Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Worthy of Evaluating...Me?

I remember a brilliant old RYS posting about student evaluations, and my note today is an excuse to link to it AND to say, my students don't know enough about what I'm doing to evaluate me.

I'm sorry if that's not academically, politically, or pedagogically correct, but I'm baffled by how much credence administrators, chairs, parents, and some proffies give to feedback from undergrads.

My history in this business has proven to me that students evaluate two things only: 1) if we act like we like them, and 2) if the class is easy or hard (to them).

I have stacks of old evals and the two most common comments are: "Hiram is mean," and "Hiram is (too) hard."

That's it? That's all you've got?

Well, bite me.

Because nothing in either of those sentences worries me, helps me, fazes me, etc.

I work my ass off to make the class challenging and useful, maybe not today, but for the rest of their lives. When they face disputes and problems in the future, I want them to be ready and able to handle them.

I don't want my class to be easy, and I don't want to be their first 50 year old "friend" who isn't also called "Uncle."


  1. Brilliant, indeed. And I like what you add, Hiram.

  2. Amen. If there were a way to survey them 5 to 10 years later, I'd be willing to have that play a part in evaluating the effectiveness of my teaching. But during the last 2 weeks of school, when many of them are panicking because they realize how much work they should have been doing all semester, and asking for extra credit and instant feedback 24/7 and other unreasonable/impossible things, and some of the students who have kept up and done good work disappear because they know they can afford to concentrate on other classes at this point, no.

  3. Word. Hiram, in my college-prep 9-12 world, the quality of the education we provide is being seriously, measurably fucked up by competition among many teachers and a few admins to be the most popular among the students. It's pitiful, pathetic, grossly unprofessional and pathologically freakish to care that a bunch of 15-to-17-year-olds "like" you.

    Do I care that my students understand my expectations and view me as a fair and organized teacher? Hells yes. Do I care if they like me personally all the time? HELL to the NO. They are teenagers. They shouldn't be thinking very much about me in the first place. And as Hiram well states, they may not understand the value of what my class has provided them for years to come. I care that they leave my class better writers and thinkers and more well informed on my subject than when they arrived. And I hope that growth helps them in their future academic endeavors and helps them become more broadly-informed and thoughtful adults. That is pretty much all I care about (though I obviously do care about my students' overall social and emotional wellness. I find, though, that students are very good at seeking out the adults in our community who are best suited to understand and advise them, or simply be a sympathetic ear. Sometimes that's me, and that's fine. If it's not me, I'm not green with envy at my lack of "popularity". Jesus H., am I right?)

    The result of this freakish popularity contest? Assignments, projects, "exams" and whole curricula that wouldn't be acceptable at any self-respecting middle school. Our students suffer academically because the adults around them are defective adults. And the admin and public relations people L-U-V LURV these idiot "curricula" because they seem "innovative" and "engaging" and look super- attractive on the school web site. Never mind the superficiality and lowered expectations.

    And then we hand them off to you with the expectation that their professors are just tripping over each other to be the most "liked"? It's horeshit.

    Gah. Surly is especially surly today. Surly has had a long semester already.

  4. Oops, I spelled "horse-shit" wrong. And I know I'm preaching to the choir anyway, but I thank the CM community for indulging my cri de coeur.

  5. Only on this blog would you find someone misspelling "horse-shit" at the close of a (brilliant) rant, catching it, and apologizing, not for the profanity, but for the misspelling.

    Truly, 'tis a strange and wonderful place.

  6. Yes, yes, and yes!

    I have a colleague who purchases the students bagels, throws birthday parties, and has an annual Christmas party for the students. The students say, "Why can't you be more like Professor Fluffy-pants?". Well, let me count the reasons.

  7. The Kindergartenization of college.

  8. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. And Contingent Cassandra has once again nailed the response. I get feedback from former students along those lines sometimes--they come back to campus with a younger sibling, for instance--and I'm described as tough but fair, though they didn't see it at the time. I can live with that.

    The problem (as I see it) with evals is that how they're read is dependent on who's doing the reading. In my department, the profs who are not popular (due to the rigor of their courses? their teaching style? who knows?) tend to discount evals when discussing merit/promotion. The ones for whom evals are usually good tend to place more weight on them. [FWIW, I have consistent ratings above the department average, but some members of my committee just ignored that, which sort of blows me away since we're supposed to be a teaching institution.]

