Xyk the Sub

Dear readers, I have a question for you. But first, a bit of information.

This week, I am substituting for a colleague who’s away at a conference and teaching his own large undergrad course. I teach this course often, so lecturing is no big deal. I subbed for the same colleague in the same course a few years ago, when he taught it last.

This colleague is… Not the department’s most coveted teacher. He means well and he prepares, he’s just… Not a very effective communicator. That’s a well-known fact in the department, and we don’t bend over backwards to have him teach undergraduate courses, but he still has to on occasion (and it really makes no sense to effectively reward poor classroom performance by having him teach only graduate courses or undergrad electives). Anyway, this is all to say that I wasn’t particularly surprised that a few students came to ask me, “Could you please keep teaching this course for the rest of the semester?” Flattering, yes, but I obviously cannot, and they know it. I did tell them they could come ask me questions about the course if they needed help.

I have developed an extensive set of lecture notes for that course, and I am pretty sure the colleague uses them to prepare for his lectures (he has all my materials). The last time I subbed for him, I offered the students my lecture notes, they jumped on the offer, so I posted the notes online and gave them a link. The colleague said thanks, but thereafter many students stopped coming to class for him, and I think he blamed it on them having my lecture notes.

From what the students communicated to me this week, they don’t actually have much material to study from. While I am pretty sure the colleague  uses a standard textbook, it seems many students are confused as to what the text should be or if there even is one. I mentioned my notes in class, but then I asked the colleague if he would be okay with me giving them the notes, and he said he’d rather I didn’t. So I didn’t.

But now a couple of students approached me about the notes, and one just asked about them in an email.

This is my question. What do I tell the student who explicitly asked for the notes in an email?

On the one hand, these students pay tuition and I think it’s everyone’s duty to help them succeed as best they can. The students happen to have been exposed to me and would benefit from something that’s easy for me to give away (the notes). However, the colleague said no, so I am not posting them for everyone to see. But I should answer something to the student asking for the notes explicitly.

The options are (not all of them are serious, obviously):
a) send the student a pdf; b) give him a hard copy of the notes; c) either a or b, along with swearing the student to secrecy with a blood oath; d) tell the student I can’t because his instructor said not to; e) tell him I am sorry but I can’t and that the instructor has the notes, and if he feels the class should have them, he’ll post them; f) ignore the question; g) ignore the colleague’s wishes and just give everyone the notes.

I cannot imagine that I would say, to someone offering students an additional resource, “No, please don’t,” unless I thought the source was scientifically misleading or incorrect (which my notes are not). The more resources, the better, especially if they are inexpensive (don’t get me started on predatory publishers, churning new editions of $200 textbooks every two years even though they contain nothing but 200-year-old physics, thereby preventing the students from getting used copies or reselling their own; I know it’s business, but the greed is just disgusting).

What say you, blogosphere?


  1. I’d say go for it. If the student stops coming to class, it’s not your fault if they feel their time and money is better spent reviewing notes instead of going to class. Your colleague is trying to force them to come to class rather than creating an environment where they feel they’re learning. That’s not good for anyone.

  2. Sharing your notes with the students after their instructor explicitly asked you not to might make them happy, but it will surely sour your relationship with your colleague. Please consider speaking to him about it before acting rashly. Maybe you can get him on the same page about putting his ego aside and helping his students to learn with whatever resources are available.

  3. “… really makes no sense to effectively reward poor classroom performance by having him teach only graduate courses or undergrad electives.” Hmm, that’s the exact opposite way than we do it at my institution/department. Here, we make sure the large undergraduate lecture courses are only taught by our very best classroom teachers, because we feel that helps us recruit majors. At the advanced undergrad or grad level… well, to be blunt, we’ve already hooked’em, they’re not so likely to change majors if they have a course taught by someone who is less than stellar in the classroom.

  4. And by the way, regarding your question: absolutely do NOT give the other professor’s notes to a student without their permission. Those notes are the other professor’s intellectual property (even if it’s the basics of physics, and nothing unique) just as much as their research data would be! If you stepped into another professor’s lab for an hour to babysit an experiment while they were called away for an emergency, would you give those data to a student without the PI’s permission? It could be considered the equivalent, in principle.

  5. Gob of Goo, the notes in question are mine (not the other instructor’s), so as far as intellectual property issues, they are mine, so also mine to give. (The colleague uses a lot of my materials.) The only reason to not give the students notes would be out of deference to the colleague’s wishes, which is what I am leaning towards, but I wonder if I am thereby somehow betraying the students.

