Thursday, February 21, 2008

Woman, Teacher, Professor - In That Order

I had posted something last night about teaching, and this morning I took it down. I didn't take it down because of any reaction that the post got, or, rather, I took it down only because of how I myself reacted to reading it after a good night's sleep. It wasn't so much a retraction of what I'd written, the taking it down, but rather that I wanted some more time to sit with my thoughts and to process what I've been thinking about. I wanted - although this is uncharacteristic for me - to revise something I'd written on the blog.

I wanted to revise because I hated the tone of what I'd written. My anger about what I was talking about was too present. Now, that's not to say that some anger here isn't justified, but I felt like the anger got in the way of what I was trying to say. One of the difficulties of discussing how gender (or race, class, sexuality, whatever) intersects with one's identity as a professor is that it's too easy to construct oneself as a victim, and that ultimately, I think, gets in the way of really addressing the very real issues that need to be addressed. The point isn't that I'm victimized by my students or by my colleagues or by anybody. The point is to acknowledge certain ways in which the process for evaluating an assistant professor's performance is broken (at my institution, but this isn't just a local issue). The point is, when one is at an institution that "values teaching," or when one is in a position where teaching determines one employability (I'm thinking of adjuncting here), the criteria for evaluation are stacked in ways that can ultimately penalize very good teachers. This isn't to say that those who do well under this system are all bad teachers, but it is to acknowledge that the ways in which "good teaching" is quantified are not free of bias.

Things are, ultimately, simpler in judging what makes "good research," I think. You know how many articles are required, you know what the bar is for tenure, you know what kind of work particular journals or presses typically publish, and you go from there. Moreover, you're mentored about this throughout your education (more or less, depending, but still there is some mentorship) and professional activities are oriented around research (conferences). Teaching, on the other hand, receives much less attention, even if one gets "teaching experience" in graduate school. And exchange of ideas about teaching, while it does happen, tends to be oriented around conversations about grading and assignments or how to teach particular subject matter, which is great, but which doesn't really address how one "proves" that one is a "good" teacher, which is crucial if one is at a teaching-oriented institution or if one's job is solely to teach.

Now, the evaluation of teaching at my institution pretty much consists of higher-ups looking at student evaluations - both the numbers and the comments. While it is true that you also submit syllabi and course materials for review and that these are taken into consideration, what appears to carry the most weight, in terms of performance review (for raises) and in terms of achieving tenure, are student evaluations. And these evaluations are not, by any stretch of the imagination, an "objective" measure of what makes a good teacher. The statistics that result from do make them appear to be that, but they are not.

And this was where my anger and frustration last night came from. I am a dedicated teacher, and I think that I am a good teacher. Teaching is the part of my job on which I spend the most time, and I care about trying to be inventive as a teacher and about changing my teaching practices to meet student needs. I have worked very hard at this throughout my probationary period at this job. And, overall, the results of that hard work have been positive. I've received a teaching award from students in the major, and I've never had truly abysmal evaluations. But. I face two difficulties with evaluations. First, the statistical averages are consistently skewed by a small minority of students who take out their frustration at being challenged in my courses by giving all low rankings. In small classes (which thankfully, I have at my university) one bad apple does indeed spoil the whole bushel. So the numbers are not truly reflective of what I achieve - or what students as a whole believe happens - in many of my courses. Second, even if the numbers are good, the comments that students leave often cancel those good numbers out. And the comments are without fail responses based on my failure to conform to their ideas of how a woman should behave. The comments are not about what they learn, or fail to learn, nor are they about what I actually do to facilitate that learning. Rather, they are comments about "manner." You'd think that this wouldn't be a big deal. Except - and this is a big except - the practice at my university is only to include wholly positive evaluations in the sample that one provides to substantiate that he or she is a good teacher. So while a student might have given me all 5's, that evaluation is useless to me if the student also says, "She acts like she knows more than the students do," or "she assigns too much reading." (Might I note that I think that both of those actually reflect positively on my teaching, as indeed, I probably *should* know more than the students, and if I hid that light under a bushel, they'd say that I wasn't qualified to teach them, and assigning a lot of reading in an English course seems like the right thing to do. That said, I was cautioned against including evaluations with such comments in my materials.) Similarly, there are weird inconsistencies in evaluations, so, for example, my rating as an instructor might just be average or below average ("She grades too hard") but the evaluation for the course might be through the roof ("I've never learned more in a class at this university"), and, you guessed it, that's an evaluation that I shouldn't include. And finally, the students who give the best comments often give lower numbers because they actually take the ranking seriously and don't see why somebody should get a 5 for a question like, "instructor followed course policies." Those evaluations, then, also do less good.

