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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Evaluations

Glory be! I finally got my evaluations today. Yes, from last semester. Yes, that semester that ended, like, two months ago.

Short version: on a cursory look, they actually seem pretty good--or at any rate, better than I expected. My assessment of them may be skewed, though, by the fact that so much time has now passed & I'm no longer particularly emotionally invested in these classes, or perhaps by the fact that I'm teaching WAY more students than I ever have before (which means that the bad evals don't stand out as much), or possibly by the fact that I'm more psychologically and pedagogically secure than I used to be (that last one seems unlikely, but let's keep the dream alive).

The way that Big Urban presents the information from the evals may also be affecting my sense of their content: the evaluations are, primarily, Scantron forms with about 20 questions on them that ask students to respond with, "strongly agree," "agree," "neutral," "disagree," or "strongly disagree." Then the back of the forms have five or six questions to which students can write in comments. When I receive this information, the Scantron scores are consolidated, so I see each individual question, and then both the number of students and the percentage of students who gave each answer. To my mind, it's MUCH easier not to obsess over the smaller number of negative reactions when one can say, "Hey! 80% of the class agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, 'this instructor taught this course well'! And 65% said that they learned how to better analyze and critically evaluate arguments!" And to hell with the 10 or 20% who responded negatively.

That may not be the best response, but it's the easy one, allowing me to feel that I'm doing, basically, okay. The write-in portion of the evaluations was much more informative, even though only some 2/3 of my students bothered to complete them--and there are things in there that I need to think seriously about.

I've already gotten past the two evals that described me as pretentious, the one that said, "she went to INRU and she needs to realize that the standards she has for INRU students are beyond us" (which frankly rather pained me), and the usual handful of completely contradictory responses (e.g., coupla kids said that discussion wasn't useful and there should have been more lecturing, coupla kids said that there was too much lecturing and there should have been more discussion). But two negative comments kept resurfacing: my students disliked the reading quizzes and they thought that I was really, really mean on their papers.

And, okay: reading quizzes suck, but I'm not getting rid of them. Maybe I'll reduce the number to 8 per semester rather than 10, but I think they serve several very useful purposes--giving diligent kids who aren't great writers a chance to improve their grades; ensuring attendance; and letting me know who's keeping up with the reading.

As for the paper grading: I don't care if my students think I'm too hard on their papers; I don't believe that I am, and it's not my problem, really, if they've been coddled by their other instructors. I also got very high marks for accessibility and availability outside of class, and I think that my positive overall evaluations suggests that, whatever they think of me as a paper grader, it didn't completely tank their impression of the class as a whole.

BUT. One remark that came up in many of those grading complaints was that my comments on papers were "rude," "condescending," and "unprofessional." This does concern me, quite a bit. However, I'm not entirely sure to what these remarks refer. I do have a tendency to write, "Huh?" in the margin when I get completely lost, and if a paper is really a disaster I might say, "I have no idea what you're talking about!" Or, "This is a total cop-out." That's not typical of my paper comments, by any means, but they're there. Are colloquialisms unprofessional? Or expressions of exasperation? Well, maybe I need to cut them out.

I also suspect that I need to work harder on emphasizing the positive--as someone (Bardiac?) recently observed, when we write comments on papers, we often think of them as our justification for giving a low grade, rather than as useful and constructive advice. I happen to think that all my criticisms are BOTH, but I can appreciate that it may not seem that way, especially now that I use a grading rubric for my final comments. This rubric is a form with five categories (thesis, argumentation/structure, use of evidence, introduction & conclusion, and writing/mechanics), next to each of which I've provided a short explanation for what a sucessful paper does in that category. In the space below each category I write specific, brief comments by hand. I think this demystifies the grading process and provides essential information laid out in a helpful way--but I suspect that it may be true that, when I get, let's say, a B-minus paper, the comments sometimes range from the negative to the lukewarm. When I used to type up my comments in the form of a short letter I always led with the positive (even if the best I could do was saying, "you've chosen a really important topic to write on"), but the rubric format doesn't lend itself to that very well. Maybe I should write a final sentence, next to the grade, saying something along those lines? Or "don't be discouraged! you have really good ideas, and you just need to express them more clearly"?

Sigh. I wish I hadn't just returned a set of papers today.


link | posted by La Lecturess at 10:17 PM |


7 Comments:

Blogger Breena Ronan commented at 12:39 AM~  

I think its I sign of students' sense of entitlement that so many of them are just plain rude in their evaluations. I still haven't read any of my TA evaluations since my department is so disorganized, but I have recently heard many difficult stories from faculty. I have no problem with students complaining about things they don't like, but someone needs to teach many of these students about constructive criticism. If they don't like what you are doing, how could you do better? I'm always afraid of that type of comment because its so vague. What did you do to make someone identify you as rude? I would drive myself crazy trying to figure out what I had done!

