Thursday, May 03, 2012

KEEPERS: Stanley Fish on Student Evaluations, II

This is the follow up to Fish's original column.  I have always been amazed at the way Asian classrooms are conducted. Students actually thank their teacher when class is over. We could use a little more of that attitude here, I think.

Student Evaluations, Part Two

Stanley Fish
Stanley Fish on education, law and society.
If there is a dominant message in the responses to my column about the dangers of relying on student evaluations to assess teacher performance, it is, “It’s worse than you think.”

Some posters (like this one from Houston) mean that it is worse than I think in Texas, where, it seems, the plot to turn higher education into a training school for right-wing know-nothings is already well advanced. Others, not from Texas, tell me that the future I predicted as a joke — teachers advertising for customers as if they were shills for a floor show — has already arrived along with the predictable bad consequences.

Still others chime in with personal horror stories — the teacher who, after having moved a class to a morning hour in response to student requests, found himself pilloried by those same students for making them get up too early; the teacher who was negatively reviewed by students who had never shown up (they needed to turn in an evaluation in order to get credit for the class they had not attended).

Even students joined the chorus, expressing disgust at colleagues who anonymously settle personal grievances or retaliate for low grades by trashing instructors unable to defend themselves. These anonymous and accountability-free reasons, a former professor complains (he is “former” for just this reason), “can destroy a career that took a decade to train for.” (vero)

They can also lead to the abandoning or blighting of a career. Posters report variously that they left teaching altogether or moved to a foreign country where the “customer” mentality had not yet set in or stuck it out for 30 years while becoming ever more bitter and disillusioned. Even those who are aware that there is little correlation between student evaluations and effective teaching (the preponderance of studies document this non-correlation) and therefore know that negative comments do not reflect an informed judgment are nevertheless pained and humiliated by them: “Even though I know this, they always manage to hurt my feelings and reduce my own personal morale” (Sarah). It is at once a “joke” and a “nightmare” (vero again), a nightmare because it is a joke with teeth.

The deleterious effects of student evaluations extend beyond the personal injuries these comments rehearse; they infect the entire system of higher education. Teachers who fear (correctly) that student evaluations will determine their fate become stand-up comedians — wave your arms around, praise students excessively and “dress sharp,” advises Dr. Bob — and alter their grading policy in an effort to be liked. Since “student evaluations are driven almost entirely by the perception of grades”
(Troglomorphic), grade inflation — “an insidious weed choking out real education” (vince) — “is inevitable.” Once it gets going, grade inflation feeds on itself and initiates a race to the bottom, for “just as teachers in public schools will lessen their effectiveness by teaching to the test, college teachers can lessen their effectiveness by teaching to the evaluation” (Roger Bullard).

Several posters see the ascendance of student evaluations as a reflection of the media-driven obsession with the opinions of the man or woman in the street. It is “part and parcel,” says scottws of “the dreary trend of ubiquitous polling and sampling,” a trend that assumes absurdly that “Katie Couric really cares what I think of BP.” The assumption underlying the soliciting of everyman’s opinions is that expertise is a false currency; we are all, even if we are only 18 years old, the best judges of what affects us: “Who is She or He to say what our policy in the Middle East should be? Just because she’s an expert in it or something ?”(Fulan). After all, the reasoning goes, I know what I like and who are you to tell me anything different? In Craig’s view, this way of thinking is endemic: “people are not willing to be separated into adults and kids anymore . . . This attitude,” he says, “is pervasive and is threatening to destroy not only academia, but with it an important part in human advancement.”

There are, of course, dissenters, and they raise two points: (1) that I display a profound lack of respect for students, and (2) that I offer no alternative to student evaluations and thus seem to leave students, parents and society without protection against bad and unprofessional teaching. (This is a concern expressed by fellow columnist Ross Douthat.) To the first point I would say that I respect students as persons who deserve to be treated with courtesy, which means, minimally, that they should not be harassed or singled out for ridicule or graded up or down on the basis of gender, ethnic, racial or religious affiliation, or sexual orientation. But this courtesy and respect does not extend to their ideas, which may or may not be given a hearing depending on the instructor’s preferred teaching style, and which may be summarily dismissed if they are judged to be beside the pedagogical point. Treat them as human beings with inherent dignity by all means; but don’t treat them as sages before the fact.
And as for ways of monitoring and dealing with irresponsible teaching, here the posters come to my rescue with excellent suggestions. Several propose evaluation forms that determine whether a teacher is doing what he or she is paid to do. “Are grades returned in a timely fashion, does the prof hold office hours, do they show up on time?” (Madison). Questions like that will “detect bad actors” without falling into the error of putting students in charge of their own education.

Another proposal is to base teacher evaluation on student performance in future classes so as “to actually assess whether the learning to be achieved really took place or not” (Thane Doss). John would retain the present practice of evaluation, but with a twist: “May I suggest that Teacher Evaluations be in the form of Essays,” for that would put the burden “on the students’ expository skills and the evaluators’ analytical skills.” A number of posters call for peer review by senior faculty members who would meet with the instructor, offer guidance and constructive criticism and file formal reports that could be reviewed by a chair or dean. (This was the system in place when I was a baby instructor and is no doubt still being used by many colleges and universities.) Each of these ideas deserves consideration, and together they give the lie to the assumption that it is anonymous student evaluations or nothing.

I cannot leave the topic without remarking on the passion voiced by many who took the time to respond. A Teacher lets it all hang out and speaks for many: “Sorry kids, you are not the authority in the classroom. Me Teacher. You student. Me Teach , you learn. End of discussion . . . Education is not a business. You are not my customer. My classroom is not Burger King. You do not get to ‘have it your way.’”

And, finally, I am pleased and amazed to report that one poster actually answered what was thought to be the impossible question: What exactly is good teaching? PES realized years after encountering it that he (or she) had been its beneficiary: “I had learned without knowing it almost, how to see three sides of a twosided story.”

I wish I had said that.

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