Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Playing the right script

When I excavated my mailbox the other day, I also found my evaluations from the spring semester. I don't usually blog about evaluations, in part because evaluations don't inspire that much anxiety in me (which may be because RU doesn't place the kind of weight on them that some institutions do). My scores are always pretty good, though with a predictable range: some students gush that I'm the best teacher EVER while others gripe that I'm way harsh and my courses are, like, graduate level.

But this semester I received insanely good scores in all three of my very different classes--upper and lower division, some required and some not, some with mostly traditional college students and some with a fair number of older/returning students.

Now, I try not to believe that this means very much; fall semester I received my weakest batch of scores and this semester my strongest, and I can tell you that my teaching wasn't a bit different; with 20 or 25 students in a class, evaluation scores often are about the luck of the draw.

But in addition to having strong numerical scores, this semester I also received much more in the way of narrative commentary from all three of my classes. RU's evaluations, you see, are Scantron forms with a couple dozen questions to which students bubble in scores--as well as the option to write something on the back, though there aren't actual prompts for such commentary. I always encourage my students to write something, but in the past maybe a third of them would, and often just a single line or two of praise or outrage. This semester, however, approximately 2/3 of my students provided narrative feedback, and they wrote a lot.

So, I've got some theories about this. I'm sure that part of what's happening is that I've developed a reputation for being tough, and that probably means I get fewer weak or lazy students. (One student in my Shakespeare class wrote on the back of her evaluation that she'd been dreading my class all winter break because she'd heard how hard I was--but mine had wound up being her favorite class even though it was also her most difficult.)

But even if that accounts for some of it, it isn't as if my classes are filled entirely with serious, diligent students--I give Ds and occasionally Fs, and there are always a number of recent transfer students who haven't yet gotten the scoop on their professors, as well as students whose schedules are limited by outside factors and who wind up in my class only because it's at a convenient time.

So the one thing I can point to that I did do differently this term is the way I presented the evaluations before administering them. Usually, I just do a brief spiel about how I appreciate my students' feedback, and how no, I won't see these until after I submit final grades. This time, however, I said something like this:
"Students sometimes want to know what these evaluations mean, or how they're used. So lemme me tell ya: nothing you can say on these forms will get me fired. On the other hand, nothing you can say will get me a raise.

"They are made available in my file for other people to look at if they want to, and they make up one part of the assessment of my job performance. But honestly, they're not a huge part, and they don't get read carefully by anyone else but me.

"I value them, though, and they're important to me as I think about how I've taught the course in the past and how I might want to teach it in the future. So think of this as your opportunity to give feedback to me. You can certainly write on them that I suck--but probably the only person who will actually read that comment is me. And yeah, reading that might make me feel bad for about sixty seconds. . . but it's not particularly constructive.

"So. Use your powers for good, not evil."

This was an entirely calculated strategy, inspired in part by one particularly vindictive student whom I was determined to strip of a feeling of power--but lots of otherwise thoughtful students fall into a consumerist mentality when faced with evaluations. I hoped that the above spiel would simultaneously make them feel valued, while also neutralizing their impression that they were grading me or reporting on me to whomever it was they perceived to be my boss.

And although I can't think that that tack was responsible for my numerical scores, I suspect that that it was responsible for the lengthy, reflective comments I received. No one made a criticism without also saying something generally good about the class, and there were detailed accounts of the different ways I mixed up class activities (or didn't), used my "body language to make students feel comfortable" (!), and maintained my level of enthusiasm and encouragement even when students were struggling. Some students went on and on about the works they liked best, and how certain themes carried over throughout the semester in helpful ways, and others positively burbled over about how great our discussions were. I also got admiring comments about my shoes and wardrobe.

In the end, though, who knows? I believe myself to be a good teacher, and I think I'm particularly good at teaching earlier literature to students who have little familiarity with that literature or its time period--and who in many cases come into my courses reluctantly. I also enjoy teaching the kinds of students I get at RU. But I'm no pedagogical trailblazer, and my teaching persona doesn't do it for everyone--some students think I'm charming and charismatic, while others consider me cold and arrogant (both assessments, of course, are correct).

I'm also cynical enough to know that students like to be able to construct a narrative in which they were intimidated by or uninterested in the material--and then were transformed! by a great teacher! who made them do better work than they'd ever done before!

Yes, I want to believe that I'm that teacher, and I'm more than a little thrilled when my students believe that that's what happened. But there's something in that story that serves their own interests, too: if they left my class either doing better or having more fun than they expected, well then, it must be because I was a great teacher who inspired them to work extra hard.

Maybe the best interpretation of these evals is this: I happened to fit, this semester, into a script that the majority of my students bought into.


medieval woman said...

This is a great way to approach evaluations (this coming from someone who has occasionally felt anxiety about mine) - I like how you framed the evals to your class - I'm sure that helped them understand how these evals are read and by whom. One student once asked me if our chairs read the evals - I said "yes, they glance through them", and she said, "good, b/c I have another professor who sucks and I really want his boss to know how bad the class is." Ouch! And so petty.

Congrats on getting the great sartorial comments!

Renaissance Girl said...

"I also got admiring comments about my shoes and wardrobe." I know that was the high point of your eval experience.

adjunct whore said...

i really like your introductory comments. i've always shied away from them, but for the normal ones you mentioned first, in part because i had a prof. once who practically threatened and cajoled about treating the evals seriously. i was offended, i remember, because i felt as if i couldn't be free to explain my thoughts.

on the other hand, i really like the way you seem to have both empowered and deflated the process.

thanks for sharing this.

Irina said...

One of my undergrad profs (who, by the way, had the best teaching skills of most anyone I've ever met), did something quite cool in one of the courses I took with her: she had us do midterm evals. They were obviously just for her use, and they weren't so much about whether the course was bad or good but about what we wanted more or less of. (More discussion? More group work? The same? Do you feel comfortable expressing your opinions in class?)

I did the same thing one semester (actually, my first semester of teaching), and I found it worked quite well. On most of the options, they ticked "the same". But they were also mostly against the introduction of group work, and they wanted more introductory lecturing from me to set things up that the professor hadn't done. Seeing as this was a section, and was otherwise supposed to be for discussion alone, the feedback form gave them a way to let me know they needed more background information. And that was something I could respond to -- I wasn't just talking to hear my own voice, but because they'd *asked* me to, as it were.

I haven't gotten around to doing this the other times I've taught (although I think I also have more of an instinct now forwhen a bit of lecturing is necessary and welcome), but it was *so* much more useful than the end of year evaluation!

Fifi Bluestocking said...

I have also started doing the midterm evaluation thing and find it helpful as even if the students bring up things on the syllabus that I can't change (method of assessment or whatever), I can explain to them why I am doing things in a certain way, which definitely decreases the criticism come formal evaluation time. A useful strategy if your evals count for a lot, which I know yours don't, Flavia. I am so envious about the wardrobe/shoe comments!

G-Fav said...

Hey Flave -

I know this departs from the commentary on instructor comments, but I wanted to say that I remembered the other song in addition to "B*****s Ain't S**t" that I think you'd dig -- it's Dr. Dre's "One Eight Seven." It kept my head bobbin' on the flight back from Amsterdam.