Monthly Archives: April 2015

But I’ve got a blank space, baby / And I’ll write your name

I have, in some way, involved in higher education for most of my life. I entered the freshman class of Northeastern University in 1992, and have since then been either a student or a teacher for at least one college or university (sometimes both at the same time). In my long time involved with universities in MA, CT, and NY, I have seen a variety of fads come and go.* Anthologies and readers have gone through several editions. And the ratio of adjuncts to tenure-track faculty has grown to frightening proportions.**

But one constant has been student evaluations. Every year I was a student, I filled them out. And I have administered them for every class I have ever taught, as a graduate student, an adjunct, and a tenure-track professor. Similarly, the basic methodology of student evaluations have not changed: the first portion involves filling in bubbles, and the second portion allows for written comments. There is always some combination of questions asking students how much they have learned, how available the instructor was, how knowledgable the instructor seemed, etc.

Those who know me know that I find this all to be a waste of time. This is because student evaluations, on the whole, are a worthless endeavor whose practice has nothing to do with improving the quality of education.

Don’t believe me? Check this out. (And feel free to find and read any of the large number of reports, studies, and stories that basically say the exact same thing. Go ahead; I’ll wait.) If you have been looking around, you probably also discovered that student evaluations are also sexist and racist, too. Able-bodied, straight, white men who speak without an accent do shockingly well on student evaluations.***

So why do we continue with this farce? Because student evaluations produce data, and we are a data-driven business. Faculty turn in copies of student evaluations as proof of their quality in the classroom (and similarly, poor student evaluations are used against faculty to prove their lack of worth in the classroom). Administrators use evaluations to reward some faculty and punish others. This is particularly the case for contingent faculty, for whom bad evaluations can mean unemployment at the end of the semester.

Student evaluations provide concrete data. It’s limited data. It’s biased data. It’s unreliable data. It’s bad data. But it’s data, and so it can be assessed.

And the thing is, everyone knows it. And most people don’t really care enough to do anything about it.

Every semester, when I mechanically administer my student evaluations (and await the eventual lavishing of praise that is my due as an able-bodied, straight, white male), I wonder why we don’t administer evaluations for administrators.**** I wonder how the day-to-day life of my university might change if faculty – or students – evaluated administrators. I mean, if students evaluations are a reliable means of determining the worth of some employees, why not use them for all employees? If the data collected really is valuable, why wouldn’t we want more of it?

I suspect the reason we don’t collect that kind of data is because everyone recognizes that the data is worthless. However, evaluations are still a wonderful tool for keeping faculty in check. Their power, in other words, lies not in the data they collect but in their use for keeping faculty compliant.^ And it works. Untenured faculty, contingent faculty, and graduate students (whose funding can be tied to student evaluations) have long found simple and effective ways to bribe their students. And while I find it loathsome to bring in baked goods, or hold class outside, or offer extra credit to students who show up to fill out evaluations, I understand the impulse. When your evaluations are used – without any context – to determine your merit, only a fool wouldn’t do what he/she could to make them sparkle. And unlike in professional sports, nobody in higher education cares if you “juice” your evaluations.

Personally, I would be fine if we just stopped administering evaluations.

But that isn’t ideal, either. Students should have some mechanism where they can comment on their education. We shouldn’t treat them like customers; however, we also shouldn’t treat them like houseplants.

There are ways we could improve student evaluations, and ways we could use that data to improve the quality of the education students receive. It would take some doing, but the people who need to be doing this have all attained graduate degrees, so this shouldn’t be all that hard, right?^^

First, we need to change when we ask students to complete evaluations.

This is key. Right now, students are asked to complete evaluations near or at the end of the semester, for courses they are taking that semester. This is idiotic. To begin with, students are still too close to the class. They are in the midst of studying for their finals, working on final projects, or are otherwise stressed out. Stressed out people just don’t give the kind of thoughtful feedback we are looking for. But just as importantly, students still doing the work for the class have no idea how valuable that class has been yet. One common question is some form of “how much have you learned?” This is impossible to answer while still learning in the course. To give but one specific example: every Freshman Composition teacher I have ever met has had at least one student some to them later in their academic career, to thank them for teaching the student how to write. Sometimes, these students also find some way of apologizing for being a difficult student, who didn’t get just how important the class would be. Students need time to reflect, to process, and to test drive all that fancy learning. Filling out evaluations during the semester one is enrolled in those classes doesn’t allow for any of that.

