Monday, March 24, 2014

A Tired Instructor’s Midnight Confession

Yet Another Round of Debates….

Debate is raging once again on the Higher Education Teaching and Learning site on regarding the question “Do student evaluations measure teaching effectiveness?” This time it was posed by a professor in management information systems at a university in Puerto Rico.

The question has drawn the usual technocrats and consumerist advocates who seek to prove the validity of these practices, in some cases offering studies to demonstrate their validity. Most of the studies are based on the same premises of the evaluations themselves – that undergraduate students are somehow competent to assess the pedagogy of graduate educated instructors, that their responses to largely consumerist ratings systems indicate what kind of job their instructor has done and thus whether learning has occurred.

These are incredibly flawed and largely unsupported presumptions. Studies which begin with them offer nothing worth serious consideration by instructors.  But this is the essence of a consumerist university – truisms asserted as indisputable fact, presumptions accepted without proof, discussions beginning on that basis.

Hence, the context in which the following comments arise. They come at the end of a long day which required me to drive to South Florida, make a presentation on religious intolerance for the Florida Humanities Council and then turn around and return to Orlando to begin a rather demanding week. Clearly the fatigue of a long day is apparent in my comments. But there is also a level of growing impatience with the inanity if not the intellectual dishonesty that inevitably surrounds discussions of student ratings.  

Here follows my midnight confession (with apologies to The Grass Roots):

Questioning the Presumptions

OK, indulge me in a little cynicism here. In truth, I'm not usually cynical by nature. And I'm hardly closed-minded.

But, seriously. Does anyone really buy the argument that these ratings are actually designed to improve teaching? Really? Might we ask ourselves why we would presume that college instructors will not care about the quality of their classes unless they are coerced into doing so through ratings like this? Might we question the apparent presumption that instructors can't figure out how to improve their courses without feedback from people who've never taught a day in their lives?

Finally, do we really think that student ratings are even likely to actually improve teaching? And if so, how and is this necessarily the only or even the best way to do that?

Sure, we all endure this rating inanity. Most of us have no choice. And perhaps some of us have become aware of some blind spots in our teaching as a result though more likely by well considered comments than acontextual numerical ratings designed to keep technocrats happy. Others of us have just learned how to game the system. 

That’s Not My Job, Man……

But, truth be told, I simply don't care if a student thinks they have to read too much in my classes. I don't care that students don't like to be made to choose between attending classes (or coming to the course website) and participating in class activities or facing a lower grade. I don't care what students think about the work load in my classes. When it actually approaches, much less exceeds, the Carnegie Unit, I'll take their complaints a bit more seriously. And finally, I am really not that concerned that students are occasionally forced out of their comfort zones in my classes by the readings, the written assignments or the class discussions. I'm not terribly concerned that my prodding them to think critically about their presumptions and their values may on occasion produce a little cognitive dissonance for them. That's actually called the teachable moment.

Frankly, this is what good instructors *should* do in my view. And the fact that students make these same complaints every term does not for one second mean I am not a good instructor, that I am not doing a good job or that I should change my teaching. The often repeated but mindless mantra that "a pattern ought to tell you something" is ultimately just as meaningless and lacking in utility as the responses from students.

These student complaints target practices that reflect deliberate pedagogical and academic content choices made over decades of teaching, interacting with students and colleagues and even more decades of learning. They are neither ill-considered nor are they the result of snap judgments. Moreover, they are the result of constant refining in the fires of the latest research and constant critical reflection.

I am not in the classroom – either in person or virtually - to make students comfortable or to meet their demands. While I do not wish students to be uncomfortable nor do I presume it to be necessary for learning to occur, those are simply not my ultimate concerns as an instructor. And the fact that my university insists upon giving students the opportunity to complain about their comfort level thereby encouraging them to see themselves as consumers rather than students does not somehow mean that the results of that inane process produces much worth knowing. It also fails to create an imperative that I as a serious instructor should take the results of that process seriously.

OK. Thanks for indulging me. Here ends the rant.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Associate Lecturer: Religion and Cultural Studies, Humanities, Philosophy of Law
Osceola Regional Campus, University of Central Florida,  Kissimmee, FL

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. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Although not a university instructor, I have often served as an assigned "mentor" in a government law firm setting, charged with translating legal education into quality real life legal writing. Although no rating system has been used on such mentors to my knowledge, I frankly cannot see the wisdom or usefulness of giving a "student" (one who is there to learn) the ability to evaluate the "quality" of what said student thinks an instructor with considerable knowledge and training in a chosen field can impart to him/her?