Swarthmore doesn’t require teaching evaluations, which usually irks the accreditation teams when they show up here for their regular inspection.
Most of the time I hand out an evaluation that I’ve designed myself. (Occasionally I run out of time in the last class, and return rates on evaluations that don’t get fillled out in class are so miniscule as to make it not worth the effort to hand them out.) The evaluation form I use asks students to discuss the materials used in the class, my pedagogical management of lecture and discussion, and the fairness and usefulness of the assignments and of any assistance I provided for those assignments. I also ask students whether they found the course more or less difficult than the average class, and how they would evaluate the amount of effort they put in to the course.
These evaluations return information that’s very useful to me in revising particular courses and in refining my pedagogy. I wouldn’t mind sharing them or putting them on file if we decided to start doing that, as long as other evaluations were roughly similar in form. Though we have other ways of collecting evaluative information about faculty teaching: when we collect student feedback that is pertinent to tenure and promotion, we do it by asking a large number of students to write letters.
In comparison, evaluations at large institutions that are entirely numerical are informationally impoverished. It’s one reason that I’m ok with Swarthmore not requiring evaluations, or bowing down to what the accreditors want. They always say they’re not trying to impose standardized procedures, but that’s where we’ll end up if we start trying to accomodate them too much.
It’s not just that trying to judge the difference between a “7” and an “8” strikes me as far less satisfying than comparing two substantial comments from thoughtful students. It’s also that what I hear back from my students often leaves me in a quandry. Over time, for example, I’ve heard consistently from one group of students who are consistently a bit frustrated with the degree to which I intervene in classroom discussions, direct and redirect them. They want me to loosen up a bit, let things flow more spontaneously, encourage more debate between students. Then I hear from another group of students who are intensely appreciative of the fact that I keep discussion under a fairly tight rein, make sure that certain themes and issues are touched upon, work to build up from comments made by students. I sometimes hear from a smaller third group that wants me to tell students who say dubious things that they’re stupid or wrong, who get frustrated with what they perceive as excessive even-handedness.
None of that is information available in a quantitative evaluation. Nor does a nuanced evaluation of the kind I use tell me what I should do about that information. I’d resent an administrator looking over my shoulder telling me how to react to these comments, because each group is asking for something that contradicts the desires of the other group. Looking back on more than a decade of teaching, I’d say that sometimes I’ve erred too far in one or another of these directions. So sometimes I listen to what I’m hearing back and trying to nudge my teaching in the next semester back towards a happy medium. Other times, I understand what the students are speaking to, but in my judgement, I end up feeling I’ve been doing the right thing. I’ve listened to much looser discussions run by some of my colleagues in their courses, and those make me unhappy much of the time. They sometimes sound like the kind of bull sessions that you don’t have to pay $50,000/year to have. I’ve seen discussions run far more tightly, with numerous strong corrections of student comments from the professor, and that’s not to my taste either.
The deeper problem here is all assessment of teaching. I tend to react negatively to educational jargon or standardized forms of assessment because I think teaching is less a technique and more an art. Some faculty can teach classes in a way that I simply can’t: virtuoso performances of emotionally intense, tightly-written lectures, or calling students up on the carpet in an imperious Professor Kingsfield fashion. These are beautiful styles of teaching when they’re done well.
Some people can be shambolically Socratic, slyly pushing students to think, with every class completely different from the next, a description that fits the best teacher I’ve ever had, my senior year AP English teacher in high school, Mr. Wilton. The students from the two junior year honors English classes had to write an essay for him, which he used to winnow the class to about 20 students. The first day of class, he announced that everyone in the course would receive an “A” no matter what, and that if a student wanted to twiddle their thumbs in the back of the room or not read what he assigned, it was no skin off his nose. He only had time for the students who were going to love literature, have some passion for what he offered. That was the pedagogical equivalent of the Allied liberation of Paris from Nazi rule as far as I was concerned.
For the students who need a particular approach, finding the right teacher is heaven. A mismatch of needs is hell. But it’s up to artful teachers and self-knowing students to choreograph that dance. Administrators wielding standardized Scan-Tron evaluations just get in the way.
The real problem is how to identify teaching which is just lacking in craft or art. Teaching is like popular culture: even the worst of it attracts its own devotees. I can remember one professor I had as an undergraduate who I thought was simply awful by any standard: boring, plodding, soul-deadening, pedantic. My opinion appeared to be broadly shared by other students in the class, based on numerous conversations. But then I found out a friend of mine thought he was both a good teacher and a sweet person. Somehow he’d catalyzed her interests in English literature. I tend to think that this was more a compliment to her own imagination than any credit to him. Academia’s critics tend to assume that bad teaching is everywhere in higher education. I think it’s not exactly rare, but it can be awfully hard to put your finger on it once you get beyond the fatal sins of failing to show up to teach, over-the-top abusiveness, or complete inability to explain any concepts.
If someone knows an evaluation system that’s sensitive to nuance, open to teaching as an art, and yet helps to identify bad teaching in a fairly reliable way, I’d love to hear about it. I doubt such a beast can exist. If the choice is between heavy-handed standardization and nothing, I’d choose nothing.