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Essay urging a new option for faculty on course evaluations

Pass-Fail Option for Professors
August 6, 2012

There is a lot of pressure on academic institutions to be innovative these days, and faculty members are often characterized as roadblocks to change. Given the entrenched and highly structured rewards system within which we operate, it should come as no surprise that many faculty colleagues are risk-averse when it comes to exploring new trends in scholarship or pedagogy. Rather than bemoaning the hidebound, luddite, or traditionalist nature of faculty, anyone who wants to encourage innovative teaching and scholarship at their college or university should instead ask, what are the institutional barriers to experimentation here, and how might they be lowered?

When it comes to teaching, a highly personal and performative activity, fear of failure can take many forms. But for many faculty members it is crystallized in a single, dreaded object: the student course evaluation. The possibility of receiving negative student evaluations can be a powerful deterrent to colleagues who may be interested in incorporating new technology, radically altering course design, or exploring new areas of expertise. In an effort to counter that fear, we have just instituted a new policy at Middlebury College that allows faculty to designate new courses as exempt from official course evaluations -- a system that quickly became known as the "pass/fail option for faculty."

As provost, I had appointed some 40 colleagues last fall to task forces on curricular innovation that were charged with developing proposals to promote pedagogical, technological, and interdisciplinary experimentation. Though group discussions were energetic and forward-looking, it quickly became apparent that the perceived risks of experimentation could stand in the way of individual faculty adoption of many of the best ideas that emerged. In the hope of creating a receptive atmosphere for the task force recommendations, I proposed that we consider adjusting the institutional expectations embodied in our three major processes of faculty evaluation — course response forms, annual salary forms, and reviews for reappointment and promotion — in ways that might encourage innovation in both teaching and scholarship. After consultation with relevant faculty committees, we have already made the recommended adjustments in two of these areas. (As someone who has been involved in discussions about the challenges of evaluating digital scholarship, I was not surprised that the third area, review language, was less of a slam dunk).

The new course evaluation policy is simple: all faculty members who have completed two full years of teaching will have the option of designating one course every two years as "course response form-optional." In such courses, the standard evaluations will be distributed to students, and collected, but returned to the instructor only (who may then stipulate whether or not they should be included in their central administrative files). Like the student who chooses to take a particular course pass/fail in order to mitigate his or her fear of exploring unknown territory, an instructor who is trying something new now has the option of teaching an "ungraded" course.

While we take course evaluations very seriously at Middlebury, they are only one data point in a peer review process that includes multiple classroom visits by a candidate’s department chair, some senior colleagues, and all three members of the collegewide tenure and promotions committee. We are confident that omitting two or three sets of evaluations from a colleague’s multiyear file will not preclude a rigorous assessment of their teaching. In my experience, having sat with T&P committees for a number of years, and read many thousands of course evaluations, sound judgments about teaching effectiveness rest on discerning patterns over time and across course types, and not on judging the success of any one or two courses.

This policy represents a small change, but I believe it has symbolic value: it says that we do not equate teaching excellence with perfection, but instead expect all teachers to be lifelong learners, even at the art of teaching. It says that we trust faculty colleagues to do their best, even when no one is looking over their shoulders. And it says that an institution that demands innovation has to support innovation. Much of the current commentary about higher education emphasizes the imminent dangers of disruption from without; the best way to cushion that disruption, in my view, is to welcome change from within.


 

Bio

Alison Byerly holds an interdisciplinary appointment as college professor at Middlebury College, where she also served until recently as provost and executive vice president. While on leave in 2012-13, she is a visiting scholar in literature at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her book Are We There Yet? Virtual Travel and Victorian Realism is forthcoming this fall from the University of Michigan Press.

 

 

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