Thursday, June 03, 2010

News you can't use

I picked up my course evaluations the other day, and as usual I was more interested in the narrative comments than the numbers. My grad students gave me a ton of feedback, all of it very good--both in the sense that it was complimentary (lots of comments about my "rigor" and how much they'd improved as writers and thinkers) and in the sense that they provided some smart suggestions for minor adjustments.

My Shakespeare students gave me less feedback, but some of it was similarly useful. Multiple students, for example, identified one day's unconventional discussion activity as their favorite class; based on their comments, I'll definitely incorporate similar activities in the future.

But most of my undergraduates' feedback wasn't useful, as it generally is not. I guess I like knowing that my students perceive me as "enthusiastic," that I can achieve the incredible feat of making Shakespeare "not boring," and that they love love love my shoes and wardrobe--but although I appreciate what are intended as compliments, those issues aren't ones about which I had any doubts or concerns.

Even less helpful were the two students who noted that they were "intimidated" by me. What does that even mean? It might be a (vague) criticism of my teaching style or personality, or it might be an indirect apology for not taking advantage of my office hours or seeking me out for help. Or it might just be an observation: "I noticed you have brown hair. And also, you intimidate me."

Seriously, dudes. What unuseful student feedback have you gotten?


clio's disciple said...

From overprivileged student at Grad School U: "The TA has never even been to [foreign country we were studying]!"

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

"Intimidate" is the word of the year! A colleague and I get it frequently (sometimes in direct conversation, as well as on evals). We've had long discussions about what it means, which boil down to "it's more about the user than about us."

scribe said...

The two I refer to when suggesting to my students the sort of comments that might be helpful, instead, are:

"You are uglier than sin" and
"I wish you would stop wearing green corduroy."

Both of which, I assume, were just too distracting in the classroom!

FLG said...

As a recent undergraduate, I can say that most don't really give much thought to the design and content of the course. It's pretty much taken as a given that you do that part, and they focus on what's required for the tests. Consequently, the evals generally respond to how easy or nice they thought you were. In fairness, none or at least very few of the students have experience teaching.

Your grad students, many of whom I believe you mentioned are teachers themselves, have some experience putting together a syllabus. Also, most older students going back to school have a better idea and more nuanced expectations of what they want out of their time in the classroom.

But then again you know all this...

meg said...

Most helpful comment on an evaluation ever: "I hear she has excellent taste in beer."

Flavia said...

Dame Eleanor: this is the first time I've gotten it on my evals, so it was strange to have it appear twice--but it's definitely been said to me in person before, usually by way of an apology for not contacting me sooner about a miserable grade. It's not a comment I'm worried about--I'm just a little baffled as to what the student thinks s/he is communicating to me!

Clio & Scribe: ugh. Nothing worse than the ad hominem.

FLG: you're right, of course--and I'm not going to pretend that the compliments I get are truly "useless" when it comes to quoting them in my annual faculty report! But I do try to guide my students' evaluations by emphasizing that, although they're available in my file, the only person who really reads them or cares about them is me--so they should consider them as constructive advice about what I should change or keep the same for future classes.

Dr. Crazy said...

Ah, "intimidating." I, too, am the recipient of that one on occasion.

My favorite useless comment that I've gotten, and I've gotten it a fair number of times, is some version of the following:

"She thinks/acts like she knows more than the students do!"

Apparently this is a negative? Apparently I should appear NOT to know more than the students? Or they don't want to think that I know more? Or something? I never know what to do with that one.

Liza Blake said...

In the "Other Comments?" section of my evaluation, I had a student write:

Dun Dun Dunnnnnnn ....
Also have a good summer!

Anonymous said...

What a coincidence, Flavia. I, too, am regularly praised for enthusiasm, good shoes, and "making Shakespeare fun", regularly criticized for rigor ("grades too hard") and occasionally described as "intimidating."

Either we have similar teaching styles...or student perception tends to fall within a limited range.

Cheers, TG

Grae BG said...

I get useless suggestions about my facial hair and comments on how much coffee I drink. "Shave the beard, keep the stache. Plus, drink more coffee."

Less than useful.

Fretful Porpentine said...

