Student Evaluations

Great Student Evaluations — The Secret

Student EvaluationsCould there be a university faculty lobby in this country in favor of dull, listless, unenthusiastic classroom teaching?

Apparently so, and it has vocal adherents.

Consider, for instance, this article by Liberal Arts professor Stanley Fish.

Fish is an academic journeyman whose fortunes have waned considerably since he strode the radical academic world like a colossus at Duke University in the early 90s.

Fish wrote a piece about college student course evaluations.  He contended that these evaluations have little value when it comes to assessing professor teaching skill and classroom performance.

And he received lots of feedback.

Those Pesky Evaluations

Fish’s piece received beaucoup responses from a strange sub-set of college faculty:  Bad teachers who externalize the blame for their own poor performance.

Now . . . how do I know that they’re bad teachers?

Red flags abound.

1)  Their responses are characterized by dismissive hubris and betray a lack of self-awareness.

2)  They use the formulaic vernacular and familiar liturgy of complaints that we all hear in those interminable faculty meetings.

3)  They are the first and loudest in line to criticize the legitimacy of student evaluations and yet offer no substitute evaluative instrument they believe would be more accurate.

4)  They laud the length of their course syllabi as a qualitative measure of excellence.

5)  And they abhor any feedback on their teaching performance.

These profs offer defensive responses that seek to explain why students, themselves, are the problem and ought to appreciate the prof’s unenthusiastic and lackluster presentations and devil-take-the-hindmost shabbiness.

Granted, problems do plague student evaluations — it’s unfortunately true that angry and unmotivated students can exert disproportionate influence on a prof’s rating.  They can sometimes sabotage a professor who satisfies the majority of motivated students in a class, and this is a legitimate concern of faculty who genuinely teach well.

The “outlier” problem can and should be addressed.

But bad teachers do exist.

You know it, and I know it.  And some of them believe that there is nothing wrong with their classroom manner — that if any “problem” exists, it’s the students’ fault.

This strange, aggressive subcategory of bad teachers exercises rhetorical gymnastics to explain why, in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence (and the necessarily silent collegiality of their colleagues), they actually are superb teachers.

Sloppy, Disinterested, and Dull

Let’s have a look at these persecuted folks.  Here’s one sample of sourpuss opinion:

Teachers who fear (correctly) that student evaluations will determine their fate become stand-up comedians — wave your arms around, praise students excessively and “dress sharp,” advises Dr. Bob — and alter their grading policy in an effort to be liked.

The actual quote from East Lansing’s “Dr. Bob” is here:

1. Project enthusiasm (even if you don’t have any) by continually saying how interested and passionate you are and waving your arms around.
2. Call on your students by name and praise them for every little thing they do.
3. Dress sharp!
4. Be especially attentive to 1-3 on the first day of class since after that your ratings won’t change very much.

Presumably, Dr. Bob believes that unenthusiastic, impersonal, insulting, and poorly dressed professors suffer unfair discrimination in the student evaluation process.

Of course they do, and I hope they do.  And rightly so.

But rather than address the issue — which is their own substandard performance — they blame the messenger.

Discrimination?  Try “shame,” because it fits.

Strangely, this aversion to enthusiasm for course subject matter has supporters.  Here’s another gem:

I’ve seen research that suggests that ‘apparent enthusiasm’ is the single most important component of student evaluations, overall.  This is not irrelevant — an instructor’s passion can be important exactly for the kind of long-term development that Fish discusses — but clearly reflects matters of personality and self-presentation that ought to be secondary in evaluating a teacher.

Beg pardon?

“Apparent enthusiasm” for the course subject matter “ought to be secondary in evaluating a teacher?”

Unenthusiastic, Impersonal, Poorly Dressed

In the end, Stan Fish’s journalistic exercise is productive in that it surfaced a pathology in higher education . . . and it’s not the “unfairness” of the student evaluation.

The article flushed out of the cracks a bunch of folks who really ought to be working on their classroom presentation rather than boasting in the New York Times of their lack of enthusiasm and affinity for sloppy dress.

The pattern of pathology that emerges is that of arrogant faculty who apparently believe that almost any lackluster, dull, insulting, impersonal performance delivered in t-shirt, jeans, and jaunty beret should be applauded as acceptable.

This is presumably because students “aren’t capable of understanding just how good the professor truly is.”

A “truth” apparently to be realized and appreciated years hence.

Hogwash.  Utter.

I like to imagine that these characters are in a blessedly tiny minority.

So what should a teacher do?  What should motivate a university professor in the classroom?

It’s no mystery.  The powerful formula is buried in a book 104 years old and offers secrets to speed the heart and rivet the mind!

So, dutifully and with appropriate fanfare, here revealed are the secrets of getting great teaching evaluations . . .

The Student Evaluation Secret Code

William DeWitt Hyde, the President of Bowdoin College, offered advice in 1910 that I have found far more useful than any 100 articles by modern purveyors of classroom teaching theory or “pedagogy.”

The advice is actually an especially powerful tonic for anyone who wishes to become a powerful business presenter as well as a competent classroom instructor.

If you can answer these five questions in the affirmative, the student evaluations should take care of themselves . . .

  • Is my interest in my work so contagious that my students catch from me an eager interest in what we are doing together?
  • Is my work thorough and resourceful, rather than superficial and conventional, so that the brightness of my industry and the warmth of my encouragement kindle in my students a responsive zeal to do their best, cost what it may?
  • Do I get at the individuality of my students, so that each one is different to me from every other, and I am something no other person is to each of them?
  • Do I treat them, and train them to treat each other, never as mere things, or means to ends; but always as persons, with rights, aims, interests, aspirations, which I heartily respect and sympathetically share?
  • Am I so reverent toward fact, so obedient to law, that through me fact and law speak and act with an authority which my students instinctively recognize and implicitly obey?

It really is that simple.

Or maybe it’s not so simple . . . and that’s the problem.