    I detest the "customer service" model, and I have been pushing for years to have lines added to the current eval form:
    Q20: How many class sessions did you miss during the semester?
    A 1-2; B 3-4; C 5-6; D 7-8; E More than 9

    Q21 How many assignments did you complete during the semester?
    A All; B Most; C Some; D A few; E None

    I feel like those two additions would be more fair to us--they should have to evaluate their own contributions to their learning for the evaluations. (If the students answer truthfully, that is.)

    Invariably at the end of the semester when I collect portfolios, many of my students acknowledge in their reflective letters that they could (and should) have worked harder. I would like to see that reflected on the evaluations. I doubt it will happen, though.

  9. For the record: I like you, Hiram! :o) This is brilliant and says exactly how I feel!

  10. Student evaluations are obviously flawed, but what is the best way to evaluate teaching?

    Not evaluating teaching at all would amount to an explicit declaration that teaching is not valued. I can't imagine that going over well at most universities (not to mention colleges).

    Peer evaluation seems ideal, but even in the best case, you can only evaluate 1-2 lectures/semester. An apathetic hardass or spineless weasel could easily game this system by only giving a couple "real" lectures each term. I suppose you could add peer review for the syllabus, tests, and major assignments to prevent this, but this would lay even more work on busy faculty.

    Outcome-based assessment doesn't seem possible. Either you go for easy-but-bad (standardized tests for all students before and after each class) or good-but-impossible (how well do students from Prof. X's intro course do in upper-level courses?)

    The best compromise I can think of would be peer syllabus evaluation paired with an open-ended student evaluation. By "open-ended", I mean that there are no "1-5" questions, just a blank space where you write your complaints/praise. If certain legitimate complaints (e.g. shows up 30min late every week, teaches her dissertation instead of printed curriculum, etc.) crop up multiple times, that's a red flag to investigate. While a couple "D" students can bring down numerical averages significantly by filling in all "1"s on the eval, they probably won't think to collaborate on an open-ended question. Even if they do collaborate, they probably don't know which complaints would be recognized as legitimate (mean proffy made us come to class on gameday!).

  11. How about open classrooms? I mean a policy that all class sessions are available for visits by colleagues or superiors at any time. Any time anyone in the department wants to, it is considered perfectly normal to come in and sit in the back and observe the teaching. If the instructor doesn't want that on a particular day, s/he can request that it not happen. That is considered just as perfectly normal, because there are legit reasons why someone might not want non-participants in the room on particular days. No particular reasons need be named, only, "I'm sorry Dr. X, but we would prefer not having any visitors in class today." "Okay." Only constant refusal to be observed would be suspicious.

    Part of this culture would be a legitimate, honest interest in what is going on in our colleagues' classrooms (and hence an inclination to visit a few times per semester) and occasional open discussions about methods with praise and some criticism at the water cooler.

    Starting such a culture might be difficult, because we have this ownership and control attitude about our classrooms. But anyone who has taught high school or team teaching or online already has some sense of how this would be anyway. I have discovered uninvited, unannounced "observers" in my classes online and have been "put" as an observer into classes without the instructor being consulted. It is problematic, but we could adjust. It is a kind of "normal" that would be a change, but not necessarily for the worse.

    Then open-ended evals like Captain proposes could supplement this.

    There would be a much clearer idea within departments about who has which strengths and weaknesses.

    I am sure there are problems with this approach that I have not considered and would be interested in hearing about them.

  12. My last evaluation by my dept chair was one I requested as part of the promotion process. He sat in on the class and asked me to step outside for a few minutes to speak to the students.

    At the follow up meeting, he told me that he also asked the students to write a few comments on a piece of paper, without any identification of the student, and had them place the papers into a manila envelope.

    He reviewed these comments with me and I quite pleasantly surprised-I always felt I did a good job as an instructor in the way I run my classroom, even though the outcomes may not be optimal (as evidenced by my RMP page where I am despised).

    The chair has a very effective way of conducting an evaluation and I was very satisfied with the outcome (and the promotion).


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