WHAT STUDENTS WANT: A Meditation on Course Evaluations

Paul Trout

In addition to using a standard mark-sense "teaching" evaluation form the likes of which was excoriated by Michael Platt (1) in The Montana Professor, the English Department at Montana State University-Bozeman also uses a narrative form on which students can explain in their own words what they like and dislike about their professors and the courses.

As a member of my Department's annual-review committee this year, I kept notes on what students wrote on these forms, to find out what Generation-X students like and dislike about the classroom. These narratives reveal what the reductive numbers on those mark-sense forms really mean (2).

In what follows I have disguised the identity of my colleagues but otherwise preserved the "creative" spelling and grammar of the students, so assume sics throughout. To be as objective as possible, I have not quoted from my own evaluations, or even read them.

Two Thumbs Down!

Thanks to its parent corporation, Disney University--yes, that's right--now offers college professors such truly Mickey-Mouse courses as "Captivating Your Audience: Mastering the Fine Art of Delivery" and "Marketing Positive Images About Your Schools"(Lingua Franca, 6 [6], September/October 1996). Hugging back, elite universities are awarding honorary doctorates to the likes of Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jerry Seinfeld, Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, and, recently, Kermit the Frog (see John Lee, US New & World Report, 3 June 1996, 22). Welcome to the world of edutainment.

Anybody who's been teaching for a while knows that the culture of entertainment is shaping the attitudes, values, interests, cognitive faculties, even the emotional rhythms of students.(3) Perhaps the most devastating effect of this culture is to make children expect that information should be pleasurable and effortless attained (Shachtman, The Inarticulate Society, 33). As David. Denby puts it in Great Books (1996), "most high schools can't begin to compete against a torrent of imagery and sound that makes every moment but the present seem quaint, bloodless or dead." Little wonder that those hooked on Nickelodeon, World Championship Wrestling, computer games, comics, Ricki Lake, and Baywatch should blithely condemn what goes on in most classrooms as boring, the most crushing epithet imaginable to people addicted to being entertained:

most literature teachers are old and wilted with the personality of a gum dispenser & extremely boring in the tactics to relate with the class / find another method of teaching thats not so boring / the course is somewhat dry and boring. I thought this class could be a lot more interesting / every day was the same and very boring. With a class this long he should try to do interesting and fun things / class discussions were often boring / lectures are boring and hard to follow / kind of boring / I tended to get bored easily / I felt bored at times / this class is way too long. it's so boring! / these readings were very boring / less reading of boring text, the books put me to sleep / course book was very dry, try to moisten it / we were bombarded with information about authors that was boring with facts / I realize that the subject matter can be dull due to the age / the class ended up being really dull. The subject matter is largely at fault / the course was very dry / the course is a little slow....

The numerical ("Knapp") form widely used at MSU-Bozeman does not ask students to rate how boring the class was, but it does come close by asking if the course/teacher stimulated their "interest." Restive students who have been "bored" can channel their resentment in to this category.

Picking up on the key words from the Knapp form, student surge their "boring" professors to be more stimulating:

somehow make it more interesting / make it all a tad more interesting, give me some reasons as to why I should have enjoyed the book choices / try to make lectures more interesting / do something to improve the panel presentations. They stimulate no interest in learning / make the course more interesting / I didn't find the reading assignment stimulating which in turn made it very hard for me to stay focused on what I was reading which made it hard to stay focused in class as well / make the lectures more stimulating and attention-getting / make some lectures a little more stimulating / the instructor should...make the class a little more interesting in some way / pick different works that are more exciting / liveliness could be improved. I sometimes wondered if she was actually alive!

These admonitions are rarely accompanied by practical advice; instruction simply should be more interesting, on the assumption that students--God forbid!--should ever feel bored or take responsibility for the energy level in the classroom. These are the complaints of benighted people who find little pleasure in cultivating their own minds.

Many of these complaints were directed at literature courses, which used to be regarded as welcome relief from the hard (and dry) sciences. But now, even risqué novels and the gripping dramas of Shakespeare are found dull--"due to the age"--not their age, however, this one. What must they be saying about courses in parasitology or range grass?

An event last year suggests that Professors in the sciences face an even more difficult challenge than those in the humanities A fully credentialed adjunct was replaced in an introductory science course because some students--how many was unclear--complained that his lectures were dull, even though they acknowledged that he knew the material. The lesson? Don't bore the customers! Or Uncle Walt will fire you.

It is not the students who are boring, it is always the professors!

This seems to be the thinking behind the advice in a flyer put out by the MSU-Bozeman Dean of Students Office entitled "Managing Disruptive Classroom Behavior" (August 1995). The brochure doesn't advise faculty faced with disrespectful students to throw them out, but rather to vary classroom activities: "Using lecture, small group discussion, paper and pencil exercises, audio-visual aids, and any other variation of activity may take time on your part, but will most likely pay off in improved classroom behavior as well as improved classroom comprehension of your message." The message to both students and faculty is, boring instructors cause unruly students.

Getting back to those indictments quoted above: Is it possible that a lot of English classes are boring? I don't think so. By any measure available, the teaching in my department is excellent, with almost every staff member above the university mean. I have also omitted many comments that praise my colleagues for being "dynamic" and "never boring;" the wording of such encomiums, however, further underscores the fact that students evaluate the classroom as if it were a movie.

The term "boredom," of course, is an ambiguous, subjective term that often reveals more about the person using it than what it describes. Some people are easily bored because they are too intellectually poor to transact any interesting business with the world around them. That's what is going on here, I suspect. Many students simply have no deep intellectual interests or passions, and cannot find anything intriguing to latch on to despite the best efforts of their textbooks and instructors.

Here's a student who acknowledges that s/he has been taught well but still complains about the class being tedious: "Panels do tend to get a little old by the end but I'm not sure what you could do to replace them because I do learn a lot from all of them even if I get tired of the actual process--not sure if that made sense--hope so!" In other words, the only "problem" is that this student finds an effective educational device to be a bit "old." The fact that this student feels compelled to mention this factitious "problem" on an evaluation form--read by colleagues and administrators-- speaks volumes about the distorted expectations students have about the nature of learning. Nothing is ever to be tiresome, and classroom activities must always be fun.

