Students will drive me out of academia

When I was putting together my tenure binder I had to do the awful thing of reading my student evals, and that was horrid in every way.  And I cried to my partner for hours about it and we worked it out, but the fact is, I still have that job.  I still have the job where, in every class, there is one student who will write inappropriate things that are extremely mean, and I don’t know who that is, so all students are the enemy.  I have the job where a hundred 19-year-olds judge my appearance, and then my boss reads it and it goes in my personnel file. HOW IS THAT OK?!??!?!?

It shouldn’t be.

But that’s how academia is.  19-year olds are going to insult me for the rest of my career and say mean things about my appearance, forever.  And I don’t get to say mean things about them, because I have to be professional and they don’t.

It’s not even necessarily the ones earning bad grades who are writing hurtfully inappropriate anonymous evals.  I mean, it has to be correlated, but it’s not direct, I’m sure.  I suspect some former A students among the worst commenters.
You might say that nobody cares what 19 year olds think except advertisers.  To which I reply, AND THE DEAN, and the provost.  Though maybe they won’t have the time to read my evals anymore after tenure.  Who has that kind of time?
This time around the evals hurt when they shouldn’t have because they picked one thing I was already bothered about and poked it.  ASSHOLES.  Rationally I know they’d just make fun of something else if it weren’t this one thing.
For just that reason, I considered investing in a completely crazy and very weird-looking hat, just so that I would know what they would criticize.  It would be like a hate-catcher.  Except they’d probably say it was cool.  They’re messed up like that.  Goddamn bastards.
I have a job where they get to lash out at me and say whatever they want, and I can’t lash back.
And I’ll probably get to keep this job forever, if I want it.
But I don’t have to read the evals anymore.  Ever again.  (Unless I want to go up for full.  Your eval numbers have to be even higher than for assoc here.)
I can worry about that then.  Stupid @#$%ers.

30 Responses to “Students will drive me out of academia”

  1. Leah Says:

    Both the schools I taught at allowed us to see handwritten evals (tho one was changing the system as I left). Thus, I know who wrote what because I graded enough darn short answer sections. My very worst evals ever were both from A students, and my other bad ones were from some C/D students. The F students typically accepted their lot in the life, and the B students mostly seemed relieved that they passed and everything.

    Do you get to talk to students pre-eval? I know some schools are moving to a totally online system. Anyway, if you do, I find it really helps to give a little chat about how you read every eval, and you really appreciate constructive feedback so that you can improve the course, yadda yadda. I told my students that I always wanted them to explain something, even if it was negative. “Leah was an awful GSI” wasn’t helpful, but “Leah was not a good GSI because she graded papers during class” was (whoops — that was an infraction I did one time during my pre-lim semester, and one student was _really_mad_ about it. But they were small group, self-led discussing an article for half the class, and I trusted them to work before our big group discussion). Anyway, I get more useful evals when I remind them how I use evals.

    I’ve heard some talk, on occasion, of letting high school students evaluate their teachers. If that’s ever, ever discussed as tying into pay, I’m pretty sure I’ll quit teaching. I don’t think most college students are vindictive enough to write bad evals to get someone fired (tho that did happen at my college, but she didn’t fit in with the college in general), but I can definitely see some high school students writing bad evals to can a teacher. Heck, some of the students have freely admitted to failing standardized tests to reflect poorly on their teachers. This is why giving control over someone’s job to young kids is a bad idea. But that’s probably a rant for my own blog and another time.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I have always given them a talk beforehand about how I read their evals after their final grades are done, and I take them seriously and change the course based on them. Apparently that doesn’t help, though. Boo.

      • GMP Says:

        I do unofficial midsemester evals that are just for my records, and tell them that I read these carefully and try to implement changes while there is still time. So far so good.

  2. Perpetua Says:

    At my old university they had a scantron section and a handwritten section. The handwritten ones had to be signed by the students if they were going to be evaluated. Unsigned ones were thrown out. I think the reliance on student evaluations on anything but keeping an eye on general trends is outrageous. Students who write thoughtful responses (positive and negative) should have their voices heard, but these things should never be tied to promotions or raises except in the most general way, for all the reasons you mentioned plus sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia etc etc. (The students always complain excessively about teachers with accents and how they can’t “understand” them.) The most outrageous thing to me is that universities use these things without providing students with any advice or criteria on how to write an acceptable, professional evaluation, so it’s no wonder that they think it’s the equivalent of a “comments” card at a Chilis.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Ours are all 100% anonymous, which I think just encourages nastiness. In grad school, the students had to sign them in order to get them in the final file. Here, the sexism (and all the other -isms) just reigns on unchecked.

