The Evaluation Psychodrama

You may remember that I expressed some wailing anxiety after reading a RateMyProfessor review of my teaching, a castigation by a student who seemed to regard me as the most irritating person whose presence s/he had ever been condemned to endure for any length of time, a student who nonetheless gave me a puzzlingly positive rating.  Apparently by numerical measures I was a better than average (or at least adequate) instructor; it was only on an aesthetic level that s/he objected to me in the most visceral possible way.

I made the very great mistake of reading this review just before teaching a class at the start of the semester, and it shook my confidence for weeks.  I have a (fairly common, I know) personality quirk that is uncomfortable in everyday life and particularly disastrous for a teacher: a compulsive wish to have everyone I encounter like me.

Pedagogical philosophy and the status of teachers is shifting right now away from an authoritarian model (the teacher has all the power and information, and they require absolute respect from a relatively passive body of students) to a commercial model (the teacher provides a service for which the students are paying a substantial fee, so they have the right to treat the classroom as a place where they achieve concrete improvements to their future job prospects, and are entertained while they receive these services). You can see where this cultural shift, although positive in many ways (including the fostering of a less inert, more creative student body), is a disaster for the insecure and perfectionist: you have to woo the students, and if they don't learn, it is because of a failure on your part to be sufficiently magnetic on a personal level.  For instance, the evaluations that my students fill out now contain this question (among more than 30 others): does your instructor enhance presentations with the use of humor?  I mean, I do, but surely a professor shouldn't have to be funny to be effective.  We aren't, after all, stand-up comics.

Word bubbles through academic circles of studies being done that disprove this new ideal of classroom management: different fields and skills require different teaching methods, they say, and the most effective teachers are often those who are most flexible and open to experimentation, rather than the most entertaining or likable.

But this is not necessarily how the students feel when they fill out evaluations, or how instructors feel when they read them.

In the course of my half-decade or so of teaching at the university level,  the nature of my evaluations varied sharply with the institutional attitude of the students to both authority and the act of evaluation itself.  My attitude, and the one I wish more students would take up, is this: students should adopt the same measured tones that their teachers use when evaluating them.  Suggest concrete areas for change and improvement, noting possible solutions as well as identifying problems.  Do not make personal attacks.  Be aware of what is within your teacher's control and what isn't.  Be honest with yourself: would you have responded better to the class style or absorbed more information if you had done more of the reading and attended more classes?  Or is there something that the teacher could have done that would have encouraged you to be more attentive?

Part of the problem is that most students don't understand the varied purposes of evaluations: they are intended to help instructors improve both their teaching style and the course itself, but they are also used by many colleges and universities as part of the hiring, contract renewal, promotion, and tenure processes.  What you say on evaluations can change your professor's life in concrete and vital ways.  Negative evaluations (although usually only in bulk) can deprive your teacher of his or her livelihood.  So be careful and constructive.

In general, students are very fair in their evaluations.  At my first teaching gig, a prestigious and authority-admiring institution, the majority were.  They were noticeably and understandably harder on me when I was a TA than when I was teaching my own class: I believe this is partly because I was a better teacher by the time I was given a course to run on my own, and partly because undergraduates sense that TAs are slightly below them on the university totem pole.

After getting my doctorate, however, I also taught at a competitive liberal arts school with a strong institutional identity of iconoclasm.  Evaluations here were traditionally harsher there: students considered it their right and duty to confront and question authority, so they did at every possible opportunity, challenging assignments as too many and too hard, arguing with class policy, and savaging professors online and in end-of-semester evaluations.

Since I had always gotten very positive feedback from my students at school #1, I was shocked by not just the content but also the tone of these evaluations at school #2.  Students would call me "a sweetheart" - a term whose condescension becomes apparent once you ask whether they would be comfortable using it to describe a waitress or housekeeper to her face - before insulting my class.  The power dynamic was dramatically different.

So, after reading my RateMyProfessor review after my first semester at school #3 (where I have been enjoying my job immensely), I was not only shaken in my confidence but profoundly reluctant to read the official evaluations when they came in a few weeks ago.  What if they were so profoundly unfair that  they shook my confidence and undermined my teaching for the rest of the semester? Perhaps I should wait until summer to look at them.  Developing a thicker skin is one of my priorities, but in my first year at a new job, I feel precarious enough to make this more than usually challenging.

After some good classes on Thursday buoyed my spirits and UNC's defeat by Duke reminded me that all earthly glories are fleeting and I must adopt a stoic attitude towards loss (I was teaching Everyman this week, remember), I decided on Friday to bite the bullet and read the damn things.

And they were among the nicest evaluations I have ever received.  Constructive and interesting suggestions for change, honesty about issues that were curricular as well as some that were within my control, appreciation of my enthusiasm for teaching.   Reaction: giddy glee.

And then, a comment so nice that I want to have it embroidered on a set of throw pillows:

Which characteristics have been most valuable to your experience in this class? Her friendly nature and her dedication to the work.
Which characteristics are most in need of improvement? She is a very nice teacher.  She does not have to improve.  She is perfect.

Ahhh.  So untrue, and so very satisfying to hear.

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