Monday, June 28, 2010

Learning to Please the “Customer”: The Trials and Tribulations of Student Evaluations

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 1: "He wouldn't tell us what to think or what to write our papers on."

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."


Roobee said...

Question: What were your expectations? Were they met?

Student: They were mediocre. They were met and also more.

Not sure the student understood the question (others said things like "Improve my writing" or "learn more about race in the U.S."). Still, I got a lot of good data from spring semester evals because the questions were really well written.

Mrs. Chili said...

I am no longer astounded by the sheer levels of dumbassery that my students are willing to expose in teacher evaluations. While I don't have any verbatim examples handy, most of the really good ones revolve around the sheer nerve I exhibited by making them, you know, THINK. For themselves, even! How DARE I!?

Historiann said...

Heh. Nice blog--I got here via Tenured Radical. Last fall, I got something like your MLK freeing the slaves comment, to the effect that Thurgood (not John) Marshall was in fact the first Chief Justice of the United States. Amazing!

My perennial fave: "this class isn't American history. This class is just about Blacks, women, and Indians." One of the awesome things about tenure is that you can ignore these for the rest of your blessed career, so I never open them.

Anonymous said...

Thanks *so much* for this post. It encapsulates the agony of that 2nd week in May or December after a frantic (and frighteningly short) timeframe spent grading underwhelming papers and exams, itself coming on the heels of a long and taxing semester, only to be met with the most disheartening reviews from students with axes to grind. It is exhausting to say the least to teach to the expectations of privileged students at overpriced institutions, who land on your doorstep after a context of 12+ previous years of miseducation and their nutty assed parents' checkbooks lurking in the background.

To combat some of this, I now offer a disclaimer during the few times my courses meet during "shopping period" at the beginning of each semester, so that nobody comes into my classroom seeking sanitized, feel good versions of history that reinforce their privilege, from courses explicitly dedicated to understanding slavery and emancipation, colonialism, labor, race and gender, everyday forms of resistance and organized politics, and modern forms of economic and political exploitation. Once I make my obligatory speech about all this heavy shit being the focus of my classes, and being up front about the lack of any feel good moments of "civil rights" or "liberation" that can make students feel like the ugliness of this narrative somehow righted itself (and trust me, when you teach comparative black history, the story continues to be not so hot for most of the world's black folks, right up to this moment as I type), I lose the unready ones in droves.

And I realize that this may not be a good strategy long term because the bottom line is a concern for most universities as they continue to pursue this rather alarming corporate model of education, so keeping classes full is definitely an issue all faculty need to be mindful of. But mechanisms to separate the wheat from the chaff allows the bar to be raised exponentially and it makes for a much more satisfying experience for me as an educator and for students themselves, when they are all aware of, and actually excited about, what they are about to learn.

We'll see if at my tenure review my choices eventually fuck me over, but for now, that's my story and Im sticking to it...

ps Historiann & Chauncey, I have so many quotable gems from my course reviews that are *way* too similar to the ones you guys shared. Especially the pro-America, "where are the white people?" sorts of sentiments... Is this coincidence or am I right to wonder if we really are as a nation/educational system just churning out an army of like-minded idiots.

Let me stop my rants before Campus Watch finds this post and tries to figure out who I am & where I teach to get me fired before I can make my next mortgage payment. July 1 is upon me so ending my post here.

Anonymous said...

The passive aggressiveness of students is depressing. It's sad, but I know more than one person who keep lists of their grievances against professors (every time the prof pisses them off the incident goes on the list)and then rip into the profs using those lists.
They don't seem to think of it as passive aggressive.

Lady Zora, Chauncey DeVega, and Gordon Gartrelle said...

@Roobee--let's not get started on how many get the evaluation scale confused where "1" is most satisfied and "5" is least.

@Chili--We don't teach thinking. We are wranglers.

@Historiann--That isn't "real" history. You don't know that?

@Natasha--Get that tenure. Smile and let them know what is up. My best innovation this year was an assignment second week that made 12 out of 35 or so quit. The remainders were true believers. We will see how that pans out.

@Anon--Please don't justify our preempting our students' retaliating. I wouldn't want to make President Bush seem right.

OhCrapIHaveACrushOnSarahPalin said...

Oh man thanks for reminding me if those who can't do teach, why I can't even teach.

I was just laughing with a friend who has a summer session right now, what his predictions for Rate My Prof are gonna be.

Historiann has a great site, btw.