    As for undergrad course staffing, you make a good point. But there is so little help and no glory in teaching these massive undergrad courses; they are much more work than lower-enrollment courses, but all courses count the same towards out teaching loads. Until the discrepancy in the workload is resolved somehow or different-size courses count differently (not holding my breath), everyone has to chip in. I teach large-enrollment undergrad courses more often than average because I do a good job and I like undergrads, but it would effectively be a penalty to always saddle me (and others like me) with this extra workload and also prevent me from teaching graduate courses (which would hurt my research students), while essentially rewarding crappy teachers with perpetually lighter workloads, teaching graduate courses that help their research students, and overall more time for research and other pursuits that build up their CVs.

    I know, it’s the dichotomy of teaching and research at a research school…

  6. I’m in a similar situation in that I teach a course every spring that gets taught by a different instructor every fall. Luckily, everyone seems pretty happy about sharing and adopting the same lab materials. We have a permanent download site for all course materials…I wonder if a resolution for the future would be to just leave your lecture notes online somewhere that any student can access them? You can also self publish them with an open source license (e.g., https://www.lulu.com/) and then they are just ‘out there’ and no one can gag you. (students can buy a bound copy of your notes for ~$20). Doesn’t solve the current conundrum, but might dodge it in the future.

  7. I come at this from a different academic system (British, though our fees are also on the rapid increase) and Humanities but my twopennyworth …

    One possibility: ask the colleague again whether he minds you sharing the notes with an individual student, rather than posting them publicly for everyone. But otherwise, I wouldn’t – the colleague has said he would prefer you not to, and I think by asking in the first place you implicitly agree to abide by his wishes. Ultimately: he’s the one teaching the course and even if you disagree with his decisions, they should be respected.

    You’ve offered to answer students’ questions, and said they can come to you for help – the student in question can still do that and you could reiterate that to her/him. I don’t think you’re letting them down in your responsibilities to them. And surely they could also go to colleague and ask for a bit more advice / more resources?

  8. He specifically said not to, so don’t. If there are students on campus who still have your notes, maybe hint that to the petitioner. Otherwise tell the petitioner to ask the prof for his notes.

    If you get overwhelmed with students asking you for help on this class, make sure to set boundaries.

  9. Uncomfortable situation all around, for sure.

    But in the most basic terms it’s not your class, not your responsibility. Making yourself available to answer questions is generous, and I think, probably the best way to handle it.

  10. I think giving the notes to some students is really unfair. In my experience when notes are “out there” some students get them but the most vulnerable ones (who probably need them the most) don’t.
    As for going against your colleague, I think I would tell him that you had a specific ask from a student and don’t feel it is fair to just share the notes with one student without making them available to all and would he be willing to share them on the class site or should you host them on your website? (note this never asks if you can share them but implies you will and which way would he like it done)
    Otherwise, I think the idea of a constant place you keep your notes (maybe a previous courses section on your site) is a great way to make them always available (use good key words so that students of future courses will find the page easily).

  11. Personally, I’d forward the email to the colleague (so that he has time to read/think it over rather than just walking into his office and surprising him with the conversation), and say something like, “I know you asked me not to share my notes with your class, so I haven’t, but this student has specifically asked me for them. Would it be OK with you if I sent my notes to this student, while also emphasizing that it will be important for him/her to continue to utilize the course-specific information provided by your lectures and assignments, or would you prefer that I decline the student’s request? I would like to help the student succeed in the course, but I also want to make sure that I am not undermining your teaching strategies.” That way you lay out the dilemma, respect your colleague’s autonomy for the course, and give him the chance to be the bigger person. If he still says no, well, then you can feel guiltless when you say no to the student. I personally wouldn’t want to send the notes directly to a student without checking in with this colleague, since he specifically asked you not to. I hate these situations — I absolutely feel your desire to help out the students and acquiesce to their totally reasonable request, but you do have to work with this guy for decades to come and this situation is probably not the moral hill you want to die on.

  12. Can you post the notes on your web page? Then they will always be there for all students to access, independent of who is teaching the class (and how poorly they are teaching it.)

  13. Jen, we have semester-specific course pages that generally require a student to be enrolled to access (or the instructor can add someone manually). I have a research group page, but I don’t put anything related to teaching there.

    Early on when I was a prof, I had some of my notes freely available on the web, only to find out that there were people out there who were offering to sell them! It was very weird and uncomfortable to find out that someone is making money (and there is a market?) for my handwritten class notes. It felt weirdly intrusive.

  14. I’m with the others who said you were specifically requested not to share by your colleague so don’t do it. I understand wanting to help out students but getting involved in someone elses class by providing notes or offering to answer questions seems (a) like one more unnecessary thing to add to your busy schedule and (b) a bit undermining to your colleague. Seems like something best just to avoid.

