Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Blowing off a little steam....

Two things greeted me my first day back to the university for spring term. First, I am delighted that so many former students have decided to take the second half of my class (offered over two semesters). It's not a given and many don't. But about 1/3 of the students yesterday were former students, some from as long ago as last fall (2002). It's nice to see their faces. It's nice to know that, at least for some of them, learning with this instructor is seen as a valuable thing. Of course, that doesn't account for things like fitting schedules and the devil you know v. the devil you don't know. Who knows exactly what drives students? I'm not ever sure I could tell you why I took some of the classes and instructors I took. Nonetheless, it's nice to see them.

The other thing awaiting me on my desk Monday morning was the first round of student evaluations from last semester. This particular batch comes from an honors college group I taught fall semester. As usual, the evaluations managed to stir up a lot of conflicted feelings.

I probably should preface the following comments by noting that the overall assessments were good. My average in the department (this is one of the more moronic aspects of student evaluations) is always above the department average and well above that of the college. Generally the assessments are predominately positive, rating me excellent or good in virtually every category. The comments usually can be categorized as such: good professor, passionate about his subject, cares about his students, too much work. There are also consistent comments from a small minority that see me as disrespectful of them personally and sarcastic. I probably would own up to all of those comments with the caveat that students who feel less than fully respected have often demonstrated through their behaviors, attitude or comments that their performance in class is not terribly respectable. All of this is to say, simply, that the comments I am about to make are NOT the result of sour grapes. In the student ratings game, I generally am a winner. Indeed, on the one student graded professor slam sites I know my name has been placed, my average is A+.

But, the fact it is a game is my first concern. I understand the original purpose of student evaluations to be what they actually state on the forms: to assist the instructor with his/her teaching. Everyone needs constructive criticism periodically. No one has reached the point of performance where they are unable to improve. And a good instructor will want to improve, to try new things, to reconsider old approaches, otherwise they become stagnant. But that doesn't mean that any form or use of evaluation is necessarily helpful, even valuable.

Of course, the first problem with the evaluations is those who take them. While we emphasize to our students that this is not a forum to vent one's spleen and seek revenge for poor grades, loss of face in class or for not constructing the class according to the consumer demands of the student, far too frequently students use evaluations for precisely those purposes. I thought Peter Sacks, author of Generation X Goes to College, had made up the story about the student evaluation which reported a student saying Sack's tie had distracted him/her and prevented their full attention in class until I got virtually the same comment on an evaluation. The question that and other personal comments ("Nice butt," a comment my office mate was reported to have received on an evaluation) raise is simply why student evaluations should be taken seriously. People who are unable to distinguish college instruction from Entertainment Tonight are probably not the best sources regarding the former.

Far too often the very problems the student has experienced with the course manifest themselves in the comments on evaluations. I wonder if students realize how self-disclosing they really are in these comments. One student suggested that my "master thesis" had been to demonstrate "Catholicism as a destructive force in the universe." This, the student noted, had been humiliating. Of course, humiliation is about identifiable individuals being held up in class for scorn. Such does not happen in many classes for long. Singling out students for disrespect or other unwanted attention can readily land an instructor in the unemployment line if not court. And it certainly did not happen in this class. Other than the self-disclosure the student made in a written assignment, no one knew his religious affiliation. Indeed, except for those who discussed their religious backgrounds in class, no one knew anyone else's affiliation. It's a bit of a stretch to see oneself as personally humiliated under those circumstances.

What the comment does reflect, however, is the problem the student had with the class. It demonstrates an inability to distinguish critique of an idea, attitudes, values, etc. from the holder(s) of said ideas, values, attitudes. It fails to distinguish an ad hominem attack on the person from a criticism of their behavior, thoughts or words. Ironically, the skill of making such distinctions is precisely what most college instructors are seeking to instill or hone in their classes. It is not surprising that students who are lacking in the capacity to think critically would personalize such critique and blame the instructor.

Another comment I received from the same student involved whether classes should be put on-line. His comment (and surely students don't labor under the misapprehension that we can't recognize their handwriting after a semester) was that "a big chunk of the class should be on-line since we watched a number of movies in class..." That illustrates part of the problem here. Might the fact he is unable to distinguish short instructional videos designed to illustrate concepts from the text from a "movie," commonly seen as entertainment, suggest the inappropriateness of such comments being taken seriously?

How is it that college freshmen are somehow seen as holding the expertise sufficient to make judgments about college level pedagogy? The absurdity of a patient stopping a surgeon mid procedure and telling her where to cut is obvious. Similarly the client who tells his attorney how to make motions during a trial. Why would students be in a position to tell their instructors how to teach? Clearly, patients do play a large role in most medical care, advising the physician of how they feel and, hopefully, following their instructions regarding their treatment. Clients who are open and honest with their attorneys provide them with the necessary information to make judgments about strategy and conduct of a trial. But in both cases, the expertise of the professional is only as good as the patient or client is willing to listen and follow. Why would it be any different for college instruction?

Compounding the problems of questionable value of the assessments is the use that is made of them.
College department chairs and deans often seek to reassure instructors and professors that they do not use student evaluations to make judgments about hiring, tenure and promotion. I think the reality is that they could hardly help from being affected by these evaluations. The averaging and comparing of evaluation scores within colleges and departments suggest that these evaluations mean a lot more than simple feedback to instructors. Such practices speak to competition among colleagues, something totally out of place in an institution which derives its names - universitas and collegium - from the notion of cooperative learning.

At some level I suppose I ought to favor student evaluations since they historically have worked to my advantage personally. And if it were just about me, perhaps I wouldn't have written this post. The problem is, this is a fairly common practice. And it speaks to a general confusion of the obsessiveness our hypercompetitive culture has over "accountability" with a rather more diffuse but pervasive consumerism in which, like Disney World taught its employees, the customer isn't always right but the customer is always the customer. Education is not the provision of consumer good or service. And students are not customers. The medieval university recognized that without a collective, cooperative effort of "the whole body," faculty and students, the learning community called the universitas simply could not function. We post-modern academics and the corporate indentured servants in government who maintain the modern university would do well to return to our roots of working together toward a common goal - an educated society. It's not difficult to see how the current student evaluation system falls far short of that noble endeavor, indeed, perhaps even proving counterproductive.

I also suppose I ought to be able to simply slough off the petty comments of students who didn't make the grade they wanted or got their feelings hurt along the way. Things like that happen in human institutions. But instructors are human beings, too. It hurts to have highly personalized vindictive comments made about the part of your life that students rightly recognize as your passion, particularly when it becomes a public record. It is troubling to have your motives called into question. Even in the face of an overall good assessment in a history of the same, it is still unsettling. One of my colleagues who is close to attaining tenure told me she no longer even reads the evaluations given how disturbed they make her. Little wonder. I read her evaluations on public display at the honors college for a previous class. One of her students complained that she had been petty for taking off points for writing errors in composition and grammar. When asked at the end of the evaluation what part the student liked best, they replied "The free food" from the final class party. And remember, these are the honors students.

OK, I've gotten it off my chest. Time to move on.....


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