Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Grad Student Havoc

In the last 24 hours, two different grad students have made my life more difficult. To be more precise, in one case, it wasn't the student's fault at all, but still was the result of university structures not really being amenable to faculty doing nice things for grad students when money is actually on the line. I needn't say too much more about this because it's all handled now, and everyone should get their money, but it was a pain to deal with on the first day of classes.

The second instance involves my evaluations for the grad course, which arrived yesterday. By the end of the semester, there were seven students, and generally the feedback ranges from "the course and the professor are superlative," (thanks!) to more even-handed commentary that offers praise where I do think praise is actually deserved, and makes legitimate suggestions for improvement (more theory as opposed to secondary criticism, a bit more lecture for cultural context).

One student, though wrote, "there were occasions when the professor was not very well prepared for class," and then goes on to narrate, "One particular instance was when he tried to discuss postmodern theories and said he had forgotten the differences in approach between the different postmodernists."

This is no light claim, and infuriates me all the more for being the only comment of its kind, and for its mistaken recall of the events. Of course I know which student this was (handwriting betrays anonymity pretty badly), and I have been unnecessarily generous to this student with time, advice, and informal mentoring in the past, which makes this sting all the more. But the lesson in question actually involved the student (incorrectly) challenging me on a difference between Jameson and Hutcheon, and then interrupting me to make a point that I merely hadn't gotten to yet. I knew at that moment that my evals from this student were going to be contentious. But to actually say I said I had forgotten the differences between theorists is outright malicious. The comment doesn't just implicate my teaching choices, it implicates my professionalism, something I cultivate very consciously.

Here's the thing...I am required to submit my grad evals in my annual review, and they are read very closely. I know by precedent that one damning review can actually have a major impact on my rating for the year. I disagree vigorously with the statement, but I worry that trying to contextualize the comment will validate it by acknowledging it, and will look defensive to boot. But ignoring it may look like a tacit agreement. So I'm a bit stuck on how to proceed.

The other issue for me though is that while informal mentoring and generally helping out grad students, the most vulnerable members of the institution, is very important to me, and quite rewarding generally, these incidents (one innocent and the other malicious) have me rethinking that commitment. It's a shame really. I'd like to think that these two isolated incidents won't cloud my interactions with grad students in the future, but I am also more wary of the power dynamic: Perhaps because grad students are generally so disenfranchised, some feel that their actions have no impact, and therefore are reckless with them. Or not. Either way, I've been growling over that one eval all day long, and it's killing me.


~profgrrrrl~ said...

That eval would really bother me, too. Makes you wonder what the student is hoping to get out of it all.

I'd probably not address it come review time and hope that if anyone reads it they read it in the context of the others (put it mid-pile, with good ones on either side) and shrug it off as one of those weird student comments.

The Constructivist said...

Do you have a dept. mentor? My department has a good system of mentoring, and as a result the renewal/tenuring process runs smoothly. If you do, talk to the person! If not, you might consider this piece of advice.

I wouldn't try to contextualize the one - comment. What I would do if I have a job where the people in charge of tenuring me regularly blow isolated comments out of proportion is start looking for another job. Not b/c they might deny you tenure, but b/c you need to ask yourself if you want to spend a good portion of the rest of your career with such, well, you fill in the blank. Because, really, if they're incapable of handling something that easy, they probably fuck up bigger and harder things worse. But that's easy for me to say. I got the tenure thing already.

Tenured Radical said...


I would take the above advice a step further. Give all your evaluations to your mentor, or a trusted senior colleague who would be likely to speak on your behalf, and say you want to go over all of them over lunch. Make sure you speak to the dmbness of htat particularly one -- i.e., "I can't imagine what this student is referring to -- I am drawing a complete blank on how s/he would have come away from class with that impression." Put nothing on paper. But when you are evaluated, what will be clear is that you have had the self-confidence and conscientiousness to read your evaluations and seek someone else's perspective.

At Zenith teaching is taken VERY seriously. But although results in the form of evals are important, it is equally important to be able to show evidence that the junior person is engaged with teaching. Which, from your posts, you clearly are.

Try not to worry about it. Bad evaluaitons are like knives.