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It’s that time of year again, when we are reminded of how our primitive forebears felt frost in the air, looked anxiously at the diminished sun and the shortening days, and thought, “It’s time for my annual self-evaluation!”

After the last couple of years, and the burdens placed on institutions through the pandemic, it’s tempting to lead those evaluations with what feels like our real achievement—“We made it!”

But obviously there’s more to it. This instrument of professional growth takes on different shapes in different institutions across the United States, but it generally has two parts: 1) a record of what the individual faculty member has done this year and 2) a speculative stab at goals for the coming year. At my university—and in previous institutions—this was a three-part document reflecting on teaching, service to the institution and within your discipline, and scholarship. Here, we recently changed it to add a separate professional development section and will soon change again to incorporate some measure of student success (at least as part of posttenure review).

The general efficacy of the self-assessment practice is open to debate, but what’s not is the fact that it’s a piece of writing that many faculty members put off till the last minute. They then resentfully pull the file of their previous year’s submission and look, with varying degrees of relief, or perhaps horror and late glimmers of memory stirred, at their predicted goals from last year.

It is sometimes a desperate affair.

As a former faculty evaluator, I always enjoyed reading annual evaluations, and I was often struck by the enormous talent and energy of my faculty. Equally, I was often surprised by the amount of fluster and panic I saw in this annual document, as well as honestly baffled by the occasionally peculiar strategies of otherwise very gifted communicators.

One of the most unfortunate statements I ever read in someone’s annual self-evaluation was a glib institutional service goal announcement: “I’m going to do less next year.” In my follow-up with the faculty member, I applauded the idea—they did need to slow down or they would burn out from all the things they were doing—but they didn’t need to frame it in those potentially professionally damaging terms. I suggested using words like “refocus” and “prioritize.” It allowed them to trim back (do less) but made it sound none the less industrious.

Another faculty member turned somersaults in their scholarship section, trying to obscure the fact that they hadn’t published and had been unsuccessful in getting a conference paper accepted at a premier event. The problem with that was the goal setting established the previous year. “I will publish an article in Big Literature Journal and present at a Big Composition Conference” doesn’t leave you very much wiggle room when neither of those things happens.

The problem here has three parts that can provide some lessons for all of us around self-evaluation time.

First, the faculty member pinned themselves into a place where they overpromised and underperformed, and it’s always better to do this the other way around. George Herbert, the metaphysical poet, famously argued, “Who aimeth at the sky, / Shoots higher much, than he that means a tree.” But I would suggest that you talk about aiming at the tree in your annual report rather than the moon or the stars—and then only if you are pretty confident about the tree.

At the same time, you shouldn’t aim for the roots. I had to point out to one faculty member who set as an institutional service goal, “I plan to attend faculty meetings and serve on a committee,” that doing so was more of a contractual obligation and a default expectation than an aspirational goal.

The second part of the problem is that it’s high risk and low reward to predict things that you have no control over. You can’t say with reasonable confidence that you will publish an article unless you know that it’s already been accepted. In fact, it’s not even in your interest to predict publication, because, best-case scenario, you are published, but then you have just met your scholarship goal for the year—not exceeded it in any way.

It’s better to frame your goals around things that you can control and, with some confidence, predict. Instead of publishing an article, the faculty member might have stated goals of submitting an article or proposing a conference paper (and I argue you should pick just one of those). Those are professional goals that you have some control over, and if you are successful, you have the opportunity to not only meet your goal but also exceed it you meet success. And success has a relatively low bar here.

This goes for all parts of your self-assessment. I’ve seen faculty members set goals of teaching classes that they weren’t subsequently assigned or that failed to take place because of low enrollment. One even pledged to teach a new class of their own design that wasn’t subsequently approved by the curriculum committee. None of this was the fault of, or in the control of, the individual faculty member.

The third part of the problem for the faculty member is that they lost sight of what scholarship and professional development might mean because of their narrow predictive goals. It’s true that traditional productivity pressures in top-tier universities are high, but many faculty teach at institutions that focus more on teaching. At my institution, like many others where the burden of faculty workload is in the classroom, we subscribe to the Boyer model of scholarship, which focuses on the scholarships of discovery, integration, application and teaching.

Perhaps the faculty member had a disappointing year in terms of publication or dissemination of research, but what about that project where they teamed up with a nursing professor and ran a cohort of nursing students through the English composition sequence? Or that service learning class in which they reached out to low-income students in K-12 schools and set up a mentor/tutor exchange? Or what about the process of moving a literature class online, something so many faculty members have done over the last year and a half, reimagining the digital experience and the new electronic classroom?

All those elements, and other high-impact teaching practices, are rich pickings for the other scholarships of integrating knowledge, applying it or reflecting on and redesigning your teaching practices. It’s sometimes easy to forget that, but it has to be said that more deliberate goal setting would help you remember.

And all this brings us to the important part of the annual self-evaluation. You should be honestly evaluating yourself, not just trying to look good.

That’s really counterintuitive, and it would be easier to make the argument in good faith if we all could be confident that supervisors everywhere used our self-evaluation documents wisely and fairly—that is, as reflection and improvement tools rather than mechanisms sometimes used punitively for, say, termination or salary adjustment. (Editor’s note: We can’t, and they don’t.) I’d still argue, however, that the self-evaluation ought to navigate weaknesses as well as strengths, because it can be to your advantage.

For example, the faculty member who mentions focusing on high-impact practices, such as developing an electronic portfolio or establishing a learning community, but ignores student concerns about the way they are set up in a class is hurting themselves twice. First of all, your supervisor is likely to see those student anxieties as suggesting that your strategy might be poorly implemented. And to make matters worse, you aren’t reflecting upon the experience sufficiently.

You’ve tried to implement a high-impact teaching strategy—fantastic. It didn’t go quite as well as you’d planned—student concerns noted. So adapt that strategy next year to respond to those comments in your evaluations. Try something new. The way you try to tweak the classroom strategy becomes a goal you can aspire toward, and it develops out of a frank assessment of what you did well and what needed improvement. It also develops the narrative of your growth as a faculty member, which is a crucial part of a tenure-track portfolio.

And look on the bright side: just about the time that we submit our annual evaluations, and set our goals for the next year, we notice that the days begin to get longer by subtle increments, and like our ancient forebears, we start to shuck off the heavy skins of winter and see more of the sun.

In the words of Jonathan Swift, “Let no man talk to me of … expedients,” like pinning your annual goals to your office wall or sticky noting them to your computer. And heaven forbid that you should keep a file through the year where you add notes and achievements as they come up. But, at the very least, you should celebrate one of the great joys of our profession: that next year, the new year, is a fresh start and a new opportunity to do better, even if you didn’t quite manage it this time around.

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