  3. Belle Says:

    I feel and share your hatred of evals. I just had to do mine too – for a post-tenure eval – and agree that the process is crazy, unfair and painful. I even went into my current classes and asked them if they could shed light on some of the comments. Their take was comforting – they blamed the students, arguing that evals are done at _the_worst_time of the term, when students are stressed. Some said that all of their classes do on the same day, so it became one after another and they took out their frustrations on whichever prof was being evaluated at the moment.

    So this term I’m not only telling them how I use them, but how admin uses them. And sending out anon evals right now – half way through term – so that I can address problems and issues for _these_ students. But the process and assumptions of student evals suck.

  4. NoTrustFund Says:

    Sounds awful. Innocent question from a non academic. Do you every receive any feedback in these evaluations that are helpful?

    • graduateliving Says:

      I do, but I offer feedback throughout the semester that revolves around the class, not me. I find that often time, undergrads have a hard time separating the structure and organization of the course from the professor as a person, and that’s where evals can get into really grey area and be really hurtful (university-wide evaluations don’t really help either, as they’re not often formatted to account for this distinction). I did two informal evaluations after my students’ first paper this semester and at midterm, and both offered helpful feedback: things to add to paper assignments for clarity, aspects of the course they thought we could spend more time on, etc.

      I’m hoping the fact that they’ve encountered evals before will help them be more polite and constructive come end-of-term evaluations that my GPD will see and evaluate me on.

    • bogart Says:

      Seconding that, I found creating and using my own evals during the course typically much more helpful than the “end-of-semester-summary” approach most schools seem to use.

      And yes, there’s lots wrong and not much right about extant approaches to administering and using course evals. Also, the last college I taught at did not seem to grasp why it was a bad a idea to change both the mechanism for administering (paper to online) and the format/structure/content (I forget details) of evals at the same time and then act as if we could compare across time. Because, you know, we (the faculty) were just a bunch of people with Ph.Ds, who couldn’t possibly grasp the idea that the ways opinions are solicited might shape the information received.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Our evals were recently redesigned, also, and they deliberately threw away the input from the faculty who had knowledge about valid test creation practices. SIGH.

        Often the results of the evaluations, at least the general trends, are very helpful and useful. I do use them to shape the course and I do often use mid-term questions to make corrections during the course. But I have no control over how the end-of-term questions go. Once again, BOOoo.

  5. Linda Says:

    When I was in college I can’t recall noting anything on an eval that didn’t have to do directly with course or material. Wow. I simply can’t imagine writing a course eval that included comments on the appearance of a professor. Why don’t they throw those out as non-relevant?

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Because that would require a rational human being to read through thousands and thousands of evals and make a judgment call about what was relevant, probably. Plus, what if they make relevant comments on one part of the eval but intertwine it with snarky personal attacks? I certainly wish we could throw out the ones that were clearly unhelpful, but that’s not allowed. Sigh.

  6. femmefrugality Says:

    Um, if they’re ripping on your appearance it must be because they can’t say shit about your teaching style. And they’re probably just ticked that they’re not getting an easy A. If there’s any constructive feedback, take it, but anything else ignore it and realize that part of their tuition money is going into your pocket, no matter what kind of a-holes they are. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. People can be such idiotic jerks.

  7. Mom2boy Says:

    I think the hat would have worked. One of the least popular visiting professors wore to class a jacket that resembled a blanket and I know for a fact that “judicial snuggy” appeared on at least one evaluation.
    We always did evaluations at the end of class at the end of the semester and I was so done by then I just wanted to get home. I think once I took the time to write “favorite class” which is hardly constructive and once in the hardest one credit lunch hour class ever on the EU I wrote “hardest one credit lunch hour class ever”. Again not particularly helpful. Seems like a waste of time for everyone involved.

  8. hush Says:

    Ugh, I’m sorry some students are mean and trifling over inane things like appearance. If it’s any consolation, many of them will not have jobs when they graduate – I’m guessing this unpleasant reality is contributing to their negativity at least a little bit.

  9. Leigh Says:

    Ugh, I’m sorry. I promise you that I never, ever commented on the prof’s appearance. One semester, I almost tried to help my prof with his English phonetics on his course eval, but I decided that he probably wouldn’t understand that and just left well enough alone.

  10. rented life Says:

    At least it’s not to your face. I’ve had 6 comments to my face this semester about my clothing…I haven’t changed my wardrobe in a few years, these clothes were fine at all the schools I’ve been teaching at. (I’m at a school I used to be at, but was away from for one year. In one year apparently it became ok to say something about my clothes.) One time it was because my shirt have 5 colors in it. I guess that’s bad or something. wtf.

