Saturday, May 19, 2012


I received my student evaluations for the Spring semester on Wednesday. I've never been a huge fan of student evals--generally, when I get them, I tend simply to feel depressed for a few days. Much like the worst internet trolls, some students seem to take the anonymity of student evals as a challenge to craft as many wounding statements as possible, attacks that are often out of all proportion to the class and their engagement with it. I've had students question my intelligence, abilities, dedication, biases, and sexual orientation on evals, often under the guise of offering helpful or constructive feedback. What's more, these students' comments are clearly meant to be deliberately and flagrantly provocative, an attempt to somehow "get even" for their performance in class/their lack of interest/engagement with the subject. Without fail, there are students who complain about having to write in a composition class, of having to read new--and at times challenging--material in a literature class, of not being entertained every single second of the semester by my teaching. In some ways, the worst comments are the ones about being graded too harshly--as someone who is keenly aware of grade inflation (and who often feels caught in an impossible position between contributing to this inflation and sticking to certain standards/principles in a way that is unfair to students given the inflated grades they might otherwise receive), I often have to bury my face in my hands when I think about all the compromises I made while grading after reading those comments.

For many, the response to all this might be "Oh well. Grow some thicker skin and get over it." However, it's precisely this attitude that contributes to the reason that I don't find student evaluations helpful. There are times when students can offer valuable and constructive feedback--I've learned that there are situations in which I haven't made my own position relative to a reading clear and have been accused (unfairly) of bias and I've dropped or used more frequently some activities because of student feedback--but for the most part, student evaluations are not set up to benefit either the student or the teacher. In fact, I would go a step further and claim that student evals are, at their most fundamental level, anti-teacher. They are a prime example of neoliberal management practices and corporatization of education masquerading as "student-centred" learning. Ultimately, student evals (at least as they are currently set up--and this is across the various educational institutions in which I've taught or been a student) are less reflections of the effectiveness of various educational practices and strategies, and more customer satisfaction surveys. The evals encourage the worst kind of self-consciousness and surveillance on the part of teachers at the same time that they set up the university as a company whose product must meet the demands (grades) of the consumer (student) at all costs. What's more, the process of student evals fails to make clear to students the purpose behind the surveys, requiring teachers both to supply the context and to perform certain ideological manoeuvres.*

While the goal of offering students the chance to speak to the quality of instruction they are receiving is laudable--this basic principle, at least, is student-centred--student evals (in their current format) do not ask students to evaluate the quality of instruction. Or rather, they do so while neither requiring that students understand what it is that they are evaluating nor monitoring the students' ability to perform this evaluation effectively (or at all).  Perhaps the biggest problem in this regard is the inability to separate the student's grade in the class from his/her evaluation of the class. That is, the evals are framed in such a way that the student's grade--both the grade he/she expects to receive in the class the grade he/she "deserves" in the class (which is almost always an A or A-, with some B+ and Bs across the class, but rarely any Cs, Ds, or Fs)--is the entry point into the survey. Having established what you "should" get in the class, what was the class like in getting you that grade? In many cases, whether an individual student received an A, B, or C is of little importance when evaluating the effectiveness of instruction. While it would be wonderful if every student in the class received an A, there is little chance of that happening (if nothing else, chance would get in the way--students get sick or distracted, they procrastinate and produce lower quality work than they are capable of producing, they develop skills at different rates, etc.). However, if an instructor does his/her best to provide students with the opportunity to succeed (read here as developing the skills that he/she is expected to gain from that class) and students are able to take advantage of those opportunities, the instruction has been effective, regardless of the outcome (in terms of grade) of the individual student.

Of course, much of this depends on student effort, as well, which student evals are unable to measure in any serious or effective way. Though there are questions that attempt to quantify the student's effort and engagement--the hours per week devoted to the class and the student's own evaluation of his/her effort in this class as compared to his/her other classes--this causes two related problems. First, these questions are rarely the catalyst for self-reflection (perhaps I found the instruction effective/ineffective because of my level of engagement with the material) and thus students who put forth minimal effort are likely to attribute this lack of engagement (rightly or wrongly) to the effectiveness of instruction (even when this is unfair to the teacher). Second, it encourages the myth that effort is the only quality on which students should be evaluated. I find the second problem particularly difficult to deal with in the classroom. While I appreciate that students can work very hard and still produce substandard material (especially in a composition course), I do not see the value in awarding grades to students for excellent effort that should reflect an evaluation of excellent quality work.** If the theory is that rewarding effort will encourage the student to continue to put forth similar effort, I would counter by saying that I think students should learn to develop intrinsic motivation out of a desire to gain the most from their education. When a majority of students tell me that when taking courses outside of their major they do not try (and have no motivation to try), I do not feel that rewarding effort in my classes (largely taken by non-majors) is a particularly productive method of reinforcing behaviour.

