Thursday, January 12, 2006

Answer Me This

Ok, so I just went to check what was up over at my listing on Rate My Professor. I realize that this is probably something that I shouldn't do mental-health-wise, but I also think that it's dangerous not to be aware what is being said over there about one, particularly for a junior faculty member. At any rate, somebody posted a comment about the upper-division class that I taught last semester. The student didn't like the class, and that's fine. There are some things that I will change about the class the next time that I teach it, actually - since this was the first time that I taught the course, there definitely were some kinks that I'll need to work out when I teach it again. Fair enough. Nevertheless, I am perplexed by the comment that the student left for a couple of reasons.

1. The student claims that the class was all lecture. I know that I devolved into talking more than I'd like at the end of the semester - a problem, I admit. BUT. For the first eight weeks of the semester we had student presentations every single day. They directed the course of the discussion. And I DON'T do formal lecturing in upper-division classes except for on the first day of class. PERIOD. I run them like seminars. Student participation is KEY, though I'll admit I could probably do some more organized activities or something (though this is difficult in a class of only 13 students and in a class where they're reading very difficult material, and also I suppose I resist doing that sort of thing in upper-division classes because it feels really juvenile to me, though maybe I'm wrong about that). But I digress. The point here is that somehow this student translated everything as me lecturing. I'm not sure how to address this the next time that I teach the course, as it's not true in the first place.

2. The student complained that 50% of the course grade was decided at the very end of the semester. Ok, I understand why that might be something a student wouldn't like. But I also don't know what I'm supposed to do about it. One problem is that I'm committed to having students do a major research project in upper-division courses. If one wants to give them the opportunity to do this project on texts that we study after the midterm point in the semester, I've got to have it due at the end of the semester. A project of that magnitude (10-pg research paper of their own design) should be weighted according to its magnitude, right? So saying that it's worth 20% of the grade is appropriate, right? But then there's another problem. My university requires that we give a final in all classes. Now, if it were up to me I would not give a final. I would probably distribute the percentage of the grade that I alot for the final around to other parts of the course and be done with it. But the reality is that my employer requires that we give a final. And if I'm going to give a final, I really do feel as if it should be, well, a final. That it should allow them to demonstrate mastery of the material of the course. And if it allows them to do that, then it should be weighted accordingly. And so, there we have it: 50% of the grade at the end of the semester. I feel like to do something different (i.e., less rigorous) would damage the integrity of the course as an advanced literature course, but at the same time I feel like the student's concerns do make sense. The problem is that I'm hemmed in by an institutional structure that demands certain things from me and from them, and I'm not sure how to negotiate it.

The icing on the cake is that the Scheduling Gods have me down to teach this exact same class next fall (I learned this week). I've requested that the Gods rethink this decision, as I fear that to have it in such close succession to its first outing will guarantee a) that it doesn't make its enrollment quota and b) that I am forced into teaching yet another service course in its place, after being denied my upper-division course this semester because it was in danger of not making.

But at any rate, answer me this, my faithful readers: how would you address this stuff if you were me? Would you make the final and research project worth less to the overall grade? Would you do more organized activities to make sure that students realize that you're not lecturing? Would you ignore the comment and just go along as usual?

[Edited to Add: 1) Thank you for all of the sane and helpful comments in response to this post. Posts like this are one of the reasons I changed blogs - so that I could actually get feedback on real things related to my work. It's really a luxury, and I'm thankful to have such a wonderful community of readers (mushy though that sounds). 2) I just looked at my evaluations from the course and I now understand the RMP rating: one student hated my guts. Like REALLY hated me. I didn't realize this during the course of the semester because there were a few who never said a word. Other than that the evaluations were pretty much what I'd expected them to be, and so now I'm feeling much better about the whole thing. The only comment that shocked me was that somebody said I seemed to favor some students over others. Huh. I need to think about that. I don't think I show favoritism in a negative sense, but I do reward people who are engaged and who are clearly keeping up with the reading, etc. Does that count as favoritism? Ok, enough of this ridiculous evaluation-anxiety.]


Dr. Lisa said...

I would ignore the comment and just go along as usual, if you have good reasons for having things due when they are due. For one thing, work in the real universe is not distributed for your convenience or maximum performance. At the risk of being unkind, I'd say people need to get used to it.

I disagree that anything said on has any meaning whatsoever or that you need to keep abreast of it, junior or not. I've never looked at mine, and don't plan to; to me, it's like listening at door when you know somebody is talking about you. Not a good idea.

Students always complain. I usually ignore it unless it strikes me as something worth listening to, as in "I don't understand..."

Dr. Lisa said...
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Dr. Lisa said...
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Dr. Crazy said...

I just deleted some double-posting by Lisa, y'all - there isn't some sort of weird deletion of things I don't like going on or anything.

