Thursday, October 19, 2006

Teaching Evaluations (Written After An Unpleasant Meeting)

One of the peculiar features of college teaching now is the teaching evaluation. At the end of the semester, students get a chance to rate various aspects of the class, and at my school there are spaces for them to write more subjective comments (anything from real comments on the teaching to "great boots!"). I would like to note that the majority of students take this activity seriously as a contibution to the teaching endeavor, maybe even more seriously than they should. For a time I worked in an urban public college where the students routinely refused to fill out the evaluations because they were sure no one cared. At my school, the students often come from places where they were SURE that everything they said mattered, so they knuckle down to the task and take it very seriously. Like their SAT's.

That having been said, everyone who doesn't have his or her head in a bag knows that:

a) students collaborate. Thus you see the same phrases and ideas pop up in fifteen or twenty evaluations, because the students have all agreed ahead of time to write the same thing. They do this for people they like and people they dislike.

b) students project their own feelings about the professor on the professor; i.e., accusing the prof of having developed a personal grudge that caused the student to have a crappy experience, get a bad grade, acquire low self-esteem. I also think this is a way of students who don't feel they got enough attention developing a relationship (i.e, You Hate Me) that they couldn't figure out how to have after the fact.

c) you can sometimes teach really badly and get great evaluations. The reverse is also true. People who get great evaluations will not admit this. People who get terrible evaluations insist on it.

The latest pain is a website called, where students can log on and write really nasty things that the other students can see: other students don't see the university's evaluations. So this is advertised as a way of spreading useful information that students need. Ok, go look at your colleagues' evaluations and roar with laughter over one of your enemies being described as "senile," "doddering," "shouldn't be in the classroom." Of course this is based on nine students when the guy taught 100 or so last year. But whatever, it's a hoot, right? Then look at your own. Sure, you'll recognize a couple as being the person you recognize having taught that class. But mainly, students have to go so out of their way to evaluate you on a website. Often it is only the ones who really hate your guts who bother to post, or students who are out of control angry in general, or working for David Horowitz. Hell, for all you know, it's your own colleagues, And the students, at least, probably do it when they are stoned. The good news is that you can ask the people who run the website that a posting be reviewed if it is "erronious" or "libelous." My guess is "libelous" is the word most likely to succeed in a permanent take-down, but I won't know for sure for few days.

Of course, if you are a full professor, as I am, with tenure, as I have, students can evaluate you, but you know what? No one, I mean no one, gives a damn.

This is either something to look forward to or a reason to relax and get your sense of humor back, depending on how you are positioned.

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