Yeh, Well, Same t' you, fella!
Student evaluations sometimes cut deep

"Moves his head like a damned duck.""Would make a good stand-up comedian.""I'm going to buy the ugliest dog I can find and I'm going to name him [after the instructor]. Every time he barks I'm going to kick the s-- out of him."

Fall semester student evaluations reached comm instructors' offices late this year, delayed by the Herculean task of compiling comments for the entire department at one pitiful Mac, with one overworked student employee. Why couldn't faculty compile their own evaluations? Rules, sir, rules, madam. We don't want a slightest taint of bias. But evaluations arrived, finally, not that we've been gasping in wait for them. I informed one fellow instructor that evaluations were now on their way, and she looked horrified. Evaluations become as emotional an experience for some faculty as semester grade reports are for some students.

"I haven't looked at mine for two quarters," said one professor in a recent journal article on student evaluations. "I don't want to abuse myself--I always feel bad for two days."

"I can get ten good evaluations and one bad. Yet the bad one stays with me...."

In fact, I too always get a little knot of fear before looking at those evaluation sheets. The quotes at the beginning are real, from actual evaluations I've received. Evaluations are more than just tools we use to improve our classes, prove our competence to administrators, and satisfy students' needs to respond to the class. Under all the official reasons, student evaluations tell professors the one thing that hits at their deepest insecurities: how well you like them."He was not qualified and very under-prepared to teach. I almost feel I was cheated out of learning."The faculty member who read this was devastated. "I was stunned and shocked. I felt very badly about it." Nobody likes to be graded, even the graders. After all, teachers stand in front of a class because they chose teaching as a career, and assumed they'd be pretty good at it.

Of course, we faculty with the thin skins are the same ones who criticize student work on a daily basis. Student evals should be fair tit for tat. But it's not, not quite. While professors can't remain anonymous, students always get a free shot--sort of like an obscene phone call. That's one reason why some professors cope with student evaluations by blowing them off. "Generally a waste of time and fairly meaningless," one award-winning professor from Ohio University was quoted as saying. "Evaluations are obviously subjective." This professor routinely gets excellent evaluations. "There are certain courses that are harder to get good evaluations in. What you teach can determine what evaluations you get," said another faculty member. This professor also routinely gets excellent evaluations.

Other faculty just try to handle bad evals philosophically, realizing that, no matter what, somebody's going to hate your act. In fact, teaching IS acting, in a sense--you're on stage in front of an audience, presenting your material in the way you believe is most effective, while your gallery can just sit back and hiss like a movie critique at your efforts.And somebody always does. Generally even the most seasoned faculty, the ones who've won all the teaching prizes the university has to offer, get about 10-15 percent bad evals every semester. No matter what, it seems, you're just not going to please some people.In a class I taught years ago at Minnesota State University Moorhead, I required students to keep a journal. At end-of-term eval time, just about one-third of the class said, "hated journals, get rid of them." Another third said, "loved journals, do it again." Another third said nothing at all about the journals.That doesn't mean I don't take student evaluations seriously. I disagree with the professors who believe students can't assess the value of the instruction.

Let me put it this way: by the time you're a freshman you've sat through 12 years of school, with at least three dozen instructors. You've heard it all, from the pushover softy to the rigid control freak to the over-enthusiastic airhead to the fear-monster to the (rare) truly inspiring and caring teacher. While you may not know exactly what material you need to learn for your profession, who's to say you can't judge classroom performance? So while I expect a good 10 percent to hate me each semester, when it reaches 30-40 percent, I know something must be wrong. And I change. Dissatisfaction level was about that high in Design for Print class last year, for example, and while I realize students responded to a demanding course asking them to cover a lot of material in a short time, I did revamp the course, based on student comments. We'll see if evals improve. Oh, you want to know what happened to me last semester? Generally good, though one student did say, "Don't let Dr. Collins write on the blackboard. It is terrible to read and he is chaotic in his delivery." I'm hurt, really. I got a D in fourth-grade penmanship and have felt inferior ever since....

Copyright 2004 by Ross F. Collins <>