Typically, at my university, these inconsistencies and the tendency for evaluation numbers to skew lower do not happen across the board to all instructors. They happen to female instructors. They happen to instructors of color (the few that there are). Comparing notes with male colleagues bears this out anecdotally, though it is something that is then typically brushed aside ("Oh, we know this happens! Don't worry about it! We take that into account!"). Looking at the salary differentials between male and female professors bears this out in more substantive ways, for merit pay is almost solely dependent on one's performance in teaching, and if that performance is almost solely dependent on one's evaluation numbers, well, that has a significant effect on salary over time. So this is a real problem - not one that is insignificant.

And personally it is frustrating because it doesn't matter what I do or what I change and it still happens. Wear dressy clothes? If I'm not "nurturing" how I dress doesn't mean a hill of beans. Be more explicit about how the work of the course fits together and about the objectives of each assignment? Been there, done that, and my assignments and syllabi get longer and longer each semester, and yet, the same comments come up. Attempt to come up with new and innovative assignments that students will enjoy more while still meeting the same learning objectives? Yep, I can check that off the list, and for my pains I get the comment that New Kid and Rokeya noted about "not really teaching" the class.

To be fair, there are many students who think that I'm the bomb. Who commend me for treating students like adults, and who say that I've been the most influential teacher they've had at this institution, and who say that they've never learned more in a course. But those don't cancel out the responses from students for whom I'm a Woman first and a Teacher second. And it doesn't help that I'm young.

All of this then contributes to how I attempt to negotiate my fuller identity as an assistant professor at this university, as one has to simultaneously attempt to fly under the radar ("oh, my book contract is no big deal!"; "Sure, I teach difficult stuff and I get students to do stuff you'd never dreamed they could do, but I'm just a masochist!") while at the same time one tries to stand out ("Here are all of my accomplishments! I'm really great! Give me tenure! Give me a course release!"). This is a difficult balancing act, and sometimes I do just want to say fuck it and stop with the bullshit and shout from the rooftops that I'm doing great stuff in all areas and if people are threatened by that - be they students or colleagues or whatever - that that's their problem. BUT. I can't do that before tenure. It would be self-destructive.

What I'd like is to be seen as an assistant professor first, a teacher second, and a woman third. What I'd like is for there to be a way that teaching is evaluated and valued that is less about how well one fits into the mold of "sage on the stage" (sorry, I don't have the jacket with elbow patches and the pipe required for that role) and more about what students actually learn in one's courses (imagine that). I'd like a structure for student evaluations that is more about what actually happens in a course rather than about how students "feel" in relation to me. I'd like for students to appreciate it just a tiny bit that I'm tough on them rather than deciding I'm a rude bitch because I am.

And it's all of the above that makes people check out at a certain point, stop trying and stop caring. And as much as I get frustrated and angry, it's not really in me to check out. So the only thing for it, I suppose, is to get tenure and to start the revolution.


helenesch said...

I would be frustrated and angry, too, if I were you! At my institution, no one really cares about teaching evaluations unless they're really bad. Of course, they say that teaching matters, but it really doesn't--or only does in extreme cases (or when the case for tenure is borderline).

Being on the committee that evaluates everyone in my department (pre- and post-tenure), I've been able to read over others' evals. And I've noticed that my most annoying colleague gets decent teaching evaluations. He's in his mid-70's (we're all waiting for him to retire) and he rambles on *endlessly* about whatever, going off on wild tangents in class, in dept. meetings, and in conversations (which we all try our best to avoid!). I've heard from his grad student T.A.'s that he's absolutely terrible lecturing in front of a class. And yet his students seem to think he's an endearing old man--or at least a lot of them do. It was shocking to read the evals and see how much this behavoir is excused (I suspect it's partly due to his gender and partly due to his age).

I've found students in my lower level undergrad classes (in particular, the "service" class that we each have to teach occasionally) often just *wait* for me to make a mistake b/c it confirms for them that I'm not as "smart" as their other philosophy professors. It pisses me off. I imagine that this is shifting a bit as I get older (I'm only in my late 30's, but I at least they no longer think I'm their age). But my gender will never change, and I think that's a lot of the problem.

I feel like my comments here aren't very useful, but one thing you might think about is whether the questions on the evaluation form could be better. Certain questions seem to evoke irrelevant (and sexist) comments more than others. Our forms are actually pretty good--they ask things like "how has this course improved your skills in ..." and other specific questions. Maybe you could argue for a change in the evaluation forms?