Here are two additional comments that speak volumes about today's students: "Sometimes the lecture gets a little boring but what lecture doesn't;" the professor engages in "typical rambling about thought and ideas, in which students have no clue of what's going on." In other words, it doesn't matter how well the professor lectures or what the lecture is about--lectures are simply inherently boring. To students who can't make hide nor hair of lectures ("typical rambling about thought and ideas"), the classroom must be gruesomely dull indeed.

Students become more interested in lectures, however, when the "thought and ideas" may be on the final. Here is how one student helpfully instructs the instructor about how to keep students interested in education: "Some how you should link your discussion of the reading to points toward our grade. You spend a lot of time and effort explaining different aspects of the literature, and there should be incentive for us to pay attention in class vs. filling a chair." In other words, students have no other "incentive" to learn than fear of a low grade.

Thanks to the thrilling sensations and distractions this culture now offers, students find it increasingly more difficult to appreciate and respond to the more subtle and profound pleasures of intellectual endeavor. What students are telling us is that professors must employ rewards and incentives to get them to do the boring, tedious task of learning.

Putting the Fun Back into Fundamentals!

The flip side to edutainment is that classrooms must always be fun.

Charles Sykes has shown in Dumbing Down Our Kids (1995)--a harrowing account of anti-intellectual theories and practices in K-through-twelve instruction--that much of primary and secondary education has virtually surrendered to this entertainment ethos. Every meaningful aspect of education--grading, reading, memorization, superior performance, classes for the gifted, honor rolls, even correct grammar, spelling, and computation--is willingly sacrificed to make "learning" comfortable, easy, joyful, exciting, and above all "fun!"

Little wonder that students enter the university fully expecting to be "stimulated," "entertained," and "cracked up." As the narratives make clear, about the surest way to get high evaluations is not to "bombard" students with information, or wow them with one's intellectual cleverness, but to give them good standup:

Keep it interesting and humorous / I would like this class to be more creative and more fun / make it fun / some student have suggested that he work on his sense of humor / it might help to have a greater presence' ! tried to keep some humor, English can be very dry....

On the bright side, professors who can make class a yuck-athon are showered with the only praise precious to students nurtured on sit-coms:

really fun class / we had a lot of fun! / made the class fun / she has entertained / kept the class fun / made learning literature fun / makes the class fun and interesting / made the class fun to attend and actually brought out a lot more in me than I thought I was capable / engaged the students in fun / he makes what could be a boring class fun / makes grammar fun, which cannot be easy / she is very funny / he cracked jokes to keep us from falling asleep / your sense of humor is a big plus! / I enjoyed your sense of humor / kept me entertained / class was very entertaining / kept the interest of class, even though it is a hard subject to make entertaining / kept the students entertained with the course material / his enthusiasm & sense of humor kept me interested / good at entertaining us with mystery / did a good job of making the lecture interesting and entertaining / makes the subject matter...a great source of entertainment & comic relief / provided opportunities for humor / keeps class entertained / her lectures were always...entertaining / he is tough, entertaining, motivating and funny / fantastic sense of humor / good humor in presentations / she has done an excellent job creating a very enjoying atmosphere in this class / he puts a lot of humor into his class lectures and I think that's important....

It's so important, in fact, that funny professors deserve a tip: the instructor "mad class fun & real & she should be paid more money." Not surprisingly, some students identify fun teaching with brilliant teaching: the instructor "has a great sense of humor making the class fun & interesting. I think it goes without saying that he is an excellent professor." One comment says it all with noble simplicity and finality: "the instructor has entertained." Period.

Keep in mind that the narrative form does not ask students to talk about how funny their professors are. It simply asks students to explain what the instructor has done "especially well." Students themselves have identified "fun" and entertainment as crucial priorities for them. Perhaps numerical evaluation forms should stop beating around the bush and straightforwardly ask students to rate how funny their professors are. Classrooms could be furnished with Laugh Meters that would measure the frequency, length and decibel level of student enjoyment. The ratings could be published in a student rap sheet on the best professors on campus. Marquees could announce, "Professor Irwin Cory, now appearing at Wilson Hall 119 in English 121! Check it OUT!" What these quotations reveal is more than a Borscht-belt view of higher education. Dressing in costume, performing carnival tricks, talking like a frenetic radio DJ is, for professors, a technique. But for the clueless graduates of Ridgemont High, shtick is a value. Students don't just expect to be entertained, they have to be if they are to pay attention, read the text, come to class, be stimulated into wanting to learn the material. Jokes and humor--though a minefield in this age of hair-trigger "sensitivity"--are an effective way of dispelling the sleeping sickness threatening to overcome students at any moment: "After 50 minutes I fight to stay awake." Another complains that hour-and-fifteen-minute class is "too long. It is hard to keep anyone's attention that long." Another writes, "It's hard to stay focussed on a topic for an hour & 15 minutes."

Since classrooms are not yet equipped with Ritalin dispensers, professors, especially in the sciences, are required to ladle on the humor and entertainment. And teachers who manage to be funny, passionate, histrionic, and enthusiastic are deeply and sincerely appreciated by today's inattentive, hard-to-motivate, scarcely interested, and easily bored undergraduates.

This leads to a rather obvious conclusion. Given the anti-intellectual attitudes most students now hold, the concept of what constitutes "good" teaching at the college level may have to be redefined. "Good" teaching may now have less to do with conveying information or improving skills than with motivating college students to want to learn. This is the conclusion reached reluctantly by Max O. Hocutt: "It may be, to be sure, that what we want are not effective teachers but inspirational models--not teachers from whom students acquire expertise but teachers by whom they are inspired to great achievements."4 Or, if not to great achievements, then at least to finish reading the textbook.

Let me put Hocutt's conclusion another way. Remember the famous experiment in which an impostor--"Dr. Fox"--delivered a university lecture that was incoherent but so entertaining and enthusiastic that it got high ratings from professional educators in the audience? In this educational climate, "Dr. Fox," that amusing charlatan, would be a genuinely good teacher. Who cares if his instruction amounts to a placebo--as long as the placebo gets students to do more than they would otherwise? Perhaps, then, there's really only one question worth asking on those mark-sense forms: Did the instructor stimulate your interest in learning?

