I recently had my final “seminar” meeting of the semester with the students enrolled in my United States history survey course. I lecture to these students on Monday and Wednesday of each week and then I meet with four small groups of them on Thursday and Friday afternoons.
On Friday afternoon–my fourth and last seminar of the week (and the semester)–I led the students through what I thought was a very good session on Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. I then thanked the class for a good semester and told them that I appreciated their willingness to take the class seriously and engage with the ideas that I tried to present to them. This particular seminar included a lot of juniors and seniors (who were obviously putting off taking this general education class until the end of their college experience) and as a result the conversation and level of engagement was a lot higher than the other seminars, which were made up of mostly first and second-year students. I praised them for their effort and told them that I really enjoyed teaching them this semester.
As I expressed my appreciation to them and for them, it suddenly hit me that I had planned to have them do a teacher evaluation of the course. I can honestly say that my words of appreciation for them were from the heart, but now I realized that those words of thanks might come across to some students in the class as a lame attempt to garner a good evaluation from them. I jokingly told them that I really meant what I said about their performance during the semester and that I was not just “saying that” to get them to write nice things about me on the evaluation. They laughed and we had a good time with my blunder, but I could not help thinking that some of them thought I had tried to manipulate them by trying to stack the course evaluation deck in my favor.
I should also confess that I did not lose any sleep over this incident. As a professor with tenure I am not overly worried about negative evaluations. But I did wonder how many pre-tenured professors who need strong student evaluations in order to get promoted have been tempted to give the students what they want rather than what they need.
There is a lot of weight placed on student evaluations these days–probably too much weight. Most students, when filling out such an evaluation, do not fully understand that their comments could impact the career of their professor. What appears to be a fifteen-minute exercise at the end of a class period can have serious implications when those half-baked critiques find their way into a tenure folder. It should thus not surprise us that professors feel the need to appeal to the consumer instincts of their students in order to secure good evaluations.
I started thinking a bit about this after reading Diane Auer Jones’s recent post over at the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s “Brainstorm” blog.
In a perfect world — in fact, in the world in which many of us once lived — the instructor evaluation would serve as an important tool for seeking student feedback on, for example, the organization of the syllabus, the amount of time devoted to one topic versus another, the effectiveness of new pedagogical techniques, the use of instructional technology, or even the readability of a new textbook or laboratory manual. Many years ago when I was a faculty member, I actually used to look forward to reading my students’ comments, which were generally thoughtful, informative, and helpful to me in designing my course for the next semester. Sure, there was an occasional nasty comment, but comments that ranked me somewhere near God could be ignored as easily as those that put me somewhere beneath the Devil.
But with college administrators eager to quantify the quality of the teaching that takes place in their institutions, Jones argues that schools were forced to adopt a “student-as-consumer model” in which the “instructor evaluation took on the role of customer-satisfaction survey.” Jones continues:
it no longer mattered whether or not the instructor actually both forced and helped the student learn how to balance a chemical equation or speak a difficult foreign language. Instead, the focus switched to whether or not the student, as a consumer, “liked” the experience.
With this model in place, the “good” teachers are the ones who give the students what they want, which is usually some form of entertainment. These teachers fill their classes and win teaching awards. As Jones notes:
For this generation of students who are accustomed to getting their news from comedians rather than serious journalists — and for whom educational theorists had transformed their K-12 experience into one of edutainment — they may not even know how to evaluate anything other than whether or not your class made them feel good, or made them laugh, or helped the time pass by quickly, or didn’t interrupt their social life too much (could they keep up with their texting and Facebook dialogues while sitting through your lectures?).
As you might imagine, Jones rejects this “student as consumer” model of higher education:
It is time that we help our students understand what it means to be a scholar. They know what it means to be a consumer, but we need to teach them how to be a learner. We shouldn’t be shocked that they behave as consumers given that we lure them to our campuses with fancy marketing brochures that make vast promises about amenities and travel opportunities and focus little attention on learning opportunities. But at some point in the process, we need to teach them how to learn. One way to get started would be to structure instructor evaluations in a way that helps the student understand the role of the instructor, which is not to spoon-feed, to entertain, or to reduce rigor, but instead to lead, to motivate, to challenge, and to help the student question his or her own beliefs, assumptions, attitudes, and knowledge.
Jones is right. It is time that we stop serving donuts to our class on the day the teacher evaluation is to be conducted. Fun field trips, funny cartoons, and fancy power-point presentations should be utilized more in service to the educational process than our own professional advancement. I realize that this is easy to say as a tenured professor, but I do think it is imperative that college administrators do something to weaken the temptation of appealing to the consumer impulses of students.