Monday, April 8, 2013

A Question: In the Age of Facebook, Have College Course Evaluations Become More Mean Spirited, Angry, Hostile, and Retaliatory Than Before?

A second post on a related matter.

Have those of you who are teachers in either the secondary or college levels noticed an increase in the hostility and mean-spiritedness of your student's teaching evaluations over the years? A harshness to how they assess you, your work, or an unrealistic assessment of their own ability and grades?

Many of us are "teachers" even if we do not work in a formal school, college, or university. In the world of work, in the small business or corporation (and most certainly in the military), there is much teaching and mentoring done. For those of you in those spheres, have you noticed a similar trend when you do annual reviews or try to supervise younger workers of the Facebook/Millennial Generation?

Breaking kayfabe post-Wrestlemania, I am a fair, if not very generous teacher with my time and grades. I hold students in my seminars to high standards. I also take the time to give good, if not detailed feedback on their papers. I try to be like my favorite college professors who inspired me to pursue a trade that had certain not being one of them.

They were serious but relaxed and approachable. They also held their students accountable. I try to do the same.

Looking over my last few years of course evaluations, I have noticed a trend. I am journeyman, so your help and insight is appreciated, as I try to make sense of what I am seeing. To my eyes, there has been a marked increase in the anger, retaliatory tone, impatience, and entitled nature to the comments on course evaluations.

Moreover, I have seen more raw anger--and for lack of a better phrase "hatred," that in some cases, is actually a bit frightening--in course evaluations.

For the most part, the vast majority of my students are good, smart, earnest, respectful, patient, and well-intended in their comments and suggestions. Yet, there is a core amount of ugliness growing each year. I am sure this is a reflection of my subject area: I teach courses on race and politics. Many students are not prepared or willing to have their cognitive map or assumptions questioned.

However, my intuition tells me that these dynamics are a more general trend.

There is research suggesting that college evaluations are of questionable value in actually assessing the quality of instruction in college classes. For example, on such problematic websites such as, a recent paper suggested that being tall, white, male, and perceived as "attractive" over-determines student's assessments of one's abilities.

A colleague who researches educational psychology explained to me that women who lecture are systematically under-assessed by students as compared to those women who teach seminars. Why? Students perceive women as nurturers. The opposite holds for men. If you are male and run seminars, then students underrate you systematically. Lectures are apparently a space for "authority"; seminars are spaces for "conversation" and "feeling." The latter is coded as "female" and "feminine."

And these findings do not include the confounding variable that is perceived racial group membership and intersectionality with gender, for example.

I do not like lists. They tend to encourage lazy thinking and poor writing. Here, that format may be of use however, as we try to work through a range of thoughts on why undergraduate evaluations may have taken such a negative turn. Of course, these answers vary according according to the type of post-secondary institution one teaches at, and a teacher's individual range of experiences, as well a relative ability and presence:

1. The economy stinks. This fact encourages bad behavior. If a student views their college courses not as having anything to do with educating the whole person, but instead as vocational training where one is quite literally buying a degree to get a job, any challenge or low grade, will be taken as unfair. If the degree is the product that is paid for by students, the professor/lecturer becomes a supplicant/employee/enemy.

2. Because the economy stinks, and you may not get a job, despite one's indebtedness which was incurred by going to college, then anxiety and anger levels are increased across the board. College instructors are just a convenient target.

3. College students in the Age of the Great Recession, have been socialized in a moment of anti-intellectualism, where the academy and professors (as well as teachers, more generally) have been systematically disrespected and demeaned by political actors and the mass media. Students pick up these cues.

4. The university as an institution has encouraged student hostility by emphasizing "choice," "freedom," that students are in charge of their own "destiny," and how we--those who actually run seminars and lectures--only exist to live for and serve undergraduates.

5. The United States is now a culture where all young people are "special" and get a trophy--even if they finish in last place. Grade inflation reflects this dynamic. The "A" is the new "C." Our culture also coddles mediocrity. Helicopter parents further legitimate student entitlement. If the whole world is oriented around telling students how great they are, why would we not expect them to become hostile and angry when they do not receive the grades they "deserve?"

6. To point. "Deserve" has replaced "earned" and "ability" in how student's self-assess. If one believes that grades are about "effort" then the hostility is quite predictable. How does one counter, "I tried! Where is my 'A'!" except with an answer that will produce nothing but anger?

7. Social media has created clinical levels of narcissism among young people. If Instagram and Facebook tell a student that they are "celebrities" and "special" for quite literally having done nothing but click on a button, then an accurate and direct assessment of their in-class performance and other work will be a jarring upset, introducing cognitive dissonance that is not easily overcome. Who the heck are we/you/us/me to tell a student that they are sub par, when a whole entertainment industry and complex tells them otherwise?