Amber said...

Oh my god. Delurking here, because I just got home from a meeting with my department head about student evaluations. I'm an adjunct, I'm 28 and look 22, have a casual manner in class, but maintain strong expectations of my students.

The school has a policy of typing up comments, but only the negative ones. So I'm "strict? (yes, w/ a question mark), boring, and have higher expectations than the other teachers."

Yes, class is boring when you haven't contributed in a month or done the reading.

Anyway, I'm wondering whether or not it's time to take out the corduroy and pipe, and wear really frumpy dresses that are more appropriate of a professor, and not a woman with a modicum of style.

It is so frustrating, and I feel your pain.

The_Myth said...

You know, I always tried to tell my students that sometimes you need to write something, throw it away, and re-write it from scratch. You're like a case study how this can sometime be an incredibly useful strategy. ;-)

As I was reading your discussion of how comments and numbers on evaluations don't match, I was suddenly thrown back to the book I read for my final paper in Intro to Feminist Studies: Mary Daly's Gyn/Ecology. In the book, Daly imagines women as Spinsters, but not the old crone sort. Daly's Spinster is something like a benevolent Spin-doctor, weaving Her way through patriarchy, unraveling and binding its power over Her. In a way, you need to Spin your evaluations.

Maybe you need to own the comments you mention like "She acts like she knows more than the students do" and "she assigns too much reading."
As you mention, what's really wrong with either of those 2 phenomena? You note they are, inherently, true with regard to how you teach: you do know more than they do and you do assign a lot of reading. And, those facts are not, by default, bad, are they? Take them into yourself and accept them as truths.

If you get these comments often, find a way to nullify them by incorporating the sentiments into your stated teaching philosophy. Modify the rhetoric and put them in your syllabus. I always toyed with the idea of putting a statement into my syllabi like "While I see this course as an exploration of our mutual knowledge, please be forewarned that I, as the instructor in charge of your education, have a plan and expectations for you as the student" (or some such) Not sure how that would work out though, especially come evaluation time.

After all, why waste all those lovely 5s simply because the comments aren't sycophantic raves! Any real misogynist on the tenure and promotion committee will always find a way to hurt you, so instead make it abundantly clear these "student criticisms" are actually the exact sort of comments you want and expect!

P.S. To Daly's critics, I know lots of people hate Daly's overly mythopoeic rhetoric, but the woman has some good ideas lurking under all that flowery, flaky, New Agey second-wave Feminism.

Sisyphus said...

Ah, I love the ending to this post! We're right behind you on the barricades.

life_of_a_fool said...

I agree completely. If I felt like I was being evaluated (by both students and the department) in some reasonable and fair manner, I would feel so much better about the whole process. I've heard varying stories of our process (for the "serious" reviews), but yours sounds even more absurd that the narrowest version of ours.

Em said...

Depending on how Machiavellian you want to get about it, you can try some of the techniques here
or here

If the organization is measuring and rewarding customer satisfaction, then it's safe to assume that customer satisfaction is what the organization wants.

Not very lofty or idealistic, I know.

Second Line said...

Those articles that em posted links to are awesome! Sure, they're also demoralizing, heartbreaking, and most surely cynical. But true trumps these everytime.

But Dr. Crazy, while I agree and sympathize with all you say, I don't think men get the free pass, at least in terms of evals skewed by gender issues, which you seem to imply. But I grant that the issues and biases are worlds apart.

Feminist Avatar said...

I know this isn't quite related to gender. But I have taught on courses which obsess over course evaluations and every year we try to make things clearer and better organised and more challenging, but not too much work etc etc etc ad nauseum. And every year, the students complain, usually that it's boring or too hard, and often both. And yet, the students do well and get good grades and show insight and all that stuff we want from students.

I have came to the conclusion that education can be painful, but that doesn't make you a bad teacher or even the process bad. It just means that doing something you are unfamiliar with can seem bewildering and can be hard work, but at the end of the day maybe it makes for better educational outcomes.

It makes me think that evals should not be given at the end of the course, but months later, when people have had time to reflect and perhaps even use their knowledge.

Dr. Crazy said...

Helenesch: Changing the eval. forms would be a strong step in the right direction. Of course, apparently they tried to do this 15 years ago and it never went anywhere. There is a great deal of institutional inertia where this is concerned. At any rate, I suspect it's a battle I'll wage, but only after tenure.

