It was last official day of the semester. I had just finished recording my grades. Suddenly a wasp wafted into the office through an open window. The reincarnation of a student I had once flunked? No time to jest. What to do? I couldn't leave quite yet, as I regularly used to flee a former office, only to greeted the next morning or afternoon by wasps who had proceeded to take up residence there, until I had to kill them with cans of insecticide. This day, though, I didn't even have a fly swatter.
Perhaps in the closet of the custodian there was something. I left my office, and asked one of the secretaries in the outer office. No key, no luck. But wait. One of my students -- I had just a couple of hours ago decided to give him a "B" instead of a "C" -- chanced to be present. He offered to deal with the intruder for me. I hesitated. This might mean he would feel entitled to ask about his grade. Yet it sure would be nice to get rid of that wasp.
The student accompanied me to the office, spotted the wasp buzzing around the ceiling, took off his shoe, stepped on a chair, and dispatched the insect with one no-nonsense swat. Awhile ago, it had taken much more time for me to decide about his grade. Please, don't ask me now, I said to myself. To the student, I offered profuse thanks as well as nervous self-consciousness about my own fear of wasps.
"Sure, no problem," he shrugged, continuing out the door and then a short distance down the hall. Were we going to avoid the fateful question (with its attendant suspicion that the student had helped only in order to ask it)? No, we were not. He abruptly turned and asked in a sort of plaintive voice: "By the way, do you think I could see my grade?" Damn! I wished I could have taken off my shoe and swatted the wasp myself.
Is there a right way to answer the question? I've hated it since I began teaching, and not just because, at the instant of its utterance, the moments of teaching and learning fatally collapse into grading and being graded. In my experience, any answer is wrong. Tell the truth, and you'll almost certainly get into a squabble about the grade. ("I thought I improved." "I've got to raise my GPA." Etc.) Refuse to tell, and you risk disdaining any student's understandable concern.
What I used to do was make my answer dependent upon the individual. So I always truthfully answered ones who were to receive either an "A" or a "B," unless they had slipped by semester's end from the higher to the lower grade. Then my reply was the same as it was to all the rest: "I haven't finished grades yet." It was almost always a lie. Of course the students never knew. More to the point, they couldn't protest or argue.
Talking about grades was, and is, always rife with potential conflict.
None of it is edifying. Gradually, as if to withdraw further from the spectacle, I slipped into what could be charitably described as a gnomic phase. To the "A's" or "B's" I took to saying, "I don't discuss grades, but you won't be unhappy." They understood, and smiled.
To the rest, I said things like, "don't worry," "I know you tried your best," or, most boldly of all, "it was really hard to decide." Some disliked such words-the last soaked in special pleading of my own, haplessly designed to forestall the student's. Most students just shrugged and went away, figuring, perhaps, gnomic does as gnomic is.
Or else maybe, once an asshole, always an asshole. In my experience, one definition of an asshole is a teacher who says, "I never discuss grades." (And perhaps nowadays one who gives lower ones than "A" or "B.") Period. It took me many years to get to this period. Finally, however, I can report that I have. One size fits all. Don't ask, don't tell. Just read the syllabus. Nothing there about the curiosities of human communication, much less the dynamics of learning, whereby a discussion of one's grade by the student, especially if the grade is unsatisfactory, is almost impossible to prevent, once the grade is uttered by the teacher. There is simply the statement: "grades will not be discussed," because it's virtually impossible to discuss them, as opposed to whine about them.
Once I had a student who thanked me for giving him a "D." (Grades had just become available in the registrar's office.) He expected to fail. I never expected him to. But I didn't mention this, and there was undoubtedly much else neither of us mentioned, including his secret wish for a "C." So it goes with grades. One mere letter (or number) represents many things both to student and teacher. So few of any of these things can be honestly discussed between them that it's better none are, at least in the heat of the evaluative moment. One reason for the rise of the syllabus, I'm convinced, is to dispense with so much as the possibility of what might be described as the Scene of Whining.
A grander, more explicit dream of the syllabus: to remove the subjective moment entirely from grading. On the ideal syllabus, gradewise all is given, from the percentage of the grade devoted to each quiz to the percentage deduced on the basis of excessive absences. Grades aren't "given." They're computed. In the Platonic syllabus, no student ever stops by any professor's office in order to "explain" about that last absence, much less to "inquire" about that last quiz. A student might as well question the institution's stated date for final class withdrawal. Of course it goes without saying that in heaven every student has actually read the syllabus.
Alas, back down on earth there are usually a few in every class who haven't -- or else who are somehow, inexplicably, in denial over the precise intelligence that the syllabus is designed to impart. These students are not necessarily the ones who are most likely at semester's end to ask to see or know their grades. As my own above example illustrates, given the right circumstances, just about any student will raise the fateful question. But paying no attention to the syllabus helps, even if it must be admitted: No syllabus can spell out or guarantee the conditions of its own reception!
