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?"