8. Political polarization matters. This is especially true if you teach in the social sciences or humanities. The increase in authoritarianism among conservatives in the United States carries over to the classroom.

Fox News talking points have become truth. The Right-wing echo chamber wants to extend into the classroom. Conservatism is also a religion. For the Tea Party GOP, heretics are to be driven out of the body politic. Because many conservative students are incapable of distinguishing between opinion and empirical reality, they are especially hostile in the classroom when their standing priors are confronted. I wonder if this resistance to the world of facts and empirical reality has spilled over to the natural and hard sciences?


Werner Herzog's Bear said...

I think a lot of the reasons you give are valid, but a lot of it also has to do, in my experience at least, with the culture of the institution and of the students there. For instance, when I taught in Texas, students there were much more willing to respect my position as an authority figure. At my prior university, students were notorious for a "I pay your salary" mentality that got ME blamed for all of THEIR shortcomings. Based on what I've seen from my friends, the more a particular student body has absorbed the values of consumerism, the more likely they are to get insanely upset over not getting the result they feel they (or their parents) paid for.

Contingent Cassandra said...

Yes, I've seen the same trend you do (I teach a required -- and thus often disliked -- upper-level writing in the disciplines course; I think it's fair to say the content is more or less politically neutral, and students are free to pursue their own interests as long as their chosen subject meets some fairly broad assignment requirements, so accusations of political correctness and/or liberal bias are hard to lob, though I've gotten a few over the years nonetheless). While the other factors play a role, I think a lot of it boils down to "it's the economy, stupid" (i.e. mostly #s 1 and 2, especially 2. Add in the fact that a lot of students are working more hours for pay so as to avoid or supplement student loans, and you have an added reason for a backlash against any significant out-of-class workload -- which of course is absolutely necessary for any serious college course).

CNu said...

Let's pretend student loans are about education

Colleges "confront" costs

That student loan bubble fitna burst and create legions of long-term debt-slaves

The incentive system in higher ed, which has seen tenured faculty and administrator salaries skyrocket over the past two generations - and tuition increases shoulder the bulk of that beady-eyed hoggishness - has everything to do with the underlying tension which has now been given a social media outlet for expression.

Not rocket science, and the first, last, and only place one need look to understand the situation, is squarely in the institutional mirror.

As I explained to my 18 year old freshman, enrolled in a highly selective college with annual tuition of $63K - we're not paying for you to be educated - that tuition is the cost of admission to an elite social network. Your prior 18 years has prepared you to make the most of that interpersonal access and exposure opportunity, period.

Everything else is merely delusional conversation....,

Adam H said...

I would say that indeed these kinds of attitudes have spilled over into the natural and hard sciences, although in slightly different ways. I'm speaking primarily of the kind of narcism that you're talking about. This primarily seems to extend from kids with more privileged backgrounds.

I find that people are much more willing to accept things that look and seem scientific as scientific fact. Anecdotal evidence, as empirical reality. Such claims as, "intelligence is genetic" -- just look at how stupid people tend to have stupid children, "religion is scientifically unsound" -- Dawkins, "Poor people have brought there lack of health on themselves" -- They eat so much McDonalds, and finally the repugnant, "Science can help us become better human beings".

Unfortunately, this is in large part the result of egotistical scientists overstepping the bounds of their disciplines (Dawkins, et. al.), and then not being chastised by the people that should care most (Philosophers).

As a scientist in training, I find myself dismayed that non-scientists so easily accept these morsels of "plainly true" things coming from those in white lab coats.

I realize this is a bit orthogonal but I think that this is an additional and related symptom, to what is becoming central to the downfall of the University/College -- a kind of scary lack of introspection of those ideas so central to the flow of power in this world.

The tools of a scientist are of highly limited application, and only really provide meaningful information for society at large when wielded in an ethically sound context. This rarely happens when scientists stray beyond their studied disciplines.

chauncey devega said...

Well as someone seeing this firsthand--there is a small number of folks who are seeing those gains. The business and profession is contracting and bringing in more temp labor. You are also missing the mess that is spending money on stadiums instead of teachers and learning.

I agree on your advice. Great stuff there.

Unless you are at an elite institutions that opens doors--and even then it is happening there--students and faculty are both being cheated and screwed over by the money suck to the top. "Education" is in a huge crisis. Part of that is how austerity/neoliberal models are being applied to education. McDonalds and Walmart are the way of the future for education. Sick. Tragic.