Evaluating Colleagues: Time Well Spent
My last essay discussed how faculty members can compose annual self-evaluation essays that will be personally useful and informative to the faculty or administrative colleagues who read them and that will also encourage those readers to provide useful feedback. This piece addresses the related question of how to write an effective evaluation of a colleague’s annual performance.
When I read annual self-evaluations, I primarily look for evidence about how the individual is progressing toward the next rung on the academic ladder, be that a first tenure-stream position or recognition as a “distinguished university professor.” Frequently, there may be an opportunity to offer concrete advice about a project or tell the individual about potential collaborators with similar interests.
However, I do not read the self-evaluations in isolation, because my college employs a two-stage annual review system. Each individual submits a self-evaluation for the last year’s teaching, research, and service; a small committee reads the self-evaluation, visits the individual’s classroom, and writes an evaluative report. Over the last eight years I have read hundreds of these individual and committee reports, and while nearly all were helpful, some were far more informative than others. In the case of committee reports, those that add the most value to the annual review packet are those that provide the kind of commentary and feedback described here.
If you are requested to write an evaluative report for a colleague’s annual review, find out the expected length, focus, and tone. Then remind yourself that your role is evaluative. Your colleague’s materials (whether a C.V. or a set of essays) will say what he or she has done. But the reader of the evaluation will also want to know (a) whether those actions reveal a deliberate, effective and scholarly approach to teaching, research, or service (b) how the achievements relate to the mission of the unit and (c) what evidence there is for substantial impact. The broader commentary on the context and outcomes of the work is something that you, as a peer or senior colleague, are uniquely situated to provide. As an example, the directions provided to writers of committee reports in my college are here.
Your report should also provide direct and actionable feedback, especially for anyone not at the level of full professor. For new faculty this is a valuable chance for a swift course-correction. But bear in mind that most of us find it hard to hear criticism, so it is important to keep the tone mild and the recommendations specific.
The rest of this article suggests how to approach writing an evaluation of teaching, research, and service. The details of what a faculty member is expected to accomplish and how each kind of activity is weighted relative to the others will vary by institution, and you will need to adapt your report accordingly.
Depending on the practices at your institution, information available to you for evaluating a colleague’s teaching might include: course materials (syllabuses, lab exercises, reading assignments, discussion prompts or exams); firsthand observation of his or her teaching; student evaluations; articles your colleague has written about pedagogy; or even a self-evaluation essay about his or her own teaching.
A cache of course materials can enable you to comment on how clearly the instructor establishes goals for himself or herself as an educator and for the students in his or her classes. Discuss whether readings, discussion topics, and in-class exercises are clear, appropriate, and well-chosen for moving students toward the goals, and whether the tests and assignments are aligned with course goals and designed to measure students’ progress toward mastering complex ideas and skills. See also the suggestions here about evaluation of course materials.
If you visited the classroom, mention whether you used a formal teaching observation tool such as the RTOP. Describe specific teaching methods that were used (e.g., lecture, demonstrations, clicker questions, data-gathering, think-pair-share, minute papers) and comment on how effective they were at helping students engage with particular topics or develop certain skills. Did using clicker questions to display students’ opinions about hunting create a more comfortable atmosphere for the ensuing discussion of Aldo Leopold’s writings? Was performing coin-toss experiments helpful in building students’ understanding of “regression to the mean”?
When student evaluations are available, mention which elements were most informative to you and why. Some comments or scores may reflect directly on a teacher’s ability to communicate with students or inspire enthusiasm; others may reveal whether the students are aware that they have acquired new skills or find themselves better prepared for future courses; others may indicate whether poor organization or an overly ambitious agenda need addressing. If your colleague is new to the profession, these comments will be helpful in guiding her or his understanding of these scores.
As appropriate, comment on whether the individual is taking advantage of opportunities for professional development in teaching. Evidence might include attending workshops on pedagogy, making education-related presentations at conferences, or publishing articles on the scholarship of teaching and learning. These kinds of efforts take extra time and are not always directly rewarded; your positive commentary may be the first indication your colleague receives that this activity is valued. Moreover, if your colleague needs to improve some aspect of his or her teaching, mentioning the availability of teaching workshops on that topic may nudge him or her towards attending.
Where research is part of merit evaluations, those reading your evaluation will want to know how the individual’s scholarly productivity and impact compare to what is expected of someone of comparable rank at a similar institution. In particular, if your colleague needs to focus more energy on a particular area (e.g., grants) in order to progress toward the next rung on the academic ladder, pointing this out is essential.