Just so, even a description of the most scientifically calibrated grading procedure cannot remove either the presence of a subjective moment or, which comes to the same thing, a student perception that such a moment has not occurred in actual professorial experience. That's the moment the can-I-see-my-grade question either openly addresses or else risks getting caught up in-from which a grade not so much issues as the final phase of a decision-making process but as the naked decision itself, stripped bare of rationale. If you're a teacher, try as you might -- in your heart of hearts (or at least your leather grade book) -- you're never going to free your grades from being perceived by some students in this way.
Especially today, when a further and far more insidious student perception is widespread: that the grade has become a commodity. "You get what you pay for." Who has not heard students blurt this formula, as if on command? In my experience, it's pointless to argue with the ones who do. You may as well argue with the whole culture that encourages them to think of grades, like everything else -- from skin cream to SUV's -- as things to be bought. Besides, are we all not familiar with the phenomenon of, precisely, "grade inflation?" If oil is subject to inflation, why not grades -- only this time, happily, to the advantage of the student "consumer?"
Can I see My Grade? One could argue that at many universities this particular question is now beside the point. Now the point is to get everything online -- students, teachers, course materials, and certainly grades. Some software programs allow students to access every quiz or test result, right to the end, and then see the final grade virtually as soon as it's posted. This might be characterized as a successful example of "customer satisfaction." But wait. What if the customer is not satisfied? Then can-I-see-my-grade becomes comparable to asking can-I-see-my-bill to a "service representative." In each case, the question constitutes the opening move in what all concerned know could be a protracted process of checking, re-checking, speaking to the supervisor, further negotiating, and so on.
If the subjective moment of grading cannot easily be removed from the evaluative process, neither can the subjective moment of inquiring about it. The two seem symmetrical to me. Perhaps this is the reason I've always hated the inquiry. It immediately sends me back to my decision, which I often experienced as agony, and now have to re-experience as if the agony never happened, for it's pointless or provocative -- sometimes both -- to exhibit ambiguity or equivocation to the student, who only desires the happiest, highest evaluative construal of all manner of factors, whether banned by the syllabus or not.
"Can I see my grade?" There's simply no defense against this question. You can reply as Harried Professor or Good Buddy. You can comprehend yourself or be comprehended as Registrar or Service Rep. You can alternate all your whole teaching career, as I have, between resenting the question and trying somehow to comply with it. The only certainty: The question is coming, at the end of pretty much every semester, and not always from the mouths of students whom you could have predicted. What you answer them may well define you as a teacher-for them, even for yourself-as much as how cheerfully you answered questions in class or how jauntily you handed out the syllabus that first day.
And my reply to the particular wasp-slaying student who last asked me the question? I paused, as to decide whether to revert to my initial way of dealing with it; after all, I had decided to give him the higher of two grades and he would not be displeased to learn this. Instead, I just went on emotional autopilot, as authorized by my current procedure, and lied that, sorry, I hadn't completed all the grades yet. The student was disappointed. Would that I could have apologized further, and tried to explain-well, precisely what? That his simple question was not in fact so innocent? "Give me a break!" he'd probably cry. In a sense, this is exactly where we came in.
Speaking of innocent, though, finally, what about the wasp? He -- I'm assuming -- just drifted in for whatever reason. Not instruction of some sort, surely, although I don't know much about wasps apart from their sting. My guess is, wasps, unlike humans, know pretty much everything they need to know from a very early age. In any case, he was collateral damage this day. I wish I hadn't been instrumental in bringing about his death. At least I wasn't obliged to give him a grade.
Terry Caesar's last column was about the concept of "faculty wife."
A friend was up for tenure last year. She was approved by her department. Next step was a vote by some larger faculty committee and then a vote by some smaller administrative council. The faculty
approved her. So did the administrators -- less one vote. That one negative vote so angered her it threatened to spoil the award of tenure by the time the requisite presidential letter arrived.
She felt certain the man who cast that vote was the same one who tried to embarrass her publicly when earlier in the year she had to explain a new course proposal. What struck me is how she loathes this man, with whom she'll have to contend during the rest of her time at the university. "If I passed him in an accident, I'd pour a can of gasoline on him."
What's the reason for the man's hostility to my friend? She doesn't know. It seems the two have scarcely spoken. It further seems nobody likes the man (except the president). At the university there appears to be a veritable society of people (including office workers and even one custodian) who are solely united by their detestation of a noxious administrator.
The interesting thing to me is that few of them are, properly speaking, colleagues, if we restrict the definition of the word to some formal relatedness at the disciplinary or departmental level. This
is what I would try to do myself, although I've never worked at a college as small as that of my friend, where in effect the entire work force is in position to be any one individual's "associate" in some way.
Similarly, I've never worked at an institution so large that virtually the entire work force outside one's own department is effectively excluded from any one individual's horizon of associations. Size matters, regarding colleagues. What may matter even more is that nothing, not even status hierarchy, necessarily excludes anyone at an institution from thinking about anyone else as a "colleague."
Admittedly, it would seem odd to have either the president or the custodian who regularly cleans out his or her office refer to the other as a "colleague." It is assumed that, in order to be colleagues in the first place, everybody is in a position of equality. This is the reason students can happily refer to each other as "colleagues." However, American students normally avoid this designation, perhaps because it sounds too work-coded.
