Most of the faculty folks I know are either in the throes of grading or just done. The students have mostly gone home and we are finishing up the dregs of this semester as we prepare for the holidays and, before we know it, the next semester. Those of us whose grades are in may also be able to experience just a bit of what our students are going through now by reviewing our own student evaluations from the semester just past.
Student evaluations are just like grades, except that we are being graded on an entire semester’s performance all at once, our evaluators are, unlike us, anonymous, and the “grades” measure things we have not really defined. (“Compared to other courses I have taken at [my institution], this one was more challenging.”) Of course, it’s true that at times my students also complain that I am measuring things in their papers that I have not — or we as a class have not — fully defined. (“Paper has a clear, non-obvious, interesting claim that neither restates the question nor asks one without answering it.”) OK, fair enough.
The thing is, no one likes to be evaluated. We hate having other people grade or even edit or comment on our writing. I know, we say we want feedback, but really don’t we all want to be told, “This is the best thing I’ve ever read?” If not that, we’ll take, “This will be the best thing I’ve ever read if you only do this one really easy thing.” When we get feedback we don’t like, we complain that it is just one person’s opinion, that responding to writing is really subjective, that they didn’t really understand what we were trying to do.
Alas, it is all part of the process, and we all get feedback before we’re really ready for it. I know that the more I resist negative feedback the more I really need to work on the issue. I once read that Madeleine L’Engle had her husband read her drafts. If he marked something and she agreed immediately, it wasn’t that important anyway. Sometimes she might even have changed those back. If he marked something and she argued with him, insisting that her original was better, she went back the next day and did what he’d recommended—or rewrote the whole section, making it even better.
I know what that’s like. And so I read my evaluations, I hope, with some humility and also some awareness that how I respond now may not be how I really need to respond. This semester I made a lot of changes in my course, and not all of them worked. I need to hear what did and what didn’t, but maybe not right this minute. Like my students, who have gone home for the holidays and need a break from schoolwork before they can look at their transcripts and really read them, I need to take some time before I react. The praise will still be there, and I’ll still be grateful for it; I’m hoping that I’ll also see some constructive criticism so I can move forward and make some necessary changes. It may not happen — it’s a flawed form (almost all of us agree), and our response rates are low so it’s often only the most annoyed — or, one hopes, the most pleased—who actually respond. But it’s all the feedback I’ve got — and, like my students with their writing, I may not want it, but I can probably use it.