Publications are a crucial area to address. Commentary about the quality of the journal or press publishing the individual’s work and about available measures of impact (such as citations or reviews) can set a baseline. Be sure to mention how the number of recent publications compares to what is typical of faculty in similar academic situations. Then analyze the content of the work: is the faculty member helping to establish a new area of inquiry? Shedding unexpectedly fresh light on well-trodden ground? Connecting formerly disparate lines of thought? If citations, reviews, or classroom usage reports show that the readership of the work is unusually broad (e.g., animal scientists reading a historian’s articles, or experimental physicists drawing upon a theorist’s models), note this explicitly.
External funding is of increasing interest these days at many institutions. While not all academic units require an individual to obtain sole-PI external funding, many do expect faculty members to actively seek grants, perhaps as part of a collaboration. Thus, your setting a context for the number of grant proposals submitted and funded will be helpful, as will commentary on the size of the grants and the agencies funding them.
All of these things vary greatly by discipline (e.g. multimillion dollar grants from the NIH are the coin of the realm in biomedical fields, while small travel grants from foundations are all that is available in some humanities fields). Readers from other disciplines will find this kind of background especially helpful. In addition, paraphrasing what you have gleaned about your colleague’s intellectual role in a grant-funded project and how the grant is contributing to his or her scholarship provides a helpful check for your colleague. If you cannot correctly describe this based on the materials submitted, then no-one else will understand it either – and that may come back to haunt your colleague at promotion time.
If the materials submitted for your review include draft manuscripts or proposals, mentioning how they contribute to your impression of your colleague’s scholarly trajectory can be helpful. It is not uncommon for someone to have devoted a year to making progress on large projects rather than finishing one or more smaller ones – and acknowledging this can ensure that the single year’s accomplishments are viewed in proper perspective.
Where applicable, items such as mentoring of undergraduate or graduate research students, supervision of postdocs, and presentations of research findings at scholarly meetings should also be analyzed as indicators of the degree to which the individual is living up to expectations in the discipline. At some institutions, these items may be seen as contributions to teaching or service, rather than research; if so, include your remarks about them under the appropriate heading.
In evaluating academic service, keep stressing comparison and analysis. To start, note how the individual’s activity and effectiveness compare to what your institution expects of individuals at that rank. While assistant professors may be nudged towards activities that will acculturate them without demanding too much time, full professors are often asked to take on complex leadership roles. Your report should let a colleague know whether it is time to seek responsibility as an aspiring full professor or to temporarily cut back on service to focus on the teaching or scholarship required for tenure.
Likewise, your analysis of service to the profession should comment not only on quantity and quality of the efforts, but also on their effectiveness at helping the faculty member become more visible in their discipline (e.g., by writing book reviews or organizing conference sessions), gain a reputation for sound judgment (e.g., via refereeing articles or grant proposals), or engage with the public (e.g. through media interviews or public lectures). Giving impartial feedback on whether the faculty member is choosing disciplinary service roles that will aid career advancement is crucial. After all, being asked to serve in an “expert” role is inherently flattering – and each request may involve only a small time commitment. Your commentary on how service fits into the overall academic portfolio can help a colleague allocate time effectively.
Such feedback is especially important for colleagues who belong to groups that are historically underrepresented in your discipline. Research shows that these individuals are often barraged with requests to serve on committees. Statistically speaking, they are also more likely to be in untenured ranks, which can impose an unspoken pressure to accept such requests. Moreover, individuals from under-represented groups often have less access to informal information-sharing networks and may be less aware of the “typical” amount of service expected of faculty members at their rank. Your comments can empower a colleague to reduce an overwhelming service load, and can also signal your department chair or dean when such a reduction is needed. Faculty in my college regularly alert me when a junior colleague is being asked to take on too much service, so I can tell the individual to cite “dean’s advice” as the reason for declining the next request.
Be alert for ways in which the faculty member’s research, teaching service complement one another. Sometimes she will be employing topical expertise in multiple venues, as when a historian of sexuality teaches courses on gender issues and also serves on a campus-wide LGBT task force. Sometimes, one activity may fall into more than one category. This would be the case, for instance, if a physiologist also publishes scholarly articles in biology education, based on research that uses his classes as a laboratory. Or perhaps the faculty member has taught courses that incorporate a service-learning or research project for the students. Given the pressures on faculty time, creative efforts like these should be noted and encouraged – especially if your institution values cross-cutting activities (see, e.g., sections III-D and IV-D of my university's forms).
A thoughtful, even-toned letter of evaluation with specific, actionable suggestions can help a colleague understand how he or she is measuring up to expectations and where additional effort might be needed to reach his or her full potential. This can have a tremendous impact in the longer term, as the colleague applies for promotion, submits grant proposals, or seeks to take on leadership roles. Time invested in writing detailed evaluations is truly time well-spent.
Elizabeth H. Simmons is dean of Lyman Briggs College and professor of physics and astronomy at Michigan State University.