The Dreaded Class Visit

I like to think I take criticism well. The years I spent in creative-writing workshops probably contribute to that trait. In my experience it takes practice to develop the combination of humility and confidence one needs to hear others point out the flaws in your work and to fully benefit from their critique. That and a faith in the process.

Ultimately, thoughtful criticism can be addictive. These days, without the gauntlet of a structured workshop to keep me honest, I trade work a couple of times a month with some of my best critics from graduate school. There are few things in my professional life that I look forward to as much as their red ink. And I no longer have to remind myself that criticism rarely fails to make my poems better. I’d be a fool not to pursue it any way I can.

When it comes to my teaching, though, I’ve often dreaded classroom visits from other professors. Apparently, I’m not alone in this. In New Faculty: A Practical Guide for Academic Beginners, Christopher Lucas and John Murray Jr. cite the relative absence of expert teaching evaluation and critique as a central obstacle in the pedagogical development of junior professors.

They attribute the problem to a number of factors, including the belief that good teaching is an art (and therefore unteachable) and the tendency of beginning professors to assume that their pedagogical shortcomings can be corrected by simply developing the content of their lectures.

In my case, at least part of the reason I’ve balked at the criticism of both peers and senior faculty members is that insecurities about my teaching have made me defensive. When another teacher is sitting in on a class to evaluate my work, my inclination is to cram in preparation and to enter the class more worried about my image as a teacher than my students’ experience.

To be fair, it has often been clear to me how little my evaluators cared about improving my pedagogy. In my first semester of teaching, the director of freshman writing missed the original date for his class visit, rescheduled twice, but never actually attended. A few years later an evaluator left my class, mid-lecture, to take a phone call. The only feedback he gave me was that the class was “pretty good.”

This spring, however, I found better models in a couple of professors who take the evaluation of their teaching more seriously than I have. In conversation with one, I learned that he sets aside 10 minutes or so after every class to self-evaluate his work, to quickly score which questions triggered productive conversation and which didn’t, to note which facets of the class students responded to and at what point they disengaged.

Another peer pointed out that if one requests criticism, the critic tends to invest in the project more deeply. She prepares her evaluators with a clear description of her intentions for the class and specifically requests feedback on any pedagogical issues that trouble her.

I pooled their advice, and when I asked a senior professor to sit in on one of my classes at the end of this last semester, I shared my self-evaluations and concerns in advance. The result was easily the most thorough and insightful feedback I have ever received on my teaching. While I’m still less than completely confident about teaching to a faculty audience, this represented an important first step for me, and I’m determined to practice it more in the fall.

Do you have your teaching evaluated regularly? If so, how do you request and shape that evaluation? What questions do you ask your class visitors? Perhaps most important, how should professors (especially those of us just beginning) cultivate the vulnerability and confidence necessary to receive helpful criticism?

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