How much does work in fact govern the colleague relation? In one sense, thoroughly; a colleague is not a friend, who can exist quite apart from the conditions of work. In another sense, loosely, if only because a colleague can become a friend, and shed an initial official circumstance (a proximate office, the same committee) like an unwanted skin. One could even say that colleagues, to be colleagues in the first place, must share the potential for becoming friends. Or at least for
becoming, rather paradoxically, more than colleagues.
What exactly would this last state entail? Nobody knows. Thus, for example, our current vexation about the meaning of "collegiality."ï¿½ To whom should we be collegial? Everybody? Only some? Our colleagues, so-called? But when to make the cut? Sometimes the term seems suitable
(or mandatory) for people who are strictly colleagues; sometimes it seems lamentable for colleagues whose relations (or feelings) are more akin to those of friends.
"Collegiality"ï¿½ attests to the baffled sociality so pervasive in academic life. We might all be better off if we knew precisely where to draw the line between being colleagues and being friends. Alas, though, we don't -- and this may be as it should be. Despite having become academics, we remain human. So our relations partake of such unhappy situations as those of my friend above; she seems to be entangled in a relation with an administrator who is even less likely to become her
friend than her colleague and yet who demonstrates with respect to her a degree of personal animus more akin to a close personal enemy than a distant college official.
"Never make friends with anybody in your own department."ï¿½ So quoth a professor many years ago to a group of my, er, colleagues, when we were all grad students. I don't think we understood why anybody would say this. Now I think I do: friendships easily proves threatening to a department, and departments just as easily prove threatening to friendships. Trouble is, now I want to protest: so what? Colleagues we are given. Friends we must make. With whom best to make them than with colleagues in our own department? To hell with the fact they may one day have to cast tenure votes against us.
And yet, and yet. Friends are not always or even necessarily to be preferred to colleagues. Years ago I spent the summer in a National Endowment for the Humanities program of postdoctoral study and got close to one of my fellows. We had common interests; more important, we had common sportive attitudes toward their -- and our -- academization. So it was painful to realize at some point that the qualities that made Ron so attractive as a friend might well make him less attractive -- even
unbearable -- as a colleague.
In her essay on Camus, Susan Sontag states the painful matter very succinctly while differentiating great writers on the basis of being husbands or lovers: "Some writers supply the solid virtues of a
husbands: reliability, intelligibility, generosity, decency. There are other writers in whom one prizes the qualities of a lover, gifts of temperament rather than of moral goodness."ï¿½ As Sontag adds, "it's a great pityï¿½ to have to choose between them. But academics don't have to choose -- as academics. Colleagues are what we expect ourselves as well as others to be in our official capacity. And colleagues are husbands, not lovers.
Lovers, it might be said, we choose at our peril (especially if we are married). This is precisely the case in academic life with friends, most certainly if they are members of your department. I've had a few myself, and, while the friendships lasted, they were some of the best of my life. One relationship moved outside the department, into our respective homes or on occasional trips. Another didn't. Each came to grief ultimately for the same reason: the friendship couldn't survive
the inevitable tensions of either the departmental structure or just the work itself.
Strange, because the friendships, however different, were the products of those tensions. The men and I were friends because of common enemies, common problems, common circumstances, all experienced anew each working day. Remove these circumstances, and it was as if the whole logic of intimacy collapsed. Bred by the position, it died with the position. How many other men and women have experienced this? Has the rise of e-mail changed anything? Could email enable more people now -- many scarcely meeting face-to-face -- to remain colleagues without suffering a fateful fall into friendship?
Of course most colleagues never suffer this fall. Perhaps most come to abide after a few years into a state about which our vocabulary is very poor -- something more than colleagues, something less than friends. ("Collegiality" is no help here at all.) And as always, the narrative you construct about colleagues will be governed by examples so highly individual as to elude almost successfully the terms of the discussion. This past year, for example, I chanced one day to meet a fellow teacher in my department, except that we were each adjuncts teaching at different locations. "The department"ï¿½ was a fiction that amused us both. We became friends, but only through e-mail, passing right by the condition of having first been, for lack of a better word, colleagues.
Now this woman is out of academic life. We remain in touch. But it probably would be better for the friendship if we had been colleagues for awhile longer, even though this supposition contradicts the logic I've been trying to trace. So it goes. Friendship is the stuff of classic essays (Montaigne, Emerson). Who wants to write an essay on collegiality? As a human essence, it lacks development, provocation, even definition. Colleagues? The relation is finally too superficial.
Colleagues? In any organizational structure, the most interesting examples of human behavior with respect to others may be enacted by people who are not in place to become colleagues at all. Indeed, the happiest formal relation in academic life may be that of teacher or mentor to student -- to judge anyway by the written record, full of testimonies by the one to the devotion or worth of the other. Humanity floods the relationship of mentors to students. In such contrast, humanity seems to recede from the relationship of colleagues to each other.
The finest fiction I know of this kind is Bernard Malamud's superb short story, "Rembrandt's Hat." (In the collection by that name.) It concerns two men who teach at a New York art school. Arkin, an art
historian, is a dozen years younger than Rubin, a sculptor. Arkin, we read, "was friendly with Rubin though they were not really friends." In other words, the men were colleagues. However, the relationship has apparently not been without its unstated or unexplored depths. These surface one day when Arkin chances one day to admiringly compare one of Rubin's many odd hats to a hat from a middle-aged self-portrait of Rembrandt.
