Monday, June 20, 2016

On Student Evaluations

I try not to write about students in detail, and have actually made it a point both in this blog and in class not to do so. So I will try to avoid saying too much here.

My department has a policy in regards to student evaluations. The evaluation scores are public information not just to the department, but to the school at large. Anyone with a University of Washington ID can login and see a set of numbers that shows how my students have felt about me in any given class going back a year. The comments the students leave, however, are privileged information. Only I can see them. I can share those comments if I wish.

In classes in which I have scored high in the numbers, once extremely close to perfection, the comments have been kind but lukewarm. The students were happy with the class, thought it was well-organized and felt they had gotten something out of it. But if they felt the class changed their lives or transformed them in significant ways, they kept that enthusiasm to themselves. In classes in which my scores have been good or average, the comments have been more divisive. In these classes, some of my students declared my class the single best English class they had ever taken, and me the first teacher who bothered to teach them how to write well, the first teacher who demanded that they think for themselves. Others were cruel. I had no business in a classroom. The course materials were stupid, boring, and a waste of time. The class discussions were boring.

Now, two students wrote mean things for the evaluations of a recent class. I have a pretty good idea of who they were, as their comments on the evals mirror the comments they made to me from hour one, day one, week one of the course. These students were rude and immature. I am now looking at a student evaluation sheet that would otherwise have very high scores accompanied by only very nice comments and constructive criticism if not for these two students' decision to write evaluations themselves.

I've found evaluations useful. I have removed certain texts from my syllabus if a vast majority of students found them un-engaging, or at least changed the way I've taught certain texts. Student advice has helped me hone the structure of the peer review, one of the most useful teaching tools in any writing class. One student gave me a detailed suggestion for how to schedule some of the lessons. He or she was right. And sometimes a student who hated hated hated the class had helpful if painful advice as well. Entitled brats? Hardly. Most of my students have been good and I would wish them on my best friends.

There's only so much you can keep as a souvenir from a classroom. So much of what happens in those rooms is ephemeral, and more of it exists in your students' consciousnesses than in your own feelings. Forgetting the significance these evaluations have for one's professional career -- and I should add that women and people of color are consistently ill-served by the emphasis of student evaluations in hiring decisions -- they are often the only record I have of ten weeks of work that I care about. But so much of a teacher's achievements and failures can't really be measured by students nor by anyone else. Sorry, Obama's education department, Teach for America, Michelle Rhee, and Bill Gates, but they just can't.

This has been my last year of guaranteed funding at the University of Washington and I don't know if I will be teaching here or even at the college level again. And here I am, left with these evaluations, the occasional email from a past student letting me know how much they've missed my class, and the stray kind mention from a colleague with whom I've shared a student. I have my memories. My students have their memories as well. Well...what else do I want?

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