If we really wanted to know how useful a class is, we would ask students later in their career how useful that class has been. This might not be a perfect solution, but it would give the students a chance to better reflect on their courses. To give another example: I am constantly listening to freshmen and sophomores gripe about how pointless their gen-ed requirements are; many of those students come back to me as seniors and express surprise, and tell me that they didn’t realize until later on how useful those courses – and the skills they teach – were.

Second, we need to change what kind of data we collect.

Often, evaluations are completed on some standardized sheet (on paper or online); sometimes, faculty design their own evaluations that are in some way tailored to that faculty member’s key interests. But even those evaluations are limited by being given too early. Changing the questions might make for some more focused data, but it’s still – at best – incomplete data.

If we really wanted to see how much students have learned, we would track those students in their academic careers. We already do this in many ways (for student athletes, for at-risk students, for honors students, etc.); so why not expand the scope of this work to collect the data we really want? Asking a student how much he learned in Freshman Composition (or Calculus I, or Introduction to Psychology, etc.) will only give you how much the student thinks he/she has learned. And the student has to answer this questions without having to use that knowledge and/or skill set yet. If we really wanted to know how much the student learned, we would track that student in upper-division writing classes (or Calculus II, or upper-division Psychology classes, etc.). Again, this is an imperfect assessment method, but it provides more data, and more useful data. That is, students who cannot perform well in writing-based assignments simply did not learn much in their Freshman Composition class, no matter what they claimed on their evaluations.

However, this points to a much more important point…

Third, we need to separate student evaluations from faculty performance.

My hypothetical student above could have done very poorly in Freshman Composition, but still rated the faculty member very highly. The “data” thus shows the instructor performing very well, despite the student not performing well. Similarly, the student could have given the instructor terrible evaluations, despite learning a great deal and performing well in later classes. My point here is that the students evaluations, without any other context, do not give a clear picture about the instructor’s performance.

Additionally, just as there is no way to measure or account for the biases that are in play^^^, there is no way to account for students using evaluations to take out their aggressions. I’ve heard students coming out of classes commenting about how they “really fucked” their professor, etc. Did the professor deserve it? I have no idea. But the point is, some students use evaluations as a chance to assert some sort of power over their faculty members (who, students sometimes believe, are exerting their own power over students). Again, the evaluations serve only one function: the exertion of power, and the chance to keep people in check.

If we really wanted to evaluate faculty performance, we would track students as noted above, but we would also include other kinds of evaluation. The classroom visit – whereby a colleague sits in for a day or two to write a review – is common, but also provides incomplete information. Anybody can spruce up and do a job for one day; similarly, anyone can have a terrible day and drop the ball. And neither day is – or can be – an accurate reflection of that colleague’s worth in the classroom. We could do a better job of putting colleagues together in the classroom – mentoring programs, team teaching, etc. – that allow us to spend more time engaged with each other’s craft. For more suggestions, feel free to check out any of the various programs devoted to the craft of teaching (and there are a great many out there).

In that regard, we would also provide the time and space – and funding – for improvement. If the goal of evaluations is to measure the quality of the faculty, why wouldn’t we also put into place systems that work to improve faculty performance? We hire faculty to do a job; let’s give them the opportunity to do the best job they can. The goal should not be evaluating faculty, but training them.

These are just my early thoughts, and if anyone has any suggestions to add, please leave them in the comments.

We all know the problem. So when do we solve it, and how?

*For instance, I have seen three different waves to move college classes online. I once even tried to teach an all-online freshman composition course. It was a disaster. This most recent push looks like it’s here to stay, of only because many universities see it as a cheap way to provide educational content without having to cut the pay of much-needed administrators.

**This is completely anecdotal, but in all my time at Northeastern working on my undergraduate studies, only one of my professor was an adjunct. I studied with a fair number of graduate students (in a variety of fields), but only one adjunct. I can’t imagine earning a degree from that – or any other major research university – with such a record these days.

***Trust me. I get amazing student evaluations. I even tried one semester to get bad evaluations, but it didn’t work. I’m good, but I’m not that good. Nobody is.

****I’m told that some institutions to evaluate their administrators. I’d love for examples of these evaluations, as well as a chain of custody regarding who gets to see them and how they are used for administrator performance review.