Amber: Thanks for delurking! And I'll only say that from my experiments being a frump vs. being stylish really doesn't make much difference, so you might as well dress how you want :)

Myth: Point taken about making this stuff part of the narrative, and actually, that was my first response to it, for which I was criticized. But yes, a big part of managing this stuff does have to do with spin, which I am (luckily) pretty naturally talented with. And I'm actually really well liked in my dept. and people (male, female, old, young) are excited to give me tenure. It's just the pressure of having to construct a narrative and to spin constantly ends up being really exhausting and demoralizing, which ultimately can make a person do their *actual* job less well.

Em: point taken:) That said, it's just not in me to do all of that :) But actually, I *have* tried some of those techniques. Just made me feel bad and didn't really make a bit of difference in the long run evaluation wise - only meant that fewer students felt strongly in my favor, with fewer students also actively hating me. In other words, I was less polarizing, but the outcome was just as crappy. I'd rather be polarizing in that case.

SL: I don't think men get a free pass. I think we're all evaluated on our ability or tendency to conform to gender norms. I just think that the range of performances available to men are wider (at least in the workplace), and the kinds of performances available to them don't typically challenges the performances that are expected of a college professor. For example, a male professor who is direct in his manner is considered authoritative. This, in a professor, is a good thing. If I'm direct, the authority that students perceive is translated as rude, bitter, uncaring, unkind, condescending. Bad behavior for a "lady." That's just one example. Now, you might say that sometimes male profs face the same thing. My sense of that from talking to male colleagues, though, is that in terms of how this plays out in their evaluation by higher-ups is that they are more likely to get a pass. The chair or committee or whatever knows that he is a "good guy" and so this must just be a disgruntled student, where I and my female colleagues would get a talking-to about being "more approachable." Another issue is that if a female professor attempts to perform an identity that is more and line with prescribed gender roles, that will ultimately do her harm, too, as to embody those characteristically "feminine" qualities ultimately can compromise one's ability to manage a classroom. Basically, there can seem like there are only two options: students will either perceive you as weak and unqualified but nice, or they will perceive you as smart and challenging but a bitch. (And obviously there are students who don't fall into those two camps in any class.)

I don't know. I think that one of the things that makes situations like this persist is the tendency for men to say, "but we have this too!" I think that often justifies inertia, and I think it kind of sucks. So it's not that men don't face judgments on the base of gender at all, but rather that to bring that into the discussion stops a discussion of real inequalities between the sexes in this area.

Dr. Crazy said...

FA: I *entirely* agree with your comment, and yes, many times a student doesn't realize that a course has been valuable until LONG after the course.

Aven said...

My frustration with student evaluations has been that while I get both good and bad comments (which doesn't surprise me) the bad comments tend basically to cancel each other out. That is, in a large class (and most of my teaching before this year has been in >100 student classes), for every "she talks too much" there will be a "she doesn't explain enough"; for every "there's too much reading" there will be a "this course is too basic"; for every "tests are too hard" a "tests are simplistic"; for every "doesn't involve the students enough" a "lets the students talk too much; should lecture more".

And that's not even counting the negative/positive cancelling out: "this course is disorganised" vs. "she's so organised!"; "she doesn't seem to care about the material" vs. "she's so enthusiastic about the material!", etc. I generally get more positives than negatives, but I try to respond to the negative comments by thinking about how I can improve -- but the fact that almost all the negatives have corresponding positive comments makes it difficult to know how to proceed.

None of which helps you, of course; you just gave me an opportunity to vent!

Second Line said...

Dr. C., I definitely didn't mean my comment in a "and now we don't need to have the convo" way. But I take your point and certainly have seen a comment such as mine play out that way. Perhaps another way to put it is to say that the gendered expectations of students toward both male and female profs are at once complicated, warped, and often just flat out f@!$ed -- yes, differently f'd but f'd all the same.

Susan said...

I wrote a long comment that seems to have disappeared. But the gist of it is that you are not wrong about this... and there's an interesting article inthe NWSA Journal (Fall 2007) that points out a lot of this. (Actually the whole issue is on "Women, Tenure, and Promotion".)

I was once told by a colleague that I needed to learn to ask questions students could answer without *showing* that they had done the reading. Ummm, and why do we assign reading? I never got that.

What I've learned is that departments will do what they want to do about tenure, with or without evidence (scholars become incredibly cavalier about their use of evidence when their interests are involved). So by all means do something after you get tenure. And before: maybe a little organizing with your fellow junior faculty?

Shaun Huston said...

