By Ryan R. Holston, August 10, 2011 in Uncategorized
A friend of mine recently posted a message on a familiar social networking site (which I’m sure can be guessed!) that revealed a great deal of angst over having to write an Annual Self-Evaluation for performance in his/her current position. This friend is an academic in a relatively new teaching job, who says that all members of the faculty are expected to provide evidence of “excellence in teaching.” However, in the short time at this institution, my friend says that his/her feedback received from student evaluations has been less than stellar, thus leaving this person in a bind as to how to present their case to the department chair and dean.
Since it is that time of year when many, if not most, academics are doing such self-evaluations and since we’ve all experienced at one point or another student feedback that we wouldn’t necessarily want as the top line on our C.V., I thought this would be a good opportunity to reflect on both phenomena.
The first and most important thing to remember when considering student evaluations is to approach them with the appropriate perspective or frame of mind. It is a cliché in academia that in assessing faculty teaching, too much emphasis is often placed on evaluations that come from students who are, in the first place, unqualified to be appraising the teaching of their professors, and, in the second place, often base their evaluations on superficial considerations, such as whether they found the professor entertaining or whether grades received in the course reflected their self-perceived intelligence level. The problem is that these criticisms of student evaluations do nothing to help the faculty member who finds him or herself already within this system of assessment. Moreover, and more problematically, such criticisms actually buy into the logic which treats such evaluations as serving as an - albeit flawed - metric or barometer of good or bad teaching. But it seems to me that faculty have it within their power to alter this assumed premise about student evaluations simply by changing their outlook on and interpretation of them. The key is to treat student evaluations simply for what they are -- the perspective on one’s teaching from the vantage point of someone who sits in the room and takes the class. In other words, once one jettisons the assumption that such reports are designed to measure, score, or rate professors’ performances and replaces it with the idea that they merely provide the view of the course from the eyes of the student, feedback not only loses its teeth and becomes considerably less threatening but can actually be a useful tool in improving one’s teaching (not to mention impressing one’s department chair and dean).
Consider that there are two possible outlooks or ways of interpreting my friend’s negative student feedback. One is to view these student evaluations as reflecting his/her poor performance over the course of the academic year. Students, implicitly perceived as the authorities on good and bad teaching, “rated” this colleague of mine poorly, and, if this is the case, he/she is immediately put in a defensive position of having to justify the “score” received. Interestingly, many respondents to this friend’s post seemed to accept this premise and immediately began offering possible excuses for the performance: this mutual friend of ours was still relatively new to teaching, he/she did not have ample time at the institution to gauge and adjust to the student population, he/she was teaching one or more required courses that self-selects students who are forced (and thus do not want) to be there, his/her research had been occupying a substantial and disproportionate amount of time, etc. But this all misses the point. Such excuses are only warranted if one assumes that the goal is to get high “scores” from students whose job is to “rate” one’s performance. Alternatively, my advice to my friend was to reflect on the particular areas in which the students voiced critical concerns about the course and to consider which of these concerns had merit and which did not. The outcome of such self-reflection and deliberation - what is valid and what is invalid about the areas of concern to the students - is what I believe should comprise the content of an Annual Self-report that relates to teaching. The message that this sends to any department chair or dean is decidedly different from that which assumes one is being “rated.” First, it conveys the sense that one is open to - and does not just get defensive about - criticism of one’s teaching, something which even the best teachers receive (in the words of my current chair, if you only receive positive feedback from students, you must be doing something wrong). Second, it indicates that one is engaged in an active process of examining and thinking hard about what good teaching is -- one of the main things, in my opinion, that chairs and deans are actually looking for in assessing faculty teaching. Third, and related to this latter point, is that such qualitative discrimination between students’ critical comments tacitly reinforces the notion that the value of student feedback is its vantage point or perspective, which still requires the judgment and expertise of the professor in order to have legitimacy, e.g. student complaints about “too much reading” aren’t unequivocally valid. Indeed, even if one has overwhelmingly positive student feedback, I would argue that all of these points that are crucial to convey to one’s supervisors become undermined when one treats student evaluations as if they were merely a “score” or “rating” of one’s teaching performance.
In the end, I told my friend, this is about the difference between seeing student feedback as a teacher’s report card or a self-improvement resource. The former outlook, in my opinion, creates teachers who seek only the approval of their students, while the latter, by contrast, uses a critical eye and actually sees student criticisms as helpful. It is important, in my view, to continually reemphasize the latter outlook on student evaluations, not only in one’s own mind, but in the minds of department chairs and administrators as well.