Using a #2 Pencil, Rate the Comfort Level of This Class

According to a recent article in Newsweek, some grade-school classrooms now resemble "cozy homes, complete with valances on the door and a couch." K-through-twelve classrooms are being made "comfortable" in more significant ways as well. As one administrator explains, in the past schools placed too much emphasis on "knowledge." Today, schools place more emphasis on kids feeling good about themselves. This is what educrats mean when they talk about providing kids with a "comfortable" learning environment (Dumbing Down our Kids, 4, 240).

A "comfortable" learning environment means, in translation, a learning environment that accommodates--that does not confront or show up--the diminished capabilities and declining skills of students. Sacrificed or dumbed down are such potentially "injurious" educational staples as grades, tests, homework, fact-based learning, competition, academic distinctions, and even correct spelling and math answers. These once unquestioned elements of a solid education are eliminated so that students may enjoy, as one school administrator blithely remarked, "unanxious expectations" (20). It hardly needs to be added that in this "comfortable" climate, rigorous teachers who give out "too many" low grades are reprimanded or fired (25-26, 268-70). As one young educator puts it, "The message I kept getting from my supervisors was 'Keep the kids happy, even if you have to lower your standards'" (25). Soon street signs may announce that you are driving through a "Stressfree School Zone."

As the narrative forms make all too clear, many college students expect the university to be as accommodating, unchallenging, egalitarian, and "comfortable" as grade school and high school were:

created a comfortable, positive environment for students to present and critique each other / he was very down-to-earth which makes students comfortable in class / she told & showed us who she was as a person, not just a prof. It made class more comfortable & enjoyable. Maybe show us more who she is & what she's done earlier in the course. That way we get to know her & feel comfortable sooner / he was good at putting everyone at ease / she has personalized the course / he has a non-threatening manner / relaxed environment to learn in / I wish all classes had the same ambience because it is non-stressful and conducive to creativity / she was an enthusiastic educator who stimulates interest without pain / he created a pleasant learning environment / she provided a relaxed environment for students to learn in / good casual approach to the class / made this class my healing class....

But when the prof isn't "nice," but "just a prof," students are "uncomfortable":

I didn't always feel comfortable approaching her / he has to be come friendly with students / all she needs to do is be nice / he needs to be more open and happy. When he gets mad everyone gets mad at him / she gets irritable and impatient sometimes / try to be more positive / he can be pissy and bitchy / she gets a little gruff / he needs to "soften" up and act like he actually likes what he does / chill out!... Just relax and go with the flow of the class. One reason you got so much shit all the time was the fact that it was fun to give it to you / perhaps if the environment was more friendly and less aggressive the student body would be more apt to enjoy this course....

There is nothing wrong--and a lot right--with professors creating a "comfortable, positive" learning environment by being "nice," "friendly," personable, "relaxed," "casual," accommodating, and "down-to-earth." But not all professors will strike adolescents recently out of high school this way. And not all can be--or want to be--on the same level as students; instead of being seen as a friend, some may prefer to be regarded as a role model or mentor. Some professors, by nature and professional demeanor, are austere, reserved, formal, hard-edged, direct, serious, thoughtful, and emotionally remote. I see them all over campus. But given a culture in which we are encouraged to regard never-met celebrities as our intimate pals, students brought up on Happy-Face teachers may interpret these commonly encountered academic traits as signs of unfriendliness or even mean-spiritedness (or "bitchiness").

This perception will result in lower scores for "concern for students." A colleague confided to me that he tries to jack up his scores in this category by pasting a smile on his face a week or so before evaluations are made out. I know of others who announce end-of-semester pizza parties early in the term so that students can show their appreciation on the evaluations. Some just engage in what one colleague calls LMSUs--Last Minute Suck Ups. Ignoble but inevitable--given evaluation forms.

More significantly, many a teacher, especially many a probationer, will be tempted to lower standards to provide students with a learning environment they will deem "comfortable" and relaxed. For one of the lessons that the narratives teach professors is that many students equate a "comfortable" learning environment with a less demanding one:

eight book per semester is too much to learn and retain. Six would be a more comfortable amount / I didn't follow everything presented because the language used to express ideas was not comfortable to me / it was really stressful to fall a bit behind / I didn't like the toughness of the teacher. Seems like she isn't human / I think grading should be more patient and understanding with those who really haven't had any experience with analyzing literature / it is very relaxed which is important for good learning. If I'm scared about grades I'll do worse than if I am relaxed / be a bit more generous / be a little nicer with absences. granted attendance is important, but the restriction often caused me more stress than I think it should be / I don't think our writing should be compared with others in the class / in a class discussion, he was a little harsh when he didn't agree with your opinion / no memorizing of terms / who gives a damn if we call it elegy or loss? Are these terms used elsewhere in lit? I've never heard of them / For being a 100 level class she used a lot of words that I didn't know the definition of, she took for granite that we knew the definition of alot of words & didn't tell us what they meant / use a more down to earth phraseology / use less vocabulary / talk to our level...Often goes into a literary realm beyond ours / less terms because it impairs the interests of the literature / we are tested on very abstract terminology. This is very hard to understand and use / he had a tendency to be critical on objective manners such as word choice....

Notice that student demand for lower standards is couched in therapeutic and moralistic rhetoric: grading should be more "patient" and "understanding," as if the professor were a nanny; teachers who are demanding and severe are not only "harsh" and "tough" but inhuman; so obviously teachers with softer requirements are credited with being generous, nice, and nurturing. Furthermore, students assume that they should not be stressed or made to feel "uncomfortable" by anything, even when their own intellectual shortcomings are the source of the discomfort. Professors who are not "nice" and "generous" with high grades, who perversely refuse to make students happy, will likely get lower scores for "Impartiality on grades and examinations," the category students use to pay back professors who are inhumanly harsh, or who have high standards.

Listen, as well, to the tone of these comments: "who gives a damn if we call it elegy or loss? Are these terms used elsewhere in lit? I've never heard of them;" "For being a 100 level class he used a lot of words that I didn't know the definition of, he took for granite that we knew the definition of alot of words & didn't tell us what they mean;" she "had a tendency to be critical on objective manners such as word choice," etc. These are the sounds of students who feel they're fine just the way they are, and who defend their borderline illiteracy defiantly.

