We are a commune of inquiring, skeptical, politically centrist, capitalist, anglophile, traditionalist New England Yankee humans, humanoids, and animals with many interests beyond and above politics. Each of us has had a high-school education (or GED), but all had ADD so didn't pay attention very well, especially the dogs. Each one of us does "try my best to be just like I am," and none of us enjoys working for others, including for Maggie, from whom we receive neither a nickel nor a dime. Freedom from nags, cranks, government, do-gooders, control-freaks and idiots is all that we ask for.
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Sunday, October 23. 2011
It's all about this "consumerism" rage in the past two decades.
Students are consumers of education, patients are consumers of medical care, citizens are consumers of government services, prisoners are consumers of rehabilitative services.
It's a strange point of view.
The notion that students evaluate profs as if school were American Idol seems perverted to me. School is not infotainment. I can be an entertaining speaker and did some litigation in my distant past, but I would never teach where my career, even in part, depended on student evaluations. When teaching, I like to be a demanding SOB, intolerant of anything short of excellence and keeping people on their toes. In the end, people are thankful for my demanding attitude.
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As a former aspiring faculty member in the humanities (I got a PhD, and aside from teaching in grad. school, had a visiting appointment for several semesters at a small college in the midwest), I left the field more than a decade ago for several different reasons: 1). I didn't care too much about producing the kind of theory and jargon-laden publications that the academy values, 2). I didn't like the increasing emphasis on student evaluations as a key component of evaluations, and 3). I didn't see why I should have to put up with all the academic politics when I was certainly capable of using my abilities to do other things that could be more lucrative, more worthwhile, or more meaningful.
With regard to the question of student evaluations, I eventually learned how to play that game pretty well, but I felt like I did so at the expense of rigor. At the small college where I taught, for instance, during my first term teaching there, I took my colleagues seriously when they talked about what high standards they had and what tough graders they were. So I held up high standards, too, and it turned out that my students hated me for it, and they made that clear on their evaluations. So the next semester, I eased up a bit on the standards, and the evaluations were so positive that my department chair said he wished he got evaluations like those. (Never fear, though, I was still the toughest grader in my department.)
Although this might seem simply anecdotal, I've seen it happen too many times to believe it is a coincidence. I've had colleagues who noted the same thing with regard to lowering standards and seeing their evaluations soar. And twenty years ago, I was working in the provost's office at an elite university during a tough tenure fight. Many students were up in arms when a popular professor with only a few mediocre publications was denied tenure. At one point, the tenure review committee requested to see the grade distribution for his courses, and almost all of his students received As and Bs. Needless to say, it was no coincidence why he was so popular.
Well, it depends on the prof's own standards of "excellence". I gave my materials science teacher (mechanical engineering) a less than favorable evaluation because, among other things, after about 20 years of teaching, he was unable to draw correct projections of crystal structures on the blackboard (i.e., lines representing a projected cube that actually represented a projected cube, etc.). It was the first time in my life I had ever attempted to spell the word "cattywhumpis".
I work for the federal gov't and 20+ years ago the particular entity which employs me bought the Total Quality Management package from 3M corp to show us how to be efficient with Quality Steering Teams and such.
Government began calling people who get money from the collective pile created from present and future taxpayers were and are called "customers," or "clients." This despite the classic business definition that receive money in a transaction are vendors, suppliers, contractors, etc.
This has perverted the behavior of government workers from disbursing money in accordance with law, policy, regulation on behalf of the taxpayer to one of simple appeasement to keep the customer coming back. You complain, government pays. You complain more, the government pays more.
Precise use of language and sound philosophy matter.
Your particular circumstance is a problem of administration not standing by principles regarding grading - either hard curve (few A's and few failures, but always some of each) or absolute objective (like par in golf, all can get A or all can fail). In the end though - those students are indeed the customers in the classic business definition, they pay money for knowledge.
The customer isn't always right - sometimes a responsible vendor/business needs to send them elsewhere rather than compromise standards.
Too right, Guaman.
The first time I got a letter from the IRS, addressing me as a 'customer' (or maybe it was 'client'), my reaction was disbelief.
I'm not a voluntary customer who just happens to be dealing with the IRS. I'm a taxpayer because the law compels me to be.
That's one of the things that began to worry me about who's minding the store in D.C.
Those folks are losing all perspective. Do they really think I'd have anything to do with the IRS if I wasn't forced to?
On the other hand, as a student who has enjoyed classes with some very good teachers, and suffered through classes from some truly horrible teachers, I think a teacher's ability to actually, you know, teach the friggin' material effectively should be an important part of his performance evaluation. No one can judge that better than his (or her) students ... as long as the students have the sense and experience to separate the teacher's personality from his (her) teaching ability. Downgrading a teacher because her students don't like her is one thing; downgrading a teacher because he isn't teaching his students is quite another.
