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Teaching the Liberal Arts in the American Context
Teaching Poorly? On Being a Muddled Teacher
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By RJ Snell, January 17, 2011 in Pedagogy and Teaching

I've just received last semester's teaching evaluations from students and again have noticed how much I disagree with the questions on the evaluations.

I tend to do fairly well on these type of evaluations (as does anyone with either good looks or good humour--I'll let you guess which I have), but scores in two of the categories are always less than my other categories, and with one category always higher than the average.

The low categories: Clarity of assignments and clarity of course outcomes and goals.

The high category: Compared to other courses I learned more/same/less.

Now, I rather intentionally give very few course goals (I loathe the assessment regime which I believe is hostile to education) and my assignments are purposely vague and under-explained. I give take home exams which say something like the following: in a well-written and argued paper of ten pages answer the following . . . (with a question as broad and ill-defined as) "2+2=4. Explain" or "God is Act. Why?" or "Is the law robed terror?"

Students who've not had me before often ask for more details on the paper. What style? Margins? Can we use personal pronouns? Footnotes? How many sources? Can we use Wikipedia? How can I answer why 2+2=4 in 10 pages? and etc. I almost always answer with nothing more than "I expect a college level paper of real worth--find a style manual if you do not have one," and 'You have to use your own intelligence to determine how to write the paper. Part of what I'm grading is how you exercise your discretion and judgment."

Now I'm told by the educrats that this is bad education. So why is it that compared to other courses students consistently rank mine as "much more learned" ?

Clearly my approach isn't universalizable: I teach philosophy and not anatomy. I teach socratically and not in lecture. I don't use textbooks but only primary readings. I've had the students for a semester to teach a culture of argument and inquiry, and so on. Vagueness might not work for all courses or teachers, but is it possible that our students are taught to rather mindlessly receive and regurgitate and that a puzzle, a bit of confusion, some aporia, acts rather like a catalyst for the intellect? All persons, after all, desire to know, but this desire requires wonder, and sometimes wonder can be caused with a simple bout of "what the world is this guy asking us to do?"

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7 Comments
Thaddeus Kozinski on Jan 17, 2011 at 3:44 pm

Yes, I agree totally. Teaching independent enquiry is very difficult accurately to assess!

Last updated on Jan 17, 2011 at 3:44 pm.
Lee Trepanier on Jan 19, 2011 at 2:07 pm

This is slightly off topic, but I am an advocate of student evaluations and wished they were incorporated more into the assessment of faculty's teaching. I agree that evaluations can't assess the content of the course, but students are able to judge whether the course objectives are clear, class material is organized, the professor shows up at class and during his/her office hours, etc.

Gary Scott on Jan 20, 2011 at 11:40 am

Is a faculty member to confess or to boast when graduate students rate his teaching higher than do undergraduates? Or when alumni, five years later, scale up a teacher's rating from that given at the moment of suffering the medicine?

Lee Trepanier on Jan 21, 2011 at 8:27 am

The point you raise is a good one. Student evaluations capture only a moment in time of a professor's impact upon a student. It would be interesting to have follow-up evaluations to see, after reflection, students recognize the importance of the class on their lives.

RJ Snell on Jan 23, 2011 at 10:40 pm

Gary's comment is astute. The five-year assessment would be an interesting approach, wouldn't it? And likely bring some real surprises.

Asa Church on Jan 30, 2011 at 1:29 pm

Promoting independent inquiry is not the same as being vague and frustrating. I tell my students, "there are no tricks" but then I try to give them assignments that force them to think. Being a good teacher is finding the right balance for the students you are teaching. This is not easy -and I struggle!

Lee Trepanier on Feb 2, 2011 at 11:07 am

I agree: some professors equate vagueness with critical thinking. However, I don't think it is unreasonable to show students a model of what a good philosophical essay is or to provide them some metrics of what a paper is. Simply to say to a student, "write a good paper" is a disservice to them.

about the author

R. J. Snell
R. J. Snell

Associate Professor and Director of the Philosophy Program at Eastern University outside of Philadelphia. Ph.D. from Marquette, MA from Boston College and BSc. from Liberty University.

I work broadly in the history of philosophy, but especially Thomism in conjunction with contemporary thought. My first book argues for a Thomist, Bernard Lonergan, against the skepticism of Richard Rorty.

Starting to do more work on the natural law and especially the epistemology of apprehending the good.