Wednesday, December 15, 2004

So, yesterday was student-evaluation-day. Weeehoo!

One particularly irate Republican Non-traditional student who worked for the ultimately losing campaign of a guy who ran against a local-home-town democrat was furious that I did not provide them a space to give me written comments.

Why does the Economics Department not provide a space for our comments?

And he was pissed that some of our faculty members are doing research on student evaluations and therefore wanted student numbers and names so that they can compare, for example, gender and evaluations, grades and evaluations, gpa and evaluations etc. etc. Of course, the student evaluations remain anonymous, but the results can then be used as research.

Why does the Economics Department do research on student evaluations?

I have obviously failed this kid. a) he is hostile to curiosity, and b) he is hostile to any deep-level thinking that might *gasp* actually change him.

He is one of those relatively polished know-it-alls. I say relatively because, I would not consider him to be polished at all, but he's got those political sound bites down, so he basically bamboozeled the other students in the class on policy discussions. In actuality, he's probably getting a C-/D in the class because his answers are nearly always complete fluff, without any real analysis or class content.

I think what bothers me about it is that resistance to personal change. And I recognize it in myself. I remember approaching certain classes thinking This will be easy. I already know all this stuff. It took me some time to realize what I had missed by not opening up to the ideas of the course even if I did already have some grasp of the material. At the very least, I could reinforce my understanding or add nuance to it.

Because I am untenured, those student evaluations matter to me and my history shows that they are roller-coaster like in their fluctuations. They never get too high or too low, but I definitely have my ups and downs. And, of course, because I went out on a limb this semester with the whole Big Ideas thing, I will take bad evaluations personally.

When told a fellow professor (English) that I was anxious to see these results in particular, she says to me Just check out* For those of you who aren't in the know about evolving university evaluation technologies, various companies have generously offered (again, ever-the-entrepreneurs) to host sites where students can anonymously rate any and all professors on several categories including: their looks, the professors's clarity, and the easiness of the class.

From my limited anecdotal evidence, such ratings are both informative and innane. I've been called a dyke more than once, but on the other hand I got resounding comments about a not-so-great computer program I used one semester. Also, the site seems to be good at identifying trends. It usually isn't a surprise, for example, when I see that certain people are boring, easy, or whatever. It is also not a surprise to note that professors with reputations for being challenging get relatively crappy comments (usually at 3 a.m. and, not surprisingly, around the 8th week of classes, i.e. right after midterms).

What is not disturbing is that students have an outlet to slander the professors the loath, or that they have a relatively democratic way to share this information. What is disturbing is my expectation that administrators will soon be using this tool to distribute funds/promotions/various other carrots among departments. They already put a lot of weight on our current evaluation system, which although not without its problems (I won't reference the vast literature on biases in student evaluations here), at least was a formal method for students to evaluate is with the knowledge that someone (including the professor at some point) would actually read them. While students have the right to see past evaluations, letting them lose to say what they want (stuff they wouldn't want their mother to see, for example) reminds me of some Lord of the Flies situation where kid-group-think turns nasty.

*I, obviously made up this name, not wanting to promote this site. The professor who mentioned the site gets outstanding comments.

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