PhD Coursework in Social Work at IUSSW

Like the preceding post, this post is one in a series that describes aspects of my experience as a student in IU’s School of Social Work (SSW), moving in approximately reverse chronological order.  That prior post discussed the qualifying paper that I was required to write if I wished to move from the coursework phase to the dissertation phase.  The present post goes a year or two farther back in time, to address certain developments in the coursework phase.

The next post in this series is a companion to this one.  It reports additional episodes, with a different focus.  This one discusses a few classroom-related interactions with faculty; that one has more to do with personal interactions and working relationships with faculty.

The goal of this post is not to convey a broad understanding of my courses.  This is only a report of a few remarkable classroom experiences I had at IUSSW.  Other posts in this series report additional experiences that could have been listed here.  Many strange experiences related to courses were too brief to make into a good story:  they just involved poorly conceptualized reading, make-work assignments, or other regrettable departures from good education.  Moreover, as noted below, a large number of class sessions were devoted to student presentations:  the focus here is on teaching provided by the SSW, not by its students.  So this post is limited to a few anecdotes, conveying a brief sense of what one could experience within PhD courses at IUSSW.

The Paper
Rose’s Story
The Presentation

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The Paper

In fall 2008, I was enrolled in a class on quantitative research methods.  This course was co-taught by Drs. Lisa McGuire and Kathy Lay.

For some reason, Drs. McGuire and Lay took a rather harsh approach to the grading of student papers.  I was not sure whether they were comparably harsh toward all students, or whether for some reason I had qualified for particular attention.  It occurred to me that they might be confusing harshness with rigor — that they might be assuming, in other words, that a good doctoral course is one in which students are subjected to as much criticism as possible.  Of course, such an approach presumes an instructor capable of delivering criticism that is not only sharp but also cogent.

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Their grading did not reflect well on them.  The image shown above illustrates this.  It is a page from a paper I submitted to them, with the remarks they returned to me.  They gave this paper a grade of B-/C+ (presumably reflecting slight disagreement as to how bad it was).  Their topmost remark says, “Unclear sentense” (sic).  The left-hand remark suggests that Jane Addams was to be considered a leading pragmatist philosopher because she won the Nobel Prize and developed settlement houses.  The right-hand remark faulted me for providing too many details, whereas their accompanying grading sheet faulted me for not providing enough detail.  Finally, their remark at the bottom of the page indicated that my description of my experience of reading an assigned text was “NOT relevant to the question at hand.”  I had described that reading experience because the assignment required us to describe “the experience of completing the readings.”

I did not object to the grading of that paper.  When I received similar markings on subsequent assignments, however, I did write up responses to some of their many remarks.  For example, they made comments about my failure to do the assigned reading, including the NASW Code of Ethics.  I replied that, actually, I had just published an article on the NASW Code.  This did not go over well.  They reported me to Dr. Adamek, chair of the PhD program, and she notified Sherry Queener, Dean of Graduate Students.  For the rest of the academic year, Drs. McGuire and Lay (and, in the spring semester, Dr. Daley) copied Dr. Adamek on all of their email correspondence with me.  I am not sure how much of that material was likewise forwarded to Dean Queener.

Here, I have kept that particular story brief.  The details of the debate are not crucial to the sequence of posts presented in this blog.  For those who may be interested, I have put the detailed contents of this debate into a post in a separate blog focusing on topics in social work education.

Rose’s Story

In a doctoral seminar in fall 2008, Dr. Bob Vernon required us to read Rose’s Story and prepare a paper and presentation on it.  To give a sense of that short book, the following paragraphs provide three different summaries.  This first one is a summary that I stitched together, representing the gist of several reviews posted by various readers on Amazon.com:

This is the story of a woman who repeatedly fell through the cracks of the social work system.  It showed the need for more social workers and for policy reform.  I was left feeling sad, to know that we actually have social workers who are cruel and careless.  After reading the story, I couldn’t believe someone would put the effort into getting into the social work field, only to make others’ lives hell and provide no assistance whatsoever.  Even so, I’m not sure if I feel sorry for her hardships or if there is something more in depth to her issues.

The second one was provided by a student in Dr. Vernon’s seminar.  It was a fair representative of the responses provided, on paper and in class, by my nine classmates in that seminar:

Policies that guided access to appropriate and necessary health care consistently failed Rose, as they continue to do so for most Americans today. One explanation for this breakdown is the often masked economic system that stimulates corporate health care profit margins while raising insurance premiums, straining tax revenues, and diminishing public health.  Although the repercussions span multiple stakeholders such as physicians, public or philanthropic institutions, and insured consumers, individuals with marginal income and no insurance are highly susceptible to neglect of care.

