Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Dr. Amelia Opens Herself Up to Advice On How to Make Teaching-Focused Work For Her.

So here are We'llBeGreatSomeday U., we are teaching focused. That means, among other things, that student evaluations are of paramount and frightening significance in determining the future prospects of faculty.

Dr. Amelia is probationary. And it's the time of the year when students are asking if instead of turning in the paper they are supposed to be writing, they can post a video on YouTube "on the same stuff." Or, since Dr. Amelia is lucky enough to teach the required first-year course in YouAreSpecial to freshmen, can they just count any old random thing they did go to ("I went to a local liquor store. That's local culture!") as a required campus event.

I so want to say "You're kidding, right?" But instead, I feel the need to placate the little dears. So they rank me higher and I can keep my job.

Which is better:

a) Smile, and say "Yes, darling, whatever YOU think is best because it is YOUR education" and plan on learning how to cowboy up after P & T.

b) Gently say "No, darling, I'm sorry, but here's why a liquor store isn't the same as a campus lecture" and let the chips fall where they may.

c) Say "Um, no." and pack my office, but like myself in the morning.


  1. Dr. Amelia, I am not sure what the political climate is really like there. I am wondering if there is a seasoned, tenured person there to whom you could post this query. Because such a person would truly be in the know as to how much this kind of thing will effect you.

    BUT. Here is some advice I have.

    1. Many, many times, here on CM, and IRL, I have heard the old axiom that nothing beats treats to get those student evals up. Bring treats on the day of the eval. I myself has done this, and seen results.

    2. I was told to do this by an older, seasoned person, and I think it helped. Look at the list of 16 or so items upon which you will be ranked. Speak to those items specifically in class. Explain, specifically, how you did those things. Example: one of our items is "returns stuff on time." The next assignment, make a specific comment about how you returned it so soon, because you care about the little dumplings. Another item is "uses class time wisely." Tell them specifically, that you want to know what THEY think is the best use of class time. Get them to write it down. Then, spend class time doing it, and tell them how you are doing it...taking their advice about wise ways to use class time. It is basically setting yourself up like a whore to the snowflakes, BUT IT WORKS so you might want to do it. I did this in my Padawan days, because although I have said that it is not too hard to get tenure at my CC, and it is not compared to what my SLAC and R1 friends have gone through, you DO need lots and lots of semesters of high student evaluations. And I don't even regret it. If you do lots of self assessment activities with them, and tell them you are doing it to improve your teaching and their learning experience, they actually take it seriously, like it, and give you some great feedback. AND you get two benefits: High evals, and great feedback. It sounds hokey, but just describing it here, I am thinking that my lazy tenured ass should do more of this next semester.

    3. I don't think you need to okay dumb shit like the liquor store or whatever real example that correlated to. Hopefully that was an exaggeration, but I am not actually sure. I have found that delivering negative answers and bad news with a truly compassionate and kind tone and demeanor, one that hopefully you can get yourself to truly feel so that it rings even more true, makes even some horrible medicine go down smoothly. Explain yourself. Speak in calm, understanding tones. Hold their hand, figuratively. Even the snowflakes (the Racist Rebecca's of the world aside) can absorb quite a bit of reality when it is delivered with a soft touch.

    I wish you the best of luck, and I hope this helps!!!

    1. I'll elaborate on Bella's comments.

      1. Yes.

      2. Yes.

      3. Yes.

  2. Do you have a union? Even if you don't, overemphasizing the results of student evaluation is an important issue. Either your union or the Academic Senate should be concerned, and that concern might begin with looking at the individual questions students are asked to respond to. "Begins and ends class on time" is a common question; it's also one that is valid because students have sufficient background to answer it in a meaningful way. "Demonstrates expertise in subject matter" is also a common question; but it is NOT a question that students are competent to answer.

    That's a start, (and for follow-up, there's a huge literature on student evaluations), but you're probably not the only person on campus who's questioning "the paramount and frightening significance" of student evaluations and faculty members' futures.

    Your post says you're "probationary," but does that mean you're on a tenure track or are you an adjunct? If you're an adjunct, there's not much hope if your student evaluations are negative, so I'd do all the pandering I could live with if I wanted to keep my job.

    If you're on a tenure track, then I'd hope my tenure review committee would consider some of these questions. Of course, if your tenure committee has bought into the paramount importance of student evaluations, then you're back to doing as much pandering as you can live with.

