Making the Best of Course Evaluations

The problems with course evaluations are many, well documented, and probably insurmountable. Evaluations consistently demonstrate bias based on factors such as race and ethnicity and gender (for instance, when online instructors lied about their gender, they saw statistically significant favoring of instructors whom students thought were male). Even when carefully designed, they’re unreliable indicators of teaching quality and liable to be used inappropriately in decisions about rank and tenure. And if that weren’t enough, research has confirmed that students give courses significantly higher scores if the instructor brings cookies on course-evaluation day

The bad news is that course evaluations probably aren’t going anywhere. The slightly better news is that a vocational approach might help. One place to start is by actually teaching students to give useful feedback. Just as we have to teach students to write lab reports, literature reviews, and essays, we need to give them at least some sense of how to write in the genre “course evaluation.” That’s true especially since the default model for evaluating anything has become comments on the internet, ample trolling included. If we don’t teach students anything else, we shouldn’t expect anything better. 

When we teach students how to give useful feedback, we’re doing vocational work. First, we’re helping them develop a skill they can contribute to their communities in the future; after all, giving feedback well is essential in classroom and career, in friendship and family. Second, we’re demonstrating that we value their insights in the present, recognizing they have the ability—perhaps even the responsibility—to help us be better teachers and help the institution live out its vocation. Finally, by encouraging them to reflect on their education, we’re tapping into the value of metacognition, which enhances both learning and ownership of learning.

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Vocation for Teachers Who Hate Grading

If you type “I hate grading” into google, you’ll get 5,800,000 hits. For many of us, evaluating students’ work is the part of our vocations that feels the least vocational. In part, that’s because there’s something fundamentally un-vocational in summing up students’ efforts to learn—their own current vocational work—with a letter or number. In part, it’s because grading reinforces power structures that most of us resist. But evaluation can also feel un-vocational because we just can’t do it as well as we want to. 

We know good feedback is precious: the voices of others often help us find our vocational ways, and comments on assignments can be one of the most effective conduits for mentorship. But because this work is so important, we can feel all the more sharply that our efforts at it are imperfect. We don’t have the time, perhaps we don’t have the wisdom or diplomatic savvy, to do it well enough. That’s true especially if we’re laboring in courses, course loads, or evaluation systems (like minimal GPAs for scholarships) that don’t fit our vision of vocation. Then the mountain of assignments waiting for our response becomes not an invitation to nurturing conversation but a burden, not the essence of teaching but a distraction from the aspects of teaching we value.

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Failing Better, Part II

The one time I tried to teach a course explicitly on vocation, I landed right in column B of Catherine Aird’s famous quote from His Burial Too: “If you can’t be a good example, then you’ll just have to be a horrible warning.” The warning I took from my failure was to respect the limits of the physical universe and admit that I can’t teach a decent course in comparative theology while simultaneously doing justice to the literature and themes of vocational studies. On the other hand, it seemed possible to take a micro—or perhaps stealth?—approach to teaching vocation: making small changes that would integrate a vocational perspective into the work the students and I already had to do. 

In an essay on “midrange reflection,” Patricia O’Connell Killen writes compellingly and consolingly that it is the “small, incremental changes in [teachers’] practice” that “cumulatively contribute to mastery and excellence while at the same time strengthening the teacher’s sense of vocation and clarity of purpose.” Gradually, if we persist, those small reflective steps “help faculty develop both self-possession and a fluid freedom congruent with their deepest vocational impulses.” Importantly, this kind of ongoing reflection and strategizing requires a sense of play, as “insights emerge, and events are interpreted differently as alternative possible meanings and missed dimensions are confronted.” 

So here, especially for others who value vocational formation but can’t squeeze one more text into their courses, are strategies that seem to work—or, it might be better to say, are worth playing with.  

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Failing and Failing Better: Teaching Vocation When You Don’t Have Time to Teach Vocation

The academy needs a new journal, and I propose we title it It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: The Journal of Negative Results. Scientists have long argued for the importance of publishing negative results, accounts of experiments that ended up disproving the researchers’ hypotheses. As Mehta Devang explains in Nature, “When negative results aren’t published in high-impact journals, other scientists can’t learn from them and end up repeating failed experiments.”

Attending to what doesn’t work, and why, is no less important in other fields, teaching included. On this blog, Kathleen T. Talvacchia writes that “It takes some measure of courage and self-esteem to reflect honestly on our limitations and, at times, the outright failures in our teaching and scholarly vocations. Often, it is not an acceptable stance in a profession based on the assumption that everyone with a doctorate has the capacity to learn all that they need in order to do the work required with excellence” (See “Reaffirming our Vocational Authenticity with Courage and Humility.”)

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