I must admit I was guilty of making the "intimidating" comment at least once. I was a second-semester senior and probably should have known better. The instructor in question was a young, female early modernist. She was a lot like you, actually, or at least what I imagine you're like in the classroom, so I'll take a stab at explaining what I think I meant by this comment (which may or may not be what your students mean by it).

Part of what I was reacting to was the instructor's toughness (in fact, this was the only English class I took as an undergraduate in which I didn't earn an A or A-). She was also pushing us to think in ways that I wasn't used to thinking -- new historicism rather than close reading -- and this made me feel slightly at sea much of the time, especially since I felt like I didn't know enough about seventeenth-century history to contribute meaningfully to the conversation. All of this was to the good, of course, and it was probably the best possible preparation for grad school, but at the time it made me feel frustrated and uncomfortable, because I was being constantly reminded of how many things I didn't know.

And honestly, I think part of it was gendered; I doubt that I would have responded in the same way to a male instructor, especially one with a typical male-senior-professor demeanor (which at my undergraduate institution consisted of faded corduroys and a super-laid-back manner). A lot of young female professors made me feel awkward and tongue-tied as an undergraduate, especially after I decided that I wanted to go to grad school. They seemed so polished and professional, so together, both physically and mentally, and I remember feeling like there was no way I'd ever be able to be that sort of person. (The one female prof that I felt like I could be was a middle-aged Earth-mother-hippie type who dressed to please herself and sometimes forgot to return papers for months at a time; needless to say, she was long since tenured.) Anyway, this particular professor not only seemed to know all there was to know about seventeenth-century poets and their cultural milieu, but she was also very attractive and a sharp dresser with a cool, hip persona, and I think the combination made me feel terrifyingly inadequate.

I hasten to say that all of these issues were mine and not hers, but my twenty-one-year-old self didn't really have the maturity to own them as mine. (Also, I genuinely liked this instructor and her class, and I'm pretty sure everything else I said on the evaluations was positive.)

phd me said...

Intimidating must have been the word of the semester. One student told me that, while it was clear that I "knew my shit," I was too intimidating to approach, even though s/he would like to have a working relationship with me after graduation. I'm not sure what to do with that...

Another less-than-helpful comment this semester was from the student who informed me that my attendance policy clearly showed that I was a "bad teacher and a bad human being who didn't care about her students." Good to know!

medieval woman said...

I, too, love your shoes and wardrobe. And I'm intimidated by them.


I got a comment once where the student said I shouldn't "reveal" that I look things up on Wikipedia. Like EVERYONE doesn't use Wikipedia!?!


Renaissance Girl said...

RE "intimidating": I think FP is onto something about it being gendered. If a male professor exhibits a certain probing intensity or intellectual rigor, he conforms to the socially acknowledged role of the academic--the one most readily available if he's not avuncular. The one that's in all the movies. If a female professor comports herself with that same intensity, rigor, polish, and focus, she departs from that motherly, nurturing teacher role that students expect, perhaps have been programmed to expect by culture and by the predominance of females in the early years of the educational trajectory. And I say that as a proud serial intimidator of students male and female, young and old.

meg said...

How much of "intimidating" is not just about gender but also about height and/or looks, I wonder?

I've never gotten the "intimidating" comment (I'm 5'3" on a good day and look like a Campbell's Soup Kid), and yet I get comments about "takes no shit," "her class is like boot camp" (huh?), "you'll learn whether you want to or not," and so forth. (Those are all actual quotes.)

Just a thought. Or maybe it's the shoes and wardrobe.

Flavia said...

I do think this is gendered, at least in part, as y'all are suggesting--I'm pretty sure it's less remarkable for a male professor to "take no shit" or "know his stuff"--but I also strongly suspect that there's a field-specific component.

This may have something to do with the bizarre comments Dr. Crazy gets about acting like she knows so much. I'm sure I get an excessive amount of credit both for knowing my shit and for making it fun, simply because my subject area is less familiar to my students and because they perceive it as harder: I must be really fucking smart to know so much about Shakespeare! And poetry! And Renaissance history! And I must be an amazing teacher to make my students enjoy those things.

Indeed, the only times I've felt even the tiniest bit disrespected in the classroom is when I'm teaching composition. There, I'm teaching non-majors, and many of them think of it as a bullshit class not meaningfully different from their high school classes--and one that doesn't require specialized training on my part.