At any rate, I see your point about not paying attention to it, Lisa, but I'm concerned that if I don't pay attention or know what's said over there that it could come back to hurt me because it's public and published. I know that students kvetch and complain (as do professors) but there's a difference between complaining in the quad and complaining in a forum that administrators can easily access by faculty member's name. And at a teaching-centered university, this kind of crap really can be of interest to those who evaluate junior faculty. I suppose I go with the "better the enemy you know" philosophy, as much as it can upset me.

Hmmm.... I wonder if the "real" evaluations from the class are available to read yet.... though that might serve to depress me more than to make me feel better. I must consider carefully before I attempt to look at them

La Lecturess said...

I would completely ignore the lecturing comment--you never know what one thing students are going to seize on. I had a colleague who got a comment that went on and ON about how unqualified she was to teach english because she used the word "ain't" on the first day of class! And she's an English professor! And that's not a word!

Bottom line: if you genuinely don't think the comment is true, ignore it.

But as for the weighting issue: it seems that you ARE concerned about this, so it's worth changing. Personally, I'd make the final worth 15%, possibly bump the research paper up to 25%, and redistribute everything else in other places. 15% is high enough for your students still to care about, but low enough that it shows where your real priorities are. (But explaining the reasons for the weighting to your students would also be helpful!)

Dr. Mon said...

Yes, I would want to see the formal evaluations first before making significant changes to the course. If this was a consistent concern addressed by all of your students then, you might want to make changes.

If you just must change something, change the exam. I think requiring finals is a horrible policy. Perhaps lower the percentage of the final and have the students submit the questions so they feel like its less demanding and more about what they know. Because it's an upperlevel seminar, I would definitely keep the research project and I think the weight is appropriate. You could break it into smaller parts that are worth significant amounts earlier in the semester (literature review, rough draft for example). Just some ideas but the course is probably fine as it is--can't tell by one comment.

luolin said...

I have had the same disconnect between how I teach the course and comments students students make on evaluations about my "lecturing". Some of them seem to consider anytime the professor is talking to be a lecture, whereas to me a lecture is a planned presentation on a particular topic.

Dr. Lisa said...

I suppose you're right, but I guess as an administrator, I wouldn't take this forum too terribly seriously. But then I'm obviously not an administrator. Teaching and learning is not a toaster oven or a book on you can give stars to. The forum is not fact-checked, for example. So how could you go about improving your performance to avoid lecturing when that wasn't a fair comment to begin with? You can't.

In public forum like ratemy, I think there is the temptation to perform, be clever--be cutting.This is definitely true of our university's ratemy forum, which I have visited, which contained a lot of comments about my appearance, for cat's sake. On this one, I don't even have to had a class from you to comment. I could go over there now and rate some of my faculty buddies with high praise. Given that, it seems like a pretty bad measure of performance.

But, as you point out, I am at an R1.

Ancarett said...

Our finals are mandated to constitute a minimum of 25% of the final mark (bah!) so what I do to give them more marks earlier on is to make the research paper have several steps (a topic plan, an annotated bibliography, a progress report) that gives them some feedback and marks earlier.

Dr. Crazy said...

Oh, I feel like I should note that while the final is worth a substantial part of their grade, I also give them the questions in advance, it's open-book and open-note, and I offer an extra credit question that gives them extra credit to their ENTIRE COURSE GRADE. Yes, it's a comprehensive final, and yes, I do think that it makes sense to give it a lot of weight, but really it's a formality and you really have to have missed a ton of class or to have not prepared at all to get lower than a C.

I agree that RMP isn't a valid measure. I do think that perhaps I've got some level of institutional paranoia that is driving me in paying attnetion to it.

Axis of Peter said...

I agree wih everything La Lecturess said. I sometimes find a disconnect between what a tiny tiny minority (a couple a year) feel I have done and what I have actually done. The misinterpretation on lecturing sounds like one of those.

One point is that you need to consider the source. Remember all the intellectual gaffes students have committed in interpreting texts; do you expect them to be more skilled about interpreting pedagogy (which follows a plan that we have created for a totality of a learning experience, which responds to needs as they arise, and which is not always obvious to students at any given moment of a course)?

I find that specific, accountable comments are much more helpful than anything else. I often have, as part of my exam, a question devoted to finding out what the students felt was worthwhile and what could be improved. I find that type of feedback immensely more responsible and adult.


Cats & Dogma said...

I do read my RMP comments (indeed, I am probably neurotically aware of them), but it is indeed tricky to figure out which comments are worth listening to. On the one hand, for all the reasons mentioned above, the lecturing comment is irretrievably worthless.

On the other hand, the comment on the percentage of the grade assigned at the end of the semester might have some validity. I too am concerned that we need to measure something that represents the culmination of the course, but since everyone else is doing this at the same time, the student work is rarely an accurate measure of their learning.

Can you break the long research assignment down into process assignments (Proposal, Annotated Bibliography) and spread out the grade that way? Just a thought.

blithering moron said...
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Susanna said...

