On the whole, my course evaluations from last semester were quite good. I got amazing ratings from my Shakespeare class, although I'm sure that's a fluke (my average scores, in all categories, fell between the top two grades of Very Good and Excellent); I got lucky, I think, in a) having a critical mass of exceptionally talented students, and b) seeing most of my less-prepared students drop or withdraw for unrelated reasons.
My other two classes--Composition and British Literature I--produced average scores between Good and Very Good. Those averages, too, are somewhat skewed, although in the other direction: in each class I had a few students who obviously hated me and who went straight down the form filling in "Very Poor" for every category. Still, I'm perfectly happy with those results, and even a little bit surprised by them: all the classes that I taught last term were required courses (meaning that many students didn't particularly want to be there), and I'm a tough grader; I gave out few As and a healthy number of C-minuses and Ds.
I'm not enough of a numbers person to want to compare these scores with the ones I received on my evaluations at Big Urban (and the forms are different enough that such a comparison could only be approximate)--but my impression is that my evaluations at Regional U are better than they were at Big Urban, even though I taught some of the exact same classes. But I'm not sure why.
The students, frankly, are not much different--although I think it's true that the better students at Big Urban thought of themselves as being better students, and were more invested in that identity, than my better students at Regional U (BUU is a vastly bigger school, with a higher profile, in a major metropolis--and thus it attracts more well-groomed, honor-roll kids; they're not necessarily any smarter than my RU students, but they're more used to being petted); it may also have been that, because I was a lecturer and not a "real" faculty member, my students at BUU were more skeptical of my ability to pass a meaningful judgment on their work.
But if it's hard to know precisely what accounts for my better evaluations this time around, I'd like to think that it has something to do with some very conscious decisions I've made in my teaching this year.
I have always, I think, been an energetic and enthusiastic teacher--I got a lot of comments on my BUU evaluations to the effect of, "the things we read are totally boring, but she makes them funny and fun"--but I suspect that, in some cases, my "fun" persona made it seem all the more unfair when I turned out to be a hard grader.
So this year I've been going out of my way to explain my policies and expectations at every turn: learning how to write a good paper takes time, and we only have two over the course of this semester--which is why quizzes, homework, and participation are collectively worth 30% of your grade. That 30% should be an easy A, or at least a B, if you're doing the work. If you ARE doing the work and aren't getting at least a 7 out of 10 on your quizzes, you're not studying properly: come see me and we'll talk about how to improve your scores.
This is why I do things this way. This is what I expect from you. I know it's hard, but you're all capable of it. The things we do here will make you better readers than your friends who are too scared to take this class.
In part, it's about transparency--or more accurately, the appearance of transparency: making students feel at every step of the way that I'm being straight with them and that there's a reason for everything we do. In part, it's about respect: you deserve to know why I do things the way I do them; you're smart enough for this class.
But the other part is about being (or, again, seeming to be) extremely supportive and available. I tell my students over and over again that they should come by my office or email me if they're having problems with the reading, or if they want to run a paper topic, sample thesis, or draft first paragraph by me; many do, most don't--but at least I make it clear that I'm available. I respond to every student email, usually immediately, even if it's only to say (to an apology for oversleeping and missing class, for example), "Thanks for letting me know. See you Tuesday."
I think that it's my responsibility to do these things, and to show my students the respect they show me (oversleeping is still an unexcused absence, but I appreciate that the student cares enough to apologize)--but it's also a performance of responsibility and respect. I had a student last week who emailed me to say that she would be missing class because her grandmother had died. I replied with my usual brevity, but added a line about being sorry for her loss and closed by wishing her and her family the best. I don't actually know this student (she virtually never speaks in class), but it's what you do, right? Well, maybe not: in our next class she came up to me and shyly thanked me for my sympathy--adding that I was the only one of her professors even to respond to her email.
So there's a two-fold motive here: first, I do believe, very strongly, that you never know what's going on with a given student or how much a small and basically perfunctory gesture might mean to him or her. Second, though, I'm perfectly aware that not everyone does make that gesture, and that I come off well by comparison. So, I grade hard, but I'm helpful. So, the readings are difficult/boring/whatever, but class is a lot of fun. So, the work is challenging, but I want students to succeed.
I hope both parts of those equations are true. . . but it's also a shtick, you know?