Student evaluations of their teachers are now a fixture in higher education. As colleges and universities have gone to a more customer serviced based model, where pleasing students (and their parents whom pay the bills) is now the ultimate goal, student evaluations have only received more emphasis. In a time of constrained budgets, happy students equal happy parents, who in turn pay what are often extravagantly high tuition rates.
For those on the other side of the desk, the end of the school year is a time for no small amount of anxiety. Did I do well on the evaluations? How will the university rank my performance? In what ways will students' opinions of my teaching impact a promotion, tenure, or salary decision?
As has been frequently discussed, student evaluations are based on a set of contentious premises. Primarily, do students really have the ability to fairly and critically evaluate their teacher? Certainly, a given student can assess the capacity to which they learned the material. But, is a given student in a position to really assess how well said material was presented to them and the pedagogical gifts (or not) of their instructor?
Moreover, in an era of rampant grade inflation and a culture where many "Millennials" (a group less affectionately described as the "trophy kids") expect an "A" for merely showing up, a student's assessment of a class or a teacher is often a function of an expected grade. Given that student evaluations are anonymous and online, the anger a student may feel about a grade (and towards a particular teacher) is doubly amplified and unfiltered by a generation raised on social networking sites and the pseudo-anonymity of the Internet. Thus, online student evaluations encourage meanness--not reasoned reflection and/or consideration.
I am not suggesting that evaluations are without merit. In the aggregate, a pattern of thoughtful comments can really improve a teacher's craft. Likewise, if a range of students, across classes, are making substantive comments on the same point there can be much learned. Rather, it is a concern about how student evaluations are increasingly used by some--both institutions and students alike--as a bludgeon and not a useful tool for actually improving the quality of instruction.
To point: it seems that some (if not many) faculty members are feeling an increased pressure to inflate grades and to simplify, dumb down, or significantly alter curricula in order to please students. In an era when tenure itself is under assault, where academic freedom is increasingly imperiled, and the classroom is increasingly politicized by the myth of "liberal" professors offered by such Right wing groups as Campus Watch and Students for Academic Freedom, this can only suggest a perilous future for the quality of college instruction. Thus a paradox: at a moment when a college degree is seen as being de rigeur for entry into the middle classes, the quality of instruction is increasingly subject to the downward pressures of student evaluations.
As is my common refrain on these matters: What types of citizens are we creating in our schools at the elementary, secondary, and post-secondary levels?
I don't often break kayfabe, but for those of us in higher education there is much to be gained from sharing our thoughts on the use and impact of student evaluations. In keeping with that spirit, here are a few of my choice evaluations (made sufficiently anonymous) to laugh at, smile, or be disturbed by. To my fellow travelers, pray tell, what have been the highest and lowest points of your academic year?
Best trophy generation comment: "He thinks he is so much smarter than we are."
Best snowflake comment 2: "He corrects people in class when they are wrong about the material. He needs to learn there are two sides to everything."
Most honest and sincere comment: "Please dumb down the material more for us."
Most unintentionally funny comment: "I really liked learning about how Martin Luther King freed the slaves." [My question: Does this mean said student thought Dr. King lived in the 19th century, or that African Americans were slaves in the 1960's? And which is funnier?]
Snarkiest comment: "He is like a black version of Al Franken. Avoid him."
Conservative victimology in action comment: "A Conservative would feel really threatened and scared in his class."
Conservative victimology in action comment 2: "He is disrespectful to the Tea Parties. He called them tea baggers which made other students feel comfortable saying the same thing. Some of the people at the rallies may be crazy but most should be shown respect."
Best Glenn Beck inspired "don't tease the panther" comment: "He repeatedly disrespected Sarah Palin. Not cool."
Saddest comment: "Why all this talk about race and American politics stuff? I get it, but at a point this is too much..."
Obligatory most encouraging to end the list and to be inspired to keep teaching comment: "Cool guy. Hard but fair grader. I learned a lot from the class and I am a much better writer because of his attention."