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Fear No Eval

A confession: this fall, compiling application dossiers in evidence of my teaching effectiveness, I read my students’ evaluations for the first time in over two years. It’s not that I’ve avoided feedback; during that period I’ve had my teaching regularly reviewed by graduate faculty and peers whose notes have been greatly appreciated. Nor is it that I am particularly thin-skinned in the face of criticism. Rather, I think I began avoiding student evaluations after my first semesters as a teacher because they simply baffled me and I felt I was spending altogether too much of my teaching energy worried about how I was being graded.

What exactly did it mean when one student simply wrote, “Did not learn a thing. Terrible.,” and then, in the standardized portion of the form, checked that he or she agreed that the instructor “stimulated student learning”? This particular evaluation came from a senior in a freshman-level course. What should that tell me? Even many of the favorable responses seemed to wander off topic. I had students comment on my appearance and my accent (I’m from the Deep South), but they rarely offered specific thoughts on the instruction itself. At least that’s what I thought at the time.

I discovered something different though when I finally began reading through the intervening evaluations. There were some comically unhelpful responses (one evaluated the young ladies in the class), but, on the whole, the feedback was earnest even when it wasn’t articulate. With a little more maturity as a teacher, I found I could often read the substance of even the vaguer comments. Perhaps most importantly, in those two-hundred pages of evaluations I saw the narrative of a teacher whose early insecurities had made him too inflexible and unwelcoming to alternative perspectives from the class. This teacher (I can look at him more objectively now) had gradually learned to loosen the reins, to be less dogmatic, more Socratic, but there were still other areas in which he needed improvement.

I had become a stronger teacher even without the aid of student evaluations, but I wonder, if I had been more attuned to their feedback a few years ago, would that have happened more quickly? It can be tempting to present myself to prospective employers as a finished product, but when I review my evaluations I am reminded how easy it is to miss some pedagogical flaw. The 19-year-olds in our intro classes may not be particularly well equipped to dissect our lapses, but they certainly feel them over the course of a semester, and, perhaps with a little work, we can tease meaningful criticism out of their notes.

Have others been similarly surprised by what they found in their students’ evaluations? Perhaps looking back over several semesters, you’ve noticed trends you weren’t aware of? What else should we be learning from student responses to our teaching?

Editor’s note: Please welcome George David Clark, a Ph.D. candidate in English at Texas Tech University and a fellow in creative writing at Colgate University, who has joined the On Hiring blog as a regular contributor. Share your thoughts and questions about his posts in the comments section below, or submit a question to his attention at onhiring@chronicle.com.

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