There are professors who find student comments on their end-of-semester evaluations so upsetting that they cry after reading them. If my course evaluations have tended to be pretty good, I can still relate to how faculty members feel, thanks in part to RateMyProfessors.com. Side by side on the site stand evaluations from students who gave me high marks and others who gave me low marks -- in the same exact areas. I can see a host of negative and mediocre rankings for classes I taught very differently some seven years ago -- and one that I never taught at all. I’ve peeked there from time to time and have tried to learn what I could from things students said there, but have not spent a terrible lot of time on the site.
I’ve tended to view what one finds there as akin to YouTube comments -- most are gushing praise or insulting jibes, with very little middle ground. And most people will never comment, leaving the soapbox to those who feel strongly, having had a positive experience or, more likely, a negative one.
And so you can imagine my dismay when my son, who is in high school, told me that he had looked me up on RateMyProfessors.com. I'm sure a worried look crossed my face, but I tried my best to retain my composure. Apparently RateMyProfessors.com had been mentioned on Reddit recently, and anything that is featured prominently on Reddit, my son spots -- almost but not quite always before I do.
As it turned out, my apprehension was unnecessary. As the conversation progressed, I found myself really impressed by my son’s thoughts regarding the comments about my classes that he saw there. One student on the site had written, "I would advise not taking his class because he can't keep the class discussion going." Another complained, "He wasn't good at stimulating conversation." My son, despite still being several years away from university, was astonished by such comments. How, he asked, can students have the audacity to blame the professor for something that is the responsibility of the students themselves?
A conversation that began with fear and trepidation on my part ended with a sense of satisfaction. I had always taken comments on RateMyProfessors.com with a grain of salt. But it was reassuring to realize that a young person, still a student, without my prompting, could draw the same conclusion, based simply on what he knew about online reviews and things that he learned on Reddit. We often despair for humanity reading online comments, whether they are on YouTube, Reddit or RateMyProfessors.
Usually, when it comes to course evaluations, the fact that students are required/compelled/pressured to complete them means that one has a wider range of useful data to work with. If most students have filled in evaluations, and all the comments and ratings are similar, then you know that you really are doing a good/terrible job -- the results are statistically significant. If one only had course evaluations from students who hated or loved the class enough to fill them in, one would probably have a distorted perception of what one has accomplished, whether that perception errs on the side of being too negative or too positive. As with the complaints, the flowing praise of the course and its instructor some students offer may have as much to do with their own work habits and motivation as anything the professor did.
Comments (whether on official evaluations or RateMyProfessors) become less discouraging as one’s career progresses, because one becomes aware of what one is and isn’t able to control. I’ve taught two sections of the exact same class, with the exact same syllabus, back to back on the same days of the week in the same semester. The students from one of those classes gave me some of the highest ratings on the course evaluations that I’ve ever gotten; the students from the other gave me some of the lowest.
I learned some really important lessons from that experience. One was to avoid teaching two sections of the same course in the same semester if I can. But another was that you can do essentially the same things in a classroom, and it is not guaranteed to either succeed or to flop.
Unless you are still approaching classes in the traditional lecture mode, with students expected to write down and reproduce what you say, then your role is probably more like that of a coach. The same coach can work with two different groups of students on the same team at the same university, but they will not necessarily have comparable successes and failures. Because we know that, however much we hold coaches responsible, ultimately it is up to the players on the team to put the training that they are given into practice, to translate it into effective playing in games. In the same way, the same course materials may work really well with one group of students and less well with another. That doesn’t mean the students were necessarily less hardworking. Sometimes it is about their prior knowledge or personality types rather than their motivation or diligence.
I’ve heard lots of faculty complain about “kids these days.” I think such complaints are misguided -- and not just because my son’s reaction to RateMyProfessors.com gives me great hope for “kids these days.” I think we as faculty members are prone to forget that, in many cases, we were not typical students as undergraduates. Those who go on to pursue Ph.D.s and become professors are often those who enjoy learning for its own sake. Don’t you remember there being others in your classes who didn’t participate in discussions, didn’t read beyond the bare minimum, if that, and were content just to drift through classes?