I think it's a common misconception that students are the only ones who know when a faculty member isn't a competent teacher. Although I no longer teach, I still work at a university, and believe me, other faculty members have a very good idea who is or isn't performing effectively in the classroom. A few years ago, I served on a committee with a number of faculty members, and out of curiosity one day, looked up comments about some of them at an online faculty rating site. The students' perceptions of some of those folks mapped pretty well against my perceptions and the perceptions of other people on the committee. It was evident that Dr. So and So was a bumbling fool from his work (or lack thereof) on the committee, and that's what students said about him, also. Another professor's students complained about his huge ego and his impatience. And a third professor's students said she was very intense, but also a committed and effective teacher. There were a few positive surprises (the quiet and self-effacing fellow who turned out to be a well-loved teacher), but not very many negative ones (it was pretty easy to predict who wasn't great at the job).
Who's paying the tuition? If they're not happy, they won't buy the service.
If all students were angels, it would make sense to place some trust in their evaluations of their teachers. Unfortunately, disaffected students who are meeting failure for the first time in their lives tend to be vindictive and, like a certain president I know, to blame others for their failure.
It used to be that a teacher was a guide to higher knowledge, but the hard work of learning was done by the student: no pain, no gain. Today, instruction is the academic equivalent of retail sales; students are valued customers who, by their own definition of the student-teacher relationship, are always right. To them, getting an education is no different than getting a haircut: they pay their money to sit in the chair, and they expect to look marvelous to other people---including prospective employers---when they step out of the salon. Too many of them expect a good grade from teachers without putting in the effort to earn it. When their expectations are not met, some of them don't hesitate to strike back if the opportunity presents itself.
I have a very good friend who is a law professor and department head at a major Midwestern university. She agonizes over how to prepare a student evaluation forms that would be fair to the students and her assistants.
On the one hand, she understands that you can't be lenient with grading systems, but on the other hand, she wants to know if the student who is struggling is the result of poor teaching skills or inability to grasp what is being taught. Bright students are always going to evaluate their forms and present constructive criticism. Not so bright students are going to be more critical and so on.
So instead of a form, she simple gives out a blue book and asks one question - Did you learn what you needed to learn and if you didn't why?
Apparently it works.
"Did you learn what you needed to learn.."
My experience is that students often don't have a clue as to what they need to learn. That's the teacher's job, designing a proper syllabus that includes those elements. Good teachers will get it right, bad teachers might not.
Which is therefore well defined. If the student knows what he's supposed to learn because it's well defined in the curiculum, he can start making a judgment of whether he's been taught it well or not.
Of course he can't (or won't) know or admit if this has failed exactly why it's failed (was the teacher to blame? He himself? A bit of both? External factors (longterm illness, family emergencies at bad times)?
I've failed exams because of bad teaching. I've failed others because I couldn't get my head around concepts quickly enough.
In all cases I eventually "got it", usually after getting a new teacher and/or new teaching material (books, etc.).
In only 1 of those cases do I blame the teacher, who was a poor teacher setting utterly idiotic requirements (the failure rate of his exams was >70%, most of whom would get a high grade when tested on the same material after a semester of getting it taught by someone else and examined in a more sensible way), in at least one other case it was me not reacting well to the teaching style of a teacher (when others did react well). In that case I eventually equalled or surpassed those other students in the material, after getting it taught to me by another teacher. I still admire that original teacher though, who was quite competent.
But many students won't recognise this, and would downrate that good teacher simply because they themselves have a bad experience with them (that teacher wasn't loved because he was extremely strict, and his teaching style was oldschool, but he did drum the material into their heads to the point they became competent, including mine even if his style of examination meant I didn't get high grades).
Even if my command of the material isn't good enough for me to have an informed view whether I was taught all that I should have been taught, I can tell the difference between a teacher who can lay out concepts coherently and one who can't. It's harder if he's trying to teach me something I find difficult to grasp, but I'm still qualified to judge the exposition. Some teachers get up there and ramble. Others don't add anything to what you could get by studying the assigned written materials or working the assigned problems. If a course is going to be self-study anyway, why pay the professor?
But that doesn't mean that every student evaluation is valuable. My dad used to get some vicious student evaluations, because he was a bit of a hard-ass -- but the students who were passionately devoted to his subject absolutely loved him. One of them went on to take a Nobel prize, and always spoke well of him.
So many years ago when I was a student at a "progressive"
liberal arts college wherein the students evaluated faculty, I remember the painfulness of that task. I was aware that faculty members needed their jobs, needed incomes to support themselves and their families. I did not want to write anything against an instructor or professor which might in any way contribute to his/her loss of employment. Hence, my faculty reviews were frequently polite lies.