Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Course Evaluations and Teacher DIsempowerment

At sixty-seven years of age, I have survived good times and bad and have the scars to prove it. I have raised two children to happy, productive adulthood and stayed married to the same loving woman for forty-eight years. I have worked as a day laborer, a janitor, a night watchman,a store clerk, a barber’s apprentice, an Army officer, a seventh-grade teacher, and, for thirty-nine years, a teacher educator and author. Yet every semester I am required to submit to anonymous evaluations of my teaching by unripe undergraduates who frequently are more interested in partying and petting than in studying and learning. I should add that I don’t consider my faring well in these ratings as sufficient compensation.

To make matters worse, a disempowering ritual accompanies these evaluations. Professors are sternly instructed to distribute the evaluation forms and then to leave the room. They are not permitted to touch the envelope containing the completed evaluations. The last student finishing must seal the envelope, sign it on the seal, and hand carry it to the department secretary, who presumably is licensed to kill.

This humiliation is accomplished under the pretense that it is a course
evaluation, not an evaluation of the professor. But that fools no one.

Had someone asked me to evaluate my professors when I was in college, I would have thought they had taken leave of their senses. I knew, and my classmates knew, that we were green kids in the presence of full-scale adults who had accomplished a great deal more than we had. It was their business to do the evaluating. It was our business to try to learn — or at least pretend to.

Perhaps I knew my place better than most. As a teenager I apprenticed in my
dad’s barbershop, largely populated by tough, no-nonsense railroaders, coal miners and war veterans. I learned the hard way to be respectful of my elders. For example, I remember voicing an opinion on an adult subject only to have a grizzled railroader tell me that I reminded him of the barber's cat, "full of piss and wind." After that I kept my opinions to myself.

Professors might be able to learn something useful from “course” evaluations if they only knew which students wrote them. (After all, one doesn’t want to take a class-cutting dullard’s comments seriously; but the opinion of accomplished students are another thing entirely.) Unfortunately, student anonymity precludes the professor from knowing who is saying what, while it simultaneously teaches students to hold their tongues unless they can totally avoid responsibility for what they say.

Professors are generally not afforded the commensurate privilege of evaluating their chairs, deans, provosts, or presidents. And professors are almost always expressly forbidden from initiating communication with anyone on the board of trustee's. And all of thie pertains despite the fact that mature, experienced professors with expert knowledge are far better qualified to evaluate college administrators than immature. inexperienced and often strikingly ignorant youngsters are their professors.

Of course college administrators know full well that granting professors the power to evaluate them would disempower them as much as their present policies disempower the professors. Wisely, they are having none of that. What's sauce for the goose turns out, in this case, to be gall for the gander.

Sadly, student "course" evaluations are part of an emerging pattern of teacher disempowerment that is causing teachers at all levels to become more and more impotent. Yet, at the same time, teachers are being held more and more accountable. What a deadly combination. No wonder teachers are leaving the occupation in droves.

Things would change a great deal if faculty evaluations of college administrators served the same purpose that student "course" evaluations serve for the professoriate. Namely, as a gauge for the administrator's promotion and firing. But don't hold your breath waiting for that innovation.

To examine these and similar issues further, see articles at

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