After this Rubin ceases to wear the hat and appears to Arkin to be avoiding him. "I'll wait it out,"ï¿½ Arkin concludes. He doesn't think to ask Rubin about some possible offense; this is the sort of thing that friends do, or care to do, whereas colleagues adhere to a consensual surface. Months pass. One day Arkin enters Rubin's studio. There's really only one piece he likes. Another day, while showing some slides, he notices that the particular hat Rubin wore months earlier more
resembles that of a cook at a diner than Rembrandt's.
Later he returns to the sculptor's studio, congratulates him on the one fine piece, and apologizes for his remark months earlier. Rubin accepts the apology. But it provides no ground for some reassessment of their whole relationship. Instead, the two men (we are summarily told) remain no more than cordial to each other; "they stopped avoiding each other and spoke pleasantly when they met, which wasn't often." Once, Arkin spots Rubin regarding himself in the bathroom mirror in a white cap that now really does appear to resemble Rembrandt's hat.
But this final moment becomes yet another that goes unexplored, unacknowledged, and unsaid at the workplace of these two men, which constitutes their only lifeworld. In the end -- all violent resentments aside, from Arkin's part, and all fears of self-disclosure, from Rubin's part -- the men have only the relationship of colleagues with which they began. It is a triumph, of sorts; they could have remained enemies. Hats off to them. Most of us do what we can as colleagues, whether or not we secretly fancy ourselves Rembrandts. We try to make the best of it. Hats off to us all.
Terry Caesar's last column explored how academics avoid thinking of themselves as having or being bosses.
"I wasn't anybody's superior."
--Amélie, in Fear and Trembling
One way to characterize work in higher education: It has no bosses. The boss-ridden business world that strikes such glacial terror in the recent movie, The Devil Wears Prada or such giggly absurdity in the current television series, "The Office," is not our world. Miranda Priestly as a dean? No department chair (or provost) would tolerate her. Michael Scott as a department chair? The faculty would just watch him implode.
For us, the authority of The Boss, in contrast to business, is far too absolutist, not to say just plain absolute. An academic abides in "leadership positions" as part of a structure and his or her authority is to a considerable extent mediated though committees or modified by various official and unofficial protocols. The vocabulary of a "boss" is unacceptably blunt, unyielding, and crude for academic discourse, whose protocols are more subtle, indirect, and refined.
Put another way, "bosses" constitute an appropriate idiom for the staff who crunch numbers in human services, the secretaries who type memos in departments, and the custodians who empty waste baskets in all the rooms. The rest of us have committee heads or supervisors, chairs, assistant deans and so on up. We stand before them as, if not exactly equals, at least as fellow professionals. There is the presumption that everybody is on a first-name basis, however variously embedded in the institutional structure.
Therefore, how to explain why another recent [French] film, Fear and Trembling, proves to be so unsettling for an academic viewer? It should not be so. Set in a large Japanese corporation, the vocational structure is an inverse of academe: Authority is unquestioned at every remorselessly graded level. The president is likened to an emperor, and all below Him partake of His authority. The Belgian heroine, Amélie (who has decided to return to Japan, where she was born) must either obey the most inconsequential order of any superior or else quit. There are no other alternatives.
She strives to obey. The strangest thing is that although of course her obedience is easily available to psychological categories of understanding (in terms of masochism and sadism) to Amélie herself the experience becomes something profoundly spiritual. Told to check some numbers, and then recheck them, and recheck them once again, she eventually speaks, for example, of "invoice serenity." Eventually her one-year contract is up and she decides not to seek renewal. But not before achieving a felt state more akin to freedom than humiliation.
What makes this movie so resonant if you've never had a boss? I suspect the answer is simple: You do have a boss. We just choose not to see it this way, and instead emphasize what Fear and Trembling explores: the presence of inner freedom. Why do we choose not to recognize our bosses as such? We don't have to. They are already effaced, according to the logic of what Stanley Fish terms, in a notorious essay, "The Unbearable Ugliness of Volvos," our ceaseless translation of everything (ranging from the conditions of the job market to the consequences of tenure decisions) into the "language of higher motives."
The essay -- in his collection There's No Such Thing as Free Speech -- ought to be more notorious still. According to Fish, academics will do anything to distinguish themselves from "the realities of the marketplace." One of whose realities, I am suggesting here, is that bosses do exist in both realms. Perhaps we can't abide a vocabulary of bosses because the need to distinguish ourselves from the world of business is so crucial. Or, more interestingly, perhaps we already have enough oppression. "In the psychic economy of the academy," Fish explains, "oppression is the sign of virtue. The more victimized you are, the more subject to various forms of humiliation, the more you can tell yourself that you are in proper relation to the corrupted judgment of merely worldly eyes."
