Student Evaluations

I went to my mailbox and found those loathsome teacher evaluations from summer school classes.  I didn’t want to look at them; I had already read the students’ written comments so I numerologyknew my evaluations wouldn’t be so hot.  These were the raw numbers from a computerized form that asked students to respond to two questions.  Rank the teacher for the course; rank the course—on a scale of excellent, very good, good, fair, poor.  So you get a number that can be used to compare your teaching to the teaching of others in the same course.

I hate these scores.  The damage they have done to my teaching and to my development as a teacher is immense and unfathomable.  Unfathomable because fear produces unconscious affects.  You censor yourself.  Things you might have done, insights you might have had, things you might have said get crushed by the fear that doing them, saying them, seeing them might have a negative affect on your scores.  Most tenured faculty members don’t pay any attention to these student evaluations at all.  They don’t have to because they have tenure.

But I have been for 26 years a lecturer.  First I was on one year contracts and then on three year contracts and the central, most significant bit of information used to determine whether I would be rehired or not is those damn student evaluation scores.  These are the most significant thing because ultimately the decision about whether you are rehired or not is made, not by your fellow teachers, but by the administration.  And what speaks most clearly to them is numbers.  A few years back at one branch of the university, the teaching scores of the lecturers were lined up and those who fell below a certain line were fired.  Hired and fired on the basis of numbers generated by the students you taught.

The numbers for the student evaluations for writing teachers are significantly and routinely higher than the numbers for any other classes on the whole campus.  One reason for that is that we teach small classes; the students get to know the teacher a bit and the teacher gets to know the students a bit.  The students appreciate that because in most of their large lectures they are anonymous and the professor might as well be the man on the moon.  The other reason is that sometimes quite consciously and sometimes very unconsciously, we writing teachers want to please the students so they won’t say nasty things about us in their evaluations or give us low scores.

This is a very bad, indeed pernicious situation.  I was surprised to learn over the years that even those instructors who routinely got the highest evaluations of all, sometimes 100% excellent, hated to look at their “scores.”  Maybe they were worried they had not received their usual 100% excellent; or maybe they were worried that they had because they 100% excellent indicated that once again, unconsciously of course, they had managed successfully to kiss the butt of each and every student.