Thursday, November 28, 2013

7 Years Ago on RYS. "On Student Evaluations"

Let me start by saying that I love my job. I love teaching. I love the research component because it's all mine, but I mostly love the classroom and the never-ending supply of young people. I've been in the game for 26 years and think I'm pretty sure I will teach until I retire several years from now.

It's been the greatest career, with dozens upon dozens of amazing experiences. Students continue to engage me and interest me, and watching find their own feet is always a tremendous pleasure.

But today I woke up with a knot in my stomach, and I was out of sorts all day. I was giving my students the evaluation instrument my college uses. As soon as the large white envelope came out of my bag the students started their energetic twittering. I even heard the same comments I always hear: "Yeah, now we get to give the grades," etc.

I always read the preamble that my college gives me to read, about anonymity, about how grateful we all are to gather comments. How we're eager to find ways in which to teach the courses better. There's even a line that reads, "Your instructor welcomes your criticism."

And of course it's all complete bullshit.

My students, for all of their sweetness and energy, don't have any idea whatsoever about my worth as a professor. They won't know what they've learned from me for many years. They certainly don't have the wherewithal or the experience to evaluate my performance in any meaningful way.

I have tenure now, but the evaluations end up in my Dean's file. I still see them each new term. I have to read things like, "She should wax her lip better," and "She should take better care of herself, so she could get another husband," and, "She should get a life and quit caring if I get my lab projects done in time. Lighten up, bitch."

And any goodwill my students earn is gone again after that. My numericals are always above my department average, and I have many wonderful comments each term. But it only takes a handful of comments or ratings to make me just want to puke my guts out and find a job consulting for one of the biotech firms where most of my former students find themselves down the road.

I've never understood why we do it? Why do we ask them the questions at all? Are we too lazy to evaluate ourselves? When I first started teaching, a mentor or colleague would visit every term, and I'd present a teaching portfolio (assignments, worksheets, and student work). My peers would meet with me to discuss my progress, and once a year I'd sit with my department chair or Dean and talk about things I could do to make myself a better instructor in future semesters.

But once I'd been in the game for a few years, Scantron evaluations seemed to overwhelm everything. Because they came out in digits, fractions, decimal points, they seemed to be real, to have weight. My 3.24 was worse than so-and-so's 3.50 for "shows respect to students," and so this information became something that was used against me, for me, whatever applied.

And ever since then I've felt horrible when student evaluations loomed. I thought more and more about them. I worried that I might be unkind when I would not allow a late presentation. Would a petulant and half-stoned student hang on to this imagined slight and blast me on evaluation day? They all seem to know it's coming. They all seem to light up. They continue to think that they're only doing what I do when I grade their work. And it's all wrong. It's so wrong-headed I can't even believe we fall for it.

When I talk about it in class - which I've not done for years - someone always says, "You must get bad evaluations." I've had colleagues say the same thing. That's not the point. I worry even more for young faculty. I see our newest colleagues here jump through hoops to please students, inviting whole lab sections out to coffee, bringing in donuts, allowing endless test and quiz retakes in the hallways of every classroom building for fear of what Missy and Michael Student might check off when evaluation season comes around.

I'm done for this term at least. But I just hated myself and my profession today, and were I a little wiser, I'd go about finding away to banish this useless practice.


  1. Fuck. I had forgotten this one. Do we know the author?

    1. I know the author and have been in touch with her over the years. She's a fan of the page, but has only written this and a couple of other pieces. I sent her a note in case she wanted to update this in anyway, but as it's the holiday I may not here right away.

    2. I know the author and have been in touch with her over the years. She's a fan of the page, but has only written this and a couple of other pieces. I sent her a note in case she wanted to update this in anyway, but as it's the holiday I may not here right away.

  2. The ones that always confuse me come after a semester of a good class, no problems, no one complaining to me or administrators, class averages OK etc. I see the students in the building and we greet each other with a smile, pass a few conversational words, no problems, right?

    Then I read the evaluations and they are rife with complaints about me,the class, policies, workload etc. Some of them are over the top mean. I always think, "Where the hell is THIS coming from?" I've also had quite nice evaluations from classes that were problematic.

    As Hiram would say, I'm baffled.

    1. I got this too when I moved to a certain area of the country that values politeness and decorum. Back when I taught in the frigid Northeast, I was almost never surprised by evaluations. There was never any disconnect between my students' attitudes and the words on the page.

  3. I'm baffled too. Why would anyone ever read the comments on the student evaluations? I never ever do this. Numbers have to go in my file, but the comments don't, and I will not pay attention to anonymous comments.

    1. At my college, we have to write an annual report in which we must list and respond to all negative comments on our students evaluations.

      I totally agree with you, Mildred. Why not just set up a twitter account for student evals?

    2. We don't go as far as the situation that Trish describes but all comments, good and bad, are compiled and go into our files. These are the files that, at least partially, determine rank and tenure decisions.

      Here, you pay no attention to anonymous comments at your own peril.

    3. Honestly, the longer I teach, the less meaningful I find these evaluations. I can see the value in a peer observing a teacher and providing feedback and guidance but I don't see how an anonymous evaluation of classroom performance by a student is at all helpful. I generally get good evals but I find myself defending comments that are trivial as id these students are authorities about education and teaching.

      When I went back to grad school after teaching for some 15 years, was faced with filling out a student eval, I generally gave the teacher high marks, no comments and kept my opinion of the teacher's abilities to myself. Who knows, really, what other factors were at play in the teacher's preparation? The question I asked myself is did I learn anything? And that is all that matters.

      And what do you do when you get one of *those* classes, where no matter what you do, it is a disaster? After some 20 years of teaching, I think I generally know what I have done right or wrong; students' comments and 'marks' don't much help me anymore.

    4. The only reason to read them, as far as I can tell, is self-defense -- because the administrators do (often before we do), and it's best to be prepared (or at least not blindsided).

      Also, as we move toward online evaluations (at least at my school), the written comments are increasingly part of the "permanent record" -- archived along with the numbers. The good news, at least in my experience, is that negative comments seem to be somewhat diluted/contextualized when all the comments are gathered on the same page (and the usual "were they even in the same classroom?" contradictions -- she's organized/she's disorganized, she's fair/she's a harsh grader, etc., etc. -- are highlighted). The bad news is that very few students fill them out (even when given time in a one-computer-per-student classroom), and the ones who do are often the most unhappy.