The situation is almost more perverse than paradoxical. We academics continue to lament the need for more points of contact between ourselves and the rest of society in part because we continue to withhold from consideration one point of contact that could not be more urgent: the fact that people have direct power over us, on the basis of which we could all lose our jobs. Instead, we maintain that in academic life it's not this simple. Therefore one result, according to Fish, is that our own precious oppression remains, if not exactly worse, at least more complex, more superior, or at least more, ah, refined.
An example. The other day a friend, an adjunct, told me he had to make a special trip across town to copy his syllabus at the department because the chair insisted each page contain the college letterhead. Humiliating? Sure. But my friend doesn't see it quite this way, or only does as a minor instance of the systematic oppression of adjuncts that constitutes academic business-as-usual. I think he would be more emphatic that he does indeed have a most specific boss; another person, say, might not be so insistent about the logo. And yet he would have to admit that there is, again, a system in place, and so the boss-chair is even in this instance merely an expression of the system.
We all, in turn, will perhaps be more eager to maintain a whole host of additional exceptions and qualifications. For instance, the chair's insistence would seem less like the action of a boss if its object were an associate professor. (In a very real sense, all adjuncts have bosses, or are "in position" to have them. Tenured faculty are not in the same position.) Or, the chair himself may well be groaning under the authority of the dean, who is in fact more like a boss to him than he to the adjunct. And so on. And we haven't even mentioned higher motives, beginning with the importance of uniform institutional policies.
Nevertheless, to see Fear and Trembling is to realize that the task required (it's not clear if was ordered) of my friend is exactly the sort of trivial, pointless task Amélie has to perform so ceaselessly, until she comes to accept it as a species of spiritual discipline. Just so, I believe, we academics come to accept such things because they are good for us, since, as Fish explains, oppression is a source of virtue. However, we might not agree with his most extreme statement on this point: "Academics like to eat shit, and in a pinch they don't care whose shit they eat."
Wait a minute. We do care! One example: no bosses. Or rather, no comprehension of "shit" in such an idiom, lest the ground of our distinction from the vulgar marketplace be cut from under us, and our oppression revealed to be, in the end, pretty much the same as that of any other workers, whose jobs depend upon fulfilling demands made by particular individuals who have direct power over us. No, we are to be distinguished from others. The man who enters the "cyber parlor" of the movie Minority Report and announces, "I want to kill my boss" -- He's not one of us. We would throw him out, just like the management of the parlor does.
And there is a final reason for our unease with this talk of bosses: Our professional identity is compromised. Much of it is founded on the fact that we don't need bosses. Maybe everyone else does. (Certainly Amélie does; herein lies the difference between her workplace and ours.) But not us. Our work is self-driven, self-sponsored. (Again, though, adjuncts must leave the room.) Indeed, so self-actualized are we -- as teachers, as scholars -- that we can afford to ignore how continually we are, well, bossed around, by committees, chairs, deans, and rules. How often in the experience of each of us does one or more of these categories of authority materialize into the hard, implacable
form of single individual who is too much like a boss to be less than a boss? Often enough. But again, we don't prefer to see it this way, even while we effectively groan under another's yoke as much as any office worker.
Nobody is a better guide into the heart of such mysteries than Fish. I don't wish to endorse every philosophical position he takes (and one secretly yearns to read the reflections of somebody under him during one of his late administrative adventures). I do wish to praise the provocation by which he lays down certain uncomfortable truths about, say, abiding under a regime of what is ultimately ideological control. There is no escaping such a regime, no standing apart from it. In another essay, "Force"--this can be found in another collection, Doing What Comes Naturally --Fish puts the matter thus: "There is always a gun to your head." If not an actual weapon, the gun is a reason, a desire, a need, or a name -- some form of "coercion" that we have already internalized, which is mistakenly conceived as somehow exterior to us.
Or to put it another way: Not only is there always a gun to your head; the gun at your head is your head. This doesn't explain everything about authority amid the ideological peculiarities of academic life. For one thing, all are not equally coerced. Not only is a lesser caliber of ammunition given to adjuncts; they also need more gun training in the first place. (Workshops in collaborative learning comprise an excellent current form.) But Fish's point suffices, I hope, to explain why as academics we don't presume ourselves to have bosses. We are our own bosses. This is a happy truth given to us by our ideology.
Therefore, as we trudge down to the copy machine in order to finish copying the syllabus -- to take a random example -- what matter whether or not the chair explicitly ordered us, the dean reminded the chair, or what the hell, the president actually spoke about the matter to the dean? In our syllabus ultimately lies our freedom, not our oppression -- and so it goes in pretty much all things (the next twist of the tenure screw, the last diversity directive) even while we may choose to complain about every single one. Nobody actually ordered us to do anything. At least we don't have bosses.
Terry Caesar's last column was on the importance of having places to read.
Has RateMyProfessors.com changed the landscape of American higher education? Probably not. RATE (as I will hereafter refer to it) is in one respect merely a public space to enable students to do what they have always done privately: criticize or celebrate their professors. In many other respects, though, RATE alters the stakes of student criticism and changes the nature of student authority.
The change is not for the better. Compare student evaluations. They've been around so long by now that it seems idle anymore to remark how routinized the evaluation process has become: students take five minutes to mark a checklist, department committees can effectively ignore the results, or local administrations often manipulate them for their own purposes. We have heard it all before. Now student evaluations are part of educational business as usual, like customer surveys.
