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.
2 years ago