Those pesky student evaluations…

When I was at MLA this past year in Philadelphia, my wife and I visited The Chronicle of Higher Education booth at the book fair. Somehow (the first 1,000 visitors? just dumb luck), we managed to get a half-year subscription to the paper version of CHE for a mere dollar. No kidding.

Obviously, the ploy is to get people to sign up for a regular subscription. But considering that I’ve barely looked at the thing since I started receiving it (not to mention the fact that the regular price is something like $82 a year), I don’t think I’ll be doing that. Besides, everything that amuses me in it are available online for free.

For example, take Stanley Fish’s latest, “Who’s In Charge Here?” Essentially, it is a complaint against student evaluations– you know, the bubble-sheet things that college students everywhere fill out nowadays. For the most part, it’s a pretty standard rant against evaluations, and kind of a rambling one in a lot of ways. It doesn’t seem quite as sharp as Fish’s other columns to me.

Anyway, I thought there were a couple of interesting passages:

In the opening paragraphs of the essay, Fish recalls his experiences back in the mid-60s with the then unofficial student evaluation process, which was a student publication at UC Berkeley that published reviews of teacher performance. When negative comments about a faculty member showed up in the official documents for this person’s third year review, Fish

“… protested, saying that if we allowed those unofficial (and unscientific) judgments into our discussions, in time they would become part of the official process. And decisions affecting the career and livelihood of countless junior scholars would be inflected by the ill-informed opinions of transient students with little or no stake in the enterprise who would be free (because they would be anonymous) to indulge any sense of grievance they happened to harbor in the full knowledge that nothing they said would ever be questioned or challenged.

“Nothing like that, a senior colleague assured me solemnly, could ever happen. Faculty members would always be able to distinguish between anecdotal evidence from a questionable source and the hard evidence of publication and research.

“The rest, as they say, is history.”

I don’t know exactly why, but this passage sort of amuses and comforts me. I think this is the case because it suggests that students were pretty much the same sort of “consumers” looking for “entertainment” from their teachers. It’s not as if Fish is saying “in the good old days, students used to give good feedback on evaluations; now look what they do.”

A bit later in the essay, Fish writes:

“So there in brief is my brief (not only mine; the points have been made before by many) against student evaluations: They are randomly collected. They are invitations to grind axes without any fear of challenge or discovery. They are based on assumptions that have more to do with pop psychology or self-help or customer satisfaction than with the soundness of one’s pedagogy. A whole lot of machinery with a very small and dubious yield.

“But don’t students have a right to competent and responsible instruction? You bet they do (and this is the only sense I can give to the phrase “student rights”), and that is why I approve of those questions that go right to the heart of what responsible instruction is — course planning, reasonable and rewarding assignments, up-to-date and pertinent readings, generous and helpful feedback, the meeting of curricular expectations, and so on.”

Fair enough; I think this is how most teachers feel.

Personally, I think student evaluations are useful in the sense of showing a pattern. I mean, if you only have two or three students in a class of 25 who say something (negative or positive) about some particular aspect of your teaching (an assignment, a reading, a particular approach, your attitude,whatever), well, that doesn’t mean much. The other 23 or so didn’t seem to care enough to mention it. On the other hand, if you have 20 out of 25 students say something about your teaching, then I think it’s a good idea to take those comments seriously.

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