Scathing Online Schoolmarm

A vain man struggles with the threat to his self-importance that student evaluations represent.


June 30, 2007

A vain man struggles with the threat to his self-importance that student evaluations represent.

His writing, in the New York Times, is an example of something UDs written about on University Diaries I, her main campus, in relation to another New York Times writer, Jane Brody: If you're not a very good writer, your writing may reveal unpleasant elements of your character. These elements, which you do not wish to reveal, but which your inability to control your writing will out, may fatally distract your reader from the content of your argument.

The writer, David Holmberg, a man of the left, has strong political views. A piece he wrote for The Nation elicited a furious letter from someone he interviewed about the Emmett Till case:

Holmberg provided misinformation to your readers by not accurately quoting me and, in several instances, by misquoting me regarding my supposed subjects--from conversations that were strictly off the record. One individual erroneously mentioned by name in the troubling piece later contacted me by phone. "This article has ruined my family!" he said. I never identified any individual when speaking to Holmberg, neither confirming nor denying his speculative assumptions. I certainly did not quote any source by name at any time. Holmberg's actions have cast The Nation in a dreadful light.

Holmberg's response makes pretty clear that he considers what he calls his responsibility to "history itself" to be a higher imperative than source protection:

... I'm sympathetic with his concerns, but I don't consider it journalistically responsible to indefinitely withhold possibly important information about a historically significant case. And as a practical matter, it's not possible in a competitive journalistic environment.... As for compromising or jeopardizing his sources, that's a risk journalists take every day when they decide to publish a story. It can't be used as a permanent excuse for sitting on information that's vital to the public, and in this case to the possible administration of justice and to history itself.

Let's take a look at Holmberg's New York Times piece.

'We know, aphoristically, about sticks and stones breaking our bones and words being comparatively harmless. But those of us who work with words professionally may be especially susceptible to etymological wounds. [ Already a bit strange. Etymology refers to the study of the history of words. UD's been wounded by words, sure, but never by the study of the history of words .] I have been a working journalist and a part-time professor, both of which harbor a verbal vulnerability factor — or should I call it a linguistic punishment index?

During four decades or so in the journalistic trenches [cliche], I tried to develop a resilience to tough critiques by editors, reporters, readers; that seemed de rigueur to protect one's sanity. Then I started teaching journalism, as an adjunct professor at New York University for four years and at Drew University in Madison, N.J., for one year. And much to my chagrin, I realized again just how hurtful words can be. As the focus of student evaluations, I suddenly became the reader, not the writer, and I started to react as other readers might when they think they have been wounded in print. [ The writer wants us to believe that the notorious rough language of adults in newspaper and magazine offices is less wounding than student evaluation form language. UD finds this unpersuasive. ]

An established tool of student empowerment in American higher education, student evaluations are a staple in all classes at the end of each semester. A journalist-professor friend who is less than enamored of teaching caustically refers to them as "customer service." Translation: He has been burned by his students. But his larger meaning is that higher education, like American society in general, is increasingly market-driven, and by his jaded reckoning a student and his parents are not markedly different from Harry the Striving Suburbanite roaming the aisles of Home Depot. [This is a guy who wants to write caustic American satire. His style only manages a sneer.]

Student response to the product must be quantified — a college education is a product for which someone is paying upward of $40,000 a year. Just as television executives cannot assume that people are watching their channels and approving of what they put on the air, the powers-that-be in higher education cannot afford to be less than responsive to the reactions of their fussy postadolescent clientele. [ I haven't marked all the cliches this writer has already used, but I trust you've noted them. The writer's effort to reduce the whole business of course evaluation to profit-driven baby-sitting has failed, but he is certainly succeeding in drawing a personal character sketch. ]

So you have course evaluations. First, there are the forms. Students fill in blanks to rate the correctness of several statements about their classroom experiences. Here are three typical statements from a Drew University evaluation form: "Sequence of course material was logical and systematically organized." "Instructor was clear and understandable in giving explanations." "Instructor seemed open to and interested in the concerns of students."

Then students are encouraged to add written comments — anonymously, as with the forms. Take your best shot, or give credit where credit is due: those are the implied options. In my pedagogical innocence, I failed to realize at first how much impact evaluations could have, especially those scrawled comments that ranged from harsh indictments ("Professor Holmberg is the worst professor I've had at N.Y.U.") to high praise ("Professor Holmberg is a great editor.") [How much impact they could have on him, that is. Most professors, receiving empty generalities like these about how great or horrendous they are, dismiss them.]

