Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Who Needs Student Evaluations?

As many people know, I'm no great fan of Stanley Fish and his opinion column at the New York Times. However, his recent column on the dangers of relying too much on student evaluations raises many important concerns:

And that is why student evaluations (against which I have inveighed since I first saw them in the ’60s) are all wrong as a way of assessing teaching performance: they measure present satisfaction in relation to a set of expectations that may have little to do with the deep efficacy of learning. Students tend to like everything neatly laid out; they want to know exactly where they are; they don’t welcome the introduction of multiple perspectives, especially when no master perspective reconciles them; they want the answers.
But sometimes (although not always) effective teaching involves the deliberate inducing of confusion, the withholding of clarity, the refusal to provide answers; sometimes a class or an entire semester is spent being taken down various garden paths leading to dead ends that require inquiry to begin all over again, with the same discombobulating result; sometimes your expectations have been systematically disappointed. And sometimes that disappointment, while extremely annoying at the moment, is the sign that you’ve just been the beneficiary of a great course, although you may not realize it for decades.
Needless to say, that kind of teaching is unlikely to receive high marks on a questionnaire that rewards the linear delivery of information and penalizes a pedagogy that probes, discomforts and fails to provide closure. Student evaluations, by their very nature, can only recognize, and by recognizing encourage, assembly-line teaching that delivers a nicely packaged product that can be assessed as easily and immediately as one assesses the quality of a hamburger.
While I can't agree that the assembly-line delivery of neatly packaged information is the only things that students are looking for in a course, in many ways Stanley Fish is right here. I wrote about this tendency that the students unfortunately have some time ago:
As a result, our graduates know how to follow instructions and work themselves into an utter exhaustion but they have no idea how to think originally or express their creativity. Recently, students asked me for a a study guide for our next exam. "There is no study guide," I said. "You will have to express your own opinions on the texts we read and the paintings we have discussed." "Is there a study guide on how to do that?" asked one of the students very seriously. Once again, the most pressing questions for us, the educators, is whether the goal of education is to produce people who can follow orders even at an enormous cost to themselves or people who know how to think and don't need a study guide to express their own opinions.
One of the sad consequences of this tell-me-what-to-memorize-but-don't-ask-me-to-think approach is that students are, indeed, likely to penalize a teacher who struggles to make them think rather than providing them with ready-made neatly organized answers. I believe, however, that Fish is wrong in addressing the concept of student evaluations instead of placing the blame where it is due. The very perception of higher education as having as its only goal a creation of efficient, productive robots who are highly organized and follow instructions perfectly is to blame for this state of things. Student evaluations can be very useful as a tool that lets the faculty know whether their teaching style is effective. Many faculty members start teaching without having taken a single course on pedagogy or the methodology of teaching. As a result, these professors believe that teaching consists in repeating things they know to their audience. How else would they find out that their teaching is not effective if not through student evaluations?

I don't think that student evaluations should be scrapped altogether. They are not the root of the problem. They are just a symptom of a much wider malaise.

P.S. Needless to say, I agree with Fish on everything he has to say about the insane attitude to college teaching in Texas. When I was on the job market, I realized immediately that it makes no sense whatsoever to apply for a job at any Texan university. The working conditions are ridiculous, the workload is insane, the college administrators are rabid, and the environment is miserable. But what can you expect from Texas, really?

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