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Observing Classes Outside Your Field
November 3, 2013 - 9:19pm

Any dean will face this at some point. You have to do a classroom observation as part of a professor’s evaluation protocol, but the professor teaches a subject in which you have no background. What do you do?

I’ve faced this one myself. At my previous college, I was responsible for everything in the humanities and social sciences. Among other things, that meant observing classes in which I had less background than the students, such as Advanced Music Theory or Italian II. That didn’t excuse me from doing observations, though.

The best way I’ve found for handling cases like those is to be realistic about what you’re observing. Nobody is a subject-matter expert in everything, and it would be absurd to expect that anyone could be.  So instead of thinking of myself as the Content Police -- a quixotic task in the best of times -- I reframed the observation. Instead of focusing entirely on what the professor was doing, I focused largely on what the students were doing. 

That meant looking less at content -- honestly, I have no idea whether every chord resolution was correct -- and more at the structure of the class and the demeanor of the students. Does the professor seem to have the students’ respect? (That shows in a lot of different ways, but when it’s missing, you can tell.)  Does everyone seem to know what to expect? Are the students engaged, or is it a sea of thousand-yard stares?  Is there a discernible structure to the class? 

In a sense, that’s where having a fresh perspective can be useful. As an outside observer, you’re stepping into a course that has already been running for a month or two.  It has established its own rhythm.  Coming in from the outside, you haven’t been privy to any of that; you just see a snapshot.  Sometimes a snapshot can reveal odd and unintended things that have gradually come to seem normal in that context. 

That’s obviously limited, which is why it’s important that any meaningful evaluation protocol have multiple inputs. Student evaluations are imperfect in many ways, but students are in a position to notice certain sorts of things -- like a professor not bothering to return papers for a month -- that no expert, no matter how sharp, could possibly pick up in a single day.  Informal peer observations can be helpful with specific content, as well as with the culture and practices of a given department.  Deans’ observations can be useful in bringing new eyes to the process, and in the case of experienced deans, bringing suggestions to the faculty picked up from seeing the best of their colleagues.

No single input is flawless, of course, but having multiple inputs can correct for some of the worst flaws of any one. A dean is one person, so a dean’s writeup is vulnerable to the charge of being “subjective” to some degree.  But if the dean’s observation is consistent with what students report, there’s probably something there.

The mysterious case, for me, is when the dean and the students disagree dramatically.  I had that happen many years ago at DeVry. I observed a professor whom many students loathed, and I honestly couldn’t see what the fuss was about.  In class, everything seemed pretty straightforward; he presented the material clearly, the students were with him, and nothing seemed odd.  If I hadn’t known his reputation beforehand, I would have considered it a solid B or B-plus performance and forgotten about it.  Yet for reasons I never really understood, students hated him.  I noted his student evals, because I had to, but wound up going with what I saw.  Whatever they didn’t like, I couldn’t see it. 

The opposite case is easier.  I’ve observed classes in which my first, visceral reaction was “wow, I would never do that…,” but they worked anyway.  That’s where observing the students pays off.  If the students are engaged, the wheels are turning, and all seems well, it’s usually best to bracket your own stylistic differences and call it good.  In the current parlance, it’s about “outcomes” rather than “inputs;” if the professor gets good results and isn’t doing anything unethical, put aside matters of personal taste and move on to the next class.  (I once saw a professor do an in-class version of “Jeopardy” to teach Freud.  It worked, though I, personally, would never have done that.) 

The key is to recognize the limited role of the dean’s observation.  Let the department focus on content, and rely on the students for feedback about things you’d never catch in a single day, like frequent absences or painfully late grading.  You can’t be, and don’t have to be, the expert on everything.  Just look for engagement and a few basics, and trust that the rest will show up in other ways.

Program Note: The blog will be on break for a few days, as I gear up for a talk at the NEACRAO conference in Newport.

 

 

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