Tuesday, May 14, 2013

If It's Tuesday, Hiram Must Be Baffled About His Student Evaluations.

I try to have fun here. I try to treat the whole shebang of teaching pretty lightly. I bitch and moan and feel better instantly. I try not to get to caught up in the philosophical angst that can sometimes ruin the job.

But today. Oh, Lord, today. I pick up my student evals in a big white envelope from our assistant and I open them in my car before heading home. The numbers are good, the comments are strong.

But 2 different people in 2 different sections wrote these comments:

"Dr. Hiram is a terrible teacher. He doesn't care at all if we pass or fail. He doesn't care about his job or being a good teacher. He really doesn't care about students at all."

"I don't know why he teaches if he hates students so much. He doesn't care if I pass or fail. He seems to hate students, telling us all these rules and never teaching anything. He should do something he cares about instead of teaching."

I know. They're students. They don't know anything, really. They certainly don't know what I'm doing. They only can respond to what they "understand."

But it kills me that anyone, even some Cincinnati suburban frosh, can think I don't care about what I'm doing, my students, or my job. I may be partly to blame. I do tell them that their grades are up to them, that nobody is going to "care" as much about their writing than they are. I may even play the cavalier proffie at times.

But it never occurs to me that anyone who spends 16 weeks with me would ever think I didn't care about the job or them. I think about the extra lengths I sometimes go to to make sure they have a chance to succeed, and I just feel so fucking defeated.


  1. Hiram, I can totally relate to letting the negative students get you down, and failing to focus on the positive ones.

    But I bet a hundred dollars you ALSO had students in those same two classes say you Do care. Or say it by noticing the extra things you have done and giving you one of those solid numbers, or writing a comment about the way you go all out. Take those positive evals, and keep them in a file to look at when the nasty students get you down. Some of these students think we don't care simply because we won't budge on a grade. Or because we uphold standards in other ways. They are not used to the tough love kind of caring that is an important but unpleasant (for them) way for us to show we care.

  2. Twenty years from now, those will be the students who say something like, "It took me twenty years to appreciate why Dr. Hiram was so tough on me. Thanks to him, I singlehandedly prevented a nuclear holocaust and saved the world. God bless Dr. Hiram. I couldn't have done it without him."

    They'll bequeath a billion dollars to your school so that it can build the new Hiram Hall for Hamsterfurology (including the world's largest rodent vivarium).

    It will all work out in the end.

  3. I am sure that, like the best teachers, you're neglecting to focus on the far greater number of students who recognize what you do and how much you do care. These few cannot see outside their own subjective experience and disappointment. Sour grapes for them. Frustration for you.

    But what makes you a good teacher (and a better human being is that you'll pick yourself up, baffled as you are, and face the new students next term with the same diligence and care, even though you know next year will probably bring more of the same.

    it is early yet, but have a drink on me (psychically, that is)

  4. At my institution, course evals are done in the middle of the course so they can be used as an active tool to correct problems instead of a complaining tool at the end of the course. Duh.

    That keeps most of the vitriol to a minimum since the person you're stabbing in the back still has a few months to get even, I mean, improve.

    But the odd time I get some nastiness that needs addressing I bring the comments to class and read them ALL so that we have full disclosure on any or all issues. They're totally anonymous, so there's no privacy being violated.

    Anything particularly nasty I point out I have great concerns over, and the student(s) involved should see me so we can have a face to face to resolve these barriers to learning.

    Mostly I get uncomfortable squirming. Generally, the students know who said what because the same vitriol has been expressed in person. And often peer pressure will take care of nasty personal comments because you have to remind yourself unless you *are* a total ass, the majority are on your side.

    After a week, if nobody has come forward, I remind the class of my great desire to fix this great injustice. Or perhaps the comment was just intended to be vindictive???? Does anyone what to help me out here????


    "The best defense is a good offense, and I intend to start offending right now." James T. Kirk

  5. Here's what I do - pair each really negative review with the most positive review. Set those two aside. Read the rest. If the group is good then you did great. I understand, it is easy to focus on the really negative reviews, but students have no clue what we do or why we do it.

  6. I heard from someone that it has been proven WITH SCIENCE that the vast majority of student impressions of a professor are made during the first 60 seconds of the first class. That is, you can have students fill out an eval after that first minute, and then at the end of that same class, and there's only slight variation between the numbers on those sheets.

    From one perspective, this is horrible and monumentally depressing. But, from another, it shows how disconnected evals are from anything resembling reality.

    1. What study is this from? I've never heard of this. If it's true, which I doubt, perhaps students are just a good character of how good/bad a professor will be after hearing him/her speak for 60 seconds. I can usually size somebody up in less time than that myself.

    2. Well, here's one link to a summary of some of the research (though I'm pretty sure this finding goes back further): http://faculty.clinton.edu/faculty/TeachingandLearningCenter/1st%20Impressions.aspx .

