It was both impressive and rewarding as well as scary and sobering to read Professor Trout's "Meditation on Course Evaluations" in last fall's Montana Professor. It was gratifyihg to read the wealth of astute observations and insights into the practice of having students evaluate their professors, and it was truly depressing to realize how profoundly these evaluations contribute to, and encourage, bad teaching.
Teacher evaluations by students are designed to improve teaching and to make instructors accountable to their students. The effects of these assessments, however, paradoxically often accomplish the opposite of what they are supposed to do. There was a time when we wished our contemporaries a "Good day," and often we even meant what we said. Nowadays, we wish each other "Have a great day," and so far I have never had the impression, when it, that the well-wisher meant what he said. The hyperbole strangely enough reveals a lack of sincerity. Similarly, there was a time when we heard school administrators proclaim that they were concerned about offering a good and solid education. Today, administrators of schools and heads of even the most compromised programs boldly and ritualistically promise nothing less than excellence in education, again, revealing nothing but insincerity. Whereas many instructors for a variety of reasons sincerely or cynically welcome teacher evaluations, many administrators, unconcerned about "excellence in education," support them to have an additional tool for monitoring, supervising, and controlling faculty, their employees or "hired hands," who are needed to run the business of the university.
When we were committed to offering merely a good and solid education and when schools and universities were more candid about education, instructors generally chose teaching practices that encouraged learning. Today, many institutions are so desperate for monies that students bring, that, officially in the name of accessibility, numerous students without any intellectual curiosity, sometimes even mentally retarded students, are admitted in order to ensure the financial survival of the institution. I once had a student who had spent all her high school years at a school for the mentally retarded and then was admitted to the university with the designation of being "learning disabled." In the name of "excellence" she was then accommodated with the most extraordinary privileges. No one who accepted her tuition money and granted accommodations possibly could have been concerned about learning or about helping her. These two concerns, learning and helping, were subordinate to that of the financial soundness of the program, at the expense of the student who was told that higher education and "excellence" should be accessible to all.
With the conversion of our universities fro institutions of higher learning for scholars, i.e., for those who have a keen interest in intellectual issues and for whom learning and knowledge have an intrinsic value, to institutions for the masses who have no such ambitions but merely want diplomas, our academic managers have increasingly been under pressure to satisfy those new needs and expectations. As a consequence, these students have to be satisfied, and their consumer satisfaction is tracked by evaluations. This new reality creates innumerable conflicts for instructors who are animated by their dedication to make students learn and the concern for their own survival at the university, a survival which would be jeopardized by bad evaluations. The basic paradox is that the dedication to make students learn and the need to obtain favorable evaluations are largely incompatible; professors have to choose. A few examples from among many man clarify these conflicts.
Over the years I have come to conclude that students never get as irate and abusive as when marks are lowered due to incorrect grammar and misspellings. According to them, only content counts. This means that if professors want their students to learn, they will penalize , at least symbolically, in order to create an incentive for correct language. If, however, instructors want favorable evaluations, they will only consider the content and leave the incorrect language to the English Department for fixing, a department that frequently will not have the courage either to teach these mundane linguistic skills.
Students have come to ask me what words such as "flaccid," "factitious," and "volatile" mean--words that I had used in a previous lecture. If I want them to use dictionaries and the library, then I will not answer those questions but suggest that they develop the habit of consulting reference books. If, however, I want a favorable evaluation, I will be "nice" and answer the questions. Generally speaking, the projection of oneself as a "friend" will be more rewarded than the image of a "mentor" or "authority."
I have students who, with baseball caps on their heads that hide their faces, settle down with food and drink, and peel oranges right in front of me. If I want them to respect some decorum and show with their demeanor that in a lecture hall one behaves differently than at a picnic table, then I will ask them to take off their caps and refrain from eating. If I want good ratings, then I will accept their behavior and argue that it does not matter. Lack of courage will be redefined as tolerance.
Most importantly, of course, if I want them to learn, I will give them the marks they deserve. If I want good ratings and a hassle-free life, I will give them the marks they have come to expect.
There are numerous occasions when instructors have to choose between conflicting goals, either to make maturity demands and foster learning (the purpose to the university) or to obtain favorable evaluations (a career enhancing measure". The pressures to cave in and the accompanying rhetoric, however, are such that most of us are affected by the corrupting influences of student evaluations. Professor Trout is to be commended for his courage to outline the dynamics f these forces that pervert our vocation. Bertrand Russell in his autobiography stated that in earlier years he "had supposed that intellectuals frequently loved truth, but [he]found...that not 10 percent of them prefer truth to popularity." To this one might add that not 10 percent have the courage to resist all those pressures that come from students and administrators and that Professor Trout so astutely has observed.
Dr. Heinz-Joachim Klatt
King's College, University of Western Ontario
London, Ontario, Canada