But wait. One thing you immediately learn when you visit RATE is that students generally seem to care more passionately than you realized, and some are able to write with more wit than you saw in your own course evaluations. A Top Twenty from the site circulates online, including "Three of my friends got A's in his class and my friends are dumb," "If I was tested on herfamily, I would have gotten an A," and, my own favorite, "BORING. But I learned there are 137 tiles on the ceiling."
From a reader's point of view, who cares if these comments are accurate? They're fun to read. From a colleague's point of view, who cares if just about any comments are just? They're irresistible to read, like gossip. RATE opens up the whole evaluative process insofar as teaching is concerned. Suddenly students get to say what they really think, not just to themselves but to a potential audience of thousands. Rather like guests on certain afternoon television talk shows, individuals feel inspired to be more recklessly candid.
But the trouble begins here. Like those guests, students turn out to be candid about the same thing. Rather than sex, it's grades. Over and over again, RATE comments cut right to the chase: how easy does the professor grade? If easy, all things are forgiven, including a dull classroom presence. If hard, few things are forgiven, especially not a dull classroom presence. Of course we knew students are obsessed with grades. Yet until RATE could we have known how utterly, unremittingly, remorselessly?
And now the obsession is free to roam and cavort, without the constraints of the class-by-class student evaluation forms, with their desiderata about the course being "organized" or the instructor having "knowledge of subject matter." These things still count. RATE students regularly register them. But nothing counts like grades. Compared to RATE, the familiar old student evaluation forms suddenly look like searching inquiries into the very nature of formal education, which consists of many other things than the evaluative dispositions of the professor teaching it.
What other things? For example, whether or not the course is required. Even the most rudimentary of student evaluation forms calls for this information. Not RATE. Much of the reason a student is free to go straight for the professorial jugular -- and notwithstanding all the praise, the site is a splatfest -- is because course content can be merrily cast aside. The raw, visceral encounter of student with professor, as mediated through the grade, emerges as virtually the sole item of interest.
Of course one could reply: so what? The site elicits nothing else. That's why it's called, "rate my professors," and not "rate my course." In effect, RATE takes advantage of the slippage always implicit in traditional student evaluations, which both are and are not evaluations of the professor rather than the course. To be precise, they are evaluations of the professor in terms of a particular course. This particularity, on the other hand, is precisely what is missing at the RATE site, where whether or not a professor is being judged by majors -- a crucial factor for departmental and college-wide tenure or promotion committees who are processing an individual's student evaluations -- is not stipulated.
Granted, a student might bring up being a major. A student might bring anything up. This is why RATE disappoints, though, because there's no framework, not even that of a specific course, to restrain or guide student comments. "Sarcastic" could well be a different thing in an upper-division than in a lower-division course. But in the personalistic RATE idiom, it's always a character flaw. Indeed, the purest RATE comments are all about character. Just as the course is without content, the professor is without performative ability. Whether he's a "nice guy" or she "plays favorites," it's as if the student has met the professor a few times at a party, rather than as a member of his or her class for a semester.
RATE comments are particularly striking if we compare those made by the professor's colleagues as a result of classroom observations. Many departments have evolved extremely detailed checksheets. I have before me one that divides the observation into four categories, including Personal Characteristics (10 items), Interpersonal Relationships (8), Subject Application/Knowledge (8), and Conducting Instruction (36). Why so many in the last category? Because performance matters -- which is just what we tell students about examinations: each aims to test not so much an individual's knowledge as a particular performance of that
Of course, some items on the checksheet are of dubious value, e.g. "uses a variety of cognitive levels when asking questions." So it goes in the effort to itemize successful teaching, an attempt lauded by proponents of student evaluations or lamented by critics. The genius of RATE is to bypass the attempt entirely, most notoriously with its "Hotness Total." Successful teaching? You may be able to improve "helpfulness" or "clarity." But you can't very well improve "hotness." Whether or not you are a successful teacher is not safely distant at RATE from whether or not you are "hot."
Perhaps it never was. In calling for a temperature check, RATE may merely be directly addressing a question -- call it the charisma of an individual professor -- that traditional student evaluations avoid. If so, though, they avoid it with good reason: charisma can't be routinized. When it is, it becomes banal, which is one reason why the critical comments are far livelier than the celebratory ones. RATE winds up testifying to one truism about teaching: It's a lot easier to say what good teaching isn't than to say what it is. Why? One reason is, because it's a lot easier for students who care only about teachers and not about teaching to say so.
Finally, what about these RATE students? How many semester hours have they completed? How many classes did they miss? It is with good reason (we discover) that traditional student evaluation forms are careful to ask something about each student. Not only is it important for the administrative processing of each form. Such questions, even at a minimal level, concede the significance in any evaluation of the evaluating subject. Without some attention to this, the person under consideration is reduced to the status of an object -- which is, precisely, what the RATE professor becomes, time after time. Students on RATE provide no information at all about themselves, not even initials or geographical locations, as given by many of the people who rate books and movies on amazon.com or who give comments on columns and articles on this Web site.