^In my own department, I have seen bad evaluations be used against one faculty member whom most of the department wanted to deny tenure to. However, when most of the department wishes to grant tenure, bad evaluations never come up, or are explained away. How you use them depends entirely on how you already feel about the colleague. I’ve seen bad evaluations be offered up as proof of one colleague’s poor teaching, while bad evaluations (that made pretty much the same claims) were singled out as examples of biased students. I’ve even had one administrator tell me flat out that “students complain,” and so we shouldn’t take anything they say in evaluations seriously.

^^Please don’t actually answer this question. I can’t bear the truth.

^^^Except for those obvious instances where students write things like, “I think she was too hormonal” in their evaluations. (Yes, this is a real example, from one of my colleagues.)

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How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?

Every semester, I have the same conversations with students:

“No, there is no extra credit…”

“Yes, you have to take the final exam…”

Most of the time, I don’t mind these conversations. In some ways, it’s comforting; students will always have the same questions and concerns, will always challenge faculty in the same ways, will always need the same kinds of support. I particularly love the time of the semester when students come in to share some new revelation, because they just started working on their final papers on earnest and are expanding their knowledge beyond what’s merely on the syllabus. One of the best parts of the job is watching students learn on their own, using their classes as the basis for further education.*

However, there is one conversation I have that always bothers me. It feels like I am having this conversation more often than I used to, although it’s entirely possible that I am instead only growing more tired of having it.**

This conversation always happens in upper-division courses, and always involves the final paper. The student comes to my office, worried about the final paper. He does not know what he wants to write about. The student tells me he doesn’t know how to come up with an argument for his paper, and asks for my help. At this point, I remind the student of our department’s core curriculum, which he has already worked through before getting to this point. The student has taken courses on reading literature through its historical context and through the various lenses of literary theory. The student has learned about genres and patterns. The student has taken courses in argumentative writing and research. In short, the student has learned all the skills he needs to do the work; he only needs to put the pieces together. Although this conversation is easier with students who have taken some of the core classes with me (so I can draw from specific examples from our previous classes), I am (more often than not) able to help guide the student to an idea, an argument, a starting point for a research project. And at the end, the students realize that they have, in fact, done this work in the past, and are capable of moving forward on their projects.

(Note: I refuse to simply give students a topic, at least in upper-division classes. Part of the work, in my opinion, is generating these projects on one’s own. However, I’m happy to help students find those topics that interest them. Sometimes this means rather long conversations about their interests, their other classes, etc. But it always works.)

The reason why this conversation bothers me is that, honestly, I don’t think we should be having it. The reason why we have the lower-division core is so that the students can apply the skills and knowledge base to their work in upper-division courses. And, to be fair, many students do this. But there are many students who do not. Similarly, there are many students who seem to forget what they learned in their gen-ed courses. Every semester, I have students tell me that they didn’t know that I expected them to develop an argument, or work with research, because they thought they only had to do that in their Composition courses (the courses devoted to learning how to write). I have had students who were genuinely surprised to learn that they were expected to retain what they have learned in their COMP courses, because they would be expected to apply that knowledge in other classes.***

The short of it is this: every semester, I work with students who approach their college education one class at a time, and do not connect their classes to one another. And I’d like some advice on how to do a better job of working with these students.

In my own core and gen-ed courses, I forecast to my students the kinds of work they will be expected to do with the knowledge learned and skills developed in these courses. In Literary Analysis and Research, we don’t learn theory for the sake of learning theory.**** Rather, we learn how theory can help us to come to terms with texts, and how different theories shine a light on different dark corners of the texts. And in my upper-division courses, I always connect back to the core: discussions of literary history are always connected back to the work done in Literary Traditions; allusions to theory are connected back to Literary Analysis and Research; etc. Additionally, my syllabi make clear that students are expected to build upon the work they have already done in their previous classes (or, as sometimes happens, are encouraged to bring to their work what they are doing in their other classes that semester; I always encourage my students to try and make such connections).

One of the benefits of teaching at a relatively small university (and teaching a variety of classes) is that I get to work with many students multiple times. This is even true of non-majors, who sometimes take multiple classes with me to fulfill gen-ed requirements, or just get out of their majors for a brief period.^ However, quite often (that is, multiple times every semester), students will approach each class as if it’s brand new, with new expectations and a new foundation to work from. (For instance, this semester, I have had two students come to me and ask what I want from their final papers. I have had both students in previous upper-division classes. Both told me they were not sure if I wanted “the same thing,” because these classes worked with different material as the previous classes. (One student told me that he didn’t know if I wanted the same kinds of papers, because this class was about poetry and our previous class focused on novels.)