The "worst professor" comment came, I am virtually certain, from a schmoozing student who curried favor with me throughout the semester. But during our one-on-one semester's-end interview that I had with all my students, he said sarcastically about this presumably helpful ritual: "Are you trying to be a talk-show host, or what?" [Put aside the image of this man squirreling about in search of the identities of students who hurt his self-esteem. ...This is Scathing Online Schoolmarm, not Scathing Online Freudian... Note only his deadly overuse of adverbs: virtually, sarcastically, presumably...]

Only in retrospect did I recognize the underlying hostility of this silly remark. (As always, incidentally, I determined this unnamed student's probable identity by carefully and compulsively analyzing the few facts the students gave about themselves on the forms — the grades they expected in the class, for instance. It was a pathetic sight, no doubt: the old, aggrieved journalist-professor poring over the slings and arrows from youth in bloom who had penetrated his sheltered universe.) [Again, ain't this weird? What sort of journalist gives a shit about what pishers say? And maybe the writer means these excruciating cliches -- youth in bloom, slings and arrows -- to be ironic, but it's not coming off.]

The bottom-line appraisal of me at N.Y.U. by a supervising faculty member: I was a "fair to good" teacher. That was probably an equitable assessment, and as far as I could determine, it was based largely on the senior faculty's evaluation of evaluations. At N.Y.U. and Drew, I was not subjected to classroom visits and critiques by full-time faculty members. So it doesn't appear to be an exaggeration to say that in higher education the students often make the call on the caliber of their teachers. [A confused paragraph. If the appraisal was fair, why does he go on to say that it wasn't fair, based not on adult visits to his classrooms, but exclusively on student evaluation?]

Sad to say, because Drew is such an exemplary school that in one of my three classes there I experienced the worst psychic injury in my university stint — from words I thought were severely lacking in intellectual openness and self-knowledge. I began the semester with what I hoped was an illuminating discussion of the digital revolution and its impact on print journalism. And throughout the term, as I had done routinely at N.Y.U., I used The Times as an educational tool. I tried very hard to convey the value and enormously important traditions of print, of quality journalism. [See how all of his intensifiers and qualifiers and cliches not only muck up his prose, but somehow evoke for us a man whose pomposity and offended sense of personal greatness create self-involved, petulant forms of expression?]

But in their evaluations, 4 out of 11 students ignored my efforts [Well, you've told us you tried "very hard," but we're not compelled to believe you. Maybe you didn't. Maybe those four students were right. Your writing hasn't been able to make us like and trust you enough to put us securely on your side in the case.] and attacked my journalistic and professorial credibility in what was for me an unprecedented fashion. They said I showed a "liberal bias" by using The Times in class (perhaps echoing the political bent of their parents, as the young are wont to do) [Or perhaps his students noted what Holmberg himself does not note in his bio for this piece -- his most high-profile writing has been for The Nation.], and two students said — glibly and absurdly in my view — that the class was of no benefit because of my perceived bias. One said bluntly, "I learned nothing from this class." Another — very likely a medical student with whom I worked more than the rest because she was outside her field — said that "I did not learn anything in this class besides a strong dislike of The N.Y. Times. There was no journalistic background taught."

That last remark was so stunningly and obviously wrongheaded [ Pause a moment with me to collect our last batch of mad-as-hell adverbs: glibly, absurdly, bluntly, stunningly, obviously... See what I mean about how prose can do you in? The guy's sputtering with outraged self-love.] that I nearly tore up the evaluation sheet. An overreaction to be avoided, of course. My always-supportive English department chairman calmed me down, and with the acuity of a true educator put student evaluations in perspective. She explained that there was an ambivalence about New York implicit in the suburban students' comments, in addition to the political component. I thanked her for her wise counsel and began bracing myself for another set of evaluations: this summer I'll be teaching a course in introductory journalism at Drew.'

UD's heart goes out to his department chair. Here's a paranoid furious man doing personal searches on students who've offended him, practically tearing up evaluation sheets, getting wretched evaluations ... What the hell can she say? She's gotta think fast. Why do his students dislike him? The reasons are as obvious to her as they are to us, but... uh... no, it's... suburban bias against the big city! Reactionary parents have ruined your students! Calm down, man!



Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top