And now we come to a really difficult part of my past teaching life: Student evaluations. On the whole, students really liked my teaching. They especially appreciated my enthusiasm and the way that I respected them. And almost all of them recommended me and the class they took with me to other students. I was considered a good teacher.
But, even so, bad, painful feelings emanate from the light gray envelopes that contain my official end-of-the-semester evaluations from each class at the U. I dread looking at those evaluations again. All I can remember are the negative ones. The ones that described me as disorganized, unprepared, ineffective in discussion, and lacking clarity in my comments or assignments. It is hard to dismiss some of these comments because they tap into deep-rooted insecurities and doubts that I have about my teaching abilities. The more distance that I have from actual teaching, the more these insecurities get amplified and distorted. And the more they haunt me as I confront questions about whether or not I am a teacher.
But, since I am committed to this project, I reviewed my evaluations again.* I also reviewed the online feedback that students posted, informal anonymous midterm evaluations, and the few, shitty, “Rate My Professor” online ratings that I received.
*I only missed reviewing a few, including my final two classes from the fall of 2011, which I never received. Once the semester was over, so was my time at the U. I left and never went back to retrieve them, which is a bit disappointing. I recall one student saying that she planned to give me a really good evaluation.
Students who got me and helped me restore my faith in my teaching abilities*
- “I hope Sara stays at UMN. She is a very unique teacher and although I don’t always dig the lack of structure in class, her non-traditional pedagogy is desperately needed on this campus. This University should spend more money on amazing teachers and less on worthless administration” (Graduate Student in Queer/ing Ethics, Spring 2011).
- “Sara, thank you for this semester! This class was a place that I looked forward to, and felt respected in. I was not nervous sharing anything in the space that you created” (Undergraduate Student in Contemporary Feminist Debates, Spring 2011).
- “Sara helped us revel in the messiness of learning with each other, rather than in isolation. She encourages students to find their voice and do the work that matters and makes sense on their own terms” (Undergraduate Student in Queering Desire, Fall 2010).
*Taken from the “additional comments” section on the end-of-the-semester evaluations.
How not to deal with the student evaluations from the single worst class that you’ve ever taught:
- When class is over, do not read them. Scan them and then tell yourself that you will keep the pdf but not look at it, and shred the actual evaluations.
- Forget to shred those evaluations and file them away with the rest of your evaluations from six years of teaching.
- Find them again, five years later, and tell yourself, “They couldn’t be too bad. Plus, I’ve had five years to get over that terrible class. Those evaluations can’t hurt me now!”
- Stupidly read them and realize that they are that bad and that they can still hurt you.
- Feel bad for a few minutes and then shred the documents.
How to actually deal with the student evaluations from teh single worst class that you’ve ever taught:
- Shred them immediately.
“What could you have done to be a better learner?*,” Student responses:
- Done more of the readings.
- Participated more.
- Lowered my expectations.
- This is a stupid question.
- Earn a living wage.**
*An actual question on the end-of-the-semester evaluation.
**Graduate students were trying to unionize when this response was given.
Some questions that should have been asked on the evaluation:
- What could the university have done to help me to be a better learner?
- What could the university have done to help the instructor to be a better teacher?
An Evaluation from “the student who was the most vocal and transparent about their extreme dislike of my teaching methods and class”
While reviewing my evaluations, I came across one from the student who I (not so fondly) remember as “the student who was the most vocal and transparent about their extreme dislike of my teaching methods and class.” To her credit, she was never disrespectful to me in class. But she scowled, rolled her eyes, and, as I recall, annoyed other students with her direct and aggressive approach to engaging with and challenging ideas. I was very glad when the class was over, partly because I really didn’t like the student but also because I felt that her dislike of my methods indicated some fundamental flaws in my teaching and I wanted to stop being reminded of them.
Here’s what she wrote in the official student evaluation:
WHAT DID THE INSTRUCTOR DO THAT MOST HELPED YOUR LEARNING?
The instructor did not do anything that specifically helped my learning. She wasn’t prepared for class (didn’t read one of our assigned textbooks or preview all of a film we watched–which turned out to be very problematic.) She didn’t even try to engage the entire class and just used the size of the class as an excuse to not be an effective educator. The feedback we gave along the way was never incorporated.
This course seriously needs to be evaluated! This is a requirement for the major and it seems like no thought was put into this. It is ridiculous to me that a history course is not being taught by a person who is not a historian. I also think its extremely critical that this course should have an emphasis on historiography. We didn’t cover anything in this course–it was disjointed and scrambled and we talked about things I covered in 1000 level courses here. I was extremely disappointed that the department perceives this as a 4000 level material. I have to listen to problematic, racist, sexist, etc. things every day of my life–I refuse to tolerate this laziness [hard to read, but I think that’s the word she uses] in my GWSS classes.
Pretty harsh. Like a “good” teacher, shortly after the class was over I tried to reflect on how I might have failed her and another student in the class. 27 students filled out evaluations. Only this student and one other, her friend, strongly disliked the class. The other evaluations were quite positive. Here’s what I wrote in my reflection:
Notes on Rebels, Radicals, Revolutionaries (summer 2007)
So, I got the evaluations from my students; only 2 of them were bad, but they were really bad. I was the worst teacher that they ever had. I was under prepared. I was complacent. I didn’t challenge them. I gave them busy work. I didn’t create an environment that allowed for dissonance. For the most part, I will chalk this up to the rantings of 2 students who disagreed with my pedagogy, who wanted a different kind of teacher, who wanted a different sort of challenge. However, I do believe they had some legitimate complaints that I could learn from…
- Make sure that you pay attention to the level of the course. I treated this class like it was a 1000 level intro course. I did not treat it as if it were a 4000, upper level course. The main textbook was too easy and some of the assignments didn’t challenge the students.