    3. CC, thank you for that link! Representative quote:
      "Those who dress informally are generally judged to be warmer and more approachable, but get the least amount of respect. Formal attire is associated with student ratings of confidence and intelligence."

      This is interesting. I dress semi-formally (dress shirts and jeans). On the first day, I don't strive to look "approachable" , my goal is to convey "I know this stuff backwards and forwards". And what happens at the end is I get high marks for "confidence in instructor's knowledge" and "use of class time", and middling to low ones in "instructor overall". That's consistent with worst smart teacher evah! and he knows his stuff, but may not understand that his students don't (student comments).

      Maybe I need to calibrate my day-one persona a little differently. I could use an acting class to learn how to "project warmth".

    4. Oh lord, it's even worse than I thought. 9 seconds? That's barely enough time to walk in, pour a shot of bourbon, and announce "you all are nothing to me."

    5. Dr. Colossus, you are hilarious!

  7. This has never happened before. I did the evals at mid-semester like we were supposed to, following the protocol. They seem to have been lost by the Hamster Appreciation office.

    Damn! I can't join this latest litany of bitching. :(

    1. Watch your back, CrayonEater, especially if you don't have tenure. Get it on record at HA (with student witnesses) that you did complete the evals and submit them.

      This happened to me once at a former college, in the midst of a very nasty battle to get me fired so that the department chair could hire a friend who'd been on the short list. We faculty were prohibited from turning in the evals; we were supposed to send a trusted student with the envelope. (How did all five students "lose" them?)

      Because the evals were "not turned in," the HR/dept chair cabal decided that every class, every semester, would do evals for the rest of my pre-tenure period. So I taped a receipt to each envelope and asked students to get the printed name and signature of whomever accepted the envelopes in HR. No. One. Would. Sign.

      (Union action got this B.S. stopped; I earned tenure on merit, and immediately left for greener pastures.)

    2. Thank you, Proffie. My chair wasn't concerned. I've been part-timing here for awhile. When the bad days begin to outnumber the good ones is when I'll "retire."

  8. Oh Hiram, please, please don't let it get to you. I know that's easier said than done, but fact is, when students don't do well due to a whole litany of reasons, the professor becomes the scapegoat. Always. I once overheard a student warning another "never, ever take Dr. XYZ's class, if he hates you he'll fail you." Dr. XYZ teaches a gen ed, 440 students/semester. He doesn't even know you exist, yet he's going to take the blame for you. Although our society claims reaching eighteen merits 'adulthood', we know better. Some students who come to us are empty, echoing vessels and their opinions are not worth a fig of your emotion.

  9. Hiram, let me tell you a story.

    When I was an undergrad, I got into a conversation with the comely young lady who sat next to me in my Freshman History class. She seemed nice and I was young and on the make, so when she asked if I'd like to walk her back to her dorm after class, I immediately agreed.

    On the way, this nice, polite, pretty young thing told me in great earnest about her plans for getting her law degree, her rural hometown, and - oh yeah - how she was once abducted by aliens.

    This latter revelation was followed by a very serious discussion of just how widespread was the use of Black Helicopters by the New World Order.

    All of this was conducted in a perfectly normal, perfectly conversational tone of voice.

    For the sheer humor value, I kept up occasional contact with this individual and am confident that this was not a joke. She was a seemingly rational, very normal person who was, in certain ways, completely detached from reality.

    Take-home point: some of your students are a teaspoon shy of the Rubber Room.

    I literally "throw out" one student review in ten. If it doesn't comport with what the others wrote or what I feel like I was doing, I just chuck it. I don't think about it. 'Cause some kids are just fucking nuts.

    I get about one every semester who accuses me of "penalizing" people who disagree with me. I never really worry about whether I'm giving that impression, though, because I ONLY get about one per semester. If the number ever climbed from there, I might start thinking about it. As is, I'm okay.

    In short, the reason they can think you don't care is that they're insane. Stop thinking about it.

    1. Wise, wise advice. I hope I remember it next time I'm in Hiram's situation, because I've been there.

    2. "Take-home point: some of your students are a teaspoon shy of the Rubber Room."

      True. And it's not just the students.

    3. What really sucks is when you get this 1/10, that's the one your faculty evaluation committee zones in on.

  10. I give out voluntary midterm surveys that I write myself, and if there's a complaint that seems reasonable I address it.

    But the student evaluations themselves--the way our U does it--are nothing but fodder to harass faculty with, with absolutely no value to improve teaching. They're done online, so even students who have effectively dropped the course can fill them out; U-wide, the response rate is under 25%. In my own courses, about 50%; and I just get (months later) averages of answers to multiple-choice questions (25 of them) on a 0-5 scale. The only one anyone cares about is "instructor overall", so students focus on that, and it rarely correlates with the other answers. That's all the information I get, entirely useless. I get mildly angry for a minute or so if my ave on that is under 2.2, shrug it off and move on. The dept head, of course, gets good mileage out of it.