None of the things discussed here are due to new technology, either. Even before there was RateMyProfessors.com, students were spreading the word about professors. And students didn’t require electronic devices to be distracted or tune you out and then rate you negatively for it. I remember early in my teaching career having my department chair tell me that he had heard from another faculty member, who had heard from a student, that I tend to drone on and on in an uninteresting manner in class. The chair sat in on my class soon after that. The discussion was lively, and he was thoroughly happy with it. But there was one student who sat flipping through a magazine or catalog the entire time -- with my department chair sitting right next to them! I can’t help but suspect that that student was the one who felt the class was boring.
It reminds me of this exchange in the Friends episode “The One With Joey’s Fridge”:
Monica: What’s the charity?
Rachel: I don’t know, something either trees or disease -- Ralph mumbles a lot.
Monica: Does Ralph mumble when you’re not paying attention?
Rachel: Yeah! It’s weird…
While there are exceptions, most students who are motivated and diligent do not find even a truly boring professor who mumbles a lot to be a hindrance to learning.
This is not to say that I haven’t undertaken efforts to improve. I have done so, even on the basis of comments on RateMyProfessors.com. One thing I never learned to do earlier in my career was how to use my voice properly. And so I took singing lessons -- in part because of musical interests I happen to have, but also because I suspected that this would improve the clarity of my communication.
I recorded my lectures using Panopto, partly because I wanted to try out the “flipped classroom” approach, but also in part because I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity this technology afforded to listen to what I sound like in class. I made conscious efforts to deal with “ums” and other verbal habits. And I think that these efforts have done more to give students a better experience in my classes than any changes I’ve made with respect to a syllabus or a textbook.
And so what’s the takeaway message of this experience? A number of things come to mind. One is the fact that some things will always depend on the student. Some students will take comments on RateMyProfessors.com seriously, and as a result may never take your class, or may take it and then be disappointed that you did not seem as stellar as that review on the website led them to believe you would be. You can do the same things and they may work well for some students and not for others. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t things you can do to improve. And in the process of developing your teaching ability even into the middle of your career and beyond, you can model lifelong learning to your students in ways that may help them to take responsibility for their own learning.
But ultimately, I think the biggest takeaway message is that there are students out there who have the understanding to perceive what a site like RateMyProfessors.com does and doesn’t tell you. And those students will, I suspect, be the very ones who will have the understanding to perceive what your course is about and engage with it in ways that are conducive to their own learning.
My son had a favorite comment about me from RateMyProfessors.com, and it was this one:
Having been reminded about this comment, I am seriously tempted to make it my Facebook banner. I can live with being described as a jolly leprechaun -- especially by someone who appreciates meaningful discussions about the spirituality and philosophy of science fiction, and who is capable of spelling "leprechaun" correctly, to boot!
I hope this article will provide some encouragement to faculty who feel beaten down and discouraged as a result of comments on RateMyProfessors.com. But if it doesn’t make you feel better, then you can always try using RateYourStudent.com. I don’t think it will convey any more useful information about what students are like than RateMyProfessors.com ratings do about professors. But ultimately, venting is about catharsis, and when we recognize that students and professors do that at times, we will be better poised to learn what we can from the feedback we receive, and having done so, to then move on.
U of All People has missed more than a few boats in academia, including MOOCs and nanosemesters. But one trend we’re determined to ride is the low-residency M.F.A. degree.
Or at least Professor Ronald Whittaker is. As a Victorian specialist and novelist manqué in the English department, he leads the undergraduate creative writing program at U of All People, having published a short story in the small-press journal Journal 15 years ago. Since 2010, he has announced his intention to increase the presence of creative writing on campus, but he lacks the numbers. At present, the department has only Whittaker and Michael Ames, a poet whose day job is composition and more composition.