What especially angers such I'm-glad-to-be-me! students are professors who strut around thinking they know more than students do:

at times he can be condescending or make you feel uncomfortable about voicing your opinion in class / she often belittled us when we asked questions and made us feel awkward / he should not be so snappy and condescending / she also seemed to put her own opinions in as fact and pulled stuff out of no where! / I think the teacher should not try to impose his viewpoints on us / I felt that the instructor pushed her views on the class and this was somewhat offensive / try not to dwell on [your Ph. D.]--it is indirectly condescending / he needs to recognize everyone's opinion is valid, and not to look so highly upon himself / she also had a tendency to be critical in objective manners such as word choice / I found him aloof but I understand that as he is an intellect and does not consider his students in that category / teach w/o an air of intellectual superiority / she often does this in a condescending tone / I feel that he doesn't appreciate my layman's imput / stay on our intellectual level more often / one of the only members of the English Department who is not completely full of herself. She's not pretentious, she's not condescending. How'd she get tenured?....

Are most of us in the English Department priggish, paternalistic, brow-beating know-it-alls? To some students, it may appear so, but again, the accusation may say more about those making it than those accused. The presumptuous tone of some of these semi-literate criticisms suggests that adolescent teenagers can be just as full of themselves as their more experienced, knowledgeable, and credentialed mentors. What some of them seem to be demanding are dumbed-down professors to go along with their dumbed-down courses. They want teachers who make them "comfortable" by sounding as inarticulate as they do.

Students complain about the condescending tone of faculty; but just listen to the tone of students: resistant, imperious, resentful, and angry. Where does this come from? Michael Platt has suggested that it is generated by evaluation forms themselves, which misrepresent the relation between student and teacher as a "contract between equals instead of a covenant between unequals" (31). These forms teach students to think that they know as much as their professors (the Knapp form asks students to rate the professor's "Knowledge of Subject Matter"!): "To be treated as superior to one's teacher will encourage a student to expect the teacher to learn from him, not he from the teacher" (34).

But Robert Bly, in The Sibling Society (1996), suggests it goes deeper. We now live in a society of "brothers and sisters" ("half-adults") marked by an easy egalitarianism and contempt for any "paternal" authority and hierarchy. From such a perspective, what parents and caring adults traditionally do for the young--like teach them--is increasingly viewed in a hostile light (see John Leo, "Where did all the grown-ups go?" U.S. News and World Report, 24 June 1996, 24).

This attitude comes from another place too. After years of high grades, bogus praise, "social promotion," and other fraudulent "positive" reinforcements designed to inflate the "self-esteem" of students, guess what! students have an inflated self-esteem. This helps to explain the "how dare they!" attitude students have. They now come to the university knowing little but feeling brilliant! After all, now most of them make the honor roll! In the 1960s the average GPA in high school was 2.5. Now it's about 3.2. "Some districts are so loaded with high achievers that a 4.0 GPA doesn't assure a high class ranking required for admission to elite colleges" (Linda Kanamine, USA Today, 13 March 1996, 6A). Even worse, 57 percent of students who ranked academically in the lowest two quartiles of a national sample of high-school sophomores reported that they were advised by high-school guidance and career counselors to go to college (Kenneth Gray and Edwin Herr, "B. A. Degree Should Not Be ' the Only Way'," The Chronicle of Higher Education, 10 May 1996, B1).

No wonder students think so highly of themselves. Sykes reports that a Louis Harris survey of high-school graduates four to eight years out of school found that they believe they had been well educated (like Plato's cave dwellers). "More than two thirds (68 percent) said they had learned math well in school. Sixty-six percent gave themselves high marks for their writing abilities. An even higher proportion--78 percent--said that they had been taught to read well. Across the board, the recent graduates had high opinions of their own abilities and talents" (29). Unfortunately, these attitudes have less to do with reality and more to do with the Lake Woebegone Syndrome.

Relatively objective measures--S. A. T. scores, international scholarly competitions, standardized exams--do not support such grandiose self-assessments. General scores on the S. A. T. have been in decline since 1963, and not because more minority students have been taking the exam (their scores have been separately tabulated since 1976). Despite slight improvements during 1992 and 1993, scores are still nearly 30 points below the average scores of the 1960s. "In 1972, 11.4 percent of S. A. T.-takers cored above 600 on the verbal section, but in 1992 only 7.3 percent managed to reach that level" (The Inarticulate Society, 66). Scores on the A. C. T. exams parallel the decades-long downward trend of the S. A. T scores.

By 1983...achievement tests had fallen steadily for two decades and were lower than when Sputnik was launched in the late 1950s; national assessments showed that near 40 percent of seventeen-year-olds could not draw inferences from written materials; four fifths were unable to write a persuasive essay; two thirds were unable to solve mathematical problems with multiple steps (Sykes, 238).

There are other troubling signs as well. A study released by the California State University System showed that 49 percent of its entering freshmen in 1994 were not ready for college-level English courses, and that 54 percent were not ready to enroll in college-level mathematics (Kenneth Gray and Edwin Herr, "B. A. Degrees Should Not Be 'the Only Way,'" The Chronicle of Higher Education, 10 May 1996, B2). The National Association for Development Educators (faculty who teach remedial courses) reported that one of every two college students requires remedial course work in math, science, or English.

As if this weren't bad enough, employers and college professors are also complaining that students are bad and getting worse: "Only 22 percent of the employers thought that the graduates they hired had sufficient math skills. Only 12 percent thought their young employees had been taught to write well. And only 30 percent were satisfied with their employees' reading abilities" (Sykes, 29). IBM CEO Louis Gerstner said: "We can teach them what they need to run a machine or develop a marketing plan. What is killing us is having to teach them to read, compute...and think" (USA Today, 27 March 1996, 1B). Professors aren't any more impressed than employers--when they dare to say so. Michael Platt writes, "I have never met a teacher in the University today who taught before 1968 who did not say that students are less capable now than before" (5). Sykes says that "only 27 percent of those in higher education said that recent high school graduates had adequate math skills, only 18 percent rated their writing abilities highly, and only 33 percent said that graduates had been taught to read well" (29). Gray and Herr contend that "The United States already has more four-year colleges than can be filled by students who are academically prepared for such education." In short, students, (as well as parents and administrators) are deeply into denial.

