Tuesday, November 28, 2006

As Others See Us

One of the least enjoyable aspects of my job as a university teacher is the annual ritual of reading the student evaluation forms. These are typed out, with spelling and grammar errors painstakingly preserved, and put in my mailbox twice a year, a few weeks after the end of term. No matter how positive the students’ comments are, I am always braced for the worst as I read them: invariably, one stinging remark has the power to outweigh dozens of accolades. A friend of mine even goes so far as to mail her evaluations to a trusted friend in another province – it’s this trusted friend’s job to read the comments aloud over the phone, weeding out the nasty ones.

In my first year of teaching, I found myself overhearing a conversation as I was walking to class. The students weren’t talking about me, but they were venting their ire at another hated professor, and the conversation served as a reminder: it’s a student’s job to resent the professor – if I’m doing my job right, some people are going to hate me at least some of the time. That knowledge works better in theory than in practice, however, as one student was kind enough to point out last year: "Professor Bubandpie is a good prof who explains ideas clearly. However, she is a bit emotional sometimes and tries too hard to be liked." Ouch!

That desire to be liked takes a beating sometimes when I receive observations like this one: "I have noticed a general pomposity in your response to questions addressed towards you which is not beneficial." (At the risk of seeming pompous, I’ll point out that if you wish to accuse someone of pomposity without exposing yourself to the same criticism, it’s best to avoid the term "pomposity" altogether.)

Some comments seem to deconstruct themselves, relieving me of the need to come up with nasty imaginary counter-jibes. One of my favourites a few years ago went like this: "Too much feministic overtones throughout entire course. Spends time reflecting on women as artist, but ignores doing so for men. If equality is what we seek, equality should be applied." (This in response to the inclusion of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own in a course otherwise dominated by Chaucer, Milton, and Shakespeare.)

Evaluations do serve their purpose, of course. Along with requests for more men, more movie clips, and more novels by Judy Blume (and who can argue with that, really?), I have received some practical advice over the years: "Please say ‘good bye’ to the students before ending the lecture" one commenter requested after my first year of teaching; "I’d appreciate a hello to start your lecture and a wrap up comment" said another student that same year (during which I had signalled the beginning and end of my lectures by turning the microphone on and off respectively). Without student evaluations, how would I have known that upper-year undergraduates require the terms "capitalism" and "Big Brother" to be defined and explained for them? (That particular request, I should note, was phrased especially politely: "Don’t expect us to know what your talking about when you bring in material that is not required, e.g. …big brother???" If Orwell was too obscure, I would have thought the reality TV connection would have been topical enough to spark some recognition. Live and learn.)

If student evaluations are a necessary evil, the same cannot be said for RateMyProfessor.com. I have – almost – kicked my habit of obsessively checking my ratings on that site, and comparing them to those of everyone else I know. My hot tamale score has always been low (and I’ve noticed that male professors receive far more hot tamales than female profs – possibly because it’s funny when a female student gives her male professor a hot tamale, but stalker-ish and weird when the genders are reversed). The real kicker, though, was the comment from a student who was nice enough to count up the number of times I said "um" in a single lecture and post the results online. The memory of that comment has paralyzed me through many a lecture, and I haven’t been brave enough to check the site since.

Evaluations for online courses tend to be less personal. There are exceptions, though. I’ve taught online courses for the last two summers, and after the first one I received this comment: "I was surprised that while pregnant and giving birth she was still able to keep up with the work." I’m glad the student felt that I met my obligations in the course, despite the fact that the Pie was born just before the final exam. I do feel like a bit of an impostor, though – I must confess that while I was giving birth, I wasn’t doing any online coursework at all.

In fairness to myself and to my students, though, I should acknowledge all the lovely comments my students make – "A funny/engaging instructor. No complaints." "I enjoyed sharing a few tears with you when discussing Anne of Green Gables." "She has an excellent personality and maintains the classes interest with her ‘singing & dancing.’" (??) "She is the kind of prof that needs a teaching award and raise!" And, my personal favourite, "Uses the English language in a beautiful manner – wonderful." Kinda makes it all worthwhile, doesn’t it?


Mary-LUE said...

This was a lot of fun, B&P! I enjoyed getting to know you better through your students evals and your responses to them.

Favorites of mine:

"At the risk of seeming pompous, I’ll point out that if you wish to accuse someone of pomposity without exposing yourself to the same criticism, it’s best to avoid the term "pomposity" altogether."


"I must confess that while I was giving birth, I wasn’t doing any online coursework at all."

I cringed when you mentioned the number of "ums" in a lecture. I once had a professor use a paper of mine as a bad example for using too many prepositional phrases in sentence. He stated the number (something ridiculous like 12) and then read the sentence in his best can-you-believe-this tone. I couldn't take it and blurted out, "Okay, it was me. That's my paper!" as if I were confessing a murder. I'll never forget that and avoided that professor the rest of my time at school.

metro mama said...

