• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you’re going to be asked to leave.


Student Evaluations: Part 1 of 2 (probably)

The evaluations are already in and they got me thinking.

December 19, 2012

Teaching is a bottomless well of unrealized potential – this is what makes it so interesting – but overall, I’m pleased with this semester’s results. There’s a handful of things I’m Monday-morning quarterbacking, but the rhythms in both courses felt good. At the end of the semester, everyone seemed loose, rather than tight, confusion was low, confidence high. Personally, I very rarely felt irreconcilably frustrated or blocked, and judging from their evaluations, neither did the students. Challenged, hopefully. Stymied, I hope not.

I believe that a good semester is often due to the students. I’ve taught the same course in back to back periods the same semester, and one section can feel like angels singing from on high, while the other is a desperate slog through the most fetid of bogs. Some classes just have good (or bad) chemistry, and while good teaching can mitigate bad chemistry (and bad teaching can harm the good), in the end, if the mix of humans in the room is favorable, the end result is usually positive.

It’s a little unnerving how quickly the student evaluations come now. Mine were waiting the moment I turned in my grades. In my first years as a TA, and even through my time at Virginia Tech (2002-2005) they were completed on scantron sheets, and the reports wouldn’t come until several weeks into the following semester. At that point, adjustments based on the previous semester’s student feedback were impossible, so instead, these dot-matrix charts and crudely typed comments felt like the ghosts of students past, come to haunt the present, to sow doubt, and engender fear that I was screwing up in the exact same way I’d screwed up previously.

Assignments confusing. Grading unfair. Funny looking hair.

I’ve learned to put less stock into the student evaluations than I used to. Saying my grading is “unfair” is often code for “I didn’t get an A.” I also now try to get my hair cut more than once every six months just before it reaches Sideshow Bob levels.

I believe that student evaluations have value, but the value is limited and needs to be put into context. The waning days of the semester are a pretty lousy time to assess the quality of a course and its instructor. As a student, I know I haven’t realized the value of a particular course or professor until years down the line. And a lot of the evaluation questions treat students like customers, making sure their experience was “positive” without necessarily enjoining them to deeply consider what they’ve learned and how they’ve learned it.

Every time I receive a new batch of evaluations, I think about my “favorite” ones, though “favorite” might be the wrong word, “most memorable” or “most instructive” may be more apt.

One was from my second year of graduate school. Because we received the original scantrons as part of the report, I could look at the ratings of individual students (anonymously, of course), and this one had 1’s on every rating, and at the bottom, in the space for written comments it said, “Warner is a life-ruining motherfucker.”

Despite the anonymity, I knew which student wrote it because he’d told me the same thing to my face a day or two before the evaluations were handed out in class. This was English 101, and the curriculum required six essays in different modes (descriptive, narrative, expository, etc…) to be completed over the course of the semester. Five had been turned in by the time this student came to see me, worried about his grade because he said he needed a “C” average to maintain his scholarship. His best grade that semester was a D. Three of them were F’s. With one essay remaining, the math was impossibly against him, and had been for quite some time, actually.

As I explained this, pointing at my old-school gradebook, crunching the numbers on my desktop calculator, he grew progressively more agitated, hoping, I guess, to bargain his way out of the iron-clad truth of his dismal average.

But I was a rock. This might be English class, but the math was the math. I told him nothing could be done, that he had an outside shot at a D, but a C was impossible. That was when he told me I was a motherfucker who was ruining his life.

When I received the evaluations the next semester with his parting shot, I showed it  around the graduate assistant offices, looking for a little reassurance, and we all had a good chuckle over the follies of students. Everyone agreed that it was this student’s, rather than my problem, that he’d waited until the last two weeks of school to express concern about his terrible grades. I was certainly not a life-ruiner of any kind.

I wouldn’t say this evaluation haunts me, but I think of it every semester because it reminds me of the necessary balance of responsibilities between student and teacher. While it was for sure this student’s fault that he’d put his scholarship at risk, I’ve come to realize that I wasn’t entirely blameless. This student had been failing my course for at least 12 of its last 16 weeks, and I had not seen fit to intervene by delivering this message to him directly and explicitly. Sure, the grades should have been enough, but it’s easy for students in an academic death spiral to compartmentalize or ignore bad grades, escaping to denial and figuring there’s always time to catch up.

It isn’t a teacher’s job – particularly in college – to be an academic Sherpa, dragging the student toward the summit, but it is my job to simply say, “You’re screwing up. You’re in trouble. You need to do something about it.”

I now make it a policy that students never have a chance to be “surprised” when they’re in academic jeopardy. I’ve found that the simple act of noticing can serve to break that spell of denial, and the downward spiraling student will act. When I “remind” a student that they are at risk of failing, more often than not, they choose to exit the class, rather than to try to gut out a better end result, but for me, this is a more satisfactory result than the alternative of dropping an F on them at the end of the semester. By reminding them of their responsibilities, I’m fulfilling mine.

All this evaluation talk has me thinking of another evaluation-related incident on which I look back without very much pride, but I’ll save that for another day.


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