Research shows that violence is often perpetrated by people with unrealistically high self-esteem who have had their self-image challenged (John Leo, "Let's Lower Our Self-Esteem," U.S. News & World Report, 17 June 1996, 25). Perhaps this helps explains the angry, aggressive, hostile tone of so many of these student comments. Students, conned into thinking they are better prepared for college work than they really are, become angry when they encounter professors who know more than they do and who are disappointed by how poorly students write, how little they know, and how feebly they work. I suspect most complaints from students about their belittling, harsh, and condescending professors are the emotional flotsam from the fraudulent "therapeutic egalitarianism" that's washed over them for years (Sykes, 67). When their inflated egos are pricked by "tough" and "unfeeling" professors, students--"offended" and "uncomfortable"--strike back...on the evaluation forms.

Higher education is not supposed to be Club Med or a New-Age seminar, and professors are not supposed to be Nannies of Niceness, but mentors of the mind. Learning (and teaching!) entails frustration, anxiety, disappointment, shame, pressure, sweat and tears. That's because professors must test students, grade them, monitor them, correct them, and fail them. And, because today's students are seldom eager to do what they must to achieve academically and to acquire the complex knowledge that the university is in the business of dispensing, professors must, at times, exhort, admonish, embarrass, push, and drive them. When professors perform these tasks responsibly and rigorously, they will cause many students stress, anxiety, and psychic pain. As Michael Platt puts it, professors are "duty bound to displease whenever it would be dishonest to do otherwise" (33).

Students seeking "comfortable," "supportive," "nurturing," and "egalitarian" classrooms--a Nanny Campus--will find much to complain about, if professors are doing their job well. That is why student "comfort," "ease," or "satisfaction" is never the test of good teaching, and may be the sign of bad.

Books? We don't Need No Stink'n Books!

Reading is a core skill for success in the university, and it is the most important activity that takes place on campus. It is especially crucial for English literature courses, where students must interpret often unfamiliar and complex works to discuss and write about them intelligently. But a lot of university students today are not habitual readers and find reading time-consuming and taxing. As the narratives make clear, they would like to do a lot less of it:

I feel that he, along with every other English teacher, feels that his class is the only one and gives too many books to read.... Lets try to cut back shall we? / maybe not so many books / eight books per semester is too much to learn and retain. Six would be a more comfortable amount / less reading of boring texts, the books put me to sleep / the reading load was intense it would be nice to have it trimmed & compacted a little / try to have less reading [per] day / may be fewer books or smaller books would be better / getting all of her assigned reading done is almost impossible / perhaps choose or focus on less reading material / the reading was too much. It is taught as a 400 level course, not a 200 / cutting down on # of reading assignments would have been helpful / the reading amount was a bit excessive / I felt the reading amount was to extensive / I think that the reading load was way too much / summer course should have less reading & papers due / it is way too much work/reading for a 6 week class / it's a pain to read so many books [6] in the summer / I didn't like all of our assigned books / I didn't find the reading assignment stimulating which in turn made it very hard for me to stay focused on what I was reading which made it hard to stay focused in class as well / I couldn't follow class discussion because the reading didn't make sense / 4 books over 400 pages is a little to [much to] take in for 1 semester....

Are English professors assigning too much reading? Are eight books in a sixteen-week semester too many? Are four? This depends, of course, on the length and difficulty of the books, on the amount of other required work, on the students' course loads, on the number of hours students work at jobs outside of school, and on a host of other variables that no professor can possibly know or factor in. But since professors have been students for many more years than the undergraduates they teach, they are in the best position to determine what is an acceptable workload for their students, and themselves.

Whatever might be causing it, more students are unwilling and/or unable to do the assigned reading. Platt quotes a young professor teaching the great books at an Eastern college. "They come to class," she wrote, "most of them, without having done the assigned reading. They are not ashamed to admit it. The other day in class one blurted out, 'Do you realize there are no Cliff Notes on Thucydides?' He is one of the better ones" ("Souls Without Longing," 444). This Spring semester, in a junior-senior level literature course of mine, only four students of 30 finished reading 1984, and in another course, only five students of 32 managed to finish Madame Bovary, although both groups had two weeks to read the novels--including the week of Spring break. One student breezily informed me, "Professor Trout, you ought to know better than to assign reading during a vacation." In her eyes, I was silly to think that students with a lot of free time would spend any of it reading for class. It's a very rare student indeed who takes any responsibility for not having done the reading: "I found it slightly difficult to keep up with the # of books we were required to read, but this was likely due to my own laziness!" Brash but honest.

What these quotations also make clear--look at the spelling and syntax of these comments--is that many students sitting in university classrooms are borderline illiterates. Only 37 percent of the high-school graduates who plan to go to college score in the highest of the three levels of the reading test administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (Gray and Herr). A 1994 report by the Educational Testing Service found that half of the nation's college graduates could not read bus schedule (Sykes, 100-01). A report on reading skills found that 25 percent of high school seniors can barely read their diplomas. A standardized test given to 26,000 Americans sixteen and older "concluded that 80 million Americans are deficient in the basic reading...skills needed to perform rudimentary tasks in today's society" (Sykes, 21). And,

A study that divided students into five levels of literacy found that only 11 percent of the graduates from four-year colleges and only 2 percent of graduates of two-year colleges reached the top level.... Rudolf Flesch said something like this would happen. In the mid-1950s, Flesch warned in the best-selling book Why Johnny Can't Read that American schools would produce a generation of illiterates if they continued to rely on faddish techniques for teaching reading (Sykes 101).

