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  • Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Friday Fragments
April 25, 2014 - 3:52am

The Girl asked earlier this week why there isn’t a metric system for time.  We have sixty seconds in a minute, sixty minutes in an hour, and twenty-four hours in a day.  That makes math unnecessarily clunky.  Why not divide the day into tenths, hundredths, and thousandths?

I didn’t have a good answer for that.

--

Rebecca Schuman’s latest in Slate is well worth the read.  She launches what starts out as a fairly standard attack on student evaluations of professors, but she gives it a welcome twist.  Concur in part, dissent in part.

In brief, student evaluations have been shown to be affected by factors beyond what most of us would consider teaching quality.  One that I’ve seen has been adherence to gender norms.  Male professors are rewarded for “alpha” behavior, and female professors are rewarded for “nurturing” behavior; people who cross types get punished.  And there’s always the question of grading standards. 

To her credit, though, Schuman notes that many of the obvious or popular alternatives are also untenable.  Peer evaluations are notoriously subject to internal political pressures.  Administrative observations are usually one-time snapshots. and only as good as the administrator in question.  Performance in followup courses conflates the performances of two classes, and presumes the existence of followup courses.  (Many gen ed classes are standalones.)  And just giving up altogether and assuming that everybody is practically perfect in every way fails the “basic plausibility” test.  Even if you assume that most faculty are at least pretty good -- in my observation, that’s true -- it still doesn’t follow that every single one is.

Schuman suggests requiring students to put their names on their evaluations.  (The evals would be hidden from view until grades had been submitted.)  The idea is to discourage what on the internet we call trolling.

I agree that names would probably get around some of the most inappropriate and offensive comments, and I’d personally be fine with trying it.  (Our evaluation forms are collectively bargained, so this isn’t just my call.)  But to me, the issue is less how the forms are written than how they are read.  This is where administrators need to know what to look for, whether or not the forms are signed.

Let’s say you have a scale from 1 to 7, with 7 being the best.  Most scores will cluster from about 4 to about 6.5.  Except when mandated by contract to notice, I pay those little mind (and variations in the range even less).  I look for the 1’s and 2’s.  When the same names appear in that range repeatedly, that’s a red flag.  That’s where I’m likely to dig deeper.  Yes, there may be variations of a couple tenths of a point by gender, but that doesn’t explain why Ashley has a 1.5 and Sophia has a 6 semester after semester.

Comments are harder to systematize, but there, too, a savvy reader knows what to look for.  Most are vague or irrelevant.  (In my t.a. days, a student wrote that I was the only t.a. she had whose accent she could understand.  Uh, thanks?)  A few complaints along the lines of “too hard!” or “we have other classes, too!” are to be expected.  The comments that raise eyebrows for me are along the lines of “prof misses a lot of classes” (when most students say it) or “prof takes two months to grade papers.”  Over the years, I’ve seen both.

In other words, it’s about using evaluations to spot negative outliers.  And even there, it’s only a first indicator.  After a decade-plus of administration, I can tell you with some confidence that students’ collective identification of outliers tends to be pretty accurate.  Variations in the middle should be ignored.

If the only evaluations you ever see are your own, it’s easy to overestimate the impact of any given comment or score.  But when you see the vast sweep of them, you realize that most of the randomness comes out in the wash.  So sure, go ahead and lobby for names on them.  I think you’ll be surprised at how little difference it actually makes.

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Sometimes the right metaphor is staring you in the face.

Last night I had to pick up The Boy from baseball practice, which ran weirdly long.  While waiting,  I combed through highlights of the day’s Twitter feed, and came across Libby Nelson’s tweet asking why colleges still have print newspapers.  Print journalism is not exactly a thriving industry.  I had responded with a similar question about college radio stations.  I absolutely loved my time at my college station, but in 2014 it’s difficult to maintain with a straight face that radio is a growth industry.

Then I looked up and saw The Boy and his friends practicing their fielding, and the answer came to me.

TB isn’t playing baseball to prepare for a career as a baseball player.  With my chromosomes, the chances of his coordination being good enough to hit a major league curveball are basically zero.  But that’s okay; that’s not why he plays.  He plays because it’s fun, and because it’s a great way to spend time with friends and build skills and confidence. 

Looking back on college radio, I’d make similar claims there.  I never worked in radio professionally, and have no plans to.  But college radio was great fun, I learned a lot about organizations, and it gave me practice communicating with the public.  It was a great liberal arts experience.

With newspapers, the claim is even easier.  The particular form may be dying, but the ability to corral disparate facts into a readable narrative still matters.  And newspaper staffs bond like radio staffs or baseball teams. 

I’d love to see similar activities that also have brighter futures of their own start to catch on.  But in the meantime, let’s keep those papers coming.

--

Fifteen years ago this week, TW and I got married. 

Looking back, we were pretty clueless, but I don’t know how we couldn’t have been.  That’s just how it works. 

Now we have an almost-teenager (next month!), a nine-year-old, and a dog.  The house is a lot fuller than that first condo was.  We’ve already outlasted my parents’ marriage.

I’m not sure how to express fifteen years in metric, so I’ll just say, I love you, honey.

 

 

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