Friday, June 5, 2009

Absence Makes Athena More Alluring. One of the RYS Regulars On "Skipping School" Pedagogy.

I used to complain about student evaluations. You know, how little they mean, how they are just satisfaction surveys, how they don't actually correlate with learning, how students use them to get back at teachers of rigorous courses, etc. [Insert standard disclaimers here: my numbers are good, better than typical for my department and in particular the generally unpopular courses I teach, but there are always a handful who hate me, my guts and the horse I rode in. And they tend to like to use that other site that shall not be named.]

But this semester I did something that magically brought my students around to realizing I am the Best. Teacher. Evar. The miracle maneuver? I was gone for two weeks in the middle of the semester for medical reasons, and they had subs.

They could not WAIT to have me back in the classroom. Several emailed while I was gone to ask when I was coming back, saying that they couldn't understand anything the subs were saying, that attendance was down to a handful of students, and that there was no way they'd be passing the class if these people were teaching it. I mean, they LOVED me when I came back. I've never gotten so few negative comments (nor so many proclaiming "I LOVE Dr. Athena!!!!") in my evals.

Now, for the parts of the semester when I was there, I did all the same things I usually do - the same warnings and exhortations, the same chapter outlines, the same syllabus, the same lecture coverage (almost - we did get a bit behind). If anything, I was less of a "good" teacher than usual; I kept fewer office hours, gave one less exam and no quizzes, didn't keep up with the discussion boards as well, and was generally a little more absentminded and less available than at almost any other time in my entire career. I also did the best I could to prepare my subs to carry on - discussed the previous coverage, lecture notes and chapter outlines in advance with them, tried to get them ready for the level of detail warranted, etc.

And I'm actually quite confident that the subs actually did just fine; these are people with plenty of experience and classes of their own, and I am extremely grateful to them for being able to step in at very nearly the last minute. For my students' sake I wanted the class to be carrying on as nearly as possible the same as if I were there. It just apparently didn't quite turn out that way in the students' perception.

I didn't know how this was going to turn out; certainly it could have gone the other way - they could have been mad at me for leaving them in the middle of the semester, and have taken it out on me in the evals. They could have loved the subs and wished to be able to keep them. I'm certainly not going to try this every semester. But somehow, seeing the other side of things put it all in perspective for them.