Taken together, these two factors (the emphasis on grades as the criterion on which evaluations should be based and the lack of accountability for students' efforts in the class/ability to evaluate instructional methods) contribute to the way that student evals (in their current format) are anti-teacher. As the job market in higher education continues to be quite competitive and as teaching portfolios (often requiring student evals) become another method of evaluating candidates, anonymous evaluations by students who are far from impartial gain importance. What's more, these evaluations are coming from a position in which entertainment--the nonstop stream of information from the iPhone/iPod/iPad/laptop matrix, the omnipresence of screens to navigate rather than text to read, the constant state of being "connected"--is given primacy not just over the system in which higher education operates, but in opposition to that system. When a student eval asks whether or not an instructor stimulated the student's thinking, it seems imperative to ask in what way is the student being asked to evaluate stimulation. In this environment, the teacher is hostage to the students' desires (desires that become validated in the form of the student eval) even when those desires work against instructional effectiveness.*** The teacher is required to be "on" at all times in a way that students are never (or rarely) required to be. One bad day in the classroom can impact scores on evals, though a semester of bad days in the classroom can still allow a student to get by with a passing grade (and then, in retribution for a poor grade, damage the student eval scores of the teacher). Thus, evals actually demote instructional effectiveness as the motivating factor for teachers and replace it with scoring well on the evals regardless of the instructional effectiveness displayed in so doing. 

You might think that the above is a response to a bad set of evals, pure spite and bitterness. In fact, my evals for this past semester are the best I've ever received. Of course, that I feel that my grading was, in many ways, far too lenient by the standards I would like to uphold and consequently my class grades were much higher than they have been in other semesters (and perhaps should have been this semester) is merely coincidental, I'm sure. What's most galling, though, is that only six students filled out evals. This is not for lack of publicity, either: every class from the moment the surveys went online to when they closed, I reminded students about them and asked that they fill them out, not just for my benefit, but for the school's benefit as well. If students aren't even going to bother filling them out, what use are they? Can one-third of one class really offer anything like useful feedback on my teaching (assuming those six students who filled out evals out are capable of separating their own individual performance [in terms of grade in the class] from the process of evaluating pedagogical strategies and decisions at work in our classroom throughout the semester to determine what was most and least effective and how the class could be improved)? Did any student benefit from the fact that, for the fifteen weeks I was their instructor, my preparations for his/her class were constrained (I might say deformed) by the question "How will this play on my student evals?" alongside more pedagogically useful questions like "What is the most effective way to present this material?" and "Given their success with [x] and struggles with [y], how can I best relate this material to what we've already covered?" 

There must be a better way. As a political act, teachers working together to reformat the idea and approach of student evals would go some way to helping combat the continued encroachment of capitalist realism and the ongoing corporatization of education.

*These manoeuvres are, essentially, legitimizing the surveillance procedures of neoliberalism and naturalizing their place in daily life through the process of distributing (or at least publicizing the availability of) the surveys in the first place. In this way, students are taught to expect similar kinds of surveillance in their own careers (as higher education becomes nothing more than a training ground for careers) and to begin to be aware of the kind of continual self-monitoring that a good neoliberal subject undertakes. Though many instructors have informal surveys that they ask students to fill out as a way of developing their own teaching, a process independent of student evals that stems from a true student-centred perspective, these are inevitably tied to and compromised by the formal student evals.  
**As I always try and explain it to students when this comes up, asking me to grade based on effort is essentially asking me to give bad grades to students who are naturally gifted writers and who do not have to put in as much effort to produce a piece of writing that meets the assignment criteria, while students who work hard but struggle to meet the assignment criteria would get higher grades. 
***In this sense, the actual university comes to seem like a certain kind of Big Other, the entity that provides the student evals with their legitimacy by using them as one of the bases by which jobs, promotions, appointments, awards, etc. are conferred. Though everyone might know that student evals are flawed, in the eyes of the Big Other, they remain valid and so retain their force.

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