But a low-residency M.F.A. program doesn’t really have to be a part of campus any more than a limpet mine needs a limpet. Successful programs have arisen in the unlikeliest of schools, and U of All People certainly qualifies in that regard. It even has the potential to generate revenue or, as the dean of liberal arts put it in a closed meeting, “make more money than a cow at a milking convention.” Accordingly, Professor Whittaker has drawn up a program proposal and started pushing it by the 17 different committees whose approval are necessary before it goes through 17 other committees, the last of which is tasked solely with changing all commas to semicolons.
But resources and staffing remain real gaps, which Professor Whittaker has taken pains to cover. Below is an abridged form of the proposal, version 13b:
A Low-Residency M.F.A. Program for All People
Rationale: The purpose of a low-residency M.F.A. program in creative writing is to empower those individuals who are tired of their boring jobs and figure that writing is easier than working. To that end, this low-residency program will provide the illusion of future artistic employment as those enrolled learn the meaning of fourth drafts.
Market research: The 10-mile radius around the U of All People campus alone, a rural town whose chief business is sorghum, boasts 500 wannabe authors, eager to experience the writer’s life of rejection, alienation and poverty. Moreover, a hastily circulated questionnaire shows that many of Professor Whittaker’s creative writing students would happily repeat the course.
Program of studies: The AW low-residency M.F.A. program at U of AP comprises 40 credit hours or 13 modules, whatever a module is:
--3 workshops, I, II, and III. Taught by Professor Ronald Whittaker, Ph.D.
--3 craft seminars, including the Victorian novel, Victorian prose and Tennyson. Also basic composition refresher course. Dr. Lardon Thwaitker.
--1 reading series. Arnold Hittwaker and Michael Ames.
--3 panels on editing and publishing, put on by Roland Tweakhirt Associates.
--1 publishing internship at R. W. Press. Repeatable for credit.
--Short-term subjects (take 2):
Writing pedagogy (teach one of Michael Ames’s composition classes).
Putting a book together (assemble pages from Arnold Hittwaker’s unfinished novel, Strewn Boats).
Networking in the publishing world (the English department chair has an uncle who once worked at Scribner’s).
--Terms of residence: Students come to the U of All People campus twice a year for 10-day periods to start their semesters, after which they return to wherever they came from, and Ronald Whittaker will stay in touch.
--Thesis project: all students must complete a book-length work of words.
--Consultant’s report, still to come, to be presented by I. M. Canine (anyone can be a consultant).
David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is the short story collection My Date With Neanderthal Woman (Dzanc Books).
Some 65 percent of tenured senior faculty members plan to put off retirement for various reasons, according to a new study from the TIAA-CREF Institute. But the reasons behind that figure might not be what you think. Just 16 percent of respondents said they’d like to retire by the “normal” retirement age of 67 but expected to work longer for financial reasons. A much bigger proportion of respondents -- 49 percent -- said they’d want to work past age 67 by choice.
Those findings are similar to what was observed in a similar 2013 TIAA-CREF study on faculty retirement: that faculty members were putting off retirement, but not just for financial reasons in a still-bumpy economy. Some of those choices are based on “unconfirmed assumptions,” according to the report -- either that faculty members won’t have enough money to retire or that they won’t find viable work alternatives. Female faculty members are more likely than their male colleagues to expect to retire by normal retirement age. Paul J. Yakoboski, a senior economist who co-authored the report, said universities should talk to faculty members about both the financial and psychosocial aspects of retirement so that they can make informed choices. The full report is available here.
Many faculty members are quitting jobs in Venezuela, where they are finding it impossible to support themselves on government-mandated salaries that are as low as the equivalent of $30 a month, the Associated Press reported. At the Central University of Venezuela, for example, 700 faculty members (out of a total of 4,000) have quit in the last four years.