Four decades ago Julius Caesar was taught in almost every school, but today the play "can no longer be read through, since students find it beyond their attention spans" (Harold Bloom, The Western Canon, 520). Now even Little Women is simplified, the Bible is translated into black English, and "hard" and "boring" books like A Tale of Two Cities and Tom Sawyer are dumped by school officials from summer reading programs. No wonder Montana State now enrolls students who breezily complain that "the reading didn't make sense" (which means, of course, I couldn't make sense of the reading), who find "Jane Eyre...a little too much," and who brazenly declare that "Hawthorne...sucks!" The T-shirt will be in the MSU Bookstore soon.

The literacy problem has gotten so bad that a "remarkably large number of [public] school teachers do not read book, do not like them, and do not believe in using them in class" (Jonathan Leaf, "Bad Schools," National Review, 25 September 1995, 54). Harold Bloom now encounters Yale graduate students in English who "resent literature, or are ashamed of it, or are just not all that fond of reading it" (521). More alarmingly, a recent piece in Lingua Franca entitled "Why Johnny's Professor Can't Read" notes that "The Resistance to Reading" has now acquired an odd cachet even with so-called literature professors. One complains that the classics constitute a "roadblock" and "arbitrary hazard" for "men and women under 40," another that they weigh like an "albatross" around the necks of trendy professors, who hate teaching "old books" to dumbed-down and restless undergraduates (D'Souza, Illiberal Education, 64). Columbia's D.A. Miller, apparently fed up with this thankless chore, has proudly announced that he has "left literature" for Broadway musicals and muscle magazines (Lingua Franca, February 1995, 6). How long before a Butt-headed Full Professor will say, "So this Iliad's a classic, right? Like Coke?"

As others have recognized, the multicultural program to "open up" the curriculum is provoked, in part, by the literacy crisis. The drive to include more contemporary, reader-friendly texts in the classroom is an acknowledgment of, and a concession to, the inability of students, and increasingly of their teachers, to negotiate the challenges of canonical works. A cartoon in The New Yorker captured the Zeitgeist perfectly: "The studio's asked me to see if I can dumb down some Danielle Steel." Dumbing down has proceeded to the alarming point that there is now worry about "media illiteracy"! This spring not one of 18 students in a literature class knew who Neil Simon was! In the future, Kato Kaelin will sound like a pundit. And when will he get his honorary doctorate?

Dumb and Dumber!

Here is what the student narratives have taught us so far: that students complain--proudly--about being easily bored by the excessive intellectualism of higher education ("thought and ideas"), that they just love being entertained, that they want a "comfortable," "relaxed" learning environment free of anxieties, invidious comparisons, and uppity professors, and that they want to read fewer and shorter books.

What this section will make even clearer, if it is not so already, is that too many students dislike courses and professors that make them stand and deliver. Sure, students understand that they will have to do some reading, writing, and thinking in English classes, but they don't want to do "too much." They complain loudly--and proudly!--when they feel that their attention, commitment, and abilities have been taxed. But perhaps we shouldn't expect much from students whose prime educational goal is, as one of them blurts out, to get "rid of any memory of the semester and go home" (the words of a student writing to students in "Coiles" [a campus literary magazine], #7, p 6).

Here are some quotations taken from a section of the narratives that asks, "Is there anything the Instructor should change to improve the course or his/her teaching?"

it is really hard to come to class when every day the material is being shoved down your throat / we were bombarded with information about authors that was boring with facts / less hand outs / could cover a little less information / she does seem to overload us with a lot of info. For a 200 level course it is very difficult / this class is exceptionally difficult, so maybe make it just a tad easier / I think he asks alot for a 123 class.... I think what he wants is a little advanced / tests & papers might be above level for some students / puzzles were not easy even though meant to be / 4 books and a 15 pg paper on a writing--a lot for a 200 level class / she assumed too much prior knowledge of some details that were impossible for everyone to know / class content to difficult for a 200 level class. Quizzes & test were way to long for alotted time / he needs to realize the limits of his students and of a 200 level class / the course had a tremendous work load--two 6-8 pg. papers, a presentation, a midterm, final, and the 12-15 pg. research paper--whew [300-level course] / this class took up much of my study time / some of the material seemed to advanced / I felt it was too difficult for a 100 level course / its a lot of work for such a small reward / back off on harshness when grading reports too long / she grades way to hard!! / she seems to be a very strict grader.... It seems almost impossible to receive an 'A' on a paper / it seemed very hard to achieve an A / test are quite difficult compared to subject matter! / it is unfair to drop someone's grade because he/she missed to many days / no mandatory attendance--at least not for grade reduction / attendance should not be mandatory and/or your grade should not depend upon attendance / allow us time to write an essay that can be allowed to be handed in with a wonderful grade / his expectation were a little to high on writing / she is a tough teacher / didn't like the toughness of teacher / I found this class to be very difficult. I felt like I was drowning--I don't like that feeling & felt that it hindered my learning process. I don't understand why we have to learn this subject matter to the extent that we do--even if we teach in high school, we won't go into this much detail....

This pretty much says it all, doesn't it?

I understand that transition from high school to postsecondary study represents a major shift in both expectations and behavior for most students. Standards are higher and the work is harder. The change can be shocking. But the quotations in this passage are not just from freshmen, but from students at all levels.

The ugly truth is that these college students--some of whom will soon be teaching high school--are pleading for dumbed-down English classes--fewer books, less information, easier standards, fewer assignments and handouts, less stringent attendance requirements, even lower expectations. Their pleas for less reveal the extent to which these students are hostile to the very mission and ethos of higher education.

According to Laurence Steinberg, a professor of developmental psychology at Temple University, this hostility is already evident in high school, where peer pressure demands that students do the minimum necessary to get by. As he and his co-authors write in Beyond the Classroom (1996), "not only is there little room in most schools for the academically oriented, there is substantial peer pressure on students to underachieve." Academic achievement was so little valued that when asked which crowd they would like to be part of, many more students chose the "druggies" (one in six) than the "brains" (one in ten). Even half the "brains" wished that they were in a different crowd (146)!

The attitudes fashionable in high school will become fashionable in college. In December 1992, Reynolds Price, a novelist and professor of English at Duke, called attention to the anti-intellectual tone of this prestigious campus. He bemoaned the "blank faces" of his students." "The thing that holds us back by the minute at Duke is the prevailing cloud of indifference, of frequent hostility, to a thoughtful life" (Chronicle of Higher Education, 8 March 1996, A33).

