Monday, October 11, 2010

Evaluating the professor, or how French ice-skating judges have overtaken higher education

Finally, four months after the spring 2010 semester ended, I am now able to answer my friends and family when they ask me, "So, how did your classes go last semester?"

"6.46 and 6.39!, unadjusted for wind or difficulty factor! Now, go ahead . . . ask me the capital of Missouri -- Jefferson City!"

And there you have it . . . a semester's worth of preparation, haggling, negotiation, grading, individualized consideration, pointless, random email from students with 3.44 a.m. Sunday morning time-stamps, questions such as, "Does a croissant count as food?" and "Will you really lower our grade if we don't turn in the work?"-type questions in response to specific written policies on the course syllabus stating that no food is permitted in class and I will deduct half a letter-grade if you miss more than a certain number of classes . . . boiled down to numbers more familiar from figure-skating and gymnastics competitions than suitable to how well professors teach their classes and how much students learn in them.

American University modified the student evaluation form about four or five years ago so that we are now evaluated on a scale of 1-7 rather than 1-6. The evaluations ranked us from poor to superior. Now, the numbers translate to "One of the Worst" to "One of the Very Best," whereas before we were just poor, below average, above average, superior, etc. I have no idea why the university changed the system or why it believes the new survey will yield a more accurate assessment of the "student classroom experience." But this much is clear: the student evaluation process, completely unscientific, hopelessly biased, lacking accountability and unable to capture nuance or account for important differences in how teachers teach, is more powerful than ever in determining whether untenured faculty -- whether on tenure-lines, renewable contracts or teaching as adjuncts --get to keep their jobs. The student evaluations are also central in determining promotions for faculty below the full professor rank and in allocating raises. Besides the obvious problems that exist with the surveys and their administration, there is one more -- perhaps the most bizarre -- element to this charade that goes undiscussed on my campus (and on others, to judge from my colleagues who teach in other universities). Professors are, as far as I can tell, the only employees on campus whose fate rests in the hands of those they supervise. Our administrative superiors do not visit our classes. No system exists for "peer evaluation" of professors by professors. We have something here called the Center for Teaching Excellence. As far as I can tell, the Center functions more like a charm school for professors than a place that tries to hold the line against the "customer service" mentality that now pervades the management of colleges and universities. All that the committees and academic officers have in their hands when they determine my "teaching effectiveness" and whether it merits a cup-of-coffee a week or a latte-a-week raise are these numbers. Since I cannot ascend any higher in professorial rank, I can afford -- literally and figuratively -- not to take seriously a process that doesn't merit serious thought. But my colleagues still working their up through the system do not have this luxury. An unintended consequence of turning over such a large degree of power to students over their professors is that it diminishes academic standards in the classroom and discourages professors from pushing their students harder than they are willing to go. From grades K-12, one parent after another (or this one, anyway) gives their kids the "I don't want to hear about how 'unfair' your teacher is; until you speak Spanish as well as she does just shut up and do the work" speech. In college, the reverse is true. Not getting a good grade? Complain, complain, complain, or just slam your professor on the course evaluation. In the end, the student wins because the student, like the modern American consumer, is always right.

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Professors are also the only employees in the university whose performance reviews -- another phrase we have borrowed from corporate America -- are available for anyone with a university email account to see. Around seven or eight years ago, the university began putting the teaching evaluations for all our courses on line. I still do not know who made this decision or whether there was even any faculty input. Had anyone asked me, something I don't remember happening, I would have said no, for no other reason than we -- professors -- are not permitted to see the evaluations of staff (from academic advisers to physical plant employees) or the periodic "reviews" conducted of the university's academic officers (from academic deans to the university president). Over the years, I have been asked in surveys to rate the performance of my academic superiors and interviewed for my "narrative" opinions of the strengths and weaknesses of the same. I have never seen the results of these reviews. Nor has any other professor I know. Placing our teaching evaluations on-line encourages colleagues to snoop on each other. Since our performance reviews, in part, are based on the student teaching evaluations, any professor who believes he or she was undervalued -- we are ranked in percentiles -- might want to know how a colleague was evaluated by students to get a sense of fairness. How do I know that colleagues of mine have looked at my evaluations? Simple. They've told me.

Professors are not permitted open access to student academic records. From time to time, I will discuss a student's performance with an academic adviser to get a sense if an issue I am having with that student is unique or indicative of their academic performance. But can I go into an adviser's office and troll through student files? No. University rules and federal law accords students privacy rights over their records. A professor's classroom record, on the other hand, is the equivalent of a menu posted outside of a restaurant. That's a more charitable description than saying we are nothing more than prostitutes sitting in an Amsterdam storefront, allowing our customers to size up their preferences before plunking down their cash.

