Tuesday, July 14, 2009


"This course should have had a textbook, with weekly assigned readings." - Comment from teaching evaluation, 2005.

It did. It did have a textbook, and it did have weekly assigned readings. Evaluations often tell us more about our students than about our teaching.

I'll get this out of the way so that nobody thinks it's sour grapes. Despite the occasional barb hurled my way, I get very good teaching evaluations, and you can check if you don't believe me. I've even won a couple of teaching awards, and you can check up on that, too. But I also believe that we could improve the quality of education overnight by abolishing student teaching evaluations – or at least by abolishing the kind that we have now. I also know, as I write these words, that I feel quite vulnerable. As a relative academic newcomer, still in a probationary period, I pay my rent by the good graces of administrators for whom teaching evaluations are a sacred cow. But therein lies the rub: I haven't met a sessional or newly minted full-time professor yet who wouldn't, behind closed doors, admit to lowering standards in exchange for better evaluations. Not to mix metaphors, but for the indentured servants who carry, if not the bulk, then certainly the dead weight of the university's teaching burden, teaching evaluations hang over them like the threat of the slave driver's whip. Every deserved "F", every blunt assessment of a lazy student's performance, every admonishment to stop surfing the wireless web and pay attention, is tempered by that threat. Reading loads get reduced, content gets thinned out, expectations get lowered, and lo, yea and verily, the light of the highest grades is shed upon work of the shadiest character. Don't kid yourselves – evaluations make our teaching worse.

They also rest upon the assumption that the great majority of undergraduates are qualified to say what is and what is not good teaching. On what grounds do we assume this? Have undergraduates lectured? Marked? Led discussions? Studied pedagogy? Any parent of any teenager will tell you that young people seldom are objective adjudicators of adult authority, yet an evaluation from a sincere and diligent student gets no more consideration than one from a full-time party-animal who slept, skipped, or surfed his way through my class, and who departs thinking that Rosa Parks "invented the national parks system." (Yes, it really happened). Well, hurrah for the new academic democracy, down with the hidebound old guard that just doesn't get it. Times have changed: they're customers now, not students, and they have every right to demand customer satisfaction – even the ones who have come to shoplift. Thus do good teaching evaluations become an end in themselves, when the "end", if there is one, is not so much better teachers as it is better students, students who no longer need teachers in order to learn. If my institution's administrators really want to assess my teaching, they're welcome to drop by my class any day. They can show up unannounced, if they like. Or I can show them my class websites and the contents of my teaching portfolio and the articles I've published on andragogy. We could discuss it over lunch. I welcome their insight and their expertise. All this could be done. As it stands, we let students define what constitutes good teaching.

In fairness, this is not about administration. In my working career I've stepped into managerial roles often enough to know that the grass is not greener on that side of the desk, and I certainly wouldn't want to endure the automatic accusations of ill-faith that come packaged with the job of Dean, Principal, and President. These colleagues are not my target. My target is the assumptions that lead them to take the present system of teaching evaluations seriously. The point of having better teachers, after all, is to produce better students, and for those purposes student teaching evaluations are not so much a sacred cow as they are a golden calf.


Andrew Denstedt said...

"Have undergraduates lectured? Marked? Led discussions? Studied pedagogy?"

I know a lot of PhD candidates and aspiring professors who haven't done many of these things either. It would be very easy to make it through graduate school doing only one of them (marking essays). There's a disturbing lack of pedagogical training in many of the graduate programs that I am familiar with.

The best excuse for this is that not all graduate students plan to stay within the academy. Still, it seems odd that an individual with a PhD would not be trusted with a high school class without some additional pedagogical training (a teacher's college degree), but that same person can be dropped into a lecture hall or seminar room and be expected to offer meaningful classes.

The point is, I'm not sure that professors are necessarily much better at deciding what constitutes adequate teaching. I guarantee you that most professors have not spent much time thinking or writing about the pedagogical side of their craft (this is the part where I meant to offer a counter example by by hot linking your July 16, 2008 blog, but alas, I can't remember HTML). I'm also fairly certain that most university administrators are former professors. So who do we rely on?

I agree that there must be a better way to implement the student comment card, but I don't think it's fair to exclude them from the process entirely. Most are not qualified to fully assess pedagogical methods, but neither are many of the people they are evaluating.

Graham Broad said...

In a word, agreed. And I certainly do agree that students - university students - should be permitted to evaluate their professors. The problem arises when student evaluations are the only method by which teaching is judged.