On Learning the Value of Protocol

As one returning to academic life after several decades away, I’ve had a lot of fast learning to do. One recent lesson has been on the importance of protocol.

From a different perspective, that is.

When you’re the boss, when the company is one you’ve created and run yourself, you do put procedures in place—and hope that your employees will follow them. But you are taking a holistic approach—and are developing means to achieve specific and clear goals,or to solve immediate problems. There’s no “institutional memory” involved… hell, you are the institution.

In a huge university system like CUNY (with 19 campuses) and a history going back some 160 years, the situation is… how can I say it… slightly different. Things that seem arcane and simply there to confuse can actually turn out to have a certain amount of merit. So, I am finding, it is useful to go along with the system (though, as a good leftist, I can’t believe I’m saying that) until you have seen its effect and can judge its utility through full knowledge of the situation.

A year ago, during my first tenure-track semester at New York City College of Technology, I met with the colleague who had observed my class for the obligatory post-observation conference. He sat me down and handed me his report. I immediately pulled out a pen and made to sign it.

He stopped me. “Read it first.”

“Oh, I’ll read your suggestions for improvement, but I know I’m fine with whatever you say.”

“Read the whole thing. That’s how it’s done. Just do it to humor me. After all, I had to write it. And if I can follow procedure, so can you.”

And so I did, and we talked for a bit about the class… and then I signed. The whole thing was relatively painless and, I have to admit, I got something from it.

A year later, my fictional friend Sam Stamper had a rather peculiar observation conference that he worried might have a negative impact on his career. He didn’t keep quiet about it, though, and asked a number of people what to do, including his union representative.

The union person told him that any observation report by Professor Fayles concerning that particular class and conference would be grounds for a grievance if it ended up in his personnel file.

Why? Because Fayles had not done what the man who observed me had: she had not written up her report before the conference, violating the protocol set forth in our union agreement. The Collective Bargaining Agreement that governs many of our professional actions is quite explicit:

Each observer shall submit, through the department chair, a written observation report… within one week of the observation….

The department chairperson shall schedule the post-observation conference for the employee within two weeks after receipt of the written observation report. The post-observation conference shall include the employee and the observer. (Article 18, 2.a and 2.b)

Stamper, of course, immediately arranged for a second observation by another observer—one that followed protocol exactly.

When I was so cavalier about protocol last year, I was brushing aside as merely bureaucratic nicety what I now realize is important protection for both parties in an observation. The man who insisted we follow the rules, a veteran CUNY professor, knew exactly what he was doing and why.

By forcing the observer to write a report (and a report whose parts are clearly spelled out on the required form) before the post-observation conference, and by inserting another person (the chair), a brake is placed on the process, if needed. When we write, we edit ourselves, trying words out and seeing, sometimes, that what we had intended to say is inappropriate. Fayles would have benefited by writing first, most certainly. During the conference, she would have had something to refer to and probably would have stuck to it, never getting angry or accusatory.

Even if her writing had carried in it her frustration with what Stamper represented to her (a change in the department that threatens to leave her behind), the chair would have been able to intercept her report, keeping her from presenting it to Stamper. Fayles and the chair could have talked privately, giving her a chance to air her grievances and the chair an opportunity to try to bring her in line with what he is trying to do to create a broader and more dynamic department.

But Fayles, like I would have before this incident, decided to ignore protocol and do things her own way. The result was a meeting that did no one any good and an observation report that, when finally written, alit in no file but that classic circular one.