Uncivil Liberties: Teaching Evaluations and A Clarification

June 26, 2010, 3:12 pm

Courtesy of Margaret Soltan at University Diaries, who draws our attention to the recent exchange between Stanley Fish and Ross Douthat on this matter, I began thinking about teaching evaluations in a more orderly fashion than I have of late. My disorderly thoughts have been sparked by colleagues, several of whom are quite experienced teachers, receiving some of the rudest and cruelest teaching evaluations I have ever read at Zenith. Sexism is also on the rise, particularly among the students of younger, female faculty (who are also sometimes presumed to be adjuncts.)

I found these evaluations remarkable because my experience in the past has been that Zenith students often go out of their way to be charitable to someone they like and have empathy for, sometimes damning their professors with faint and contradictory praise as a result. The evaluations in question do the exact opposite: students going out of their way to slam the professor in a way that is obscurely connected to the matter at hand, sometimes perversely followed by comments that describe the class in quite thoughtful ways, making it clear the student got a lot out of the experience.

What has changed? We do teaching evaluations on line now; students do them in their rooms at whatever hour of the night they choose; and they must do them in order to get their grades. In other words, teaching evaluations have just become another $hitty chore that we drive students through with a stick. You might say: why not go back to doing them on paper, on the last class? The reason is, of course, that it was time consuming, wasteful, and expensive. As our registrar explained when we switched over to the new system, at the cost of no less than 10K a semester, the old system was badly flawed. Students often confessed to having collaborated as a class to turn in a group view of the professor, faculty often received their evaluations on the first day of spring classes (giving them no time to think about structural issues in their pedagogy), and envelopes full of evaluations that were to have been walked over by astudent were often found in the student center and abandoned in the dormitories.

So don’t think we will ever go back to paper evaluations. The question is, what are teaching evaluations for? Are they intended to evaluate someone for tenure? (Yes — and this was the issue that prompted the Fish-Douthat exchange.) Are they intended to help us become better teachers? (Yes, but if we don’t trust them, how do we evaluate what they say?) Are they intended to help students think about what they have learned? (Maybe — see Dean Dad about how students often forget what they have learned once the course is over.) The bigger question that Fish and Douthat raise is whether students ought to be the experts who are consulted in high-stakes evaluations of teaching.

If you ask me, one question that is not being asked here is: why do we consult students about the quality of the instruction without also consulting them on what they want to learn, why they want to learn it, and what its relevance to the larger program of study is? We ask them to enter into a conversation about teaching in the university without any instruction about what information we need, why or what constitutes responsible assessment of teaching (for example, “the professor was only interested in his own opinions” is hardly the point — it is the student who ought to be interested in what the professor has to offer, and consider being less anxious about having her own views validated.) Furthermore, no one consults students about how they would like to be assessed and what they want to know about their own work. Grading can devolve into a grudge match between two teams with unequal power: in response, nationwide, faculty have thrown in the towel and inflated grades dramatically. We then get our students, and I suppose our self-respect, back by telling the press loudly that our students don’t actually deserve the grades they are getting.

I Have Not, Nor Have I Ever Been

My last post about what I see as the pitfalls of academic celebrity drew some cheers; one caution (my beloved Western Colleague, she of the famous Tool Post, wisely suggested that I refrain from pissing in the wind); and one personally nasty signed comment (not, I might add, anyone mentioned in the post) which listed my numerous hopeless flaws and offenses to authority. I removed the comment (see sidebar for the comment policy), because if people want to write opinion pieces about my qualifications to walk the earth they are free to do it on their own blog — but not on mine.

The style of the comment reminded me of the opening credits to a television show from my youth:

According to the writer, I am unlettered, unread, marginal to and ignorant about the world of queer studies, snide, have no queer vocabulary and wouldn’t understand what I read even if I read it, and am a liberal. My readers can decide about all of these things on about the same basis that the commenter did. However, there was one damning accusation I wish to
refute absolutely.

I am not, nor have I ever been:

A social historian.

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