Thursday, December 21, 2006

Solstice. Elephant. Living Room.

Happy Winter Solstice! After this, the days start getting longer. Hallelujah!

I tried working on more ED sonnets this morning: no go, although that may have something to do with the fact that I woke up at 4 a.m. I went to sleep at 9:30, so that's not quite as bad as it sounds, but I'm still really tired, and my brain's producing drivel.

Yesterday I got the car back and bought new chains, the cable kind that are supposedly much easier to use. Then I went to school, turned in grades, and read teaching evaluations.

That's always a nerve-wracking process. I've learned over the years that my impression of how a class is going won't necessarily bear any relation to the things the students say on evaluations. If they don't like you for any reason, this is where it usually comes out, and some classes, especially required ones like freshman comp, tend to produce worse evaluations than others. And student evaluations are counted in our own annual evaluations. The people who serve on the Personnel Committee (including me, this year) know all the factors that can affect evaluations, and try to take them into account, but reading the comments -- and knowing that colleagues will be reading them too -- can still be very distressing indeed.

And I have tenure; it's much worse for people who don't.

I'm delighted to report that the evaluations for both classes were better than I'd feared, although not uniformly glowing. I was especially happy with the freshman-comp evaluations, because the two other times I've taught that class, the evaluations were unanimously hideous (and very hurtful). This time, a healthy majority of the students actually seemed to enjoy the course. Hallelujah!

It's not politically correct to discuss this issue in the academy. We're all supposed to be wonderful teachers who either get uniformly glowing evaluations or are too mature to care about vengeful comments written by students. Teaching trauma is the elephant in the living room, the thing no one talks about too openly. But it's real. I have colleagues who've been so hurt by evaluations that they no longer read them at all; everybody else I know who talks about this at all acknowledges that they pick reading times carefully, often waiting until they'll be able to leave work right afterwards.

Because my two previous attempts at freshman-comp were such disasters, I went into this semester really terrified. I asked one colleague for help with my syllabus and asked another, a good friend, to observe my class. Those are things that professors at my level aren't supposed to have to do, but I did them anyway, and it looks like those efforts paid off (although, as with almost every course, there are certainly things I'd change about this class if I taught it again). Still, asking for help was hard. I'm somewhat embarrassed even to be sharing my joy that this set of evaluations was decent, because that means admitting that previous ones haven't been.

But I also have a very strong hunch that other people have gone through this too, and will be relieved to hear somebody else talking about it. Let's try to get the elephant out of the living room, shall we?

So anyway, after reading my decent evaluations, I levitated around the English office for a while, much to the bemusement of several colleagues, and then went swimming, which felt great.

I woke up at 4:00 anyway, and I'm hoping to get the hospital tonight. So an afternoon nap will definitely be in order!


  1. Evaluations are a nightmare! I still have some that I haven't even read yet and I haven't taught college for two years now.

    One reason the rare nasty ones hurt is that they're saying mean things anonymously and without any requirement for fact. It can be 100% baseless. And from someone who has been sitting in front of you thinking mean things at you for four months but not saying them or expressing any problems with the class.

    I find that particularly upsetting. If they're not happy with the class, they should SAY SO and then you can find a way to fix it. Waiting until afterwards and slamming you is cheap and unproductive. It's a person who's judging you instead of working with you to get what they want. Cowardly attacks from someone who you trusted.

    Then again, students feel that way about grades a lot of the time. "But I thought you liked me!" "I do like you, but this paper is still an F." They don't get it.

    I certainly don't read evaluations any time near the end of the semester. I wait until before the beginning of the next one, usually. Then you have enough distance to use what's useful and ignore what's not.

    Happy solstice!!!

  2. The way I pay the bills that enables me to serve a small church, is that I work in higher education accreditation. I know an angel on the weekend and the devil during the week :)

    I work for outcomes assessment based accrediting body and student evaluation of the courses (not the professor) is often used as an indirect measure of student learning and/or unit effectivness.

    All that said, when I make visits and speak with students one of the things I hear is that "Why do we have to fill out the course evaluation, they don't even read them." They often feel they can say what they want because nobody going to read them.

    I am going to tell you something you already know (a trait of all accrediters.) You must be a good professor and very good in the classroom. Because in my experience (I have visited over 130 schools) the good professors are the one who always are seeking to get better and confident enough in their craft to ask others to help in the process. Have a Merry and Joyous Christmas and a peace filled New Year.

  3. Hi, PTP! I always tell my students that people do read the evaluations, that I read them, and so does my boss (although only after grades are in). We also read a printed statement to them about how these are important for annual evaluations and promotions.

    I think part of the problem is that the evaluations are anonymous (although in practice, we often know who's written what). I'm really torn about this, because one of the grave faults of my PhD program was that there was no way for grad students to give professors anonymous feedback. On the other hand, some students (and by no means only the younger ones) use the anonymity as a roasting license. I think at least some evals would be more constructive if students, like professors, had to be accountable for their comments (although again, only after grades were already filed).


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