The five largest research publishers (a group that changes a bit by discipline) started publishing half of academic papers in 2006, up from 30 percent in 1996 and 20 percent in 1973, according to new research published Wednesday in PLOS ONE by researchers at the University of Montreal. The piece argues that this concentration has reached oligopoly status and poses dangers to academic publishing. “Overall, the major publishers control more than half of the market of scientific papers both in the natural and medical sciences and in the social sciences and humanities,” said Vincent Larivière, a professor in Montreal's School of Library and Information Science, who led the study. “Furthermore, these large commercial publishers have huge sales, with profit margins of nearly 40 percent. While it is true that publishers have historically played a vital role in the dissemination of scientific knowledge in the print era, it is questionable whether they are still necessary in today's digital era.”
John Tagler, vice president and executive director for professional and scholarly publishing at the Association of American Publishers, had this response, via email: “The forces of consolidation are not unique to the scholarly publishing industry,” he said. “In an era of globalization and large-scale technological implementations, there are benefits to spreading infrastructure investment and maintenance across a broad spectrum of products. In digital publishing this has resulted in a diverse market of providers and faster and more robust delivery of information to readers.”
Most people agree that faculty performance evaluations should be based on more than student feedback, grants and publication counts. But what does a more complete evaluation process look like? And how would a more progressive department function? The New American Colleges and Universities’ answer is Redefining the Paradigm: Faculty Models to Support Student Learning. The new monograph is based on new faculty evaluation models at NAC&U member institutions, and pushes other colleges and universities to rethink traditional department structures and processes to better support student learning. The monograph promotes the development of “holistic departments” that reject the arguably outdated scholarship-teaching-service faculty evaluation model in favor of processes that are more fluid and responsive to the changing faculty role and departmentwide needs. It also promotes active learning, in which professors are not “sages on the stage” but rather guides in research and other experiential learning.
The Teagle Foundation supported the project. Judith Shapiro, Teagle Foundation president and former president of Barnard College, recently wrote about the benefits of a redefined faculty paradigm here. Representatives from the Sage Colleges and Valparaiso University talked about their involvement with the project at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. “One of the big issues here is to relook at teaching, scholarship and service and the collapsing boundaries between the three,” David Salomon, co-editor of the monograph and a professor of English and director of undergraduate research at the Sage Colleges, said at the time. “In a holistic department, someone might pick up more service, and we want to make sure we account for that in the evaluation, as well.”
The Library of Congress today named Juan Felipe Herrera, professor emeritus of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside, the next U.S. poet laureate. Herrera is the author of 28 books of poetry, novels for young adults and collections for children. In a statement, James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress, said, “I see in Herrera’s poems the work of an American original -- work that takes the sublimity and largesse of 'Leaves of Grass' and expands upon it. His poems engage in a serious sense of play -- in language and in image -- that I feel gives them enduring power. I see how they champion voices and traditions and histories, as well as a cultural perspective, which is a vital part of our larger American identity.”
Herrera will be the first Latino to hold the position of poet laureate.
Reading the Emancipation Proclamation for the first time is an unforgettable experience. Nothing prepares you for how dull it turns out to be. Ranking only behind the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in its consequences for U.S. history, the document contains not one sentence that has passed into popular memory. It was the work, not of Lincoln the wordsmith and orator, but of Lincoln the attorney. In fact, it sounds like something drafted by a group of lawyers, with Lincoln himself just signing off on it.
Destroying an institution of systematic brutalization -- one in such contradiction to the republic’s professed founding principles that Jefferson’s phrase “all men are created equal” initially drew protests from slave owners -- would seem to require a word or two about justice. But the proclamation is strictly a procedural document. The main thrust comes from an executive order issued in late September 1862, “containing, among other things, the following, to wit: ‘That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free….’”
Then -- as if to contain the revolutionary implications of that last phrase -- the text doubles down on the lawyerese. The proclamation itself was issued on the aforesaid date, in accord with the stipulations of the party of the first part, including the provision recognizing “the fact that any State, or the people thereof, shall on that day be, in good faith, represented in the Congress of the United States by members chosen thereto at elections wherein a majority of the qualified voters of such State shall have participated, shall, in the absence of strong countervailing testimony, be deemed conclusive evidence that such State, and the people thereof, are not then in rebellion against the United States.”
