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Tom Kennedy's Blog

Before You Accuse Me...

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For faculty, the real event marking the end of the semester is not graduation, and is not when one has turned in the last grades for the term.  For me at any rate, the semester is not over until I’ve reviewed the student evaluations for my courses and spent the next three or four hours, if not the next three or four days, coming to terms with them.

Student evaluations are terribly important, especially at a school like Berry where we prize excellent teaching. Marginal instructors, no matter how impressive their scholarly or artistic accomplishments, are not tenured here. Student evaluations, although not the only (and not the best) means for assessing faculty classroom performance nevertheless are critical tools for telling us what is going well and what is not going well in the classroom. They matter a lot to administrators. They matter a lot to faculty.

Student course evaluations matter a lot to us even though one would be hard-pressed to present a good argument for why they matter so much. Why? Because although students are very well-positioned to reflect upon what they liked or didn’t like about an instructor or a course (or various activities and components of the course) that is only one small indicator of the success of a course. Perhaps liking an instructor or liking the course and some or all of its components is a necessary condition for the success of a course (though I don’t know why anyone should think even that); it certainly is not a sufficient condition. A well-liked course at the end of a semester might very easily have been a failure in doing what the course ought to have done. And students, especially students new to a discipline, are rarely in a position to determine what a course ought to have done or whether, in fact, the course may have achieved its appropriate aims.

Take my discipline, philosophy. Students rarely enter their first philosophy class with any real understanding of what a philosophy course should be and do. (Indeed, philosophers themselves may not agree on this, may agree more on what a philosophy class shouldn’t aim at than what it should.) The goals of the course, like philosophy itself, are likely to be abstractly formulated; for example, “Students will learn to think philosophically,” and the clearest evidence for whether that goal has been accomplished may well be the responses of students on the course evaluation. Have students learned to value philosophical reflection and have students learned to think philosophically? Why think this is something about which students themselves would be insightful the last week of the semester with the stress of final exams coming up?

Often, despite my rather fervent desire for effusive praise and expressions of affection on the evaluations I am distressed with the results and not because the praise is not fulsome (though, alas, rarely is it sufficiently so). Rather, although the course fared well in the evaluations, I know the course deserved less. Alright, more accurately: often, despite a number of pretty positive comments from students about my course, I am disappointed that the evaluations are as positive as they are. I know the course was just not that successful. I didn’t inspire students to achieve what they should have achieved in philosophical argument. I failed to capture their imaginations and hearts about why the material matters and how much it matters. And so on. I’m glad my students liked me and enjoyed the class, but they should have valued neither quite so much. Still, of all the disappointments evoked by student evaluations, I have become quite adept at dealing with this disappointment. Sorrow and sadness are fleeting.

This was Berry’s first semester with online evaluations and for my course, at any rate, I think the online approach was no less successful than the in-class evaluation. I had a high response rate—almost 80%. That confirmed what I already knew: these students were a pretty responsible bunch. Some faculty worried that, in general, faculty evaluations would be lower online than with our former in-class hand-written evaluations.  They suspected that discontented students would be more likely to log-on and let loose than the students who were more or less satisfied with the course. It appears that I did have one very irate student though, interestingly, that is much more apparent from the discursive comments than from the numerical scores. (My evaluations suggest that grades aren’t the only inflated scores in the contemporary academy.)

What did I learn from my course evaluations? My course was a “writing intensive” course, significantly aimed at improving student writing at the same time students mastered the content of the course, and most disappointing to me is that no students even noted my rather painstaking process of commenting on their many papers. (Well, there was one well-deserved criticism that it took me way too long to return a course paper.) So I don’t really know whether students found my feedback on what they wrote or how they wrote helpful. It certainly appears not to have been life-changing!

Nor was the course clearly as successful at conveying to students the nature and value of philosophical reflection upon environmental issues as I had hoped. We needed to spend more time—and I think this is especially true given the makeup of this particular class—thinking about what philosophy can and can’t do. We needed to do more and better reflection upon types of questions which empirical observation and subjective introspection can’t help with. I wasn’t as successful as I should have been in helping students recognize what they didn’t know.

There were other things I learned from the evaluations, too, of course. It’s time to hang up my references in class to classic rock n roll, no matter how entertaining I find them (And, for the record, it’s not “‘70s folk music!”). Most troubling—and here’s how I’ll spend my summer vacation—my perceptions of my interactions with my students are radically different from how more than one student perceives my interactions. By and large, I liked these students—I can’t think of any I disliked—and that is not always the case. And I had thought by the end of the semester that I had developed a pretty good rapport with them. But it seems I was mistaken. I don’t know whether it’s a cultural thing and that, say, Southern students can’t help but blanch at anything that appears less than sweet (and the sort of rigorous questioning and reflection that I think characterizes good philosophy is not always sweet), or whether it is a generational thing and even the slightest challenge to an individual of this generation is upsetting. Or, maybe it’s a “me” thing and either I’m just not as nice as I think I am or, even if I am as nice as I think I am, students can’t tell that I’m that nice. What I do know is that there are students who seem to think I should share in Socrates’s fate. Wasn’t it Lycon who called Socrates a “pompous ass?”

Alas, “Oh lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.” Errr, strike that last line.

And, now, at last, “It’s summertime.”

tdk

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