Monday, November 9, 2009

Course Evaluations

My faculty voted on Friday to change the course evaluation form that we ask students to fill out. It's a small thing, but that didn't stop us from debating it for nearly two hours.

The length of the debate partly reflects our idiosyncratic love of long meetings -- we seem to have a Law of Conservation of Meeting Length, so that we find something to discuss regardless of the actual magnitude of a proposal's importance -- but it also reflects the fact that, although a change in the course evaluation form may seem trivial, it can actually have subtle and important implications.

For example, we voted to ask students to rate professors on their "ability to present the subject matter in a clear and organized manner." That seems pretty straightfoward, and it won't bother me, because the students have always regarded my teaching style as clear and organized. But what if a professor believes that the essence of the Socratic method is to revel in the ambiguities of the subject matter and to require the students to figure out the answers for themselves, with no clear guidance from the instructor? I can certainly remember professors who ran their classes that way. (Although I may be giving them too much credit for thinking about their teaching styles -- perhaps they were just intrinsically unclear and disorganized). They will be disadvantaged.

Also, we deleted an inquiry about the professor's "enthusiasm." That seems to me to be an important component of good teaching. I was sorry to see that one go.

So while it might hardly seem worth debating, the centralized choice of the specification of the components of good teaching actually has subtle but important impacts on academic freedom. Maybe our debate was worth it after all.

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

I didn't realize the faculty took evaluations so seriously. I always read professor evaluations when deciding which courses to take and found them to be a good predictor of the course experience.
However, there was one professor who had the same bad evaluations year after year, and hadn't changed by the time I had him. It made me wonder whether evaluations really matter.