Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Unnerving Evaluation

The fact that I almost always post when evaluations come in probably says something. What it says is unclear to me, except that course evaluations mean a lot to me. A former therapist would tut about a continuing struggle to properly contextualize outside affirmation and critique, but others might suggest that my attention to student voices is part of what makes me (I hope) a good teacher.

So it is no surprise, then, that I am posting today. I got my graduate evaluations a while ago, but not the survey course evals. Or at least the hard copies. Statistical scores came in weeks ago, and were pretty much in keeping with what I'm used, which is to say, generally pretty strong. But on the hard copies, a few of the narrative comments are less rosy, in part because I believe they paint a pretty consistent picture of me as a teacher resting on his (scant) laurels. More specifically, they suggest that in overrelying on group work, and not doing enough during group to keep the momentum of the lesson going, by harping on a smaller and smaller set of concerns, and (damningly) by being satisfied (even in short quizzes) by answers that regurgitated my own words.

OK, so this still confirms my decision to reconceive the course next time I teach it (which isn't this coming year, at least), and it will force me to re-think some of the goals and texts in new ways, to break out of a pattern that tends to lead to narrower expectations from students.

But one evaluation stung. It's an outlier, certainly, and I can almost certainly chalk it up to having rubbed one student the wrong way, which is almost inevitable. The student's narrative comments suggested I played favorites (which could be almost predicted from a student who sat in the back of the class, and never spoke in an otherwise talkative class). But that the student suggested that I was both rude to some students and "had an arrogance about him that was not comforting," well, ouch. It's so easy to write off, based on the student hirself, and by the degree to which it is uncharacteristic of comments I've received. But it has unsettled me enough that I ahve been completely unable to concentrate this afternoon on my reading and writing. I'm leaving campus this afternoon having accomplished nothing at all.


Dr. Crazy said...

I've gotten comments like that about group work in the past, esp. in the survey, where for whatever reason students seem to want me to lecture lecture lecture. What really helped for me is that I kept the group work but instead of having two tests I moved to three tests, and each of the tests included a question or questions that had the students do with a text what they'd practiced doing in group work. (Those who blew off the group work did abysmally on the first test, which really helped engagement in class for the next two thirds of the semester.) This made the connections clearer, and it showed them that the group work was teaching them a technique - not just letting me "not teach." So you might try something like that.

As for the playing favorites thing, or the arrogance thing... I've become hardened to that comment. I think a lot of it has to do with being a youngish professor, and it has to do with challenging students to go beyond readings that fail to take things like race, gender, sexuality into account. I'll say, all of my female colleagues get this comment on evaluations. It really stings the first time or two, but don't let it keep you down. One student's mean comment does not a thoughtless, arrogant teacher make. And your job isn't to comfort them: it's to educate them. Sometimes that's not comforting or comfortable, but that doesn't mean it isn't good.

I'll note: this is not a comment I get in classes where I teach a greater diversity of authors/texts. It's one that is pretty much unique to the survey and to my modernism class. I don't think that's an accident.

Jenny said...

I absolutely agree with Dr. Crazy. Do not buy into the idea that you are arrogant because one student says so. Heck, I had a student call me "the anti-christ," but I'm not out trying to swap favors for people's souls. It is really hard to read evaluations. You want them to help you be a better teacher, but so often they are about the student and not you at all. It's not fair to even ask them to evaluate a class while they're still in the midst of it and waiting for a grade. I didn't figure out what made a good teacher for years, how could they know instantly how the class would contribute to their lives? When confronted with things like this I always remember the student who accused me of having only lesbian plays on the syllabus and rhetorically asked why this could be? In actuality, there was nary a lesbian in any play we read that semester, and, um, I had mentioned my husband a time or two. He perceived me as a lesbian because I talked about feminism and I talked about plays by gay authors, and I guess I wasn't girly enough for him, and his evaluation reflected his prejudices. It was so far from reality I could only laugh. It seems like you distilled the good stuff already, and hopefully will be able to just let that vendetta evaluation go.

Sisyphus said...

I hate reading my evaluations ---- they make my stomach roil. I obsess over the bad ones for days afterwards, having skimmed and gone "meh" to all the good, enthusiastic ones.

Just saying I totally know where you're coming from, and it's such a weird experience reading your own evaluations. Here's to growing a thicker skin about them...

Horace said...

Thanks for the encouragement. Incidentally, I'm not too optimistic about the thicker skin. I've been teaching now for 10 years, and vicious evals hurt as badly now as ever. In some ways, I cherish this thin-skinnedness: I think it helps me motivate myself to always try hard (if not harder) to be an effective teacher.

Or maybe I'm just a masochist.