Recently a 27-year-old college student told me that she went to a counselor to find out what was wrong with her because she was the only student to respond to questions. As Shachtman reports, "questioning is one of a constellation of strategies that have been identified as helping students to attain and to demonstrate higher learning. Asking questions requires that students move from passivity to active involvement" (91). But this is the very reason why so many students resent them. A professor told me that when he tried to use the Socratic method in class, a student shouted at him, "What are you asking us these questions for! You're just wasting our class time! Just tell the answer!" The tenor of this comment reinforces the observation of Sandra Prior, director of composition at Columbia University, who has noted that when students do speak up in class, "they speak from the gut or from anger and hostility" (Shachtman, 66).

As physics professor Kurt Wiesenfeld puts it, The one thing college actually offers--a chance to learn--is considered irrelevant, even less than worthless, because of the long hours and hard work required. In a society saturated with surface values, love of knowledge for its own sake does sound eccentric. The benefits of fame and wealth are more obvious. So is it right to blame students for reflecting the superficial values saturating our society? Yes, of course it's right. These guys had better take themselves seriously now, because our country will be forced to take them seriously later, when the stakes are much higher (My Turn column, "Making the Grade," Newsweek, 17 June 1996, 16).

In the words of Hocutt: "most students dislike courses in which you try to make them think, require them to solve problems and resolve ambiguities, or force them to learn skills" (62). A science professor told me that merely by presenting required course material in class, he provoked "real hostility from students." Platt describes students who show up for class carrying food and drink, who "wear hats drawn over their faces" as if to say "I'm not really here," who "wear scowls, as if to say, 'What are you going to ask me to do today that I don't want to'" ("Souls Without Longing," 445). Wiesenfeld says that students now have a "disgruntled-consumer" attitude to higher education, and what they are pounding on the counter about, as the narratives make clear, are teachers who "bombard" them with too much info, teachers who ask them to learn a professional lexicon, teachers with high standards that cause them "stress," teachers who require class attendance, teachers who make students do hard and demanding things. Not quite Mr. Holland's Opus, is it?.

Sorry, kids, but education should be hard, should be difficult, should be demanding. That's because students work harder and do better if they are challenged by achievable but high academic standards. In a recent issue of the Bulletin of the American Association for Higher Education, an article entitled "What Research Says about Improving Undergraduate Education" lists "high expectations" as the number one characteristic of quality undergraduate education. This is hardly surprising: "when students are expected to take risks and perform at high levels, they make greater efforts to succeed.... Both the institution and its faculty members must set high expectations and make active efforts to help students meet them" (April, 1996, 5). Higher expectations, writes Albert Shanker, is "a reform that works." In short, to do their best, students must be required to master difficult problems and surmount challenging obstacles.

Happily, some students recognize this. They praise teachers who are demanding, and urge others who have bent with the prevailing wind to be tougher and more challenging--an admonition that itself is powerful evidence of just how low some of have bowed under the steady pressure to dumb down our classes. Their voices deserve to be heard too:

I enjoyed the challenge of his class / she is tough and makes you need to learn to save your ass! / he is a very tough instructor that actually makes his students work for their grade / put high expectations on us so that we were able to write and achieve alot more than a class with less of a work load / her teaching style is at first abrasive but I grew to love the class and actually really appreciated the rigorous expectations she had of us because we learned so much in a short semester / asked a lot from students & challenged us which was a nice change! / I'm glad I took it--very challenging / I actually liked the work load, though it was heavier than most of my English classes / I wanted to be challenged / try not to ' spoon feed' us. We should be capable of reading and interpreting literature / I think more assignments might be helpful / grading seemed to be a little lax. Its great to get an A, but if you think you deserve a C both before and after it is graded.../ make the quizzes a little bit harder... Come to think of it, just make everything harder....

It should come as no surprise that these comments are the most literate student comments found in this essay. As Michael Platt says, good students "like the challenges a good teacher will put to them. Such teachers will certainly ask questions on material not covered in class.... Nor do good teachers aim to make their lectures 'easy-listening'" (31).

Every professor should demand as much as the best students can deliver, even though he or she will likely pay for it in lower student-evaluation scores.

Alll--Righty Then!

Some readers who confront the evidence may say, "So what? After all, no matter how anti-intellectual students are, no matter how hostile they are to the ethos of higher education, they're all we've got! We're stuck with them! So why focus on their shortcomings when there's little or nothing we can do about them?"

But there are things university professors can do about their academic shortcomings and bad attitudes. We can call attention to, and work for, the elimination of programs and policies that dumb-down primary and secondary education, for they will eventually and inevitably dumb-down higher education too. We can also advocate programs and policies that help students prepare solidly for the necessary rigors of university work.

On the local level, professors can require students to work hard and to perform well for high grades. This sounds simple and easy, but it is not. Professors who have high expectations and tough standards are going against the grain of what many students want, thus opening themselves up to negative vibes and in-your-face complaints. Even worse, professors who don't meet student demands for more fun and less work run the risk of getting lower scores and sometimes hostile remarks on evaluation forms. Lower numbers and bitter accusations could very well jeopardize professors' jobs, promotions, and pay-raises.

And professors know it. Almost every professional educator I have ever talked to about this topic acknowledges that the spectre of being evaluated by students, and having these evaluations factored into performance rankings, negatively affect his or her morale and pedagogic practice. "It is very hard to educate people you have reason to fear" (Platt, "Souls," 452). As I was writing this article, a faculty member from another department said to me that after receiving low scores on his evaluations, he consciously made his courses easier the next semester: "I watered it down. I did. If I weren't afraid of these teaching evaluations, I would have done it differently."

Students know the situation and sometimes exploit it. I overheard a student advising others to take courses from adjuncts and part-timers because they give out a lot of A's to make students happy, to get glowing evaluations, and thus to keep their jobs one more year. Platt speculates that "the time is soon coming when groups of students will blackmail young teachers, threatening ruin on 'evaluations,' if they don't get the grades they want or other things. Then teaching will be impossible...without self-deception" ("Souls," 452).