Interesting. I didn't think you guys read these things. ;)

Oh, The Joys said...

Singing and dancing!!! Sign me up.

Alpha Dogma said...

There is zero chance that I will be instigating an evaluation form at my job: SAHM. I'm sure these complaints would be filed by my toddlers:
-not enough variety in snack selection
-on a power trip when it comes to tv time
-made arbirtrary rule that we can only play the Backyardigans CD six times per day
-only gives jelly beans if I pooh ON the potty. I get no reward for going pooh NEXT TO the potty


Kyla said...

I must agree with the final evaluation quote, "Uses the English language in a beautiful manner – wonderful."


blog_antagonist said...

Yikes. You are very brave. I'm not sure I would be able to read them at all. It's good thing there's not a "ratemymom.com." I'd never survive the mortification.

mimi said...

Oh god, I obsess about my evaluations too. I ritually burned a set once, from a particularly vindictive 6 student graduate class. Honestly. It was either that or throw *myself* in the fire. My husband collates them for me and reads me the excerpts now, until I get enough distance ...

I take my evaluations very seriously, and you must, too, if you take the trouble to keep them in quotable-range. I particularly unlove the comments about clothing or piercings (tongue! who's looking inside my mouth?) but really appreciate the ones honestly aimed at helping me be a better teacher.

mamatulip said...

My mother was a teacher and she saved all of her evaluations. After she died I sat on the floor in front of the filing cabinet and read all of them. I was fascinated, because it was a look at my mother that I'd never seen before. I still have them.

If I was a student of yours I would have loved to shed tears with you over Anne of Green Gables.

Em said...

One of my strongest childhood memories is my mother utterly distraught after reading a number of negative student evaluations (she is also an English professor - she retires next year). I'd never seen her cry so much.

Those evaluations can cut to the heart... fortunately the good usually outweighs the bad, but I think I'd have a very hard time reading them.

Momish said...

You know, I always thought writing an evaluation for a professor or instructor was the hard part, never considering the reading of them. I guess because I always tried to write nice and constructive stuff, I didn't consider there would negative things as well. I have to hand it to you for being so brave and objective about it. I am so sure your raves outweight those few "helpful" reviews you just shared, and by the hundreds at that! I would have loved it if you were my professor!

Not-so-Sage Wisdom said...


You weren't my first year linguistics professor, were you? I have to admit that I counted the number of times she said, "um" in one of her lectures (36), but I'd never have put it in an evaluation!

It's a lose-lose situation. If those who can't, teach, then those who can't teach, criticize.

I've said it before, I'd love to take your course.

Naomi said...

I'm a high school teacher, and, while we don't have a formal end of year evaluation process, I've been known to give my own version of these to my students.

I will also admit that I've not given them to classes where I feel there is not a good rapport. I'm sensitive.

I still keep some of the comments I've received from students over the years. Some have practically made me cry...in a good way. (As well as the bad ones, of course!)

Mayberry said...

You didn't log on and teach while you were giving birth? You slacker!

I'm with Kyla--those of us out here reading already knew that you use the language in a beautiful manner.

Eric said...

I would undoubtedly have a hard time in a profession in which I was routinely evaluated. Some would say I don't take criticism well. Of course, I disagree. People who say that are just stupid.

As for the student's comment regarding your "general pomposity," you might consider the possibility that your ol' friend "Mummy" from a few posts back is also a student of yours.

Mad Hatter said...

Been there. Done that. Glad that no one rates the librarian.

With no prior knowledge to myself, it turns out that I am married to a Hot Tamale who may or may not smell like cat piss. He also rated very high on the clarity scale, a fact that leaves me dumbfounded and breathless.

So, would you like us to submit blog evaluations: "writes extremely well and engages her readers. Has a kind heart and empathetic tone when commenting..."

Haley-O said...

The good comments do make it all worth while! I was a TA for several years. We were evaluated by the students, but we never got to read the evaluations. So, I was never traumatized.... But, I imagine I would have been hurt by the negatives.

At least our children don't do evaluations....Imagine that! But, maybe that wouldn't be such a bad idea...? Come to think of it....

cinnamon gurl said...

Yeah, I remember being pretty brutal with my friends about profs (though not so much on the evaluations). And if I didn't like one I never took a class with them again. There were some I was totally loyal to too, like the one who despite my papers being 6 and 8 weeks late each, still gave me 80s. The one I hated most though was the one who taught first year English and film studies, who had a stock response to anyone who suggested an alternative reading of a text. It went: Well, I'm not going to stand here and argue with you whether that's relevant, but I don't see any evidence in the text for it. I think he was the only person in the whole class who couldn't see the evidence.