I recently finished my BA and I can tell you that, as a former student, the reviews of my college professors at RMP are mostly wrong. The professors I disliked because they were unfairly easy graders got top rating (also, professor with "hot asses" got a good score too - hoe relevant!). Meanwhile, the instructors that were amazing, albeit demanding, received low scores ("the professor expects us to do the reading B-E-F-O-R-E the lecture!!! OMIGOD I have a life ya'know"). So, don't sweat it; the student is probably "punishing" you for doing you job well.

~profgrrrrl~ said...

I, too, would ignore the lecture comment. I got one saying I wasn't very available for help one semester. Interestingly, I sent about 2 emails to the whole class each week for the second half reminding them that I'm here to help, available for appointments, will answer email, but they have to ask if they need help. I take that comment more as something about the student (student wasn't able to productively ask for help or ask for it in a timely manner; no I'm not available at midnight the night before). Your student's comment may be more reflective of something like "I don't know how to contribute in this class so I listened most of the time."

I personally don't like to have that much of a grade riding on one assignment, particularly an exam. See if you get other comments about that. If there are a bunch of them, you may want to rethink the weighting. Could you give students a choice? Have the final worth, say, 30% and do something else, or let the final be 50%. I'm sure they would choose the final at 50% ....

Dr. Lisa said...

However...I have to admit I enjoyed finding out that I'm worth at least one chili pepper (a rating of hotness). There's life in the old girl yet!

Teri said...

The ratings at RMP at b.s. It's more a forum for whining than any sort of valid rating system.

Larry said...

Hey, if you're not happy with your rmp comments, add some of your own! After all, a disgruntled student could load your profile with multiple bad reviews, so it's clearly unfair to have anything important depend on these ratings.

So, rather than worry about RMP, have some fun with it. (I've added Philip McGraw (Dr. Phil) to our Psychology faculty, and Margaret Mead to our Anthropology Department. According to their comments, Dr. Phil yells too much, and Mead asks too many personal questions of foreign students.)

If you don't have time to write your own comments, feel free to borrow this adaptation of a comment submitted on behalf of a colleague who teaches freshman composition:

"Dr. Crazy challenges traditional phallogocentric paradigms with a transgressive interrogation of foundationalist patriarchal discursive practices, but her contrapuntalist feminist discourse of materiality could provide a more nuanced critique of the hegemonic objectivist epistemological stance of conventional literary theory."

Or, if you'd feel more comfortable with "genuine" comments, borrow some from colleagues from other schools. Thus:

"Dr. Crazy is a legend. It was an honor to have her as an instructor"
[Borrowed from Joyce Carol Oates' RMP profile]

"you guys are crazy. she's awesome. i took too classes with her. undoubtably the two best classes at this college. she's cool and her lectures are interesting."
(Borrowed from Elaine Showalter)

"Dr. C's seminar is an experience more than a class. It's intense and relatively easy if you remember to agree with her. Worth taking just to be in the presence of such a large intellect (and ego)." [Borrowed from Harold Bloom]

RMP should be seen as a source of amusement, rather than a cause for concern (IMHO).

Manorama said...

I commented on this over at my site when the RMP conversation was going on...I think students who comment on there usually either really like an instructor or really dislike them to take the trouble to leave a comment. I guess there could be students who just comment on all their instructors as a matter of course, but I'd be more likely to think that it's the ones with stronger feelings. This isn't the most reliable feedback on your teaching, indeed because some of them might have some kind of aversion to your personality which is their entire reason for commenting (rather than providing fair feedback on your teaching). Regarding RMP, I chalk the kinds of comments we get or don't get up to luck, really. Lucky enough to have had someone who liked us write, or unlucky enough to have had someone who didn't like us leave a comment. There will always be both kinds of students out there.

Scrivener said...

I meant to comment on this when it first went up, but somehow ended up getting distracted away. Sorry I'm so slow in getting back.

As others have already said, sometimes the stuff you see on evaluations is just crazy and wrong and all you can do is ignore it, like the lecturing comment. I mean, I think it's important to pay attention to your evaluations but you have to take it all with quite a bit of salt.

As far as the grading thing goes, isn't that just the way college classes are supposed to be? A few assignments worth a lot. I don't do that in my comp classes, but for upper-level lit courses, that's exactly as it should be I think.

Even though I just said that you should pay attention to evaluations, I would say on an issue like how grades are weighted or when in the semester things are do, you should ignore anything the students say. They are always always always going to say you're wrong about those issues, no matter what you do. And they have no real idea what the hell they're talking about--they don't understand the factors that go into structuring or grading an assignment.

I periodically allow a certain amount of democracy with my assignments--I'll say "The next essay can either be due this date and be like this or on that date and be like that" and let them talk about it for a minute or two then vote on it. What I have found is that they have no idea the kind of factors that come into play, like thinking about whether it's just before or after a holiday or turnaround time for grading or whatever.

So if you want to change the weighting of your grades, go ahead and do so. Don't do it because your students asked you to on the evals.