Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Amnesty International; Student Evaluations and reflections

Just an hour ago, Amnesty International issued its annual report on international human rights violations, which this year highlights the US's use of torture, calling Guantanamo Bay "the gulag of our time." I'm also glad to see AI's intro to the report the statement that "The “war on terror” appeared more effective in eroding international human rights principles than in countering international “terrorism.”
In personal's that time of year for Student Evaluations.
Yesterday, after a student I used to have mentioned a site to me called "" I did a little reading. I did indeed have a few ratings there, basically two per year that I'd been at that school, and as expected, they reflected the views of students who had strong reactions to me. One said I was a "wonderful woman." Another one said I was "downright rude" despite being so young. I'm not so sure what this means, but it may be my intolerance of the standard level of student rudeness and disrespect that I encounter, which I find somewhat maddening. I'm hoping that my patience for certain types of student shennanigans has increased, so that I am less likely to display so openly how irritated I am by the things that some students do. Overall, my sense of the totality of the evals was that they would be a fairly good guide for the discerning reader - if a student was interested in a professor who did not "spoon feed" as one student eval put it, my course was for them. If they were looking for an easy "A" they should go elsewhere.
I looked up some of my friends (one of whom is quite famous) and saw such contemptuous things "he is SO boring, but SO easy." Of another, one student wrote that he is "a narcissistic personality" and of another: "he has anger management problems." It was very clear that on this website that being "easy" or easy to get an A from was the principle qualification for getting a lot of "smiey faces" and a positive rating; another important characteristic was being "nice" - which of course is a good thing. The students might, in a employer to servant relation, look upon these teachers with complete contempt, but yet give them positive ratings for delivering the goods (an easy A) despite being boring/stupid, etc. All of it is enough to make me somewhat sympathetic to the views expressed in this article on student evaluations which discusses them as part of a generally corporate university model that turns students into consumers and teachers into service providers.
My question is, in regard to all of this, does being a likeable teacher make you a good teacher? I'm sure that there's a balance...but I will share this: I always get very high marks from faculty observers, and some of my higher-rated colleagues are very excited by some of the "results" I get from my students in terms of writing and articulation of ideas. When I presented my stuff for them at our local "teaching and learning center" they actually didn't believe that I was showing them work that students had really done. I want to believe that I can bring students to this level, because it is more interesting FOR ME when my students really shine. I will nonetheless have to work on making the process of getting there less odious for other students. One person said I barely taught, but simply "made them read" - which reflects an expectation of a more traditional "banking model" of education.
Oddly, I think that the student evals on the website can tell you much more about both the students and the professors than the ones that we use regularly at my nameless school because they provide space for students to comment, AND because they highlight the qualities that are most important to students (apparently): "ease" and "clarity." My general feeling about these evaluations is that they are useful, but that they should not be taken with as much seriousness as they are in the tenure and promotion process - unless they provide space for commentary, which can at least indicate information to administrators, chairs, etc. as much about the student as they do about the person being evaluated. Student evaluations are much less important in research institutions than they are in more teaching oriented colleges, and in some research institutions, being a popular teacher is still seen as a sign of being not a very good scholar. While I have often balked at this and seen it as typical elitism, I can also understand why it is so, especially if you yourself do not teach in a research institution. I think that any serious researcher and dedicated teacher will agree that there is a serious gear shift involved between doing research and teaching. It is an unusual scholar who has the capacity to be extremely rigorous and demanding of himself/herself and speak within a community whose standards for performance continually go up, while at the same time continually relaxing expectations of undergraduates, taking things apart and making them simpler and simpler to understand. The lower the level of student preparation, the harder it is to do this job well. One also begins to feel a responsibility to do some serious compensatory work. As every study that has ever been done has shown, those teaching introductory courses at lower levels get consistently lower evaluations than those teaching advanced courses.
I know that my own evaluations were consistently higher when I taught in four-year colleges. I imagine that some of this reflects my own frustrated ambition.... I also think that the more experienced a teacher is the easier it is to shift gears between the two parts of academic life. My recollection as a graduate student was that junior faculty were both extremely challenging and interesting AND often seemingly arbitrary and unreasonably demanding in their expectations. Given the fact that people in grad school are trained for the intellectual olympics and basically not prepared at all for anything less than teaching at institutions similar to the ones that they attended, it may take a long time for them to adjust their expectations. To add to this, the people who got the very highest ratings at my school - whose students said they made the subject interesting and fun - were those who had been trained within that system, had PhDs from within that system, and/or whose primary goal it had always been to be there. The people from outside institutions seem to have a harder time adjusting their expectations, not only for their students, but probably their expectations of what their careers were to be.

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