Thursday, January 12, 2006

Accepting Reality

The reality is that I'm not accomplishing anything but that, rather, I am foolishly sitting in front of the computer because it feels like work. Reading the course evaluations from the fall kind of did a number on me. They were overwhelmingly good, but somehow it's the negative comments that stick in one's brain. One might argue that I'd be better off not reading them. The problem is that in order to put together the Evil Notebook of Tenure and Promotion, I have to include positive evaluations, and that means that I have to read all of them. I don't know. I've got to learn to take them more in stride. I've got to learn to pay attention to the good as well as to the bad. And I've GOT to learn not to feel assaulted by the negative comments that have nothing to do with my teaching per se but to the way that students react to me personally.

Toward that end, I'm going to go to the gym and sweat out all of the negativity. At least that's the plan.


Dr. Lisa said...

Great plan!

Axis of Peter said...

About hugging the posion asp of one or two negative evaluations to your breast--that is so common among the people I read and talk to as to be almost universal. Though I am a smart person,though I know my classes go well, and though I know disgruntled students have all sorts of issues (some mental health or criminal in nature) that have nothing to do with me and all to do with their capabilities, I can manage to discount an entire class full of top evals and focus on the one little sh_t who disses me.

So, you're not alone: just recognize it for the compulsive need to please, entertain, and change the world that drove us to teaching in the first place. Hope you had a good and cleansing sweat.

USJogger said...

I can relate to you and to "Axis of Peter". At my university, we put all our evaluations in our tenure files, so I don't have to read them, and I don't. I know I'm missing a chance for some constructive feedback, but it's too rare compared with the bitching about stuff that I can't control or don't want to change. One that sticks in my craw a good fifteen years after I got it: "What could be done to make this course better?" Answer: "Get a respectable instructor who doesn't have an earring."

As for changing your course: If you have something that is educationally valuable, but the students don't like it, stick with it. Your job is to teach them, not to make them happy. One semester, a friend of mine got a "complaint" on her evaluations: "She expects us to actually read the book and think about it." My division head asked, "Why aren't you all getting this complaint?"


Robert Talbert said...

All evaluations have to be filtered through this one question: What meaningful information does this comment convey about the course and how to improve the education that my students are getting? This is really important. Evaluations must be seen as *information*. Anything comment that does not convey real information must be disregarded because it will get in the way of the comments that do. (This is called the "signal to noise ratio" in engineering circles.)

So if a student rants on her/his evaluation about how awful you are, you have to discipline yourself to look within the rant as to WHY that student was so disaffected. If it's just a personal grudge, then there is (probably) no information being given to you about the course, so you throw it out. If it's something more substantive -- like the grading scheme or whatnot -- then you switch and start thinking about course design. Or maybe the student hates you because your tests are hard; if so, remember that you WANT to piss off students that don't like to work hard in college. Making these kinds of people angry at having to work hard forces a crisis on them that they need to have.

Notice too that you have to do the same thing if a student goes on and on about how wonderful you are. If they liked the course because of something that the class did during it -- a project that was really eye-opening, etc. -- then you can make a note of that info to include or expand it in future classes. But if it's just a paean to how cool you are, then disregard it. It's not information that will help your future students learn.

I use the word "you" but of course this applies to every prof, and it's an incredibly difficult thing to do. I still get bent out of shape, after over a decade of teaching at the college level, when a student disses me on an evaluation. But in order to keep your sanity, it's crucial to master the emotional discipline of thinking about future students and their education first and foremost, and what the evaluation says about me/you personally pretty much last.

By the way, this theory of seeing evals as conveyances of information pretty much implies that you should NEVER read Rate My Professors, since the level of useful info on that site is precisely zip.

Now once I get my Fall '05 evaluations back, come to my blog ( and remind me of all this stuff I just said. :)

Amardeep said...

Here's my two cents: my university introduced new fill-in-the-circle type evals a couple of years ago, to make it easier for them to plug ratings numbers into their Big Total Information Database (or whatever it is).

At first we grumbled, and added in the old, write-out-your-comments forms on top of the new sheets, so we could get comments. And like you, I've found that I often get one or two students who use the evals. process as a moment to lash out against something they didn't like in what I was doing.

But this past fall I "forgot" to do the old comment sheet, and just did the new. The result is just numbers, and I find I actually don't miss the old kind of comments.

Sensitive, experienced teachers tend to know what works and what doesn't. We actually don't really need comments (esp. if we make sure to solicit feedback while the term is in progress). The comments were good for me my first couple of years teaching, as I worked out the kinks in my method. But now I think I'm happy without them...

So one way to avoid this in the future might be to go for just numbers, if your university has that option.

ejnw06 said...

Does teaching "matter" that much at your institution?

Dr. Crazy said...

Again, thanks for all of the thoughtful responses. I suppose the thing that sticks in my craw with the students who use evals as a time to lash out is that particularly in a small class one student who skewers you on the numbers throws off your whole statistical average. What does that mean, potentially?

1. my raise in the coming year will be lower (or non-existent).
2. I have to "explain" the statistic on annual performance reviews AND on a yearly evaluation (by a department committee, chair, dean, provost, etc.) for reappointment, and basically I need to counter the claims made by the hated student, which means I CAN'T just ignore the haters but have to engage with them, even though I don't really get to engage with them.

I don't know. I suppose I just hate the process. Midterm evaluations do help, and I haven't done them for a while, so I think I'm going to incorporate those again. But you know, sometimes I think that all of this assessment (and self-assessment) gets in the way of teaching the actual material of the course, i.e., what text do I exclude in order to give a midterm evaluation? And then what one do I exclude so that there is actually time for us to have a conversation about that? And is it worth it anyway when students clearly feel oppositely about the very same things?

Incidentally, my "reasons" for the things I do in class tend to be VERY transparent (both in terms of my explaining them verbally and in terms of my putting down explanations on the syllabus). I'm beginning to think that no amount of explaining will make a difference to some students. Which, again, would be fine if I didn't have to justify everything I do after the fact because of those few students.

Finally, I guess that I'm frustrated because I really thought that after I was here for a couple of years I would stop getting some of the really vicious comments (most often made by male students who resent the fact that I'm a feminist, and yes, I had an evaluation from this past semester that called me out for being just that and said that my feminism disqualified me from being a university professor, and actually, it sounds nicer the way that I'm putting it here than the way that the student actually wrote it; oh, and I should "smile more" from the same evaluation) that have nothing to do with my ability as an instructor. Why do these students take my class? Or, once they've enrolled, why don't they drop when they realize I'm a "feminazi"? (And yes, that word is still bandied about in my red neck of the woods without irony.)

New Kid on the Hallway said...

"Feminazi" gets used where I am, too. So far I haven't been pegged with that particular label, but I'm sort of ashamed of that, actually. Though really I think what it means is that students don't think that anyone who does her hair, wears makeup, skirts, hose, and heels, could possibly be a feminist. Sigh.

Evals are such a pain in the ass. I *want* learn from them, but the role they play in T & P makes them much more fraught than they should be. Crap.

Tabitha Grimalkin said...

Every term I promise myself I won't let those few bad evaluations bother me and that I will, instead, focus on the many positive ones. I have not yet found a way to put this plan into action, so I sympathize with you, Dr. Crazy.

I hope your trip to the gym helped!

Scrivener said...

They were overwhelmingly good, but somehow it's the negative comments that stick in one's brain.

You know what? You sound like you might just be an academic.

chemgoddess said...

I have received two outstanding evaluations/comments. I copied them, cropped them, and taped them to my office wall. Helped me disregard the hoser comments.