Saturday, June 26, 2010

Uncivil Liberties: Teaching Evaluations and A Clarification

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.


Comrade PhysioProf said...

recent exchange between Stanley Fish and Ross Douthat

Independent of whatthefuckever they may have been "exchanging" about, that concept is so fucking horrible in so many ways, I don't even know what the fuck to say. It's the apotheosis of just fucking shoot me.

And BTW, since when is "snide" an insult?

Anonymous said...

The latter half of this post is a great commentary on academic celebrity. Because I don't get the joke -- the punchline at the end about social historians. (I'm not an academic and don't understand what's wrong with social historians).

Otherwise, I enjoy reading your blog (my daughter's in academe and I occasionally browse these blogs to see what her life is all about).

chaunceydevega said...

Adding you to the blogroll.

Great post, I am working on something similar. I too am really struck by the meanness of evaluations as of late. Is it the economy, entitlement, general snowflakery?

chauncey devega

Anonymous said...

The whole "student-as-consumer/professor-as-service-provider" model has made impossible the existence of evaluations that might actually help us do our jobs better. If you don't pander and coddle, you are guaranteed low numbers and scathing comments (i.e., "not student friendly"). The anonymity doesn't help, either. God knows most of the mean comments we get are uttered by people who don't have the skirt to say these things to our faces (or to even let us know that something was amiss to begin with).

All that said, my evals have been good, so I swear I'm not bitter. I just find myself cynical about the whole process. I don't need a bunch of anonymous surveys to tell me when I did well (or not).

shane said...

I always thought that my alma mater was remarkably civilized about such things. In the mid-90s, we were required to fill out teaching-evaluations on ancient little terminal machines maintained solely for that purpose. (Literally; they were hauled out of some closet near the statistics lab around exam-time, powered up for a few days, and hauled back into it afterwards.) They were strictly numerical, on a 1-5 or 1-10 scale with a bunch of different questions, but they only took about 10 minutes to do. It was optional to fill out a handwritten form giving more detailed anecdotes, but those who didn't do the computer evaluation got fined some small-but-significant amount on our university accounts. I now understand that this system was part of the formal T&P process in some way, but that didn't register for me at the time.

There was another side to teaching evaluations, though: the department of Student Affairs, I think, or maybe it was the SGA, conducted and published its own course surveys for the benefit of students. The Aspects surveys were partially numerical, but the real value in them was the written-out comments. Because students were writing specifically for other students who'd end up using the published surveys as a course-selection guide, people mostly didn't misrepresent. It was easy to tell when a professor had a cult following and when an anonymous student had a grudge, and that in itself was worth knowing before signing up for any given class. This was before RateMyProfessors, but it wasn't dissimilar (except, perhaps, in being more civil.)

The published-on-paper format was also useful. Every student house got 1 or 2 copies of each semester's reports, and the backissues stayed around year to year. You could read the past 2-3 years of Aspects to find out who taught really interesting courses that you'd never thought of taking, or to find out which instructor you should angle for in a departmental course that rotated through different instructors every year.

Did professors read their reviews in Aspects? I'm sure they did, and I'm sure that some believed their students were being petty. But they didn't have their effectiveness as teachers officially evaluated by that guide, and the separation seemed to work fairly well.

Historiann said...

TR--I hadn't connected my Tool Post to your post on the FQS, but now I see that they're both a kind of comment on certain academic celebrities, and as we have both discovered, academic celebrities have their rabid fanboiz and fangirlz who can't let one person on the internets disagree with them without a nasty response.

Oh, well.

As for student evals: GayProf had a really thoughtful post on the consequences of going to on-line evals recently at his place (last 18 months or so?) I need to read the Fish-Douthat exchange (someone remind me: what precisely are Douthat's credentials for commenting on higher education issues? Anyone? Anyone?), but it seems to be that any department that requires student evals in T&P dossiers without conducting peer reviews of the teaching are committing gross malpractice.

AYY said...

I read your blog periodically and agree with Anon 1:01's first paragraph. Contrary to the comment you deleted, I think you're generally not snide and there's very little rancor in your postings. On the other hand, you do tend to caricature conservative arguments, but that's probably an occupational hazard.

JoVE said...

on student evals: one thing that has always struck me is the timing. With paper evals (& I'm not sure if this changes with new online systems), we ask students to evaluate the course at the point when their anxiety about it is at its highest -- right before the exam (or whatever final assessment).

At this point in the course, students tend to believe that they have learned nothing and are going to fail. This translates into negative comments about the course.

I have had students come up to me after an exam and ask if they can change their comments. Once in the actual exam, they realized that they knew much more than they thought and wanted to revise their evaluation in a positive direction.

I agree with your other points. (And the whole idea of academic celebrity makes me queasy.)

Anonymous said...

But... Butt... TR... whats the matter with being a social historian?

...why some of my best friends are social historians

(as he brushed off the leather elbow patches on his tweed jacket and contemplatively puffed on his pipe)

BTY – Student evaluations, even on-line evals, are fine, as long as I get to pick the questions. I have found the questions I ask on the evals invaluable for improving my teaching. I am not sure that they can be used for tenure and promotion.