In other words: “If you are a state, or part of a state, that recognizes the union enough to send representatives to Congress, don’t worry about your slaves being freed right away and without compensation. We’ll work something out.”
Richard Hofstadter got it exactly right in The American Political Tradition (1948) when he wrote that the Emancipation Proclamation had “all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading.” It is difficult to believe the same author could pen the great memorial speech delivered at Gettysburg a few months later -- much less the Second Inaugural Address.
But to revisit the proclamation after reading Edna Greene Medford’s Lincoln and Emancipation (Southern Illinois University Press) is also a remarkable experience -- a revelation of how deliberate, even strategic, its lawyerly ineloquence really was.
Medford, a professor of history at Howard University, was one of the contributors to The Emancipation Proclamation: Three Views (Louisiana State University Press, 2006). Her new book is part of SIUP’s Concise Lincoln Library, now up to 17 volumes. Medford’s subject overlaps with topics covered by earlier titles in the series (especially the ones on race, Reconstruction and the Eighteenth Amendment) as well as with works such as Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (Norton, 2010).
Even so, Medford establishes her own approach by focusing not only on Lincoln’s ambivalent and changing sense of what he could and ought to do about slavery (a complex enough topic in its own right) but also on the attitudes and activities of a heterogeneous and dispersed African-American public with its own priorities.
For Lincoln, abolishing the institutionalized evils of slavery was a worthy goal but not, as such, an urgent one. As of 1860, his primary concern was that it not spread to the new states. After 1861, it was to defeat the slaveholders’ secession -- but without making any claim to the power to end slavery itself. He did support efforts to phase it out by compensating slave owners for manumission. (Property rights must be respected, after all, went the thinking of the day.) His proposed long-term solution for racial conflict was to send the emancipated slaves to Haiti, Liberia, or someplace in Central America to be determined.
Thanks in part to newspapers such as The Weekly Anglo-African, we know how free black citizens in the North responded to Lincoln, and it is clear that some were less than impressed with his antislavery credentials. “We want Nat Turner -- not speeches,” wrote one editorialist; “Denmark Vesey -- not resolutions; John Brown -- not meetings.” Especially galling, it seems, were Lincoln’s plans to reimburse former slave owners for their trouble while uprooting ex-slaves from land they had worked for decades. African-American commentators argued that Lincoln was getting it backward. They suggested that the ex-slaves be compensated and their former masters shipped off instead.
To boilMedford’s succinct but rich narrative down into something much more schematic, I’ll just say that Lincoln’s cautious regard for the rights of property backfired. Frederick Douglass wrote that the slaves “[gave] Mr. Lincoln credit for having intentions towards them far more benevolent and just than any he is known to cherish…. His pledges to protect and uphold slavery in the States have not reached them, while certain dim, undefined, but large and exaggerated notions of his emancipating purpose have taken firm hold of them, and have grown larger and firmer with every look, nod, and undertone of their oppressors.” African-American Northerners and self-emancipating slaves alike joined the Union army, despite all the risks and the obstacles.
The advantage this gave the North, and the disruption it created in the South, changed abolition from a moral or political concern to a concrete factor in the balance of forces -- and the Emancipation Proclamation, for all its uninspired and uninspiring language, was Lincoln’s concession to that reality. He claimed the authority to free the slaves of the Confederacy “by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion.”
Despite its fundamentally practical motivation and its avoidance of overt questions about justice, the proclamation was a challenge to the American social and political order that had come before. And it seems to have taken another two years before the president himself could spell out its implications in full, in his speech at the Second Inaugural. The depth of the challenge is reflected in the each week's headlines, though to understand it better you might want to read Medford's little dynamite stick of a book first.