Blogger Yr. Hmbl. & Obdt. commented at 12:41 AM~  

Colloquialisms are not unprofessional. And what students invariably mean by "unprofessional comments" is "comments that not only didn't tell me I was brilliant for my mediocre effort, but told me that I'd done poorly in unambiguous language." You're not setting out to hurt any feelings when you make your comments, but with some students, hurt feelings are A. inevitable, and B. probably a good thing in the long run. I'm no Draconian myself (though I'd like to be), and I always try to identify some positive things to say here and there, but some flaws are so egregious that only the rolled-up-newspaper approach works. And colloquialism breaks the illusion that their papers waft into some nether region where invisible forces magically draw red lines and comments on their work. Good writing is the result of remembering, always, that "a human being is going to be reading this." Most students find this very easy to forget, which is why they write by the numbers and their papers suck as a consequence. Colloquialism reminds them of your existence as a person. It's a good thing. End of fiat.

Blogger Oso Raro commented at 1:18 AM~  

I'm so glad your evals went well! Personally, I loathe them, not because mine are bad (all the time), necessarily (although I've had some real zingers in my time, hoo doggies), but because I think they are an inaccurate way to measure teaching effectiveness (as if such a thing can be measured empirically), as well as providing a forum for racial and sexual bias under the guise of evaluation.

There is actually quite a lot of critical academic work in Ethnic and Gender Studies on student evaluations, and how they provide an opportunity for students to reveal their conscious or unconscious race/gender/sexuality biases, which are then not critically taken into account by administration in terms of promotion, retention, and tenure. Students come with pre-set images of an "appropriate" professor, and those who do not meet this image (women, GLBT folks, 'foreign' profs or those who speak with an accent) tend to suffer from subtle yet demonstrable bias, whereas those who fit the image (guess who?) can actually get away with some pretty bad teaching because they fit the preconceived image. They are given authority, when the rest of us have to fight for it.

I'm not sure what to recommend in terms of an alternative, more equitable system that can give students an opportunity to comment on teaching, but in my mind, most if not all faculty evaluatory systems in place are woefully inadequate and used in unscrupulous and willfully ignorant ways, especially as regards vulnerable faculty populations (i.e. probationary or contract faculty).

Anonymous What Now? commented at 1:40 PM~  

Interesting discussion. I agree with Oso Raro that women sometimes get slammed on student evals for not being "nice," which clearly has everything to do with students' expectations of how nurturing and sweet women should be.

BUT--I would agree with the conclusions you draw in this blog post. I think that I would drop the expressions of exasperation from your comments. This has nothing to do with colloquialisms being a problem, but everything to do with providing feedback in an instructive way. I think that "not clear" makes the same point as "huh?" but in a way that students will be able to hear better. And it's really easy for students to hear your comment about "This is a total cop-out" as a judgment on them as people rather than on their intellectual work in this one paragraph. (I'm having a flashback here to my dissertaton director saying to me, about one draft of a chapter, "Now, WN, a good literary critic would have said X. Why didn't you say that?" Devastating!)

Your rubric sounds really helpful, actually (and in fact I'd love to see a copy of it), but I could see that it would mean one had to be far more deliberate about saying something positive.

Blogger dr. m(mmm) aka The Notorious P.H.D. commented at 11:35 PM~  

I got mine this week, too. They were down a bit, and probably are the lowest I've ever received (though certainly not bad). I know that I administered the evals on a day that the class was in a bad mood about my TAs, so I'm sure that explains it a bit. The sad thing is that some of my colleagues will see this as a sign of improvement.

Anonymous Anonymous commented at 9:55 AM~  

As an veteran user of "Huh?," I'd like to stand up for it. I think students probably understand an interjection at least as well as they understand "not clear," and if it sounds rude, it's probably because you broke their hearts by giving them the grade they deserved.

I am, however, simply downsizing to the question mark, which removes the tinge of rudeness. Another possibility might be "Eh?", which according to an Oxonian I once knew was a typical comment from her tutor.

Of course, then your students will think you're being all hoity-toity and British with them...

--GWB

Anonymous Cardinal Fang commented at 5:00 PM~  

If I saw "Huh?" on a paper, I wouldn't be sure whether the professor didn't understand the point I was trying to make, or did understand it but thought it was so ridiculous and perverse that she couldn't understand why I was saying it.

Moreover, "huh?" feels accusatory to me. It sounds like the professor thinks that not only was I unclear or wrongheaded, but I was unclear or wrongheaded maliciously and intentionally. I'd prefer that the professor at least pretend to assume that I was doing my best.

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