The words may be longer, but that classmate’s summary is not terribly different from various points expressed by the Amazon readers.  Consider, by contrast, my interpretation, as submitted in my own paper in Dr. Vernon’s seminar:

Rose’s Story consists of a story within a story.  The book is ostensibly about Wanda (“Rose”) Bibb.  Taken within the context of its framing materials (e.g., Introduction, Epilogue), however, it is about making use of Wanda’s story for a particular purpose, potentially to Wanda’s detriment.  As such, it illustrates a larger failure to focus upon the client as an end in him/herself, not only within the institutions of the 1960s and 1970s, but also within the publication process.

My interpretation differed significantly from the views submitted by my classmates.  They all saw Wanda’s story as an opportunity to complain about holes in the social safety net, about corporate exploitation, and so forth.  I shared many of their sentiments.  But that’s not what this particular book was about.  It was developed from a document prepared by Wanda’s court-appointed assistant.  It was prepared for court, to make Wanda look like an innocent victim.  The more closely you look, the more you see that certain things are missing or are presented in a slanted way.

Upon hearing my presentation, Dr. Vernon said this was the first time, in all his years of using Rose’s Story, that anyone expressed this perspective.  It appeared that, by requiring PhD program applicants to have master’s degrees in SW or a related field, IUSSW may have been depriving its doctoral students and faculty of exposure to the sort of critical reading that would be expected in an undergraduate English class.  Instead, as one classmate said, I was interpreting Rose’s Story in a way that contravened our social work training.  She was not trained to recognize that someone who claimed to be speaking on behalf of an alleged victim might actually be advancing a separate agenda.

In my view, a person can care for the downtrodden while remaining open to critical perspectives on the stories that people tell.  The objective would be to avoid jumping in with both feet as soon as someone tells what may be a distorted tale.  Helping sometimes requires awareness of potential confusion or misrepresentation on the part of someone who does need help.  But it was me, not the professor, who was conveying these diverse perspectives.

The Presentation

Another post in this series, reporting on remarkable faculty behavior, contains an account of an incident in a course taught by Dr. James Daley.  Here, I describe another incident from that course.  (This incident appears here, rather than in that other post, because it does not relate to the formal complaints and investigations discussed there.)

This incident involves a student presentation.  Student presentations were common in IUSSW doctoral courses.  It did make sense that future professors would gain experience in preparing and presenting their ideas to an academic audience.  Professors commonly make such presentations, not only when teaching, but also at conferences and elsewhere.  So most of our courses required a presentation at some point.

Dr. Daley’s course was unusual in requiring each student to make three presentations.  It was a large class, as doctoral seminars go, with 16 students.  In other words, there were a total of 48 presentations (3 x 16) during the 14 effective class sessions.  (The course met once a week, for an official timeframe of two hours and 50 minutes.)  Needless to say, 48 student presentations can go far toward chewing up 14 class sessions.  So we did not see a lot of Dr. Daley’s own teaching during this semester.

Ideally, we would all have learned a great deal from our classmates’ presentations, in this class and others.  Regrettably, most such presentations gave us unavoidably superficial introductions to aspects of social work that had nothing to do with us.  For instance, it was not really important to me to spend class time listening to presentations, delivered in thick foreign accents, on subjects like the stress experienced by Chinese students in American universities.

(Ironically — to convey an additional sense of the mentality within the SSW — in a prior semester Dr. Hea-Won Kim had enthusiastically encouraged the Chinese student who chose to specialize in that particular topic, even though it appeared suited for a PhD program in higher education rather than social work.  Meanwhile, unfortunately, Dr. Kim had essentially required me to write a separate scholarly paper to justify my focus on unemployment.  She had expressed doubt as to whether that was an appropriate topic in social work.  She was evidently not aware of (or was perhaps willing, in my case, to overlook) the fact that the code of ethics of the National Association of Social Workers specifically named unemployment as a form of social injustice addressed by social workers.  In the end, that Chinese student was allowed to complete her PhD.  Meanwhile, during one of the most pronounced periods of unemployment in American history, the SSW has completely sidelined my work in that field.)