  11. chacha1 Says:

    I do not understand the value of student evaluations. College students in the main* are some of the least thoughtful, most self-centered, least compassionate, most impulsive, and generally stupidest people on the planet. How are they in any way qualified to assess a professional educator?

    IF such evaluations must be used … I presume because the administrators are too “busy” to actually interview and assess their own staff … they shouldn’t be anonymous.

    *yes, some college students are also the loveliest and most liberal and open-hearted and blah di blah. I was a college student once … I remember these people. Vividly.

  12. becca Says:

    I always tried to write stuff for evaluations, and tried to be helpful, but goodness only knows what the heck my student centered brain thought was helpful at that time. I do know I was intentionally kind to grad students who mentioned that their ability to continue in grad school depended on getting TAships (though I remember at least one I wrote “for the love of god, get this man an RAship. He’s brilliant, but really DOESN’T understand people struggling with calculus, though he was commendably patient with our stupidity!”- I figured he already got a million comments on his accent, though I always wonder if such a comment could help), but I didn’t give a rodent’s posterior about profs making tenure if they sucked at teaching (I assumed my opinion didn’t really matter if they were awesome researchers though). So *sometimes* telling students how the evals are used is helpful.
    As others have mentioned, getting feedback early on during the course, using focused questions as necessary and *demonstrating you’re responsive*, did seem to set a correct tone for getting more out of the official evals. Giving helpful feedback is a skill that can be taught, and it’s probably in everyone’s interest if you train your students a little bit.

    If evaluations are handed out in person, I would totally wear a silly (red!) hat and then tell the students they’re *permitted* to critique anything, but comments about my appearance are Not Helpful, unless they want to tell me how awesome my hat is. Because that is the kind of prof I liked as a student.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I usually say something like, “Please don’t comment on my fashion sense, I already know I don’t have any, ha ha ha.” I also tell them what types of comments are most helpful. But if they didn’t listen to me all semester, why would they start now?

  13. The frugal ecologist Says:

    This rings so true!! I just went over my last 2 semester evals, and while I did have lots of very positive ones, the negative ones feel so nasty. It left me wondering if WHO in class would have made them (our evals are all online now so no way of telling) and if my male colleagues get the same comments (I am guessing no).

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      My male colleagues are shocked when I tell them about these comments. My female colleagues universally nod in resigned acknowledgment. All the women get them. Fucking patriarchy.

  14. Grace Says:

    A colleague of mine, who spent 12 years as a (really great) high school teacher framed one of the student evaluations he got: It said “Mr. X is a good guy and a fantastic teacher. But it’s too hard to look at him and his twisted body and the crutches clamped to his arms. And it takes him too long to walk anywhere. If he could fix that, my evaluation would be better.”

    Scrawled at the bottom was Mr. X’s comment: “I’ll get my doctors right on that!”

    Gotta love the sixteen year old mind.

  15. Funny about Money Says:

    Arrrghhhh! This is why I’m quitting. Honest to gawd, I’d rather go hungry and sleep under the Seventh Avenue Overpass than EVER teach another 19-year-old again.

    Where else would a person’s job performance be based on anonymous libels? In any province of the real world, you’d sue the ba*tards who wrote lies like that about you, and you’d win enough to retire to the south of France.

    Friend of mine, tenured, handsomely published, chair of a department, was on the short list for her dream job at a very nice school in the Pacific Northwest. She really, really REALLY wanted that job and was sublimely suited for it. Just as the committee was about to extend an offer, one of its members happened upon a set of libelous comments about her at Rate My Professor. That — effing anonymous slanders on a website — torpedoed her candidacy. She was not hired.

  16. Dr. Virago Says:

    I’m sorry to hear that you’re getting mean, personal evals. The good news is that colleagues and deans and provosts *usually* have enough sense to ignore such things (and sometimes it opens their eyes to reading the subtext of misogyny, racism, ablism, etc. in other evals — yours and other persons’).

    I have to say, I felt like I had a shitty teaching year last year, not because I was performing poorly, but because I had massive whiny resistance from a subset of students (except for one class, and I don’t want to be disabused of the notion that it was the Most. Awesome. Class. Ever), and so I just chose not to read the evals. Best decision ever. (And it turns out they must have been OK — or my colleagues could see through the stinkers — because I got a great merit score on teaching.)

    I suggest you take a year off from reading the evals after you get tenure.

  17. MutantSupermodel Says:

    That’s really really horrible!! I have never been mean on any eval. I’ve always been honest. And when I’ve disliked a professor, I let it be known in the multiple choice ones. I never wrote anything. And I have NEVER commented on appearance. I can’t believe RateMyProfessor has something like that and I’m sure that doesn’t help. Maybe you can photo copy them and use them to start a bonfire. Sometimes I wish professors could choose their students.

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