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Monday, June 27, 2005

MORE on student evaluations

Some thoughts on student evaluations, based in part on Bright Star's post on the subject a couple of weeks ago (which I just came across today and so won't start chiming in on belatedly over on her blog)--and in part, of course, on my own evals for this past semester.

I wasn't expecting great evaluations, since I taught an unexpectedly small introductory literature seminar where the personalities just never really jelled; the course was also a new one, designed by committee with all the problems that suggests, and I personally didn't feel as though it was constructed particularly coherently.

Anyway, considering that I had a total of only NINE students (one of whom I failed and another of whom was a local high school student who just wasn't up to college-level analysis), my evals were actually not as bad as I'd feared. But I did get two "below-average" overall ratings, which is rather a high percentage in such a small class, and I got some snarky comments very like Bright Star's, including "Pompous. Get off the clouds." And, "know-it-all."

I'll skip the self-defense, since I'm pretty confident that my classroom manner is neither of those things; what I'm interested in is where these inaccurate assessments came from.

I'm trusting that Bright Star isn't any more arrogant in the classroom than I am, in part because I feel like I've seen this pattern before. Right before I interviewed at the MLA this year I googled one of my interviewers and came across her RateMyProfessors.com evaluations. I already knew she was a hotshot who had graduated from my program several years ago and already had a second book forthcoming, and I was prepared to be intimidated by her. Many of her reviews were very positive (e.g., "made me become an English major"), but a lot were just eviscerating ("arrogant"; "huge ego"; "thinks she's the shit"). But when I met her, even in the stressful context of a job interview, she was incredibly warm and eager and unpretentious. I later mentioned both my impression of her and her evals to a friend a couple of years ahead of me in my program, who'd known my interviewer slightly, and she seemed equally puzzled by the ratings--"but she's so sweet!"

Anyway, through snooping around more on RMP.com, I've seen more of this. Women whom I know to be helpful and enthusiastic teachers wind up with, often, more than a handful of evaluations along the same lines as those of my interviewer's--but the men? Almost none of this.

Obviously evalations are prone to a host of problems, and I think most of us agree that they're of only very limited utility (funny how the silent students will say "discussions dragged and were boring" while the talkative ones say, "discussions were always lively and helpful")--but I'm wondering whether part of it isn't also a gender thing: maybe women who know what they're doing and have exacting standards are more likely to be perceived (by some students) as arrogant or demanding? I'm not completely sure that this is the reason, but it's certainly true that many students want female instructors to be their sympathetic mother or older sister and don't understand how you can seem so nice! but be way too harsh as a grader. And anecdotally, it doesn't seem that men deal with this as much--is it that students are prepared for male instructors to be authoritarian hard-asses?

Anyway, I'd be interested in hearing anyone's thoughts on this. . . .

link | posted by La Lecturess at 10:52 PM |


Blogger blithering moron commented at 7:12 AM~  

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Blogger Dr. C commented at 10:53 AM~  

Do you get to pick the questions on your evaluations? We get to pick all but five of them, so there's some strategy involved. I admit (and this is going to be cynical) that I tailor the questions on the official form to fit my personality and teaching style. I also my questions an unofficial form with open ended questions on it. These questions are often more helpful to me because you can find out what exactly the students are complaining/concerned about. Plus, since it's not a required school sanctioned form, I don't have to turn it in with my annual review portfolio.

As for the official school questions, our school has one that says: "This is the best class I have ever taken." How unfair is that? Not every class can be the "best" class. I taught a distance ed hybrid class last spring and got nailed on that question. All of my other ratings were very high (work load, teaching style, helpfulness-related question), but this one was like a 3.5 median on a 5-point scale. Probably a relic of the fact that some students liked the distance ed format and some did not. Go figure.

As for that whole mommy thing ... I'll give you the advice that my dissertation advisor gave me. Just don't let the students take advantage of you. I am the only female in my department and during my first year at Small Midwestern University all of these female students kept coming to me with their personal problems (abuse, rape, etc.) that I am just not qualified to solve. My advisor said: Go out and get brochures about all of these topics. When they come to you with a sob story, hand them the brochure and refer them to the proper office. Act sympathetic but kick them out of your office (tactfully). It works with most students.

However, I did have a problem student (male) who was, in essence, stalking me last fall. I mentioned this to an adjunct (also male) who had this guy in class. The adjunct said: "He just needs you to give him a little mothering." WTF? No, this guy needed to go back on his meds. No amount of "mothering" was going to help him. He has since been moved to another professor in the department (the youngest one we have) where he (the student) has been telling the professor all of his medicial problems. The young professor is a bit more ... uh ... brisk in his style, so the student is not finding a sympathic ear there.

Of course, those two stories are a bit off topic for teaching evaluations ... but sometimes your personal relationship with the students can affect the evals. Many students just can't understand why you are nice to them in a one-on-one setting, but still grade hard.

Anyways ... I'm finished hijacking your blog comments. :)

Blogger Dr. C commented at 10:54 AM~  

"I also my questions an unofficial form with open ended questions on it."

Good grief ... I should proofread before I post. That should be:

"I also have my own unofficial form with open-ended questions on it."

Sorry ... summer has made my mind soft.

Blogger lucyrain commented at 11:29 AM~  

I definitely believe that the evaluation process is gendered. Male teachers do not suffer the relational challeges that females do. My evidence is experiential and anecdotal, of course, but I'm positive there is research out there that has addressed this perceptual and behavioral phenomenon. I'm just too lazy to search and cite right now. But I will share this: Last fall and spring I co-taught a grad seminar with a male colleague. Nearly all of the students--who are critically aware of oppressive gendered practices--relied solely on me for answers, counseling, advising, you name it. My colleague is almost ridiculously approachable, yet no one--and I quote a group of students from a discussion we had about the reasons for their reliance on me--wanted to "bother him." I, however, am somehow obviously bother-able, as so many women are in the workplace, the home, the wherever.