In fact, students at RATE don't even have to be students! I know of one professor who was so angered at a comment made by one of her students that she took out a fake account, wrote a more favorable comment about herself, and then added more praise to the comments about two of her colleagues. How many other professors do this? There's no telling -- just as there's no telling about local uses of the site by campus committees. Of course this is ultimately the point about RATE: Even the student who writes in the most personal comments (e.g. "hates deodorant") is completely safe from local retribution -- never mind accountability -- because the medium is so completely anonymous.
Thus, the blunt energies of RATE emerge as cutting edge for higher education in the 21st century. In this respect, the degree of accuracy concerning any one individual comment about any one professor is beside the point. The point is instead the medium itself and the nature of the judgements it makes possible. Those on display at RATE are immediate because the virtual medium makes them possible, and anonymous because the same medium requires no identity markers for an individual. Moreover, the sheer aggregation of the site itself -- including anybody from anywhere in the country -- emerges as much more decisive than what can or cannot be said on it. I suppose this is equivalent to shrugging, whatever we think of RATE, we now have to live with it.
I think again of the very first student evaluation I received at a T.A. The result? I no longer remember. Probably not quite as bad as I
feared, although certainly not as good as I hoped. The only thing I remember is one comment. It was made, I was pretty sure, by a student who sat right in the front row, often put her head down on the desk (the class was at 8 a.m.) and never said a word all semester. She wrote: "his shoes are dirty." This shocked me. What about all the time I had spent, reading, preparing, correcting? What about how I tried to make available the best interpretations of the stories required? My attempts to keep discussions organized, or just to have discussions, rather than lectures?
All irrelevant, at least for one student? It seemed so. Worse, I had to admit the student was probably right -- that old pair of brown wingtips I loved was visibly becoming frayed and I hadn't kept them shined. Of course I could object: Should the state of a professor's shoes really constitute a legitimate student concern? Come to this, can't you be a successful teacher if your shoes are dirty? In today's idiom, might this not even strike at least some students all by itself as being, well, "hot"? In any case, I've never forgotten this comment. Sometimes it represents to me the only thing I've ever learned from reading my student evaluations. I took it very personally once and I cherish it personally still.
Had it appeared on RATE, however, the comment would feel very different. A RATE[D] professor is likely to feel like a contestant on "American Idol," standing there smiling while the results from the viewing audience are totaled. What do any of them learn? Nothing, except that everything from the peculiarities of their personalities to, ah, the shine of their shoes, counts. But of course as professors we knew this already. Didn't we? Of course it might always be good to learn it all over again. But not at a site where nobody's particular class has any weight; not in a medium in which everybody's words float free; and not from students whose comments guarantee nothing except their own anonymity. I'll bet some of them even wear dirty shoes.
Terry Caesar didn't even know he had been rated until his editor found this.
I love conferences. What I love most is their air of promise. You might meet an exciting new person, hear a stray, funny story, or just discover a fine, exotic restaurant near the hotel. Of course it matters whether or not you're scheduled to read a paper. (Or have a job interview.) But even an official, public role at the conference through its sessions need not spoil the lure of individual, private pleasures.
In fact, the conference itself need not spoil the conference! At any single one there must be many attendees, dutiful all to a man or woman, who will need to experience several more conferences before learning this happy truth. I remember meeting a man at a conference in Washington many years ago who was outlining the museums he wanted to see as carefully as I was checking the sessions I wanted to attend. Dutiful? Then I was worshipful.
By now my behavior has largely transformed itself into his; the local museum is more compelling than all but the conference's best session. Nonetheless, I confess to a lingering faith in the scheduled conference as an absolute imperative. Anything less, for one thing, means a shameless waste of the institution's money when hotel room, conference fee, and even meals are being covered. But there are other reasons.
I first glimpsed their depths years ago in Philadelphia. It was late in the afternoon. My wife and I had just checked in. We chanced to wander into a vast ballroom, taking it to be somehow part of the conference. There were booths and there were books. But wait: there was also wine and cheese. Representatives at various booths bid us to drink and eat. We were hungry. And we were pleased to ignore the evidence of our soon-sated senses: This was in fact the site of another conference.
Something to do -- it turned out -- with either realtors or the homeless or, somehow, both. Anyway, all honor to the participants as well as the organization. Later in the evening the two of us returned, with a couple people from our own conference in tow, to enjoy the live band as well as more free drinks and even more food. Nobody appeared to care that none of us belonged there. There was plenty to eat and drink. I bought a T-shirt.
Even more, I tried to relish a distinct sense of transgression, especially since "transgression" was the subject of half the papers at the conference in our own discipline that we had come to attend. It's hard to explain the logic. That we were getting two conferences for the price of one? That the rigors of one were reborn in the festivities of another? That partying with professional others expressed some extension of an original felt release, as soon as we drove away from home?
Why do any of us attend conferences? Officially, to participate in our profession, in the form of specialized topics, concerns, and discourses. Unofficially, though, we attend to enjoy opportunities -- social, cultural, touristic -- that either do not exist back home or at least do not exist in the same way. Extend this unofficial rationale far enough and such opportunities come at once to reside entirely away from one's own very profession and as close as another profession's conference right in the same hotel.