Although grade inflation is a complex phenomenon, grades have inflated as colleges and universities have hired more adjuncts and have incorporated student evaluations into the formal review process of all faculty. As Hock puts it, "it is no accident that the rise of" student evaluations has been accompanied by "the most pronounced 'grade inflation' in educational history. In the last two decades,...the average grade has risen from a C to a B. Furthermore, this has happened during a period of declining admissions standards and worsening scores on standardized examinations. We are giving better grades to worse students" (61). The problem has gotten so bad that several elite colleges have implemented policies to encourage faculty to grade more rigorously. In 1995, Stanford resurrected the F grade for the first time in 25 years. Currently at Stanford, 90 percent of all letter grades are As and Bs. The goal is to return the median to C, for average work, and B, for good work. Professors award about twice as many as they did 30 years ago. At MSU, for Spring Semester (1996), the most frequently given grade was A (15,189) and the next was B (14,253), for a total of almost 70 percent. A lot of teachers are being very very "nice" to a lot of students.

Platt and others find any evaluation form objectionable (as well as the process itself), but some forms are certainly worse than others (6). How many of us would want these questions put to students: Is your teacher funny enough for you? Is your teacher too hard? Is your teacher sometimes insensitive to your feelings? Yet, such obnoxious inquiries as these are not that different from the questions we ask now, when we solicit student comments on the professor's "impartiality on grades and tests" and on his/her "concern for students," etc. If a university is hiring, tenuring and assigning courses to professors who do not know the material, grade unethically, and hate teaching, it should solve the problem by getting rid of the incompetent and irresponsible administrators responsibly for the problem in the first place.

As we have seen from student comments, and as long-time professionals know, there is now great pressure on professors to dumb-down their courses in every way imaginable. I was told by a student majoring in Biology that in some science courses, students scoring only 40 percent on exams now get Bs, or better. Professors need to resist this pressure. Professors committed to improving higher education could help out their own cause by designing and using an evaluation form that actually rewards good teaching and rigorous academic standards.

Instead of asking students to evaluate how well the professor "knows" the material, or how "organized," "effective," or "stimulating" the course was--issues that are tangential or trivial--the new form could ask whether the course was demanding, whether performance standards were high, whether the work load was challenging, whether the grading was tough, whether the student learned a lot. The higher the numbers, the better the evaluation!

Simple isn't it! Then why don't we have a form like this already? Because administrators don't want it.

They prefer forms that ask students to rate "stimulation of interest," "impartiality on grades and examinations," "concern for students," how well the instructor created "an atmosphere conducive to learning," how much the instructor was "genuinely interested in teaching," etc., because they serve a very useful function for administrators. They help insure that faculty will pay heed to student demands and feelings, even at the cost of educational rigor. In short, administrators want evaluation forms that make faculty more concerned about pleasing their increasingly dumbed-down "customers" than with challenging or otherwise discomfiting them (see Platt, 446-447; Hocutt, 61).

What I'm suggesting is that administrators don't want to encourage more demanding courses or higher standards (fewer A's and B's), because such things will make more students--as we can infer from their own words--less happy and comfortable. This, in turn, would irritate their tax-paying parents. Administrators do not want this to happen in lean times, when universities must compete for bodies and funding (see Hocutt, 61). At MSU, the suspension policy for underperforming students has itself been suspended, apparently so that the university can collect much needed tuition money from the 200 or so students who would have been asked to leave.

This reading of the "text" is confirmed by the way many students word their negative comments. Students often seem to be addressing somebody other than the professor getting the shellacking, an implied reader assumed to be perfectly sympathetic to the often anti-intellectual values students trumpet. Who could this implied reader be? Other professors? Hardly. It is, I suspect, the supervisors who can do something about the arrogant and inhuman professor victimizing the poor students. Students sense that, in the struggle to dumb down the classroom, administrators are on their side.

This interpretation of the facts can be refuted quite easily: all the MSU administration has to do is encourage faculty council to devise a campus-wide evaluation form that rewards professors for having high expectations, elevated standards, challenging requirements, and a serious commitment to educating the fans of Beavis and Butt-head.


  1. The Montana Professor 5 (3), 21-29. Platt's essay first appeared in Perspectives on Political Science, 22 (1), Winter, 1993, 29-40. All page references are to this version.

    These forms, Platt contends, teach students that that students are not personally responsible for anything they say; that students are competent to judge their teachers and are essentially equal to them; that students should judge their teachers on how well they have satisfied students' expectations; that students need not engage in self-evaluation; that what students feel about the class is more important than what they learn; that comfort is the test of good teaching; and, that demanding teachers are not so good as mediocre but entertaining ones.

  2. Platt notes that "even an evaluation written in prose, with ample space for prose in return and intelligent questions...would still teach students that they are fit to judge teachers, suggest that teachers should satisfy students, and tempt students to calumny..." (Platt, 33).

    The only other essay I've encountered that examines narrative student-evaluation forms is "A Misdirected Lesson: Student Evaluations and Learning How to Learn" by Ralph A. Raimi (Academic Questions, Summer 1989, 67-75). Raimi's treatment is limited to his own evaluations and to the issue of student responsibility for their own learning.

  3. Other books on this topic are: Neil Postman, Teaching as a Conserving Activity (1979) and Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985); Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (1987), Barry Sanders, A is for Ox: Violence, Electronic Media, and the Silencing of the Written Word (1994); David Marc, Bonfire of the Humanities: Television, Subliteracy, and Long-Term Memory Loss (1995); and, Tom Shachtman, The Inarticulate Society: Eloquence and Culture in America (1995).

  4. Max O. Hocutt, "De-Grading Student Evaluations: What's Wrong with Student Polls of Teaching," Academic Questions, Autumn 1987-88, 55-64, 58.

  5. Michael Platt, "Souls Without Longing," Interpretation, 18 (3), Spring 1991, 415-65.

  6. See Robert Weissberg, "Managing Good Teaching," Perspectives on Political Science, 22 (1), Winter 1993, reprinted in The Montana Professor, 5 (2), Spring 1995, 17-22, and also the two essays on the repressive dangers of student-evaluation forms by Stanley Coren in the Winter 1995 issue of The Montana Professor (5 [1]).

Contents | Home