Blogger La Lecturess commented at 11:37 AM~  

Actually I was just rambling on about this over at New Kid’s blog, but I think part of the problem with this batch of evals is the fact that INRU recently moved to an electronic format for their questionnaires—so instead of completing paper evals the last day of class, students now have to complete an electronic eval in order to receive their grades online.

This, I can imagine, leads to students in great irritation rushing through ALL of their evaluations at once in order to get their grades—and whether it’s that or whether it’s the distance from the course itself, the electronic evaluations seem to be much meaner and more dismissive than the paper ones. (For a couple of semesters, I and some colleagues continued giving our students paper evaluations even though the electronic system was up and running, so we actually have a basis for comparison—the paper evaluations would be overall quite positive, and the electronic ones contain some bitchy and sometimes even vicious comments. I’m sure that in-class evals might skew positive, what with the sense that the teacher is right nearby, but I don’t think that entirely accounts for the discrepancy!)

For the fall semester, I reminded my students to complete their evaluations well before the grades were available, and let them know how important and useful these are to their instructors, and I sent out an email to remind them—and by and large got very thoughtful, and mostly very lengthy, comments. But it was also just a great bunch of students who really loved the subject matter. This semester I didn’t bother to tell them to complete their forms with care . . . and maybe this is what I get. Though, as I say, there also wasn’t a great class dynamic.

But finally to answer your question, Dr. C! INRU lets us have ONE question of our own devising; the rest are standard questions about workload, and discussion, and feedback-on-your-work, and what-would-you-tell-another-INRU-student-thinking-of-taking-this-class.

Blogger academic coach commented at 4:41 PM~  

Hey, my thoughts about your evals are the same as I posted on new kid... cut n paste time:

New kid said about evals that "if they're critical, that may well say more about the students than about me, and it's up to me to decide whether I agree with the criticisms or not."

So important to remember, I think, when we feel judged -- whether we get and A, C or F - that the judgement is a simultaneous statement about the judger and their own issues, transference, mood, attitude, biochemistry, reality,....

you can tell I'm a shrink, right?

Blogger academic coach commented at 10:15 PM~  

Did you see that this post is noted in IHE today?

Anonymous Jim commented at 10:26 PM~  

I've been teaching for 25 years, and I've noticed that women faculty consistently get lower teaching evaluations and fewer teaching awards. My theory is that women faculty have a split role: they have to be Mom as well as Competent Professional, and those two roles war against each other in the student mind.

Blogger La Lecturess commented at 10:34 PM~  

Dr. C and Lucyrain: thanks for sharing your perceptions of gender in the classroom; some pretty appalling stories, but really interesting.

And AC, yes, I just noticed the IHE link . . . and now I'm irrationally worried about having my pseudonymity blown!

Anonymous Anonymous commented at 2:35 AM~  

Susan Bassow (sp?) did the research showing that women faculty do get lower evaluations, and it's because Mom (nurturing) isn't valued as highly as Dad (lecturing). Google her, and also see Ms. Mentor's column on "The Torment of Teaching Evaluations" (go to http://www.chronicle.com/jobs and then click on "Ms. Mentor.") What you say is true, and it's been proven many times.

Blogger BrightStar commented at 2:45 PM~  

I doubt that either of us are arrogant. :)

I do think it's possible that if I was a man, some of my same actions would not be interpreted as arrogant. Interesting point here.

Anonymous New Kid on the Hallway commented at 8:48 PM~  

I know my undergrad used to have a question on the evals that asked, "Does the instructor speak in a low and pleasant voice?" Well, since most women's voices are higher than most men's voices...

I do think responses can be incredibly gendered. I know many women who've had comments on their looks for instance, and far fewer men (not none, but fewer).

I think it might make a difference, too, if your department is full of faculty who *do* think that it's the women faculty's role to "mother" students?

Blogger La Lecturess commented at 10:57 PM~  

Wow, love that "low and pleasant voice"--almost as good as Dr. C's "is this the best class you've ever taken?" The eval questions for INRU are pretty basic & comprehensive, although I wish the electronic ones had retained two from the old paper ones: "What % of the homework/reading for this class did you do?" and "What % of the classes did you attend?"

And I think the female faculty in my department are pretty far from maternal, with my own advisor off the charts in the other direction--but that doesn't mean that students don't, on some level, still want that.

Another factor may be that I was teaching as a graduate instructor. Most of the negative evals I've ever received have included, somewhere, a reference to not having had a "real" instructor for the class, or to the fact that grad students don't know anything. (Weirdly, these have always come from the same classes for which I've also gotten comments like, "You couldn't even tell she was a grad student! She knows everything!" Both of which show how conscious students can be of their instructors' place in the hierarchy, and how that can really affect their learning experience--I can just tune out, because she's not really someone worth respecting.) But--I'm certainly not saying that this is the only reason I got negative marks.

Blogger historyprof commented at 10:32 AM~  

Yes, there is abundant evidence to show gender bias in student evaluations. Many comments here are helpful in giving the instructor personal perspective on negative evaluations, and in offering options to choose when the instructor has choices about the questions on the evaluation. But at many institutions (mine, for example), there are no such options to pick and choose questions. More importantly, student evaluations are used as part of the evaluation process for promotion and tenure.
For this reason, it is important not just to learn how to live with these issues at a personal level. There is a serious institutional problem here about institutional sexism that is being masked as an "objective" criterion (objective because it ostensibly relies on numerical, machine-scored evaluations). This problem needs to be dealt with at the level of the institution and of academia more generally.

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