- Choose your readings carefully. I picked a lot of original texts without enough background to contextualize the material. The students, many who were not up to the challenge, did not elevate the discussion.
- Skip the group assignments. Or, at least frame them in a different way. Be more explicit about what I am looking for. Ban powerpoint presentations. Allow for enough time to interrogate the material that is being presented on.
- Stick to what I know a little bit more. While I was clearly out of my area (in a lot of ways), I could focused a little bit more on the material that I am familiar with. I couldn’t give good lectures because I didn’t have enough knowledge. My historical background is a little bit shaky.
- Keep pushing myself to step out of the bounds of white feminism and white feminist history/theory.
- If I am going to disclose that I haven’t read all of the material prior to assigning it to them, make sure that I explain why I am doing that and how it is helpful for my own teaching of the material and the development of a classroom community.
Honestly, I do think that my choice of material and some of the assignments could have been better, but I also think that there really wasn’t that much that I could do. The students didn’t like me or my style. They didn’t like the topics. They didn’t want to be in the class. There idea of confrontation and critical interrogation was not the same as mine or the rest of the classes. And, the rest of the class didn’t respond favorably to their tactics. In some ways, they didn’t really want to challenge others. They wanted to prove how radical and critical they were. I did open up the discussion to their ideas—no one wanted to get it into with them because they felt that the level of respect was not there.
Much of my above reflection was about learning from the failure as my failure. What can I change in my teaching to become a better (effective, excellent) teacher? How can I improve my interactions with and responses to the student? These questions can be helpful to explore. There were some things that I could have done better in that class. I could have picked harder readings, developed better assignments. Screened less films. Challenged students to think more deeply and critically.
But, as I read the student’s comments again I realized something. She wasn’t just a complaining student who didn’t like me. Many of her concerns were accurate and well articulated (well, I take umbrage with a few of her ideas…like I was unprepared or disorganized because I wasn’t). And even as this class was a failure for her because she really didn’t like my teaching style, the real failure was the result of factors out of both of our control. Why was I, a humanities scholar with no real training in historiography/history, hired to teach a 4000 level history course? Why were there no prerequisites for the course that might ensure that only trained and experienced GWSS students were taking it? Why was an upper level course so big? […add more here?]
Fuck you, Rate my Professor
During the spring of 2010, I taught Contemporary Feminist Debates. That was the semester that I began using Cynthia Enloe’s essay on the value (and necessity) of a feminist curiosity. And it was the semester that I really accelerated my use of the blog. I enjoyed teaching that class. Most students also enjoyed taking it. Only a few did not.
I remember stupidly checking out Rate My Professor a few hours before class one day in April. Here’s what I encountered:
If you want an absurdly easy class–take this one. If you want otlean absolutely nothing–take this one. I NEVER did the readings and got an A. It’s super easy to bs. I loved fem before this class and have lost a lot of respect for it. It’s labeled as writing intensive you you will get no feedback on papers. She gives really bad instructions.
Class is unstructured and consists almost entirely of group work and discussion. If you prefer lecture-based courses with structure and organization stay away. I was very disappointed. Her approach to teaching was too friendly for me; she started each class with a 15 minute “how is everyone doing” talk.
These evaluations really bothered me. I was angry and hurt and didn’t want to go to class and have to teach, especially the students who posted these reviews. Intellectually I knew that a site like “Rate My Professor” was not useful for assessing how most students actually felt about a class and that it usually only attracted students who really, really liked a class or, really, really hated it. And, I also knew that this was only two students; there were almost 40 other students who seemed to be enjoying the class. But, it was hard to be intellectual about something that made me feel like a piece of shit. Now looking back on the evaluations, I’m not as bothered; it’s easier when it’s in the past and you don’t have to teach someone, and try to treat them with the respect that they didn’t see fit to extend to you, just a few hours after reading how terrible they think your class is. But it was tough that day to enter that classroom, especially since that class came at an extremely difficult time for me. My mom had died only six months earlier and I was struggling to make sense of my life without her. So, for those moments of anger, sadness, painful self-doubt, and frustration, that came at a time when I was already experiencing overwhelming grief, I’d just like to say, “Fuck you, Rate My Professor.”
I know that I should have a thicker skin for comments like these. And I know that they are really mild compared to comments I could have received. In fact, the second review is not that bad; it’s only when I read it beside the one above it that I understand it so negatively. But, I still hated these comments and I despised Rate My Professor for providing a platform for students to make public their uncritical rants.
I rarely had a problem receiving criticism; in fact, in all of my courses, I encouraged students to give me feedback. I would post open threads throughout the semester on our course blog about what was and wasn’t working in the class. I distributed an informal anonymous midterm evaluation. I created end-of-the-semester assignments where students were required to publicly assess the class. I found these different methods to be much more effective in providing useful feedback and they never made me feel like shit.
“If you are not a feminist, your opinion is not welcome” (Comment from formal, end-of-semester evaluation).
“I didn’t always agree with the more popular opinions within our class, and I appreciated the fact that my opinions were almost always treated with respect in our debates” (Comment on blog post).
“If you want an absurdly easy class—take this one. If you want to learn nothing—take this one” (Comment from Rate My Professor).
“The pedagogical theory incorporated in this class should really be encouraged and institutionalized as it broadens the potential for leaning and thinking in new and exploratory ways that opens up so many possibilities…” (Comment from formal, end-of-semester evaluation).