heard of such rampant abuse of the education system. Swart was supposed to evaluate our academic work, but he couldn’t even fully write his own. I didn’t think that he had the gaul in him, and I doubt anyone did.
In any case, Grinnell’s administration was satisfied with its handling of the ridiculous situation in its strange, unfortunate entirety, but others were not so pleased. The victim of Swart’s plagiarism, another professor, felt Grinnell was too passive, and one student who withdrew from the empirical analysis course met an exorbitant amount of difficulty from the administration, given the circumstances. They could have been much more accommodating to all who were affected by Swart’s deceitful actions, and their lack of empathy for the victims is strikingly un-Grinnellian.
Empirical Methods by far takes the prize for “Worst Class of My Personal Grinnell Experience So Far,” as I’m sure it does for many of my classmates. Ben Jones is again teaching the class this semester, while the Economics Department searches for a full time replacement next year. Jones is optimistic about the rest of his semester and says that he is prepared at least a week in advance, with lecture notes on P-Web and has been able to give the course the structure it lacked last semester. He also says that his current students are responding much better this time around.
While Jones may have failed to live up to the elevated expectations of professors last semester, he was given another chance. He tried his best under extreme and extenuating circumstances and should be commended for it. But most of all he did not betray the sacred trust between teacher and student, a tie that is stressed from the Mishnah to Oxford, to our own attitude of Self-Gov.