Thursday, February 15, 2007

Course evaluations: gaming the system?

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?


Tenured Radical said...

So true Flavia: knowing the boundaries between good pedagogy and a good shtick is impossible. But here's the good news: do htis a while and you will get a reputation for being a great teacher. Then two htings will happen: really good students will compete to get in your classes, and you will have a mutual appreciation for each other that will make your classroom really hot and you will get even better TE's. Then, here's the wierd part: I think students who don't warm to you start thinking there is somehting wrong with them, and they give you good TE's whether they like the class or not, because everyone else says you are a great teacher.

Congrats, pal.


Oso Raro said...

TR's comment is intriguing because it is so true. I don't really consult my student evals anymore. I throw them in a pile and look at them when I have to write up my year-end report, but I am not terribly interested in them at the moment I receive them. I have a deeply ambivalent relationship to them, as I suppose most academics do. I've gotten some hum-dingers in the past, the kind of eval you have to steel yourself against, although ad hominem is pretty rare at Cold City U. Generally, my evals are very constructive nowadays. But I still avoid them like the plague.

On one hand, pedagogy is by definition shtick, in the sense you're trying to snooker students into learning, not an intuitive response for the most part. As many of us have talked about before, teaching is performative in a way remarkably different from other professions, outside of a theatre or cinema sound stage, magical practices with which we share a lot in common. But I think a key ingredient here, in acting as well as in teachng, and flowing a bit from TR's comment, is that the emotional (or felt) aspect of teaching and its importance to the endeavour of the classroom. Unless one is truly talented in the dissimulative arts (or alternatively, truly a sociopath), this is something that cannot, ultimately, be faked (or at least not for long).

We've all had horrible teachers disinterested in us and their material (one of the funnier quotes on RMP: "She hates you already."), and we've all had teachers who have inspired us to go on to bigger and better things. The alchemy of these relationships is idiosyncratic, but not so much as to be a divine mystery. Openness, respect, and straightforward expectations are some of the successful ways teachers connect with students. In any event, I never doubted you had a gift. My impression is that blogging and good teaching are connected, because they both reveal introspection and dialogue, which are the first step towards becoming a good teacher, a never ending process.

Anonymous said...

I always found evals to be so hit and miss, be they the numerical rankings we could access online, or even recommendations from friends. Great professors could suck, bad ones could be great. Even digging deeper didn't help -- Sometimes a prof that my friends thought was demanding but good, I found boring and easy.

But I agree with oso -- If I felt that a prof was highly regarded, or (as you mentioned), they went out of their way to be transparent and accessible, I'd be more inclined to feel that it was my fault for not reaching out enough, which would raise the eval scores.

Finally, I'm not sure the professor versus lecturer thing makes a big difference. Maybe I'm just dense, but I never really realized there was a difference when I was in school. Perhaps it was because we didn't use titles much, but I'm sure I referred to many a lecturer as professor without realizing it. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I wondered why my prof had an email address at another school and an out-of-the-region area code, but I never thought too much of it. I suppose I knew they were teaching a few classes at different schools, but to me that never meant they were less qualified or of any kind of lower status.

kfluff said...

I'm glad to hear that your students respond well to you, Ms. F. I'm glad to see you mark the ways in which one can be a hard grader and still get positive responses from students (too often, I think, readers can assume a hard grading=automatic bad evals link).

I think you're on to something with your notion about transparency. I get the impression that it matters to students when you can lay bare some of your expectations and logic behind grading. I know that we do this in syllabi, but that seldom leaves a mark. Your transparency, too, is underpinned by the same humanism as your responses to their explanation of absences: it seems that the overall message is "I'll treat you like a human being, but here are my professional boundaries." If in some ways the student experience is often that of "trying to figure out what the teacher wants"--if THEY'RE doing a shtick, then you're making moves to be as clear as you can without eclipsing who they are.

Whew. Long response, brought on by your intriguing post!

Horace said...

Many good points above, but (and?) I also think that it's impossible, in this age of ubiquitous customer service surveys, to get good evals without a schtick.

Good teaching and good evals are not congruent, and some folks with a good schtick enable what I believe to be a shoddy education, and good teachers without a schtick get tagged as boring or worse, mean.

Your great virtue here is that your schtick doesn't sell out your students' learning--you're not dumbing down the material or inflating grades. At worst, you're greasing the skids so that you can manage fair grading and hard texts, and at best, you're helping students invest in their own education, and expect more from other faculty who enable a slacker learning mode.

And being a human being while doing all of these things, even if they do have performative effects, is just, well, what you do.

Flavia said...

Great comments here, as always. As y'all are suggesting, I think it's true that being *aware* of the performative aspects of teaching--and being able to reflect on them, adjust them, and adapt them with sensitivity to different student populations--is probably a sign of good teaching. And as Oso suggests, it probably IS a lot like blogging (or writing other creative nonfiction): you take the truth and shape and alter it so that the precise details are sometimes untrue--as in writing you may condense the timeline, conflate events, put lines of dialogue in a different person's mouth--but in the service of representing that truth more effectively and persuasively. I like that comparison very much.

Nevertheless, and as important as it is to have control over one's persona, it's still hard not to worry that there's some bad faith involved simply in having a persona in the first place.

Flavia said...

Oh, and I love that RMP comment, "she hates you already." I want to meet the student who wrote that one.