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WARNING: Reading Student Evaluations Can Make You Crazy
June 24, 2012 - 9:38pm

Aaahh. It’s evaluation season. Time for the tables to be turned on you. Yes, you, the professor. You thought you were being so clever by trying to institute some kind of an email policy: Telling your students not to email you at midnight and expect an answer before the 9 am class. You thought you were teaching your students responsibility by telling them not to wait until the night before to ask questions about their papers. You thought students would enjoy reading that ground-breaking and critical work on the topic that is so relevant to their lives. You thought you could show them that grades are earned not given away and you thought they would respect you for it. You thought you could teach them good writing skills even though it’s not a writing class. You thought . . .

Well turns out, you thought wrong.  Or you think you thought wrong. Wait, maybe you should think what you thought was right. It’s kind of hard to say exactly what you should think sometimes after you read student evaluations. After all, you could have one that says: “love the discussions- need more discussions” and another that says “lecture more”. One could say “love the short weekly quizzes, kept me on task” another could say “hate the quizzes”. One could say, “love the weekly writing” another could say, “I don’t see why we need to write every week”. One could say “very open, friendly and non-judgmental” and another could say, “won’t listen to the other side of the argument”. One could say “THE BEST!!!” and another could say, “AVOID at all costs”. *

This is why reading student evaluations can actually drive you crazy. They are meant to provide you with feedback to improve your teaching, but do they really? I have been fortunate enough to not be on the receiving end of many negative evaluations (at least not in the last few years!). Still the couple of negative comments that are completely contrary to what everyone else says in their evaluations are what seem to grab my attention every time. If two students out of thirty think a particular section dragged on too long, is it something I need to change? If three students out of 28 think I should return papers faster, is that something I need to work on? Can we ever reach 100% of our students? Should we try to? If everyone is always happy with us, are we (especially social scientists) asking the right questions?  I know, rationally, that if two students find something wrong and the overwhelming majority doesn’t, that means I am doing fine. Better than fine. But I find myself wondering about those students (okay maybe fixating is more accurate), and wondering about why the student felt a particular way or why they wrote that particular comment in the evaluation.  I am not a perfectionist. So why do these comments bother me so much?

At moments like these I have to remind myself to stop acting like Frasier. That’s the character of Kelsey Grammar from the sit-com Frasier. In this particular episode --one of the funniest I’ve seen--Frasier is privy (behind a one way mirror), to a focus group’s assessment of his radio show. Everybody loves him. Everybody, except for one person. The rest of the show focuses on Frasier’s obsession with trying to figure out why this person doesn’t like him or his show. In order to get the answers, Frasier stalks him, tries to talk to him, and eventually (inadvertently) crushes his hand and burns down his news-stand.  All this is to say, student evaluations need to remain anonymous, if for no other reason than to keep the Frasier inside all of us at bay!

Why do evaluations make so many of us crazy? I think the most frustrating aspect of it for many academics (as it seemed to be with Frasier) is the finality of it. As academics we like to explore, we like to question, we like to think, re-think, discuss, re-evaluate, explain. There is no way to probe, ask why or how, or ask students to clarify or expand upon what they’ve written in an evaluation. The words are there, just staring back at you anonymously and all you can do is wonder to yourself, “what the hell does this mean?” I think that, ultimately, is what drives us crazy.

*These are not statements from my evaluations, (although some of them are). These have been gathered from conversations with many faculty, both male and female.

New London, Connecticut in the US.

Afshan Jafar is a member of the editorial collective at University of Venus and an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Connecticut College. She can be reached at afshan.jafar@conncoll.edu.

 

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