So all this made it rather weird when I first met my (eventual) mother-in-law, who was a prof in the same department (I met her right at the end of my studies and she no longer worked there). Luckily I'd never had her, but my friend had. It was a good reminder that profs are people too.

Jennifer said...

But. Were you singing and dancing while giving birth?? Because that, surely, would have earned you some extra points.

The only times I've been evaluated were when I gave lectures to small groups in a business environment. I remember nervously glancing over all of the comments to search out anything negative, before I could even sit down and read through them thoughtfully. It's funny because as a student, "the professor" seemed so wise and wordly and above any type of sensitivity to criticism or wanting to be "liked". In real life? Not so much above it. At least I'm not.

Lady M said...

"I must confess that while I was giving birth, I wasn’t doing any online coursework at all."


I used to obsessively re-read the evals we got for teaching dance classes and agonize over the "improvement" ones. I'm getting better at just reading once and filing them now, but mostly because who has time to re-read?

Kelly said...

I have such fond memories of most of my English professors.

Except for Professor Lynam. He used to read all my essays aloud to the class, as an example of good writing. Every time he'd do it, everyone would look at me and roll their eyes. Then one day I guess he decided that he'd had enough of me and my essays, and read aloud my piece on Gilman's 'The Yellow Wallpaper.' He explained to the class that it was overwritten and that it stunk. (His words, I remember to this day.) My fellow students were nearly giddy that I had just been taken down a peg.

Could you put together an online course of Mommy lit? Now that's a class I think I might be able to muster up some intellect for.

Beck said...

Great post. Fear of being evaluated, of being critisized is part of what keeps me paralyzed with my writing. (the other part? Lack of talent.) You're a brave woman to hear your evaluations at all.

Red Rollerskate said...

I would find this incredibly hard. I would have a hard time not checking my hot tamale rating too. I guess in the olden days, teachers did not know what students thought of them, and they could just assume they were the ultimate authority and respected by all. Nowadays it sounds so humbling.
Funny read - thanks for sharing.

penelopeto said...

i truly believe you would have been one of my favourtite profs had i enjoyed the good fortune of being one of your students.

blogging kind of brings up the same fears as the evaluations must - it's hard not to feel 'graded' and evaluated by things like comment count, sitemeter, links, shout-outs, etc.

thank god there is no 'hot tamale' rating to worry about in the blogosphere.

is there?

penelopeto said...

'favourtite' being on an even higher plane of admiration than 'favourite.'

nomotherearth said...

I'm with penelopeto in that you kind of feel "graded" by how many comments, etc you get when you blog.

It's hard not to focus on the UMs once someone points them out, huh? I realized that I did this in my training sessions, and now I'm obsessed.

Terri B. said...

Too much fun reading this post!

One of my fave reviews was:
"Spends too much time on C.S. Lewis and not enough time on real literature."

Hmmm ... this was for a C.S. Lewis class. I was also curious about this student's definition of "real literature." I guess this is why they are students.

Christina said...

I remember reading my evals as a TA - all of the TA's would gather together to read them to each other. The person with the dumbest or meanest comment was the one who didn't have to pay for drinks that night.

As an advisor, I also get evaluations from my students. I'm just thankful that so far I haven't had any vindictive ones.

ewe are here said...

I also especially like the last few comments you mentioned. It sounds like overall your students really like you.

The ratemyprofessor.com website has been getting a lot of criticism from teachers over here in the UK lately. They think it's very unfair overall, and was a hot topic on a call in radio show just last week.

I have mixed feelings about the sites. When I was a student, I always filled out my evaluation forms as requested, and I tried really hard to be fair and balanced in my comments, kudos and criticisms. But I know that not everyone treated the evaluations the same way. I think a lot of people do try to be fair. But some used them as a form of 'revenge' for their own poor marks; and some were just mean because they could be. And those people can really skew the overall results.

Mouse said...

I'm awaiting my first set of evaluations in a while. I have always found evaluations and being observed incredibly nerve-wracking, but I know how important they are to helping me improve. But still...

I never ended up on ratemyteachers.com at my last school, and I haven't made it onto ratemyprofessors.com yet (though I haven't checked recently). I seem to generally stay under the radar on those, which I have decided I prefer to the alternatives. I positively loathe both the "popularity" factor on the former site and the "hot tamale" rating on the latter, and wouldn't want to know where I fall on those.

Nancy said...

I've thought before about pursuing education, but I think I'm too thin-skinned to seriously consider it. Like you, I'd focus obsessively on the negative stuff rather than the complimentary remarks.

Singing and dancing, huh? Sounds like you teach a fun class! ;-)