  15. Your notes are your notes. Post them on your website if you want to share them with the world. If you post all your notes for your version of the course, it is a service to anyone wanting to learn or teach the material. I don’t know why you asked your colleague about whether you could disseminate your own work. The only reasonable question to ask him is whether he wanted to link to it on the course web site. (The course does have a web site doesn’t it? With a complete syllabus including the name of the textbook? If not, what sort of secret society are you teaching at?)

  16. I agree with some of the previous posters–students are for a semester, but you live with your colleague forever. He asked you not to, so don’t. I also think it is unfair to give out notes to some students and not others since you are acting as a substitute professor for this course.

  17. You’re a better “man” than I am, xyk, in your willingness to help someone else’s students. Maybe I am too cynical and jaded (for sure I am), but when I read this, my first thoughts were: Is this colleague paid more than you? Does he have a lighter teaching load (besides this one large course)? Does he get better support for his teaching (TAs and whatnot)? Is he treated better than you are in any way? If yes, then you should not be going to any extra effort for his students. Sure, guest lecture for him. That’s basic collegiality. But giving students your notes? Meeting with them? Oh hell no. Your concern for the students is laudable, but it’s not your job to make up for your colleague’s shortcomings. And by doing so, it takes pressure off the administration to improve the climate for the undergrads by, for example, rewarding good teaching.

    Also, as everyone else pointed out, if he asked you not to share your notes, then you just shouldn’t do it, even if it’s dumb.

  18. You should totally ignore the student. Your notes are not their only path to success and you run the risk of creating conflict with your colleague, and its longterm negative effect on students will be far worse than you not giving your notes. I would not even mention it to him as you will be offending him.

  19. I’d agree with gasstationwithoutpumps: “Your notes are your notes. Post them on your website if you want to share them with the world. If you post all your notes for your version of the course, it is a service to anyone wanting to learn or teach the material.”

  20. I think that you should post your notes publicly on the web if you want to share them. Sharing them with individual students gives assertive students a huge advantage over non-assertive students.

    I think you shouldn’t get involved with the other faculty or ask them about whether to share your notes or not. In my experience, asking them gives them power that they should not have. By putting your stuff on the web publicly, you are sidestepping the issue of whether you are undermining this other faculty’s class. All you are doing is making your notes publicly available. They are just as available to students at another university as they are to students at yours.

    In terms of people making money off of your webpages, you should shrug it off and live with it. If you find a specific case, you can yell at them, but it’s not worth your time to fight that. It’s frustrating, but not the kind of fight you are going to win. Think of it like unix – it’s free, but lots of companies will sell it to you. If some students are dumb enough to pay for notes that they can get for free, there’s really nothing you can do about it. I think it’s only a real problem if you are trying to make money and they are stealing money from you. Undersell them by making your stuff free. And hiding it only encourages the market of people selling it.

    To legally set it up so that people are not supposed to be allowed to resell your notes, remember (1) that they are copyrighted by definition and (2) that you can make them available in a “legal for non-commercial reuse” license. You can remind people that they are copyrighted by putting a (c) at the top and the date you wrote them. (Any document is copyrighted the instant you write it. You do not have to file anything. Copyright is not like a patent.) You can put a short text at the top saying that these notes are shared by non-commercial reuse. (Basically I recommend using the software sharing licenses that are hanging around.) But even if you do this, I don’t recommend wasting effort fighting it. Make your stuff publicly available and outlive the bastards.

  21. @qaz, The software licenses are not well-designed for text. For text, the license agreements to use are the Creative Commons licenses, which come in a variety of flavors. From what xykademiqz has written, I suspect she would be happiest with the CC 3.0 BY-NC license.

  22. I talked this over with my stats professor husband, and his response was you shouldn’t go against the request of your fellow faculty member. If you want to stay in the good graces of the student who asked you, then put the onus on the person teaching the class. However, can you point the student to some other resources that are available online that may be helpful? Or a textbook? There are ways to provide assistance without providing your notes.

  23. Hi all, many thanks for the replies. What I did was to tell the student I was not at liberty to share the notes, but gave him links to several inexpensive texts ranging from popular to textbook. This did prompt me to think further what to do with the notes; I have an extensive collection (I have taught a number of different courses over the years) and they are all handwritten. I think they are quite lovely and am disinclined to type them up (many of the visual clues are lost when typesetting and essentially turning the exposition linear, and I have no time, energy, or desire to embark on an extensive professional design journey, and the very idea of drawings everything on the computer that takes no time by hand just makes me dizzy). Anyway, I like the notes how they are, but am unsure if I want them all out in the world in all their handwritten and non-copyedited glory, and yes there is the weird issue of copyright (you’d think handwritten stuff would be more like drawings than typeset text). Ponderable… Thanks everyone for sharing your thoughts!

  24. Again late to the discussion, but I would feel free to share the notes from the specific classes you taught the students. I wouldn’t share the notes from the full class against the other professors’s wishes.

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