The Joys of Faculty Self-Evaluations

Hugo Schwyzer finds that this new rite of passage combines the best ideas of teenage reinvention and Maoist self-criticism.

November 30, 2005

Of all the tasks that confront a tenured community college professor, perhaps the least useful is the tri-annual self-evaluation. This year, I’m on the Pasadena City College committee that is reviewing the evaluation process for tenured faculty members, and last week I was handed the administration’s proposal for the new “Self-Evaluation Review of Professional Performance.”

It’s never been clear to me that anyone in the administration, from our department chairs to academic vice presidents, ever actually reads these self-evaluations. For tenured professors, reviewed once every three years, the main administrative concern is with student and peer evaluations of teaching. (We, of course, have no publishing or research requirements at the community college.)  In the dozen years I’ve been at the college and involved in union politics, I’ve only heard of a handful of tenured colleagues receiving negative over-all evaluations from the administration. None have ever been dismissed. As far as I or anyone else I’ve asked knows, a poor self-evaluation has never been used against a tenured faculty member.

Here are three of the proposed questions for our new evaluation:

1. How has your perception of your role as a faculty member changed/developed since your last evaluation?

2. After taking time to reflect, what more could you do to provide students with a successful learning experience?

3. What can the college do to support you in your professional goals and development?

These are very different from the queries on our old self-evaluation forms, which simply asked us to list the courses we taught and what achievements, if any, we had had since our last evaluation. Reading these new questions, I’m struck by the increased emphasis that the college puts on never-ending personal and professional growth. These are questions to be answered by men and women who already have the security of lifetime employment, who (barring a felony conviction or gross incompetence) will never be forced to apply for another job again.

With the first question, I’m stumped. In 2002, I thought that my job as a professor was to be a good and interesting teacher, an attentive mentor, and an amiable colleague. That’s what I thought in 1999 and 1996, too. I suspect it will be my definition of a good faculty member in 2008, 2011, and beyond. But I suspect that that’s not the answer the administration wants. What shall I tell them? That I have suddenly discovered an interest in “student success”? (That’s the great buzzphrase on the lips of the Ed.D.’s who run the joint.) That it finally occurred to me to start getting my grades in on time? That I’ve at last thought better of telling sexist jokes to my women’s studies class? The notion that we ought always to be “professionally developing” suggests a career trajectory that resembles nothing more than a 30 or 40-year adolescence. Teenagers reinvent themselves with predictable regularity; the new model of faculty development seems to suggest that we do the same.

The second question is the shiny new academic version of that great interview trap question “Tell us your greatest weaknesses.” (As I recall, the correct answer to that question is “I’m a relentless perfectionist, and sometimes I’m too hard on myself.”) What more could I do than I am already doing to provide my students with a successful learning experience? Well, I could drop three-quarters of them in the first week, so that I would have more of an opportunity to mentor those who remained. I could become a far more dedicated activist to the cause of lowering textbook prices, so that my students would actually buy the books instead of trying to pass my classes on lecture notes alone. I could set up a Starbucks franchise in the corner of my classroom, so that the overworked and the over-videogamed could stay awake for a 9:00 a.m. lecture on Carrie Chapman Catt or Cato the Elder.

On the other hand, if the administration defines success as a passing grade, I could eliminate the requirement that my students form coherent English sentences. I could encourage the use of Wikipedia entries as a substitute for research papers. I could give A’s to the deserving and undeserving alike. I could, ala the Dodo in Alice in Wonderland after the races, announce that “Everyone has won, and all must have A’s”.

My colleagues and I are busting our collective behinds to reach students with limited English skills, who work three jobs, who are single parents, who are struggling with addiction.  We teach five, six, and seven classes a semester, 35 to 40 students each.   We have no readers or T.A.’s. But regardless, the new self-evaluation form insists that there must be more we could be doing.  No matter how hard we’ve been trying, the question implies, the administration (staffed as it is by those who have rarely spent time in the classroom) feels strongly that we ought to be able to identify still more that we could be doing. Am I the only one reminded of a good old-fashioned Maoist self-criticism session?

As for the final question -- what more can the college do for us -- this is the one query that I’m confident will get an enthusiastic response. Yes, for starters, you can pay us more. You can reduce our teaching loads so that we can spend more time with our students. But above all, you can stop treating us like perpetual teenagers, doomed to a world of perpetual self-criticism and reinvention. Some of us will change over the course of our career for the better, some for the worse. And some -- not an insignificant number, either -- will continue to bring to the classroom what they have always brought, teaching at 50 much as they did at 30. Will their students be the worse off for it? I suspect not.


Hugo B. Schwyzer teaches history and gender studies at Pasadena City College. He teaches and blogs about such issues as the interplay of faith and sexuality, American history, and masculinity.


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