Without question the most useful student evaluations I've received have been those based on forms that I designed for specific courses and with specific interests in mind. The problem, of course, is that I can't really use those institutionally. The focus on measuring how students "feel" about their classes and teachers noted in the original post was probably a response to some accreditation fad (and, indeed, it seems to smack of the customer-service approach to higher ed). Maybe the current trend towards outcomes-based assessment will at least have the benefit of prompting a reworking of evaluation forms.

I have never had serious evaluation problems, but I have my share of "too hard," "too much reading," "thinks he knows more than the students" type comments. I can't write to how the fact that I am a male affects how these kinds of comments get processed by the Powers that Be, but whenever I get the urge to look at RateMyProfessor, I always check out other colleagues and am still shocked at how much gender clearly affects how students perceive their professors. The women teaching at my university are clearly carrying burdens of expectation that I am not. No one expects me to be their mother, or, notably, their father. No one particularly cares how I dress. I can be "hard" but it doesn't make me an angry feminist or man-hater. It was particularly striking to do this exercise after having team taught with a female colleague.

Doctor Pion said...

I am outraged that your institution claims to take teaching seriously but gives primacy to student evaluations of instruction over peer reviews and observations.

I'll also observe that some of the "advice" you are being given appears to deserve scare quotes around it. Why would someone want you to exclude an essay that says this is the best class ever at the institution just because that person gave you a "4" for something? How the heck does anyone know if that student never gave any other prof a score higher than a "1" or "2"? They don't know that, and you should remind them that they don't know what that "4" means in isolation.

By way of example, I ran into a former student just the other day. She is about to graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering. She told me that her head used to hurt after doing my homework assignments, and she thanked me for it because it prepared her to kick some ass in the rest of her studies. I'll never apologize for teaching students to think.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

My senior colleagues still snicker over a student's complaint that one of them (male) "acted like he knows more than we do." Furthermore, another "used to [sic] many big words." And yet, despite the snickering--which is heartening--a lot of your complaints sound very familiar.

The_Myth said...

This seems to be a recurring theme:

Why do students want their professors to be as ignorant as they are?

As a related comment, I have gotten my fair share of "He thinks he's better than the students."

Um...well, I better be after 3 times the education and gaining the approval and accolade of some of the professors I respected most in my many, many years of eduction!

It'd be kinda nice to know all those student loans and all that hard work actually paid off and I am indeed more competent than an 18-year-old.

I'm just sayin'...

Second Line said...

Although this strays from the initial subject of gender per se, the commentor above raises a great point about this generation of students/kids. Fitting in and not stepping out of the pack is practically a golden rule for this generation. And if you are going to display your knowledge, it best be couched in a lot of 'uuh's' and 'I mean, like, i dunno'. Confident expression often can lead to scorn --'who does he/she think he/she is?'.

I run into this a lot in both my professional and personal life. And granted, it's not a gendered point so much as a general generational one, but it's worth considering.

dr zombieswan said...

During grad school, I was told (secondhand) that during an "official" evaluation moment, I was one of several women students who it was said were "arrogant" and "difficult to work with." The women on the committee were furious it even came up. The official moment was supposed to be evaluating our work-- I had straight As, conferences under my belt, was taking full load courses and teaching. And commuting a lonnnnnng way every week. (The commute was the main reason, I think, that I got the hard to work with label-- I didn't agree to do every single little thing someone asked me to do-- I couldn't!)

I thought about this. Anyone who decides to pursue a PhD in my field is not exactly curing cancer, or fixing the hole in the ozone. It's a little inherently arrogant to think that my opinions on, say, Moby Dick, matter enough to work hours upon hours on a paper. Everyone in graduate school is probably a little bit arrogant, at that.

But this did not get brought up, apparently, for any of the male students (a few of which were actually kind of jerky).

I don't usually get the "bitchy" or "arrogant" comments on evals and I think the main reason is that I have a pretty good sense of humor, and I get "funny" a lot.

But if you look on the "rate your professors" website, the ratings are such that if you put "hard course" it ends up listing you as a bad teacher. I rated a grad school professor, and for me, hard course was not a diss. But I didn't realize the terms of the ratings and it turned out to make this professor have a less than good rating (NOT what I meant to do, at all. I was just being honest... it was a challenging course, which in grad school is GOOD!)

So. It's a really weird, fine line to straddle that I don't think previous generations of teachers ever even thought about at all. And maybe that's a good thing, ultimately, that we have to consider our teaching. Maybe then we won't end up like some of those crusty crotchety farts that I personally loathed as a student (even while making great grades).

But the gender imbalance inherent here: yeah. It STILL pisses me off. Adn apparently, that means I'm bitchy and/or crazy.

Yahoo sistah!