And it's not just me. One of my friends and colleagues who teaches critical theory gets lauded as a genius by the students in those classes . . . but when she teachs courses in contemporary American lit, she gets a certain number of dissatisfied students who think she's teaching it "wrong," or including the wrong books, or reading too much into texts that anyone can see aren't that deep. I'm sure she's an equally awesome teacher in both kinds of classes; the difference is how accessible students assume the material she's teaching to be.

Dr. Crazy said...

I think gender is part of it, but I also think region of the country and type of institution/students can play into these sorts of comments as well. In other words, when I taught in the Northeast at a research university, I was much more likely to get "knows her stuff" or "forced me to learn" or whatever, but now that I'm at my current place, that translates into "intimidating" or "rude." I'm no different as a teacher - or, actually, I've probably softened up considerably - but the local culture doesn't see it that way. (Not that those things aren't also about gender - I guess I'm saying that gender may have different effects depending on where you are.)

Historiann said...

I'd like to comment here, but this blog is just too intimidating. I'm all intiminidated, and stuff.

I have never seen "intimidating" on an evaluation of a white male colleague. In my experience and observations on my department's T & P committee, it's something applied exclusively to those of us who aren't white men with beards and patches on our elbows. BTW, yes exactly to what Dame Eleanor said waaaaay earlier in that this comment says more about the writer than the recipient of the adjective.

Dr. Virago said...

Flavia, I think you're completely right that much of this has a lot to do with the subject taught, because my white male colleagues who teach in early periods get "makes ___ fun!" and "knows so much!" and so do I. (The "knows so much" or "really knows ___(field)" cracks me up. The undergrads know this how???) Those of us who teach literature before 1800 are freakin' magicians, it seems, because otherwise, *no one* would ever think Shakespeare and Chaucer and the Gawain poet and Donne (well, the sexy stuff) and Marlowe and so on were actually *fun*! Imagine that!

As for intimidating, I get that a lot. I got it in person from a grad student recently (who, to be fair, I was chewing out at the moment...but I was chewing him out for not coming to me earlier). Anwyay, he said I was intimidating and when I asked what he meant, he said, "You're weighty. And impressive. And I feel inadequate next to that." Holy cow, that made my little Grinch heart thump! "Dude," I said, "it took me years of study to get to that. I only expect you to *aim* for such weightiness." Sigh.

And I think that FP's story is another version of that.

Doctor Cleveland said...

My oddest eval comment ever, from grad school, expressed displeasure that I had shaved off a full beard mid-semester ("it was *very disturbing*") and ended with "Have consistent facial hair."

Seriously, no: as a big, loud white man who teaches in an early period, I have never gotten the word "intimidating" or anything like it on my evals. That's totally gendered.

No question that this is about student's projections and their gender-role expectations. There's also an ugly self-fulfilling wrinkle to those roles. If you walk into a classroom where your authority is automatic (because of your gender, and your color, and your field), it's a lot easier to play down that authority. You can always get it back whenever you need it. You don't actually have to work to establish and maintain that authority when you're a man. Many younger female teachers feel more of a need to assert their intellectual authority (which might be off-putting to a few insecure students). I think they feel that need because it's real. It's a condition of their work.

Part of me wonders how many of the "intimidating" comments come from women and how many from men. How many of these comments are from boys who are find female intellectual authority uncomfortable, and how many are from young women who are uncomfortable with the way another woman models her professional and gender roles?

heu mihi said...

I've been called "intimidating" too. And it's absurd, because I am a total pushover and ridiculously encouraging, constantly drop my chalk, and make lots of dumb jokes all the time.

But I really wanted to share the following three least-helpful comments:

1) "She uses big words to show off and make us think that she's smarter than we are." (Yes, Freshman Composition Student. That is what I do. I stay up nights plotting how to show off TO YOU. Because I am just that insecure.)

2) "Too much reading. Or I guess I just have a problem with time management! Because when I have to read whole books for my other classes, work a full-time job, eat AND sleep, well, it's really hard to ALSO read 10-20 pages for this class."

3) "I was shocked that there was not even a mention of J.R.R. Tolkien in [Brit Lit II]."

Oh, and a fourth, positive comment, for good measure:

4) "Very punctual." (I actually got that from like 5 students in that class. ??? Maybe it was the only good thing about me.)

