Who's In Charge Here?

February 04, 2005

Well, I'd gone and done it again. My intentions were good (or so it seemed to me at the time). I had brought the student-evaluation forms with me on the appointed day, but when the class was over, and the students had filed out for the last time, there was the large envelope, unopened.

I threw it in the trash and walked back to my office. In my heart I knew that this behavior of 2004 had its source in 1965, when I was teaching at the University of California at Berkeley and first saw The Slate Supplement, a student-run review of teacher performance on sale at the campus bookstore.

At the time I was struck by the casual cruelty of the entries, especially with respect to younger faculty members whose teaching skills were in the process of being developed. Not long afterward, negative comments from the supplement on the performance of a third-year assistant professor were referred to in the course of his midcareer review.

I 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.

It has not been a good history. True, the evaluation forms have been revised and supposedly refined, but in general the revisions have followed political and sociological trends rather than any advance in our understanding of what is and is not good teaching.

In my university, students respond to 27 statements/questions, of which perhaps five or six are obviously and importantly pertinent to the assessment of pedagogical responsibility: "Were examinations and other graded materials returned on a timely basis? Were students tested on materials covered in the course? Was there sufficient feedback on tests and papers? Were course materials well prepared? Did the course unfold as promised in the catalog and syllabus? Was the instructor accessible to students during office hours?"

Other questions might be relevant in some teaching situations, but not in others. "Did the instructor give lectures that facilitated note taking?" (Even in lecture courses this might not be a suitable measure; note taking is not what some lecturers, for reasons they could articulate, wish to provoke.)

Still other questions conflate student and teaching performance, and imply that the latter is always responsible for the former. "Have you learned and understood the subject materials of this course?" You might answer no, but you might also give the same answer to questions like, Did you attend class regularly? Did you read the assignments? Did you spend much time doing research for your final paper?

The majority of the questions encourage and reward behavior that is at best questionable. Were students invited to share their ideas and knowledge? Given that the point of a course is to improve student knowledge, it makes some sense to gauge the extent (or lack) of it at the outset of instruction; but surely one doesn't want student knowledge to be a major ingredient in a course, and as for "sharing" it, that is an activity that belongs in the coffee shop or dorm room, not in a classroom.

And that of course is the issue: Exactly what kind of activity is teaching, after all? Is it therapy? If so, no teacher is licensed to practice it. Is it retail merchandising (in which case it would be appropriate to cater to the consumer's ignorance)? Let's hope not.

Is it civic or democratic conversation? Not if it's done right, although at least one question in the evaluation form suggests otherwise: "Were students encouraged to question and/or challenge the course material?" Imagine the scene: You have spent some time constructing a syllabus and choosing the readings and arranging them in an order that supports or leads to an overarching thesis. But early on, and regularly thereafter, you pause to take a vote -- in effect asking, Is this the material you want to study and is this the approach you want me to take? Or, to speak in the vernacular, Are you OK with this?

Well, I guess you could do that, and then adjust your behavior accordingly, but I can't for the life of me see why you would call that teaching.

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.

Not only are the concerns raised by those questions legitimate, they are too important to be left to the hit-or-miss nonprocedure of the present system.

It would be better if, rather than making complaints anonymously and after the fact, students could report problems to a university office that would assure confidentiality while complaints were being considered by a standing committee. If, in the judgment of that committee, further investigation was warranted, all parties could be informed and invited to a hearing in which everyone would be given an opportunity to speak and respond.

Such procedures already exist to deal with any number of grievances (sexual harassment, discrimination of various kinds), and it would not be that difficult to extend them so that the grievances of those students who feel that an instructor is not doing his or her job could be heard.

No doubt in many colleges and universities a grievance process is already in place, and if it is, there is absolutely no need for the waste of paper and time that now goes into preparing, printing, distributing, collecting, and tabulating forms that report the unfiltered opinions of those who, for whatever reason, decided to express them.

To be sure, there would still be a need for teaching evaluations that could legitimately play a role in promotion and tenure decisions. Those evaluations, however, could be provided by the system of peer visitation already used by most departments. It is, after all, a matter of judging professional competence, and who better to do that than a professional, someone who visits your class and assesses what you're doing (or trying to do) in the context of a career-long effort to do the same thing.

Of course you will be more than handicapped if the class your senior colleague visits has a floating population made up of some students who have been there from day one and others who showed up just yesterday, not to mention the absence of those who occupied a seat and a place in your plan of instruction for some weeks before disappearing without notice or explanation.

If those in the room have not been together from the beginning, they will not share an experience and a sustained exploration of issues, and it may be difficult, if not impossible, to generate the kind of discussion that provides evidence that something educationally valuable is going on. The villain in this piece is the period for adding or dropping a course, which in some universities is extended to the last day of the semester and in many universities is extended through the first six weeks.

I can understand why students, behaving as consumers always do, would want the right to move in and out of classes almost at will, but I cannot understand why faculty members and administrators would grant it to them.

My idea of a good drop-and-add period would be about 20 minutes, but I concede that a week of sampling and shopping might be reasonable. If at the beginning of the second week you know who it is that you're supposed to teach, you have at least a fighting chance of teaching them something.

I am aware of the standard arguments supporting extended drop-and-add periods -- students need time to determine whether they have made the right decision, students should be allowed to withdraw from courses for which they feel insufficiently prepared, students should not be forced to continue in a course if the grade they anticipate receiving would negatively impact their grade-point average and therefore jeopardize admission to graduate school -- but as far as I can see what they add up to is the desire for a fail-safe education, again a desire I understand, but not one we should gratify.

A colleague who has had much more experience with these matters than I have reports (without endorsing) the question he hears most often when this issue comes up: If students are not doing well in a course, why should we penalize them? If you don't know the answer to that question, you might want to consider another line of work.


Stanley Fish, dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, writes a monthly column on campus politics and academic careers.