Saturday, January 23, 2010

Dreams of a Safe Home

As a rule, I have vibrant dreams, most of which I remember well into the morning of the next day. I always ask myself what my dreams are trying to say to me. Sometimes the realizations that come from that exercise are startling.

Last night I dreamed that I was living in a nice house somewhere away from home. One day I found out that the people among whom I was living were neither my friends nor did they have my best interests in mind. I was told this by someone who said they thought I should know. And so I packed my things and moved home. Ironically my refuge looked much like the home in which I had grown up as a child. While it was not a place I would have chosen to live, it was a place where I felt safe.

This morning, I didn’t know quite what to make of this dream at first. Then suddenly I remembered that house and home are symbols of the self in Jungian archetypes. In my dream, the people I thought to be my neighbors and friends had betrayed me. The place I thought to be home, to be safe, was not. And so I needed to remove my self (quite literally) to a place that was safe.

So what was that all about?

This week we received the first of the new and improved student evaluations for last semester. I had already received the separate evaluations the Honors College administers which ask open ended questions for students to complete. On those evaluations, I noted that every single student had participated. Armed with the course description from the syllabus I provided, they knew what the course objectives had been and thus were able to judge if they had been met, 100 percent of the students reporting that they had. Comments included the following:

• The class flowed from topic to topic each class period in a logical and appropriate manner

• He definitely met the aims and brought background experience to the course.

• The professor met these aims because he was focused and allowed us many opportunities to understand humanity by presenting all views equally

• He met them to the maximum. I’m a changed man.

• He did meet these because I learned valuable resources for the future and learned how to reflect on myself

• The professor did meet these aims. He is a good lecturer who provokes though but the course load is heavy.

• He met the aims of the class as his lectures raised important questions about humanity

• Met these goals because he thoroughly discussed each point and kept quizzing us on it

• The professor met these aims yet didn’t promote the “creative artwork” portion

• He covered every course objective thoroughly.

This was the usual pattern I have seen on evaluations: complaints of too much work, comments on how challenging the course materials were and how they had been presented. Students worked harder than they wanted or were accustomed to working but had learned something. In short, the instructor had done his job.

When the new Student Perceptions of Instruction (SPI – which sounds an awful lot like SDI, the Space Defense Initiative called the Star Wars anti-missile program) was unveiled last fall, I shuddered at the possibilities it posed. Unlike the old evaluations on bubble sheets which were administered in class with the real live instructor stepping outside the door to give the students some privacy, the new Student Perceptions of Instruction are completed in the silence of cyberspace. The complete removal of the human being in question sent up the initial warning flags. The removal of the process to the internet, where people say things they would never say to other human beings in person, was a second red flag.

But the phrasing of the questions was what was most troubling. Where the former student evaluations had been largely consumerist in their inquiries into how students had experienced a given course rather than whether they had actually learned something of value in the course, the new SPI was overtly consumerist. To wit, student were queried about their perceptions of:

1. Instructor interest in student learning

2. Instructor’s assessment of student progress

3. Expression of expectations of performance

4. Respect and concern for students

5. Stimulation of interest in the course

6. Facilitation of learning

While the questions are phrased in vague, technocratic language, they do have correlates in student speak. To wit:

1. Instructor interest in student learning - Did the instructor do anything in particular that demonstrated they were interested in your personal learning? Could they have done more for you personally? Did the instructor like you? (NOTE: This question at some level requires the students to read the instructor’s mind)

2. Instructor’s assessment of student progress - Did you get the grades you expected in this class? (NOTE: In a survey I took through the Webcourses survey tool of these same students, 69% of this class said they came into the class expecting at least an A-. None of the students expected less than a B-. At the time of the SPI, 48% believed they would make a B though only 25% of them ultimately scored lower than an A- in the course)

3. Expression of expectations of performance - Did the instructor ask you to do more than you wanted to do? (NOTE: In the same survey, only 38% of the students reported spending more than 1.5 hours prep time for the class while none reported spending more than the 2 hours per 1 hour class time generally seen as average expectable prep time by American colleges and universities. At the same time 42% of the students reported the 2 hour prep expectation either unrealistic or outrageous).

4. Respect and concern for students - Did the instructor ever hurt your feelings? Did the instructor call any of your preconceptions into question causing you cognitive dissonance? Did the instructor fail to praise you regularly? Did the instructor make you critically reflect upon your own attitudes and behaviors?

5. Stimulation of interest in the course - Did the instructor entertain you? Did the instructor do anything special to cause you to become interested in the course without which you would not have been interested yourself? Did the instructor capture and keep your attention rather than expecting you to actually pay attention?

6. Facilitation of learning - Was the class easy? Did it demand more than you wanted to produce? Did this class accommodate your personal schedule? Did this class require you to be responsible for time management?

While the Honors College evaluation required students to actually come up with answers of their own to questions about the course itself and the instructor’s role in that course, the SPI focuses on acontextual issues surrounding the instructor’s person. In all of the questions noted above, the presumption is that the instructor is somehow personally responsible for making his students happy, a role that is consistent with the ideology of educators as consumerist suppliers of goods and services but ultimately has little to do with the actual quality of pedagogy in higher education.

