Pleasing the Peers

Brian Taylor

November 27, 2011

Teaching can be a lonely enterprise. Research and service, the other two legs of the promotion-and-tenure tripod, certainly demand self-motivation, a personal work ethic, and the ability to focus one's mental effort. But no matter whether you are holding forth in an intimate doctoral seminar or lecturing to 500 freshmen, you are doing it by yourself. Even "team teaching" is a misnomer—it's more tag-team teaching than partners together on the stage. The angst of the new teacher on the tenure track can be high in such a climate of isolation.

Now add to the mix those two gray eminences sitting in the back of your classroom, ready to conduct a peer evaluation of your teaching for your tenure file. If you are in the final year before you submit your application for tenure, then the pressure is truly on.

Peer evaluations—along with student reviews of teaching, which I wrote about last month—are the main "data" used to make judgments about your performance in the classroom. I have witnessed peer evaluations, participated in them, and heard about many. No probationary faculty members enjoy a peer evaluation, even those who aced it. Other faculty members have suffered what, in modern parlance, is called an epic fail during their evaluation. So breathe deeply, relax, and consider some tried-and-true tactics for passing the peer test.

Don't try something new. It's fine to be innovative in your teaching; we expect that even from new faculty members. But a peer inspection of your teaching is not the time for experimentation. This may be the evaluators' only visit to your class, so they are going to take it as representative of much or all of your teaching. Select a topic and method that you've used before and that you know works for you and for the class. Employ an approach that is interesting, stimulating, and thoughtful, but familiar to you.

Be conservative about delivery as well; this is not the time to try out a novel gadget or new software.

Stay on message. This is also not the time for interesting but unconnected ramblings and meanderings. The senior professors sitting in on your classes will have read your syllabus and will have expectations about what you promised to cover. You may have been asked to produce a brief description of the topic for that day. Make sure you stay on topic. Avoid tangents, long pauses, and retrogressions—just get the job done. In addition, whatever material you cover, make sure it is clearly related to the goals and subject matter of the course and the class session.

Don't get fancy or quirky. The peer teaching evaluation is an attempt to measure whether you are teaching well. There is no requirement that you come off as the most super-amazing, fantastic educator since the dawn of time. Be upbeat, enthusiastic, focused, but don't feel you have to dazzle. In fact, straining for greatness might backfire. If the evaluators feel that your performance was too over the top, they are going to be rightly suspicious that this was a showstopper just for their benefit and does not reflect your typical teaching, in style or content. Just leave for another day your air-guitar version of the periodic table or your one-man show of The Canterbury Tales.

Rehearse, but not too much. I have witnessed and heard of probationary faculty members who deserved the critique that they appeared nervous or unprepared during their peer evaluation. The opposite extreme, teaching in an overly scripted fashion, is equally common. You want to strike a balance between sounding like you're itemizing a grocery list and stumbling repeatedly over your lecture notes.

We all have our own personal rehearsal quotients. Some people get worse the more they rehearse, some get better. Long before your peer evaluation, you should have discovered what amount of preparation works best for you.

One thing you must absolutely have under control is timing. Peer evaluators will not be impressed if your lecture wraps up with 30 minutes of class time remaining, so that you have to let the students go early. Equally, if your syllabus specifies that a certain topic will be covered in the session but you have so overstuffed the lecture that when time is up you haven't even gotten to your main points, you come off as an amateur. Have some sense of the equilibrium of content and time, and keep an eye on the clock.

Build in a mix of lesson and interaction. The peer evaluators probably want to see multiple aspects of your teaching, so they will (or should) visit you in different types of classes—say, a small seminar and a large lecture course.

Whatever the venue, try to demonstrate your effectiveness in more than one kind of teaching. Have the evaluators come on a day when, for example, you might be explaining some important concepts at length but also holding a lively discussion with students on questions from previous material, or perhaps supervising a team-learning exercise. The goal is for the evaluators to see that you are a well-rounded teacher and not just a virtuoso of one note.

Don't coach the students. One unfortunate assistant professor scored high negatives with his evaluation team because several students in the class revealed that they had been told what to say. You want to be very careful that you don't—in impression or deed—try to script the entire performance.

But that doesn't mean you can't plan ahead so that your interaction with students goes as smoothly as possible. Take the typical instance of question time. Although every teacher has experienced this, it is embarrassing when, during your peer evaluation, there is nothing but dead silence when you ask whether the students have any questions. So choose topics that you know have occasioned interest and commentary in the past, or single out students who have a history of being loquacious on certain subjects.

Don't get rattled. No matter how much you plan ahead, the unexpected and the irritating can always rear their unwelcome heads. Try not to get shaken or, worse, express anger or exasperation, no matter the provocation or the problem. If the overhead projector suddenly burns out, make a little joke, call the IT department, and then smoothly proceed to the lecture that you should know by heart, using the white- or blackboard.

If a student asks a weird or inappropriate question, take it in stride, redirecting him and the class back on the path of learning. Keep cool; keep smiling. You will get extra points for your unperturbed adjustment to trouble.

Teach for the students, not the evaluators. Another way to stumble within a peer evaluation is to offer classroom material that is obviously meant to impress the observers and not directed toward the goal of effective teaching for the students.

A colleague in the sciences related his observation of an introductory-level class in which the assistant professor presented high-end research better suited for a peer conference. The poor students—mostly freshmen—were visibly bewildered. The point of the exercise is to show that you are a good teacher, so stick to teaching.

In the end, the peer evaluation should be a confirmation of the fine job you are already doing in the classroom. The key is to approach the experience with practicality, forethought, and a sense of proportion. So many variables are under your control that there should be no reason that it won't be yet another checkmark in favor of your candidacy for promotion and tenure.

David D. Perlmutter is director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a professor and Starch Faculty Fellow at the University of Iowa. His book on promotion and tenure was published by Harvard University Press in 2010.