Okay, y'all can resume your discussion of gender and power in the classroom now. Just wanted to share.

Lucky Jane said...

Maybe I'm playing devil's advocate, but I think you're right to be concerned about being perceived as "intimidating." Students mean different things by that adjective—and there's a difference between describing us as "intimidating" and describing themselves as "intimidated" by us—but, if sincere, their intimidation interferes with our ability to do the teaching part of our jobs, so it's in our interest to help them get over it. I used to get that comment a lot in grad school, where the Center for Teaching Awesomeness advised me to smile more and use exclamation points, maybe an emoticon or two, in my emails. In my mid-twenties, this advice was really about acting more like their helpful big sister. If I were a TA in my thirties, I'd probably have gotten advice on how to seem more maternal.

In my present job, I've received the "intimidating" comment fewer than a half dozen times (out of >500), but it was enough of a concern that it merited a bullet point on my third-year review (which must include three bullet-point items for improvement). Anyway, I completely agree that the perception of "intimidation" is gendered, to describe women who don't fit students' callow yet already long-established expectations of female educational authority: your standards are too high, your wit is too quick, and you know too much. Because of my longstanding affliction by this adjective, I've polled colleagues just about everywhere I've taught. As reflected in the comments to this post, women get this vague complaint a lot more than men do. Of the senior male colleagues who actually read their evaluations, none recall being described thus, and the junior male colleague who does get it is someone around whom I feel kind of intimidated, too.

The trick is to get them to describe you as brilliant or witty, which are, after all, what they'd say if you were a dude. (The Chronicle mentioned a study about this phenomenon back in the aughties, but my Googling skills aren't up to finding it.) The difference, as others have mentioned, is how they feel about you. I haven't figured out how reliably to avoid "intimidating" them, but I'm careful to make sure they understand my reasons for what I have them do, and that I want them all to do well. Yeah, I suppose I'm acting a bit maternally, but they do go home at the end of the day.

And then, of course, there's the perhaps obvious: course evaluations compel students to say something, anything, so depending on the context, "intimidating" might not mean anything, though you and your uni's T&P committee will scrutinize them like Rorschach blots.

Horace said...

As a grad student teaching composition, I once got the comment, "This class sucks money balls." I can only assume that the student meant "monkey balls," at which point s/he demonstrated that I had indeed failed at teaching hir anything.

the rebel lettriste said...

You can't be "intimidating" and hugely pregnant. When I was great with child(ren), the evals included notes about a.) students' own pregnancies/babies; b.) how CUTE I looked with a belly!!!; and c.) wishes of luck.

But my all time fave:
"She uses her authority to advance her feministic [sic] views. Me no likey."

Me no likey? WTF, dude. (I think this was from the kid who wanted to argue, after we read Lanyer's "In Defense of Eve" and were dissecting its rhetoric, that he didn't "believe" in sex discrimination and so wouldn't cotton to any arguments that pointed out that it existed.)

Flavia said...

Man, this is an awesome thread. Thanks for your anecdata, everyone, and some great stories.

Just two quick responses to the gendered portion of this debate: at least one person who reports having been labeled "intimidating" is male (TG, upthread a ways). But he's also an Early Modernist. So although I still think there's a gendered component, I'm sticking to my guns on the subject-area component as well.

And in response to Dr. Cleveland's wondering aloud: I'm pretty sure all the students who have called me intimidating are women. Certainly the two that said it to my face were, as well as at least one of the written ones (which was otherwise very complimentary, and which I'm sure was written by a woman who actually did not seem intimidated by me--she approached me after class multiple times!).

And if that's the case, eh. Maybe, for all the reasons that FP suggests, it's a useful modeling of female authority for them.

(And in case it's not clear: I'm totally colloquial and irreverent in the classroom. I encourage my students to come see me or email me ALL THE TIME. So seriously, I'm not sure how much less intimidating I can be while still having high expectations.)

Flavia said...


The Little Professor takes up this issue over at her blog, and she has a smart additional theory as to why arguably non-intimidating professors might get labeled as such.

Mon said...

Interesting convo. My husband teaches in a predominantly female discipline, and he is the only Black male professor in his department. He has been called intimidating several times in evaluations. He teaches pretty foundational subjects in his discipline; in his case I think the comments are highly gendered and racial especially since we work and live in the South.