It was obvious that these seemingly endless presentations were not engaging the PhD students to whom they were delivered.  In saying that, I do not mean to fault either myself or the other students who were working hard to master these subjects.  The point is simply that, as we could see, neither Dr. Daley nor our classmates were generally engaged in our personal interests.  There was generally little to no discussion following these presentations.  Most of the time, an observer would probably conclude, we seemed to be listening in politely bored silence.

A person’s work can say a lot about the person, and that can also be true of a professor’s assignments.  I found one of our three presentation assignments particularly intriguing.  This assignment called for a review of a social work textbook.  According to one version of the course syllabus (Dr. Daley distributed several), we were required to “give a comprehensive overview of the text’s content and style, including its perspective, conceptual framework or theory base.”

Dr. Daley explained that assignment in class.  He said that he wanted us to examine a textbook, identify the theories discussed therein, and then decide whether those theories had “empirical support and a clear conceptual framework.”

Those words could be a bit vague.  A couple of examples may help.  In one student’s book, feminism was a topic.  In another student’s book, existentialism was a topic.  The students had to decide whether these “theories” had empirical support and a clear conceptual framework.

There was not much guidance on what would count as a clear conceptual framework.  The notion of empirical support sounded intelligible:  we should decide whether the theory was supported by research evidence.  But already, I suspect, some readers’ heads will have exploded.  It is not possible, here, to provide a full sense of how terribly confused such an assignment was.  But a few thoughts may sketch out the situation well enough.  Feminism, for example, can be called a doctrine, a policy, a movement, a collection of movements, a set of theories, and so forth.  There is not one simple feminist theory.  At the doctoral level — in social work, of all fields — it was extremely simpleminded to treat feminism as a single theory.  One might as well offer a snap judgment on whether religion is conceptually clear and supported by evidence.  To anyone who has any concept of religion, such an exercise would probably seem brainless.  One might ask:  what are the criteria of clarity?  Which religion?  According to whose concept of evidence?

There was some apparent bafflement on the part of students.  One had the misfortune of being assigned a book that contained about two dozen topics that Dr. Daley considered “theories.”  Her presentation therefore consisted largely of standing in front of the class and rattling off the list of topics and her conclusions about them:  “The psychodynamic perspective has little to no empirical support and a weak conceptual framework.  The racism theories perspective has moderate empirical support and a clear conceptual framework.  The chronological perspective has strong empirical support and a clear conceptual framework.”  And so forth.  Other students responded similarly.

Bear in mind that this was a fairly minor assignment, worth only 20% of the grade.  There was no chance that anyone was going to master even one or two (never mind two dozen) tremendously complex “theories” in order to render informed judgments on them.  There was, again, virtually no discussion.  Dr. Daley, in particular, did not probe into these judgments that he was requiring us to make about these “theories.”

In short, it was very odd.  It was not a fluke; Dr. Daley had imposed the same assignment on previous classes.  He truly saw nothing amiss in it.  As in other instances in his class, it was almost as if we were being taught by a child, for whom the purpose of being a professor was to give assignments and watch people go through various motions.  This, to him, was how you produce a PhD.

I did realize that there could be a diagnosis accompanying such behavior, something more clinically profound than what I would characterize as anosognosic hubris (a/k/a cluelessness).  I was in no rush to see evil when malady might be the better explanation.  But the man was drawing a salary of over $71,000 to perform these stunts at the expense of students like me; and as far as I could tell, he had the full backing of the SSW.  It appeared, by the time of this writing, that I had to take the matter at face value, and to try to understand it on that basis.

It did seem reasonable to wonder, that is, what a person should infer about IUSSW, given the prominence it accorded to Dr. Daley.  It was not just that this was the person selected to teach clinical mental health courses, as noted in the post on remarkable faculty behavior.  Dr. Daley had also served as editor of IUSSW’s own journal and had been on the PhD Committee.  He appeared, in addition, to be buddies with Dean Patchner — who, by some interesting coincidence, was selected, among all the possible people in American social work, to co-author a condemnation of the SSW at Missouri State University, where Dr. Daley had worked before coming to IU.

Plainly, Dr. Daley embodied something close to the heart of IUSSW.  I could come up with disparaging words for it.  But I hoped to do better than that — to understand how this sort of thing could ever be considered appropriate in a major university, or in the social work profession.  At this writing, however, I did not have sufficient information to explain it.  It was truly remarkable.

Again, this post does not seek to provide an extensive description of class sessions and assignments.  It may nonetheless present an adequate introduction to the context in which student-faculty relationships were formed.  Such relationships are the focus of the next post in this series.

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