Monday, May 7, 2007

A Point, Counterpoint On What 18-Year-Olds Can and Can't Know

  • "...18-year-olds are usually in no position to know good teaching from bad..."
    [from May 6]

I cannot get over the utter ridiculousness of this statement. I understand the author's point, that there are those who abuse student evaluations, those who write absurd and useless comments, etc. but to not know good teaching as opposed to bad? Never.

I would argue that it is the professors themselves who are in the worst positions to evaluate their own teaching. When one is so incredibly knowledgeable about a subject, it is easy to forget that others aren't as well. The sole point of having a lecture is to convey information to others, in a clear way that is intelligible to those who don't already know everything about a topic. And it doesn't hurt to do it in a way that is not so mind-numbingly boring that the students' interest slips away after a mere 30 seconds.

I know that there is a strong tendency to blame the listener for not understanding; when I was a high school debater I always wanted to blame my judges for not paying attention, not being familiar enough with the topic, or just "not getting it" when I lost a round. I never wanted to consider that perhaps it was I who was at fault, that maybe I needed to be clearer and explain things more thoroughly.

Thoughts and ideas are always crystal clear to the one who forms them. The only ones who can tell you if you are articulating them comprehensibly are your students.


I can already see the mild and generous professors getting ready to line up against the comments from Sunday. I absolve not to view this page tomorrow, because some absolute idiot will write something like: "Freshmen are better judges of our teaching than the professors themselves."

My freshmen and sophomores don't understand anything about what it is I'm trying to do. How do I know? Because 10 years later, many of them come back and tell me. "I thought you were just some hardass," one former student told me. "We absolutely hated you and thought you were dumb as a post," another told me last year. "It didn't hit me until I was in grad school how much you did for me."

And I could list twenty more in a minute. Students fight me and hate me and think I'm a forgetful fool who is somehow so dense that I can't make their class easier and more fun. And when they become seniors and grad students, or when they go into industry, I hear from them. "I'm so sorry, Dr. K------," one of them wrote. "I wish every professor had given a damn to make me work so hard. I told everyone I knew NOT to take your class, and now I feel like I made a terrible mistake."

I have not drunk the "student as consumer" Kool-Aid. And I know that offering huge doses of low-impact edutainment may raise the "pleasure" of my students for that semester, but that in the end it does nothing for their long term understanding or education.

The thing is, I don't worry about my evaluationsbecause I know that it will be a few years before my students realize that I was doing ALL of it for them, to make them better, smarter, and more able to contend.

18 year old kids are fun, great, and I love seeing a new group each year. But they don't have any idea what I'm doing. Not yet.