    I have to say I'm mildly envious of the people who get actual comments--good, bad or off-the-wall--shortly after they turn in their grades.

  11. Another possibility to consider (in addition or as a variation on lack of full contact with reality, which strikes me, too, as a plausible explanation): our old friend projection. They don't really care (about the class, their educations, etc.), but they don't want to admit that to themselves, let alone anyone else, and so they complain that *you* don't care.

    Also, they're young, and idealistic, and perhaps a bit prone to black and white thinking, and delusions of control, and have been taught that life is about following their passions. At some point, they'll grow up enough to realize what a grown-up doing his damnedest at a difficult job looks like (not to mention the wisdom, and the power, of drawing clear boundaries between one's own responsibilities/zone of control and others'). For the moment, though, they still want to believe in magic, and rainbows, and the power of caring enough, for you, but most of all for themselves.

    Finally, they may come from really messed-up families where control/violating boundaries is equated with caring, and haven't yet learned how to respond to more appropriate behavior by authorities.

    tl;dr: it's not you, it's them. Go enjoy your summer, or mow your lawn, or something.

    1. Spot on, CC. But also, "does not care" is a catch phrase, a cliche' emotional reaction; captured in our questionnaires by "interest in whether students are learning", on a 0-5 scale (what's that supposed to mean?) It's like that other catch phrase "unreasonable expectations". They see it used once, it sounds good (and damning enough), so why not use it, too? (No matter it can mean anything). Meta-plagiarism beyond the confines of the course, so to speak.

  12. In the past few years, I've come to view evals as a place where students either vent or praise outrageously. I discount both extreme comments (even the ones saying I'm the best prof they've ever had). I just don't believe their little fickle selves.

  13. You only got two bad evaluations for two entire classes? I'd say that's something to be glad about. Only two sour grapes in two classes is just that--sour grapes. Besides, anyone who looked at those evaluations would dismiss them outright due to their extreme language--"hates students" and "doesn't care about his job"--etc. That's not the kind of evaluation that commands any attention. That's the kind of evaluation that's just dismissed as childish ranting. More concerning is the occasional sophisticated liar: "Dr. Hiram neglects his duties to students. He rarely answers emails and avoids office hours. On three separate occasions I went to see him during his scheduled office hours and he was not there. Other students expressed similar concerns." I've gotten those evaluations before, and they're frightening.

    The kind of evaluation that irrationally pisses me off the most--and I've really only gotten a few of these during the entire time I've been teaching--is the kind that harps on my personality or whether or not I'm "happy." "Gone Grad clearly knows the material, but she seemed very unhappy and not interested in teaching us." The thing is, I am a reasonably happy person, and I do enjoy teaching. And I really try my damnedest to bury my sarcasm and put on a pleasant smile when it's clear they haven't done the reading, don't give a shit, and are basically doing everything within their power to convey that they don't give a shit--but sometimes I'm sure I slip, and I'm sure my discontent shows on my face.

    But beyond that, I think: why do they think they have the right to decide whether or not someone is happy? Or to gauge someone's overal life satisfaction based on whether or not they smile broadly enough at a room of passive-aggressive people? It's the kind of criticism that really grates on me because it's so irrelevant, personal, and unwarranted. (And speaking of grating: One student in the past year wrote an evaluation that said my presence "graded" on him.)

    Like I said, I know it's irrational, and I know that these criticisms have more to do with their own unhappiness or lack of desire to be there than my own, but it's just the kind of evaluation that irks me to no end.

  14. When I do my own mid-semester evals, I always ask (1) what has been done well, and (2) what can be done to improve. Almost every item that shows up as needing improvement is mentioned by someone else as being done well. Examples: more PowerPoint vs. less PowerPoint, lectures are great vs. lectures are boring, more discussion vs. less discussion.

    1. I view my mid-semester evaluations as a formality for this very reason. They always end up cancelling each other out. And unless something really irks a majority of my students, I'm not going to change it because it probably works for me.

      Many mid-semester evaluations also read as "wish lists." "I wish we could do less reading." "I wish we could watch movies more often." "I don't like the quizzes. Get rid of the quizzes." "I don't think this class should have an attendance policy." When I read stuff like that, I think, That's cute.

      I think that mid-semester evaluations are good because they force students to reflect on how the class is structured and what they've been required to do. It also allows them to vent a little bit, getting the bile out of their system before they fill out the real evaluations. And because the vast majority say you're doing a good job, you can always tell the class that most evaluations were fine and good. The outliers then tend to fall in line.

  15. +1 for midterm evaluations. I do try to make one small change or offer up something different as a result of them. My end-of-quarter evals are better as a result of these midterm ones, and I learn more from the midterm ones.

    As to the shitty ones, I have lines from 20 years ago still ringing in my ears. Anonymity does not bring out the best in people. So my present to myself upon arriving at Full was to stop reading the final evals and focus on the midterm ones where I actually learn something.