  3. I took route (c). As a consequence, I was yelled at by two incompetent department chairs a lot. I got tenure only by direct intervention by the provost, who liked my research projects with Hubble Space Telescope, the external funding that came with them, and my ability to involve students in them. It sucks that integrity for junior faculty comes at such a high price. Is it any wonder how the integrity of the academy as a whole is increasingly in doubt?

    Now that I have tenure and seniority, I am gleefully in a "race to the bottom" to see how low I can make my student evaluations go. I try not to be gratuitously nasty, but I remember how much of the deepest, most memorable learning I ever did was when I was being screamed at in the U.S. Navy. My having low evaluations now helps our junior faculty, since they're all expected to be "above average" on their student evaluations, just like at Lake Woebegone.

    1. I was certainly one of those students for whom shame at/fear of getting called out was (and remains) an excellent motivator. It takes all kinds. As long as the department isn't totally full of these people, if that's your style, Frod, I say stick to it.

  4. There are options other than those. And remember their evals are due before their final grades are.

    I can just tell students "no," because I'm tenured. But if I had to do it over again...

    Whenever a student asks you for something stupid, look off into the distance thoughtfully. Say "hmmmm....that's an interesting thought." Say "hmmmm...." some more.

    Then say "I'll have to think about this and you'll have to figure out how this is going to work before I can give the okay. I'll tell you should write up a couple of pages on why you want to do this instead of X. That will give us something to talk about. When you're done with that I'll see you in my office hours!"

    Ahem. No you won't. The easiest way to placate your students, other than donuts, is to feign interest in their bullshit and then make them go through so much crap to get what they want that it's too late to give you that bad evaluation.

    I give out 5% of extra credit at the end of the semester. 5% of their total grade. That's a shitload of extra credit. But hardly anyone gets it because they refuse to do the extra work required. It's the equivalent of reading an extra book and understanding it enough to summarize the chapters correctly.

    Ha. They won't do that. But when they don't, they won't resent ME for it. So I give them the moon. But I make them carry it. Believe me they drop that damn thing right quick.

    1. I like this approach. A grade complaint in my department involves writing a letter to the chair. Although I've had a few threatened grade complaints, I've never had a student follow through, in large part, I suspect, because I cheerfully explained/linked to the directions for writing said letter, which showed that (1)I wasn't afraid of their complaining and (2) that it would involve work on their part.

  5. "My having low evaluations now helps our junior faculty, since they're all expected to be "above average" on their student evaluations, just like at Lake Woebegone"

    So the *junior* faculty are expected to be above average? In other words, the people who are supposedly learning their trade are expected to be better than the ones who have been doing it for years? Hmmm.

    1. Yup. Ridiculous, ain't it?

      It gets better. The junior faculty are also expected to be establishing research programs, whereas too many of the senior faculty stopped doing research years ago. If there were any justice, the old deadwood would therefore be assigned heavier teaching loads.

  6. So hand him a muffin while telling him "no"??? Such a stupid game we play.

  7. I was tt at a cc up until this summer. Each new hire has a 3-year probationary period during which the college can choose not to renew the contract. I had strong support from my department and chair, but the dean and vp of academic affairs did not like that I held students to standards and didn't pander to them. So, right before my probationary period expired, I was let go. I've been devastated since then because I put my heart and soul into my work, my students, the college. Never again will I do that. In fact, I am looking at other career possibilities. I think I am finished with education/academe all together.

    If you want to keep your job, do whatever you need to do to keep the 'flakes and admin happy.

    1. Oh, dear, Mestopholita. I'm sorry. It sounds like you're better off out of that place (and like they're worse off for losing you), but I get the investment, and the devastation. I'm tempted to say "you should stay in higher ed! You're what we/the students need!," but your sanity comes first (and, as you say, it would be hard to invest yourself again so completely). May you find a job that better rewards your effort, and your skills, whether it's inside or outside of academe.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. People. People, people, people. It is perfectly possible to say yes to this student request in a way that makes you happy as far as pedagogy is concerned.

    I let my students do youtube videos instead of their final papers. The requirements are exactly the same in terms of content, which essentially means they have to write out a script the length of an essay, and that I expect at least one citation slide. THEN, and this is key, you get them to peer mark each other. Students HATE when other students do a bullshit job on this stuff. One guy last year got a bunch of 1s and 0s when he presented his information with no shirt on. His content was actually pretty good, but the other students found him "disrespectful".

    The liquor store thing, you deal with the same way. "Sure! But I need that 2500 word analysis paper on your experience".

    The key here is not to let your disgust show on your face.

    My ideas on evals were on the site a week ago, so I won't repeat, but one more piece of advice: do them as early in the semester as possible.