That consumerist ideology becomes more obvious with the final questions inviting comments:

• The thing(s) I like the MOST about this course:

• The thing(s) I like the LEAST about this course:

• What is your reaction to the method of evaluating your mastery of the course (i.e., testing, grading, out of class assignments [term papers], instructor feedback, etc.)

• Additional comments and suggests for improvement:

Such questions are hardly unfamiliar to consumers. Indeed, they mirror the kinds of questions one finds in the “How did we do?” cards that often accompany our checks at places like Olive Garden and Chili’s restaurant except that students don’t get a website to go to with their comments and a code to enter the survey to get $5 off their next class.

The results from the SPI were discouraging though hardly disastrous. In the category of “overall assessment of instructor,” in the very same class whose Honors evaluations are reported above 16% rated their instructor fair, another 10% poor. While the 58% combined excellent and very good ratings were just below the departmental average of 61%, this is more low ratings than I generally get from student evaluations. But it was the comments which were particularly troubling.

In the class in question here, I had been told by a student early into the term that there were five girls in a self-described “Christian sorority” who were having trouble with the class because of its critical approach to religions. It was not hard to tell who those students were given their absences on the days the history of Christianity was discussed in class. While I generally chalk such avoidance up to intellectual cowardice, I also realize that inherited and largely unexamined religious and political views that students bring with them to the university often are fragile precisely because they are unexamined.

Reflecting this discomfort with critical study of religion, one comment on the SPI said, “The attitude expressed toward Christianity near the beginning affected my attitude from wanting to learn at the beginning, seemed to me that you thought Christians were stupid/ignorent (sic) and that made me not want to listen to what you had to say.” I would suspect it also made the student incapable of critically and fairly considering the subject matter of the class, instead focusing on the perceived blasphemous character of the instructor. (There is a reason that the archetype of the challenger in Judaism, the Satan, ultimately morphs into the Devil of the Christian imagination) While it is impossible to know exactly who rated the instructor by category, it is perhaps more than coincidence that the number of students rating the instructor fair or poor was exactly the same number as the self-described “Christian sorority” girls.

Which brings me back to the dream. I have been living in a state of misplaced trust under a naïve belief that if I simply worked hard and did a good job, my students might actually appreciate my hard work even as I challenged their work habits and thought patterns. I had labored under the misapprehension that it was my work ethic and work product which would be judged in evaluations, not my person which would be the subject of secret consumerist evaluations in cyberspace with the malignant potential to devolve into online bitch sessions.

My dream reflects the wake up call I received last week. What has become clear from the new SPI is that whatever else it is about, it is not particularly concerned with evaluating the educational process. The new SPI format primarily focuses on the person of the instructor, not the course. It differs from the various online professor “rating” sites (e.g., only in the absence of the “hotness” category (complete with its chili pepper icon).

With the removal of the evaluation process from the classroom where the instructor and all students are present to the internet, only those with motivations to actually participate - those with axes to grind, self-imposed duties to warn others of demanding professors and the few loyalists who feel the need to defend their favorite professors – will actually do so. Instructors are not guaranteed of getting an actual reflection of any given class.

The lessons from my dream now appear clear: The person, or self, of the instructor – again, represented by the house in Jungian archetypes – is not safe in the brave new world of consumerist universities. Your students - who instructors like myself perhaps naively believed would appreciate your hard work and expertise brought to bear on their educational behalf – will betray you. And, what is more, the university - which has propagated this consumerist, personality driven survey – encourages this.

This is not a safe environment. Indeed, every day I perceive that the university has become increasingly like the adversarial system of the practice of law I left years ago because I simply didn’t want to use my talents and education to fight with others every day. In addition to compensation which comes nowhere close to adequate given the level of educational preparation required, the ongoing fear of layoffs from business model driven management and the demonization the academy regularly endures from the corporate media, now our very students are being encouraged to turn against those who devote their lives to helping them become educated human beings. Apparently, no good deed goes unpunished.

As for the safe home of my dreams, perhaps it is more aspirational than anything actualizable. The lessons of the new SPI tell me I must be more conscious of the potential for betrayal by those I would seek to help become educated human beings. That will mean an even greater distancing from and tentativeness with those I once would have seen from the role of potential mentor. On a good day, they are clients, on a bad day, potential liabilities. The lessons of the new SPI also reinforce the adversarial nature of the instructor to management at the mega-university which has taken free market fundamentalism as its guiding ideology. Whatever other concerns this collegiate factory has, the welfare of its faculty is not among them.

This past week I considered retirement seriously for the first time in my life. I had always believed I would teach until I dropped over dead in the classroom. In the post-SPI world, I know exactly how many days I must complete until I can retire with full benefits. As of Friday, that number was 802.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.


Anonymous said...

Don't give up. You are a very bright beacon, even to those who may not appear to listen.

Sometimes it takes awhile to recognize the wisdom one has received.

Anonymous said...

You do not give yourself nearly enough credit for the impact that you have had on the intellectual and personal lives of your students. You are an honored professor, and must remember that there are some people who can never be reached because their hands are not outstretched.