Saturday, February 4, 2006

What's All the Fuss About?

A professor from Florida sends this along today:

So, you got a bad rating, or two, or twenty. Why the hell do you care? Well, you care because you’re human, and the social evaluations people make about you impact your self image. Another reason you care is that Universities and colleges use student ratings to determine your fitness for tenure, promoting, teaching award, and annual evaluations that earn or deny you merit raises. There are a lot of reasons to care. As a professor, what you need isn’t a reason to care – you need some perspective on student ratings, and a lesson in learning to ignore them, even if they impact you, the course of your career and your family.

Last year, after 16 years of teaching of University teaching, I took my first sabbatical from teaching. For the first time, I had research responsibilities, but theoretically nothing else. At the end of my sabbatical year when my department circulates the annual student comments written on the back of the teaching evaluation forms, and even though I hadn’t taught a class during the past year, I got a negative teaching evaluation. It seems that some student took a class during the spring semester and thought I was the professor. On the back of the evaluation, written very boldly, it said “Professor [INSERT YOUR NAME HERE] SUCKS!!!!!!!!!!” You can insert anyone’s name here. In this case, it was my name. I didn’t teach the course. I was excused from teaching for the year. Nevertheless, official records indicate that I have a negative teaching evaluation. Will wonders never cease.

I refer to this example because it illustrates one of the reasons we shouldn’t rely on student evaluations of professors. It seems that a number of them don’t even know who is teaching the course. For example, when I get to the end of the year, and the students are handed a teaching evaluation, one of them inevitably says “Excuse me. Do we have to fill out all this information on the top, like the course title and number, and the professor’s name? If we do, could you please write those on the board?” How useful are evaluations from students when some of them, perhaps the ones who provide the worst reviews, don’t even know who is teaching the class?

And, in what world would you let an apprentice evaluate the skill of his/her master? You might ask the apprentice if they liked working for the master craftsperson, what aspects of the training they enjoyed or didn’t enjoy, but you would hardly ask them if the master craftsperson was a “master” of their skills. No, to make that determination, you would ask other craftspersons. But, here I am, a college professor with 22 years of teaching experience, a BS, 2 MAs, and a Ph.D., and more than 110 publications, and my skill at teaching and my knowledge of my field is judged by someone who has no credentials or expertise.

Furthermore, these evaluations may have been provided by people who not only don’t do well in an educational setting; they may be provided by people I have, for example, caught cheating in my course. Why should someone who has failed my course for cheating be allowed to evaluate me? That’s almost like letting the President of a country who has a questionable moral background determine….Oh wait, that’s bad example. But, that’s kind of the point.