Leveraging Your Annual Evaluation
In the first of a two-part series on yearly reviews, Elizabeth Simmons suggests how faculty members can frame their self-evaluative essays in ways that help them and their institutions.
When I tell new faculty that evaluation month is one of my favorite times of year, their expressions range from mildly skeptical to frankly incredulous. But I really do enjoy reading the materials and holding hourlong chats with the faculty members about their work. Along the way, I always learn some fascinating tidbits about hot issues in disparate areas of academe and discover creative new teaching methods to try. Best of all, I know that the annual evaluation process, when done right, illuminates faculty members’ progress toward their career goals.
Our college employs a multistage annual review. Each faculty member writes a self-evaluation covering teaching, research, and service; a small committee reads the self-evaluation and accompanying materials, visits the person’s classes, and writes a report. Over the last eight years I have read hundreds of these individual and committee reports, and while nearly all were helpful, some were far more informative than others.
In this first of two articles, I discuss how faculty can compose annual self-evaluations that will benefit them professionally and be most informative to the colleagues (including administrators) who read them. The second article, which will appear soon, will address the complementary issues involved in writing an effective evaluation of a faculty colleague’s annual performance.
Based on the questions I hear each year, new faculty members often find writing a first self-evaluation report confusing: What should I include? How detailed should it be? What is the purpose? Even for more seasoned faculty, the report can be perplexing: How does this still benefit me? Individuals of all ranks ask: Why can’t I just give you a current C.V.?
An annual self-evaluation essay is a multipurpose tool, an academic Swiss Army knife if you will. Writing one compels you to reflect on your recent accomplishments and review your progress toward longer-term goals like completing a complex project or reaching a higher rank. It is also an opportunity to share your perspective with the faculty and administrators charged with evaluating you, both to explain why you focused on certain objectives and also to elicit their feedback. It allows you to practice telling a wider audience how your work fits into the scholarly and educational missions of your academic unit or the broader context of your discipline – a skill you will need in applying for tenure, promotion, grants, awards, administrative assignments or even a new position.
None of those objectives is met in a traditional C.V. that lists accomplishments with little commentary or context.
How should you approach writing such an essay? Start with a careful reading of the directions from your department or college about what information is sought and at what level of detail. This varies greatly with local culture. If the directions are unclear, speak with your chair, your dean, or a member of the personnel committee. Check whether sample reflective statements illustrating what is expected are available. The directions my college provides are here, by way of example.
Assuming the rules call for an essay about your accomplishments, challenges or future goals, then write a truly evaluative narrative. The reader will want to know what you aspired to achieve, what you did, why you tried that approach, what transpired, how you interpret the results, and what you plan to do in the future. Note that “what you did” is only one small element of that list. And when “what transpired” was disappointing, present your plan for improving the next iteration. Providing broader commentary on the context of your work, including your response to unexpected challenges, is essential to demonstrating academic maturity.
Below, I will suggest how to approach some common topics addressed in self-evaluation materials: teaching, research, grants and awards, professional development, service and future directions. The space you devote to each will depend on the nature of your assigned responsibilities and the activities you describe will depend on what your institution values. For any topic or activity, however, your essay should communicate (a) that you take a deliberate, effective and scholarly approach to your work (b) how your achievements support the mission of your academic unit and (c) evidence that your work has substantial impact.
In describing your teaching, first briefly mention how your courses fit into the department’s curriculum and sketch the key ideas, approaches, or skills students are expected to learn. Then explain the pedagogical methods you employed: why you selected them, how you evaluated them, how effective they were, and what you might try next time. Even if you taught a familiar course, you will have made some fresh choices and observations. If you created a new course or substantially altered your approach to an existing one (added weekly blogging assignments? reframed a survey course around a unifying theme? started a team-based design project?), there will be even more to talk about. The bare bones of a paragraph on teaching methods might run something like this:
Last year’s exam scores showed that my students needed more practice with solving the equations that govern key chemical reactions. This year, I put practice problems online, but the students stopped using them after the third week and test performance stagnated. A survey revealed that the students wanted more detail about why certain answers were wrong and hints on how to predict the likely form of the answer. Next year, I will try an alternative online system that promises to provide this kind of feedback.
When imbued with detail from your own experiences, such a discussion can reveal your approach as an educator and elicit valuable feedback from a reader who has encountered similar issues in the classroom.
If student or peer evaluations of your teaching are available, comment on them. No one is expected to be a perfect teacher, especially when relatively new to the profession. But you are expected to take constructive criticism seriously and act upon it. Discussing your evaluations can provide context
This was the first year that the class included freshmen as well as sophomores. The two cohorts had different levels of preparation, which probably explains the bimodal answers about the pace of the course.
and demonstrate your responsiveness
Given the students’ requests for clarification of the expectations for essay assignments, I started providing a detailed rubric in my courses this fall. Informal feedback suggests this is making a difference.
