Saturday, February 28, 2009

There's always one rotten apple

I read through my teaching evaluations from last semester--with some trepidation, I might add. They were in my possession for about a week before I finally opened them and looked through them.

Last semester my academic performance took a dip for various reasons, but I can recover from this. I can make it up to myself (and in fact am doing so by rewriting the papers I turned in). However, I worried about traumatizing my students, or wasting their time--this is not as easily made up.

To my surprise and relief, the vast majority of my evaluations were positive, and enthusiastically so. I got some great feedback on what assignments worked, what readings were helpful, and was even told that my occasional profanity "made lectures more interesting."

There was of course, one smarty pantsed kid who sneered how often I cancelled class. My attendance policy is pretty much "someone is paying for this, so make it worth your money's while and show up to class." This is exactly what the kid targeted, despite the fact that s/he gave me perfect marks everywhere else. S/he felt that they didn't get their money's worth. I am indignant, and frustrated because I'll never get the chance to defend myself! So please, allow me to explain:

  • When I held student conferences (once at midterms, again at finals) I cancelled class.
  • When I had car trouble on ONE occasion, I was forced to cancel class, as my classroom was located on red-headed-stepchild campus.
  • There was one time that was a bit extraneous, I admit--but they'd finished their peer reviews earlier than I'd expected and I didn't have anything planned (except for a giant stack of grading and my own papers to write). So I told them to take the day to work on polishing their papers.

Since we're in the arena of "getting our money's worth" I'm tempted to resort to the fact that I taught the course for free. OK, maybe not quite. It's a pretty sweet deal to get my tuition paid for, I won't lie. I will note, however, that the stipend, whether I am teaching one course or two, doesn't budge. At least someone's getting their money's worth in this scenario--grad students work cheap!

I shouldn't let one silly remark like this get to me, but it does. What I ought to focus on is that, for as useless as I feel in directing discussion or teaching in general, my students approve of me. Funny that a part of me thinks: but on what authority do they judge my teaching? How do THEY know what makes a good teacher? I'm not sure who I'm looking for a pat on the back from, if its not from my students.

The purpose of these evaluations is not clear to me. One of the big-gun composition program people told me point blank that they are useless. I don't know who sees them, and what impact they have on my future. It sounds silly to admit, but I'll do so here, in pseudonymity.

When do the evaluations come back to haunt me, or help me?

1 comment:

JC said...

I'd like to weigh in on your two questions (or, at least, two of them!).

First, it seems to me that students are responding not to content, but to presentation. They've been students, under a variety of teachers, for most of their lives. If they feel you've done a good job of presenting information (not necessarily *the* information), especially if it entertained while instructing, you'll get good evals.

As to who will see them, it'll vary some by school, even department, and position. My first couple years teaching (as a grad student), the evaluations were of little import -- my evals were OK, and my department chair glanced at them quickly, if at all, since we were practically guaranteed a teaching position while we were in the program. (Unless there was a problem in the class, in which case they were much more meaningful to get a general sense of the instructor's interaction with the students.) Now that I'm at a different school, and well past funding, the evals are necessary for my continued employment -- each year, a new app for the teaching gig, with sample evaluations.

I can imagine most schools will use evals for temp instructors (e.g., adjuncts and grad students) in similar ways, even if bad evaluations don't have immediate repercussions for graduate instructors. Then again, there are a couple of folks who didn't get tapped for a "sure thing" teaching position (i.e., English grads teaching comp), and their evals may have been a part of that... I know one was very arrogant in classes we shared, and I can only imagine how he was with a significant power difference.

Anyone else want to shed more light on evaluations?