From what I can tell, there are many reasons why students might approach each class as an individual, self-contained unit. (OK, I lied; I’m going to assign blame.) “Teaching to the test” has, on the whole, ruined educators’ ability to help students see how all of their classes work to develop a larger intellectual ecosystem of knowledge and skills. When the goal of the course is limited to the test at the end of the semester, the students are not encouraged to think beyond the class at hand. Students who are focused on the test are not considering the variety of possibilities their classes open them up to. Students often come to advising meetings focused on fulfilling requirements, with no notion of how the pieces can be put together to create something more than just an completed advising form. Similarly, I know many faculty who operate in ways that also encourage this approach to education: they are rigid (and at times inflexible) regarding what kinds of projects students can work on, for instance, and (perhaps unconsciously) encourage students to think that there’s only one way to engage in academic work. Or they advise students to rush through their gen-eds, so that they can get to the “real” work of their requirements for the major.

I have also had to witness discussions among faculty – sometimes in front of students – that focus the comparative worthlessness of various university gen-eds. One colleague doesn’t see the value in the History gen-ed; another thinks there’s no need for both Physical and Biological Sciences; entire departments seems convinced that Public Speaking is a waste of time and resources.^^ I can’t even begin to count the number of people who think the Philosophical Inquiry gen-ed should be purged. Part of this comes from the recent efforts at my campus to reduce the number of gen-ed requirements, to bring us more into line with other SUNY schools. But part of this seems to be a desire to stay relevant in a system that is always looking to make cuts. It’s no longer enough to merely serve department programs; we must also serve the larger university. (Note: I don’t have a problem with this; in fact, I support it fully. But I do not agree that we must disparage other offerings in order to make ours seem more important.)

The short-term goal, in this regard, seems to be defending the gen-eds one offers, while pointing to other gen-eds and identifying which ones are extraneous. However, doing so ignores the long-term goal. Doing so ignores the point of the gen-ed program. Far more often than I wish were true, faculty join students in understanding the gen-ed program as little more than hoops one must jump through in order to earn a degree. Gen-eds are taken because they fit into the right days and times, and not because they can usefully enhance one’s personal educational goals.^^^

The long-term goal, of course, is finding ways to incorporate the gen-ed program into the major and minor curricula. Just as the goal of the core curriculum is to build a foundation for students to do the complex work of upper-division classes.

So now I come to my questions:
How do you encourage your students to see their gen-ed classes as building skills they will be expected to use in later classes?
How do you manage these expectations in your upper-division classes?
How do you incorporate your university’s gen-ed work into your classes?
How do your design your upper-division classes to build upon the work in your program’s lower-division/core courses.

In short, how do you encourage students to opt-in to the idea that their education is more than a series of unrelated courses they sit through before being awarded a degree?

*One of my favorite former students, who I now lovingly call Heavy Metal Zak, once rushed up to me and asked, very seriously, “Dr. Donahue, have you discovered Proust yet?” He insisted that we needed to talk about this, even though I had never read him. I love that he didn’t care; he just needed to share this with me.

**I’m also not going to try to assign blame; there’s enough to go around: high schools, the media’s representation of higher education, local issues on my campus, etc.

***My university also has a public speaking gen-ed requirement, and I take advantage of that by having students do oral presentations. There are always those students who think it’s unfair, because they already proved in their gen-ed course that they can do this. Having to do it again is, to them, redundant.

****Don’t get me wrong; I basically minored in Theory For The Sake Of Theory. But I’m a huge fucking geek.

^I honestly love those students. I love when students look for something different, just to be doing something different. One student, who graduated last year, took 4 classes with me, even though she did not major or minor in any program in my department. She thought I taught interesting books, and so took classes with me just to have something fun to do outside of her Psychology major. By our last class, she was writing fairly nuanced analyses informed by psychoanalytic theory.

^^Everybody sees the value of the writing-based gen-eds. That is, until it’s time to teach or pay for them. Then the support disappears faster than students on the Thursday afternoon before Spring Break.

^^^I often see this with the Modern Language requirement. Rarely do students seem to care which language they learn, and simply take what they can get into. This is never true of the students who study Mohawk, of which there are too few.

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