Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Student evaluations: unrequited love?

I'm not always a fan of Stanley Fish's columns in the New York Times, but his recent ones on student evaluations are interesting:
I respect students as persons who deserve to be treated with courtesy, which means, minimally, that they should not be harassed or singled out for ridicule or graded up or down on the basis of gender, ethnic, racial or religious affiliation, or sexual orientation. But this courtesy and respect does not extend to their ideas, which may or may not be given a hearing depending on the instructor’s preferred teaching style, and which may be summarily dismissed if they are judged to be beside the pedagogical point. Treat them as human beings with inherent dignity by all means; but don’t treat them as sages before the fact.
While I don't agree that we can summarily dismiss their ideas--with proper discussion, mighty oaks of good ideas can grow out of little acorns of bad ones--he has a point.

Fish quotes a lot of commenters as saying that they feel hurt if they get bad evaluations. That's something that we've all experienced--forgetting the 30 good evaluations and remembering in vivid detail the one from the student who obviously hated you. Why do we beat ourselves up about this (besides the issues of hiring and promotion)?

I think Dorothy Parker had it right in "Two-Volume Novel" when she talked about unrequited love:

The sun's gone dim, and
The moon's turned black;
For I loved him, and
He didn't love back.

Now, the sun doesn't necessarily go dim, but we put a lot of ourselves into those courses and those students, so when they don't love us back, it hurts.

I looked at my course evals for spring recently, and while they were good overall, there were a couple of students who were sort of "eh--who cares? It was okay, I guess" about the course (and me). Some of you may remember the course on flying dinosaurs that I was so excited about teaching. I had poured all kinds of energy and time into that course, neglecting my writing in favor of lavishing attention on pedagogy and interesting assignments. While some really liked it ("fantastic course"), a few comments were along the lines of "all the flying dinosaurs sucked."

Now, while I understand intellectually that the comment speaks for itself (then why did he take the course, which was conspicuously titled "Flying Dinosaurs"?), emotionally, it feels as though I loved the course and students and they--or one, really--didn't love me back, even though I've been teaching for long enough to know not to take it personally. For them, it was just another course; for me, it was a project in which I'd invested a lot of time and effort.

What to do? Disengage from your courses and students so that you have no investment in them? Can you really do that and be an effective teacher? Or get cynical (like "Dr. Bob," one of the commenters Fish discusses) and cater to an entertainment mindset, handing out A grades like M&Ms?

Or maybe this: next fall, scroll back over to this post and think twice before responding at length to every assignment or spending hours over preparing a single class.

Or not.

What do you do?


Anonymous said...

Advice that I give to myself and others, but that I still can't quite assimilate:

As long as most of the comments recognize all that I put into the course, and reflect their own engagement and learning, then I try, desperately, to not take to heart those few students who were not engaged, who feel they did not learn anything, who responded with hostility to my own passion for the subject. Because, as a student, I'm sure I had terms where I too self absorbed to learn, to engage, to care.

Ianqui said...

I try my hardest to approach it this way: Students are not necessarily in college because of their love of learning. In some cases, their parents make them, and in some cases, they do understand that college will help them advance in the world. I teach an esoteric topic (albeit one that half the students think will be more relevant to their lives than it actually will be, in many cases), so if I get 10 students out of a class of 50 that love the topic (and like me), I feel like I've succeeded. The fact that those 10 students did love the class suggests that I can't be all bad.

Professor Zero said...

...Not read evaluations! People tell me "oh, but I have to, because I have to defend myself..." but technically, so do I. Sometimes I have to but by then there are so many and they were so long ago.

I do give anonymous polls on aspects of classes I want feedback on, and ask students what they think, and I get good information from this -- much more interesting than what I get on student evaluations which has included in recent history:

"Behaved like a genius"
"Cool chica"
"Irritating laugh"
"Go back to Mexico"
"Socialist bitch"
"Great ass"
"Flighty, wouldn't say what would be on tests except that we were responsible for everything that had been in bold, and that we were expected to use, and not just recite information, this is no help, have a study guide"
and on, and on.

Reading through that kind of stuff,
figuring out what it might mean, etc., etc., just isn't good for me or my work. I know that some of the more offensive of these comments are what some members of any audience will be thinking, but having to deal with it in writing while I'm preparing classes for another semester is just lame.

Professor Zero said...

P.S. So to speak to point: I don't mind unrequited love, as I don't expect love ... but I also don't expect abuse, and I object to it.

moria said...

I got my very first set this past term. I read them avidly and immediately. I was on my way to drinks with the fellow who fills, among other profly roles, that of teaching mentor, and who had read them in advance of me. I must have had a kind of stark sullen glare about me, and I gestured at nothing with the pile of evals, and said, "God, I should not have read these right now." He boggled. "But they were excellent," he exclaimed, "some of the very best."

Shows what difference twelve years can make. I re-read them recently, and found that he was right – they're full of quirks and oddities, and a few complaints, but on the whole, the kiddos liked me and liked how I taught. So why did the initial reading make me feel like a failure as a teacher, a scholar, and a person?

I think this is a metaphysical mystery. There may be rational ways to approach it (your commenters have good suggestions), but I think I'd rather just let it lie.

Anonymous said...

I have a defence mechanism that goes like this: (i) if the kids knew how the course should go they wouldn't be on it, (ii) their reactions are as much or more about them as they are about my teaching. Therefore I act statistically, dismiss the outliers as `having issues' and only if there's something that repeatedly comes up (and there is, sometimes, because I'm not so very experienced at this) do I start taking it seriously and plot to improve it or eliminate it next time. After all, teaching to the few vocal voices risks losing the silent majority.

undine said...

Annieem, "try desperately" is the key. I think I'm trying to convince myself that all the time I lavished on teaching last semester wasn't a mistake.

ianqui, your comment is making me go back and see what the ratio is.

Profacero, that point about abuse--yes. I don't feel abused, exactly, but maybe I do, else why would I write about it?

Moria, that's it exactly--why do we see evals in that negative light? Maybe time + distance = objectivity.

tenthmedieval, that's a good strategy. I have to remember that the majority said that they learned a lot and not let the comments of a few distort the class for next time.

Historiann said...

You have to teach for yourself. That's the only way you'll be able to keep rolling out of bed to do it again for 20, 30, or more years. Teach your course on flying dinos because it's interesting to YOU, and the students will (most of them) respond to your energy, enthusiasm, and engagement.

Those who don't, well: why would any a$$wipe volunteer to take a course on flying dinos if they don't really dig flying dinos? Students should be better curators of their college careers. And if they aren't that's not your fault, it's theirs.

undine said...

Historiann, that's how I feel about it, too: if the student didn't like flying dinos, why not sign up for introductory basketweaving like everybody else? That's a great point about teaching for yourself: ultimately, if we aren't enjoying it and entertained by what we're doing, they won't be, either.

nicole said...

I have my husband read the stupid evals.

I'm stuck teaching a very difficult required class to first semester students. A very important class that they need to know the material for, but one that is not the most popular. There's a combination of fear, hatred, and incorrectly believing that math isn't useful.

I do my duty. At first I wanted to save everybody. Now I only bother saving the ones who want to be saved. If they fail, they get to take the class again the next year from the other professor who teaches it. I also told my senior faculty that if they didn't explain what a PITA it is to teach that class during my annual reviews I was going to refuse to teach it (or quit).

The more I teach the more jaded I get, and the more I treat my students like high schoolers and the less like adults. Last semester I had to confiscate a blackberry in class. But that kid gave me good reviews...