Note that some academic units will expect you to keep your own student evaluations on file, create a summary table of any numeric scores, and produce these documents for annual evaluations, tenure review, and award applications.
Always start by reminding the reader of the field(s) you contribute to, the topics you focus on, and what larger questions you are trying to answer; this introductory statement should use language accessible to faculty from any discipline. Then discuss how the year’s accomplishments advance your broader goals. For instance when noting recent publications, explain how they fit into the themes of your scholarship or advance a long-term project. For example, suppose you have written an article on genetic anomalies in isolated wolf populations and also one on the ethical issues involved in providing medical assistance to wild animals.
Merely listed on a C.V., these might appear disconnected. But if you describe how each relates to your interest in wildlife management strategies and mention how these issues are becoming more critical as wilderness habitat shrinks, the articles are revealed to be facets of a larger scholarly gem. If you gave talks at other universities or at conferences, be sure to mention any new contacts or ideas you may have developed as a result. And don’t forget to describe any new evidence about how your older publications are having an impact on the field (e.g., being cited, included in anthologies, widely adopted as textbooks, or translated into other languages).
If some of your research was undertaken as part of a collaboration, explain your intellectual role within the larger group: What ideas, methods, or analysis are you contributing? How was your participation essential to obtaining the funding and competing the project? If some of those collaborators are undergraduates, graduate students, or postdoctoral fellows, describe how their participation is developing their research skills and helping them progress toward a degree or other career milestones. All of this information helps establish your role as an intellectually independent scholar who is helping to educate the next generation of researchers.
Grants and Awards
If your work is supported by a grant, start by noting the amount, source, duration, and whether it carries overhead. But don’t stop there. As one of my administrative mentors frequently remarks, grants are important because of what they enable you to accomplish. So use this opportunity to describe how the grant is impacting your work (e.g., supporting student assistants, purchasing key equipment, or funding travel to a crucial archive or field site) and what concrete deliverables or impacts have resulted so far. Explain your role as P.I. or co-P.I.: how has your participation been essential to designing the project, obtaining funding, or meeting milestones?
In the event that your teaching, research, or service was recognized by an award, do not be shy: highlight this in your evaluation! Quote the awarding organization’s description of the basis for the honor and, if available, the “citation” explaining why you were selected.
If you are asked to mention professional development activities, explain what you learned and how you are using that knowledge. The mere fact of your attendance at a workshop is far less interesting than what you made of the opportunity. Were you inspired to try a new teaching method in your classes? Did you meet potential collaborators or discover new publicly available datasets? Did you learn that the ethics committee in your disciplinary society is seeking expertise that you happen to possess? This kind of discussion can demonstrate that you are deliberately cultivating the skills required to be a successful academic. It may also lead to suggestions about other workshops you should be attending or helping to organize.
When discussing service to your institution, go beyond merely stating that you were chair of the local seminar series. Instead, describe how you put that role to good use and the resulting outcomes. For example, did you choose a particular theme for the series and what was novel about that choice? Did you collaborate with other units in bringing interdisciplinary speakers to campus? Did you encourage student attendance, by tying the seminar topics to course themes or arranging for student groups to meet with the speaker?
Likewise, if you have undertaken service to the profession or the community at large, put your actions in context. If you have held an office in a disciplinary society, mention the responsibilities involved and what you learned from the experience. If you have met with local farmers’ cooperatives, done chemistry demonstrations in public schools, or organized poetry readings at a local bookstore, explain why this was important to you, how it relates to your teaching or scholarship and what impact the outreach has had.
Displaying the ability to make service assignments do double duty in your research or teaching is definitely to your benefit. At some institutions the application form for tenure even includes a section on cross-cutting activities that blend research, teaching and service (see sections III-D and IV-D of Michigan State's form).
Finally, an annual report is the perfect place to describe a new, time-consuming project that has not yet yielded tangible outcomes. While there may be no publications, performances, courses or grants to list on a C.V., there is plenty to discuss in an essay: Why did you embark on this project at this point in your career? How does it relate to key questions in your discipline or to your other strands of research or pedagogy? What is the timeline for the work and who are your collaborators? Will you seek outside funding and from what sources? Describing the genesis of a project can clarify your long-term academic goals and the intellectual questions that intrigue you, both of which are important for projecting your career trajectory.
Composing a reflective self-evaluation leads you to assess your accomplishments relative to long-term goals and plot your course for the coming year. It puts your work in context for evaluators – including those outside your discipline. It also tends to elicit targeted feedback that can help you advance more quickly. Best of all, having a set of well-written annual reports on tap gives you a tremendous head start on applications for reappointment, tenure, promotion, university awards, or external grants.
Stay tuned for a companion essay about providing useful commentary on self-evaluation materials submitted by colleagues.
Elizabeth H. Simmons is dean of Lyman Briggs College and professor of physics and astronomy at Michigan State University.
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