I'm a long-time lurker of College Misery, and I enjoy this blog tremendously. I'm looking for advice right now about teaching; I've been teaching writing and literature courses at my current university for 7 years, and during this time, I have taught 21 courses. This is a private university that is one of the most expensive schools in the country. The students have a strong sense of entitlement, and the faculty act as if they are scared of them. My department cares a lot about course evaluations and keeping students happy and satisfied.
The problem I'm having is trying to maintain rigorous academic standards while teaching in a department that lets students do whatever they want.
My course evaluations are lower than the department average. On a scale of 1-5 (5 being excellent, 1 being poor), the department average is 4.3. I usually average around 3.7 or 3.8; however, my median is 4.0 (there's usually 1 or 2 students who give me all 1's without even reading the questions, which brings my average down). In the comments, students complain about how my standards are too high, my grading is too harsh, and my policies are too strict. They've even compared me to other professors, noting that I grade more harshly than my colleagues. Students have also written offensive comments about my appearance, which I attribute to the freedom they feel to say these things because I'm a young woman of color.
Each semester, a student complains to the department chair about me, and he always sides with them. He indirectly threatened to not renew my contract if my evaluations didn't improve (I'm an adjunct). Mind you, he's never visited my class before, so he doesn't even know if their complaints are warranted. I am always open to classroom visitors. Since I've been teaching here, I've had five visitors, and they've all praised my teaching methods. My colleagues even come to me for advice about assignments, grading, and other teaching concerns.
However, after talking with my colleagues, I can see why students are baffled that I expect them to show up on time, pay attention, and participate in class. One colleague admitted that she couldn't remember the last time she gave a student lower than a B+ on an assignment. Another said that he isn't strict about deadlines and allows students to submit assignments up until the last day of class. The most popular professor in the department shows movies during most of his classes and gives easy assignments that students can complete in five or ten minutes (his evaluations are high but I doubt students are learning anything). I observed another colleague's class, and most of her students were playing on their laptops and not paying attention to her. One student even came to class fifteen minutes late, told my colleague that he slept in, and asked if she could tell him what he missed. She actually stopped lecturing to catch him up.
I am completely troubled that my colleagues have thrown academic standards out the window. On student evaluation day, the department kitchen is filled with leftover snacks from professors. Because this is so common, it seems as if students expect us to bring treats on that day (I still don't - it's a gendered expectation that I don't support). And because my department places so much emphasis on course evaluations, my colleagues jump through hoops in order to placate students.
My dilemma is two-fold: do I join my colleagues in lowering expectations or do I stick to my principles? Do I give up and let students win, or do I maintain standards, even if I'm the last professor in this school to do so (I'm reminded of the inspiring "Not in My Classroom" post from Rate Your Students). Maintaining standards may compromise my employment, but I do not want to contribute to the bastardization of the American education system.
I love teaching, but not in these conditions.
-Frustrated in Forville