Thursday, December 11, 2008

"Evaluating" fourteen weeks in 10.5 minutes

I promise and double-pinky swear: this will be my last post on how universities evaluate college teaching . . .

until I write the next one.

So, as I take a break from the mound of blue books sitting to my right, I thought I would share another feature of the ludicrousness that defines the end-of-the-semester ritual of how students evaluate their courses and professors. A quick caveat, though, before I get to my main point. I don't spend time offering my opinion on the evaluation process because I feel like I'm getting a raw deal from my students. My students are highly self-selected. For better or worse, almost every student I teach knows, to the extent that they can, what they're in for. Sometimes, when I teach courses in our General Education program, I get disgruntled students. But those are few and far between. And, frankly, I don't care that indifferent, lazy or not very capable students don't "like" me or my classes. I don't do this for them. I do this for the good ones. Period. Students who get something out of my classes take me for upper-level courses; students who fare poorly don't and warn their friends to stay away. I like it like that.

Still, though, my university's system of "evaluating" teaching is so silly that it merits whatever honest commentary I willing to give it. Maybe one day the process will change. But as long as we're an institution that derives 90-95% of its operating budget from tuition, we're only going to become more "student-centered," even if that means compromising the classroom experience and reducing professors to little more than well-compensated counselors at Camp AU.

So here's today's insight. I administered - a fancy term that means, in this case, "handed out" -- my course evaluations this week. In Class 1, the students were finished with the evaluation in six minutes; in Class 2, the students completed the evaluation in 4.5 minutes. In Class 1, I had just finished gathering up my things, taken the customary seat outside the classroom on a bench to wait for the students to finish up so I could sign the sealed envelopes that will determine whether I can order an extra topic on a pizza every other week for the next year or just once a month, when three students walked out, thanked me for the class -- something that is always better than a computerized summary -- and went on their way. For Class 2, the students were done even more quickly. I went to the water fountain to take the vitamin cocktail that allows me to play hockey and work-out with such mediocre results and returned to my bench to find six students standing in a semi-circle. At first I anticipated a firing squad, but then I remembered our campus, in addition to being drug-free, is also gun-free. Some chit-chat, questions about this semester and the next, some thank-yous, a couple of hugs (one from the captain of the cheerleading squad!), some handshakes (sorry, guys) and then . . . all done.

So, the students in my two classes this semester spent a total of 10.5 minutes evaluating me, after I spent 52 classroom hours teaching them; at least triple that preparing for those classes and reading their assignments; and countless more talking to them in my office or responding to their email inquiries. I don't mind doing any of this. In fact, I love it, and I am grateful to have the job I have. I have had opportunities over the years to do different things and I have never given more than 30 seconds -- tops -- to trading my job for something else. And that was when I was offered a low-level political appointment in the first Clinton administration, an offer I turned down flat when I realized I would do nothing more than generate white papers for people who would never read them. Intellectual freedom and connecting with bright, personable young people more talented than myself is better than anything else I could ever hope to do, except maybe . . . maybe . . . spending a summer in the drum chair for Steely Dan and playing just one show with Wayne Shorter.

Back to the blue books. I will spend about twenty minutes on each one, then, after a break to rest my increasingly bad close-in eyesight, read through them again just to make sure I got them right. Meaning what? Meaning that I will spend nearly four times the amount of time evaluating one final exam for one student in one class than the 50 students in my two classes combined spent evaluating me. Meaning that I will spend about 10 times the amount of time evaluating just one assignment from one student than the most diligent student evaluator spent "evaluating" me for an entire semester.

The students bear no blame for this. The university does. And it's not just faculty that suffer for this. Students do as well because they are not part of any genuine process that takes what they say seriously. And believe it or not, enough do that their voices should be heard as part of a more comprehensive process of truly evaluating college teaching.

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