I further confess to fond memories of strolling once among booths of some sort of Christian organization, eventually buying (to me, ironically) a couple of "Jesus Loves You" ties. Or another time of picking up some buttons, pins, and other ephemera -- free! -- at a nursing conference, including my favorite, a "Partners Without Pain" button.
Did somebody say, "otherness"? (Another boilerplate notion for years in the profession of English.) In my experience, academic conferences have been slow to market their subjects or concerns in the form of articles of clothing, while the only place you can get a decent button is from a can at a table of a publisher's booth.
This won't do. Academic conferences are in fact too dry. Nothing reveals this like some other organization's conference. On the evidence of those I have wandered into over the years, almost any other occasion is juicier. People seem friendlier. The atmosphere appears more jovial. It's as if there's more concession to the unofficial reasons why people in any organization attend conferences in the first place: to socialize, restage their interests more colorfully, to have -- in a word -- fun.
We academics are suspicious of fun. In a conference context, fun is unproblematic; it might make a good session topic, but does not provide a sufficient gloss for the seams between or among sessions. Fun leads to vulgar commodification; leave other organizations to their do-dads and T-shirts -- we have our books. Fun is too indiscriminate; our interest is in boundaries, margins, clear delineations and proper demarcations.
Recently, I was pleased to visit an area conference of an organization I would not have imagined even existed: Native American Gaming. Long may it prosper! The lasagna was excellent, part of a luncheon spread given, I believe, by a company or companies who sponsor slot machines. "Come have some ice cream" somebody bid. There were tablefuls of freebies: caps, calendars, magazines, pens.
Indeed, there was enough on display to enable an outsider to glean something of the discursive vocabulary of the organization, which consists of background checks and tribal gaming commissions, land use and optimal cycles. A question from an ad in a magazine particularly stuck me: "Is your casino a well-oiled machine?" How to extrapolate this question for academic purposes? "Is your classroom a well-oiled machine?" Your campus?
Wrong thought. The point for an academic to "attend" such a conference -- or that of any other organization -- is not to use it to reconstitute attendance at one's own. What is the point? Just to enjoy, well, otherness. Its joys may be fugitive. They may even be fatuous. Yet they are real. Some of the most fun (I don"t know what other word to use) I've ever had at any academic conferences has been just idling around other conferences that have nothing to do with academic life.
Part of the reason any of us attends conferences, after all, is to enjoy the glamour, bustle, and crisp atmosphere of big hotels. The bigger the hotel, the more concurrent conferences. "I just got back from Kazakhstan," exclaimed one man to another in the lobby of the hotel at the last conference I attended. "It's the Wild West there." I strained to make out his badge. Something about information technology -- one of those things we're now all supposed to understand, while knowing little about any particular instance.
The real Kazakhstan, rather than its representation! Hard to imagine the man himself being comparably delighted to hear about "readers and writers negotiating textual spaces" (the subject of the session I had just attended). Indeed, such language would probably be as unintelligible to him as whatever they speak in Kazakhstan. Nothing like another conference to expose the narrowness of the very language in our own. Professionally, we academics are unto other professions and organizations like separate countries.
Somebody ought to propose a session about this. Trouble is, from within what academic discipline? No one comprehends all the rest, or even aspires to do so. Each possesses its own references, its own idioms. Those of other organizations or professions that are not academic only further confound our separation from each other. Our separateness even within our own disciplines (in my own case, what do I really know about 18th-century British literature, much less the 16th-century Spanish epic?) is bad enough.
And our separateness in terms of other academic disciplines? (What do I really know, say, about geography or physics?) Even more confounding, yet still, perhaps, within the realm of, let's say, discursive potential for any one of these disciplines; that is, somebody could give a conference paper on how alienated scientists are from humanists. On the other hand, our separateness with respect to nonacademic professional endeavor? It's difficult even to imagine a paper, a session, an interest, a discourse. At our conferences anyway, we academics just don't care about realtors or nurses.
Should we? Even if the food is more plentiful or the atmosphere more relaxed? To pose the question in a different way: Should we ever try to recuperate our fateful separation as academics from everybody else? I suspect this question drives much of the continued chatter we hear in and out of conferences about "public intellectuals."
Alas, though, such recuperation has never been on my own mind at a Marriott or a Sheraton while straying into a conference where I didn't belong. Indeed, if I've ever been "in search of" anything, perhaps it's merely for something on-site that is truly unrecuperable. This is hard to do if you remain within the confines of the conference where you belong.
Every look, and not merely every paper, speaks to you in intimate professional ways. However, at the Other conference, there are looks that say virtually nothing to you (except maybe, "welcome") and there are papers being read on the third floor that you can safely ignore completely.
Of course you ignore them as an academic. Finally, even at the Other conference it's impossible not to be one. You wouldn't be wandering around the hotel at all if you didn't have your own conference. Nonetheless, the realization is available everywhere: so many other conferences! Are there realtors or nurses who stray into our own? How do they find them? If we could, what would we say to these people? Simply that they don't belong, which is the same thing we say to ourselves?
Terry Caesar's last column explored students' excuses and professors' reactions to them.