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And then there are the "narrative" evaluations professors distribute to supplement our quantitative assessments. These are little more than venting sessions, sometimes for good sometimes for bad, and sometimes just plain weird. They have absolutely no value as evaluative instruments, since the committees and individuals charged with assessing our teaching effectiveness do not read them. I know plenty of professors who just pitch them without even bothering to open the envelope, and I understand why. Since the process is anonymous, an aggrieved student can just let loose in extraordinarily personal and vindictive terms. And sometimes they do, letting us know that we're "stupid," "full of worthless shit," "a dick," or offering a psychological profile, i.e, telling us what we think, who we favor or don't favor and why and, of course, questioning our life outside of our professional responsibilities. Professors have no similar tool their disposal. We can't make comments on papers and projects that read:

"Your essay begins well. You offer a good and coherent thesis. But you do not develop your thesis's main idea as well as you could have. We discussed Author A's position on this in detail, and we spent two class periods discussing the differences in Cases A & B. Also, by not discussing Author B, you do not provide any evidence that you read her book, something you were asked to do. Worst of all, though, you continue to wear Birkenstocks to class despite that big black toenail that stares at me throughout the 75 minute class period. And what is with "I'm With Stupid" T-shirt that you wear every other class period? Have you ever thought that you were stupid? Please . . . please . . . please . . . take shower once in a while. You smell like beer and Doritos. It's evident that what drives your poor performance in class is the strained relationship you have with your mother. No wonder you don't have a girlfriend. And could please ditch the Crocs and stretch pants? You're twenty years old."

But students can. And they do.

For comic relief, though, nothing tops RateMyProfessor (or, more accurately HateMyProfessor), the website where anyone in the country can leave a comment about any professor teaching at any university in the United States. You don't even have to attend a university, much less actually take the course you want to rate. I had never even heard of this site until a student brought it to my attention a few years ago. My first impression was that it reminded me of the message boards for professional sports franchises, the kind of place where large, out-of-shape, angry, nachos-and-cheese drooling sociopaths who couldn't throw a baseball more than 7 feet or skate from the goal line to the defensive blue line without dropping dead go to issue death threats against their team or question the sexuality of rival players. If I wanted, I could, as a professor, select at random a professor teaching at any university, also selected at random, and leave a comment about that person. There is no control over comments, although the site reminds posters not to leave "libelous" comments about the professors they rate. Mmm-hmm, and the Supreme Court has said that sexually explicit material, taken as a whole, that lacks literary, artistic, political and scientific value, can be considered obscene and not afforded constitutional protection. Do a quick Internet search for sexually-explicit material and then tell me exactly what isn't permitted.

Here's one for you. A person left this comment, my all-time favorite (more so than the one that says there is a "special place for him in hell") on my RMP page, which a former student forwarded to me.

"Greg Ivers epitomizes the 'cool' professor. Young girls drool over his every word and spend most of class fantasizing about one of AU's few profs with tenured-DILF credentials. Unfortunately he knows it, and spends most of the class reveling in his rock-star status. Ivers has a LOT to offer, but sadly keeps most of it to himself."

Like, OMG! Where to begin with this one?

1. I spell my name with two g's on the end.
2. The only people who drool over anything I say are the seniors who play scrabble at the Jewish Community Center. That's usually in response to my asking, "Is anyone using this chair?" In fairness, they drool pretty much over everything.
3. A DILF? That's a new one. All I can conclude is that this person has just recently been released from a long jail sentence or just returned to land after an extended submarine tour of Antarctica. There can be no other explanation.
4. I am not a rock-star. I don't have the hair, the tatoos, the jail sentence, a secret X-rated home video or the stint in rehab necessary to qualify. Plus, I'm not rich, nor have I ever lost my fortune to shady business managers. I am a jazz drummer who loves funk and the blues. I must confess, though, I do have a weakness for progressive rock and complex time-signatures.
5. I don't share my medical records and the confidences of friends and family with my students. Besides that, I don't really keep much else to myself.

But the strangest thing of all is this: this post wasn't written by a student or even anyone in my class. Remember, nothing written in cyberspace in truly anonymous.

I did, however, receive a smiley face.

How stupid.

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Is there hope for a more reasonable assessment of teaching performance than the system we have in place now? I don't think so. That isn't to say that better choices aren't available. We could distribute the bubble and the narrative surveys so that a student's name and university I.D. number appear in the top corner. Our registrar could provide a correlation between a grade received and the score a professor receives. For the narrative portion, our dean's office could redact the names when they give us the evaluations to hide a student's identity. If the narrative contained abusive or inappropriate language, a professor could request to meet with the student or have someone from the dean's office do the same. If a student knew that he or she could be accountable for profane comments, the odds are they would never put pen to paper. We could also conduct peer review by asking professors from neighboring institutions to sit in on classes taught by professors in similar fields. Naturally, that might only work for one or two classes here and there. But it would at least permit professionals to evaluate professionals, something this is absolutely lacking now.

Don't look for any of this to happen anytime soon. Universities are businesses with a product to sell and customers to please. We might not have a pianist performing on the mezzanine while shoppers go about the business of buying and returning. But we are much more similar to the modern department store than the classical university model where professors once reigned supreme.