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Perfecting the Evaluation Process

May 31, 2012, 10:43 am

The end of the year means one thing to everyone in academe: evaluation. Students are turning in papers, completing final exams, and doing presentations for assessment by their instructors. Faculty face two different kinds of evaluations: student evaluations and annual performance evaluations by their department chairs and/or Deans. While I have evaluated students for more than a decade, this year marks my first time evaluating faculty performance.

Like all the other firsts I have faced this year, I talked to peers with more experience, reviewed books about administration and faculty assessment, examined my own yearly evaluations from my prior schools, and looked through faculty files to see examples of written evaluations from the former department chair.

There are two parts to the evaluation process: the formal written document and the conversation between the faculty member and the administrator. My explorations revealed that written evaluations vary greatly. The first question is about the basis for evaluation: Are the goals set by the department or the faculty member him/herself? Then there are the style differences. Some evaluations are very minimal, some employ scoring sheets or ratings (exceeds/meets/fails to meet expectations), and other evaluations include long sections of prose about the faculty member, outlining strengths and weaknesses areas for growth. The writers’ tones differ as well: some are more straightforward, in a “Just the facts, Ma’am” kind of way, while others wax eloquent, extolling virtues and condemning weaknesses. These qualitative differences seem to be true regardless of whether the faculty is tenure-track or already tenured, though one would hope that tenure-track faculty would get a slightly more directive and thorough evaluation to prepare them for the tenure review process.

Yet, while the written evaluation is at least somewhat straightforward–you are recording information so as to provide feedback and direction, the assessment conversation process varies greatly based on the personality of the administrator. In my own experiences being evaluated, one administrator would just give me the form and ask for corrections during the meeting, wanting little actual face time. Another administrator used it as a time for encouragement and advice, starting with a “How is it going?” kind of opening question and finishing with some discussion of goals for the coming year. Each style was okay for me. I didn’t like the first boss, so having an impersonal quick discussion was quite fine with me! Conversations with the other boss were fun and filled with compliments, so that was also a positive experience. But I am clear that I differ greatly from both of these two bosses in my personal style, and my faculty all have their own preferences, needs, and interests that have to be accommodated considered.

Some advice carries over from all of my sources:

  • Focus on the positive contributions and find ways to praise and recognize the faculty member’s accomplishments. (Everyone likes to be appreciated.) I have found that everyone has something that can be praised.
  • Identify ways that the faculty member’s good work enhances the success of the department. Their successes (or failures) are not just their own, they reflect on the department. This approach helps foster recognition that faculty are indeed part of something larger.
  • Be a supporter and problem-solver, helping to identify ways to help the faculty member start/continue to meet his or her goals. (That said, don’t agree to anything that you don’t know if you can really accomplish/offer, and remember that everyone will find out what you promised Professor X, so you better be prepared when they come asking for the same. For me, this turns into, “Let me think about this and get back to you.” Rather than simply being a brushoff, it gives me time to consider all the resources I will have, who needs what most, and the best way to allocate these resources.)

When the evaluations are good, these conversations are fun and enlightening. I get to know what everyone is doing, where their passions lie in terms of research and teaching, and even get feedback about their individual plans and their hopes for  the unit. I also use this as a time to see what is working for them, and what isn’t working, as regards my leadership style. I have received some very helpful and some very surprising feedback on my style.

More challenging are the evaluations with faculty who aren’t making the grade. No one likes to have a difficult conversation, but these conversations are necessary if one wants to see change. (I know, you cannot make change happen for someone else, but you can pretty much count on it not happening if you don’t have the conversation.)

As a new administrator in an established department, I also find that my style is compared to that of my predecessor, who rarely gave direct negative feedback. As a result, I may seem more critical or harsh to those folks who got more negative reviews.

Holding people accountable is a drag, and the inevitable blow back, defensiveness, and/or tears are a draining part of the process. Using  insightful words from Jeffrey Buller’s book, The Essential Department Chair, which has a fantastic section on doing faculty evaluations, I have tried to stay calm and cool in these sessions, allowing time for the faculty member to work through their feelings and, eventually, move with me into a place of problem-solving. Every negative assessment in the written and oral evaluations is backed up with evidence (i.e., teaching scores, student comments, peer evaluator comments, examples of bad behavior in meetings, lack of publications, etc.), with an eye to the cause and/or resources that could help support improvement in this area.

With these negative reviews, I have experimented with (a) providing people time to read the evaluation first, (b) walking them through the written evaluation together, or (c) talking through the oral feedback first and then providing the written document afterwards. Since the written word can come across very distant and cold in its directness and specificity (okay, perhaps that is just true for me…), I find that first having a more personal discussion about the assessment is working better for me.  And, as Jeffrey B says, none of these critical evaluations should come as a surprise to the people involved, because I have been providing feedback all along.

I am hoping that this process will get easier as I get to know the faculty in my unit, and as I gain experience in conducting faculty assessment. If nothing else, at least I have my own boilerplate letter, a practiced approach to giving feedback, and a year to plan for it!

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