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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A Call for Empathy and Honesty

Los Angeles, June 2020. Photo by Mike Von on Unsplash

America faces an unprecedented combination of challenges—a pandemic, historic economic disparity, a racial reckoning, and the threat of global climate change. Moments of crisis like this test our most basic moral foundations; the four major crises we face now challenge us to embrace the two fundamental elements of morality: empathy and honesty. 

As we teach in the shadow of these crises, we must cultivate a capacious empathy, which would embrace everyone, especially those with whom we struggle to agree or even understand, and an ardent demand for honesty, first from ourselves and second of those whom we engage. If we are to overcome these crises—and the next should we endure the combination now facing us—we must rediscover these two core principles of all moral behavior and use them to forge a way forward.

Central to our ability to build relationships is our capacity to feel empathy for others. (This is a contested claim; I prefer a virtue ethic, so I lean toward this view, but here is one example of the debate: “Does Empathy Guide or Hinder Moral Action?”). We must recognize the basic humanity, at a bare minimum, of others, if we are to enter into the relationships that morality governs. Without empathy, other human beings are merely objects to be manipulated or avoided.

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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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Darshan: The Challenges of Seeing the Divine in All

Opening Convocation address delivered by Anantanand Rambachan at St. Olaf College in August, 2020. 

As we begin a new academic year, I want to offer a vision, a way of seeing each other, in Sanskrit, a darshan. I do so with the hope that this vision offers us some truth, some light, in these times of daunting challenges, fear and despair. This vision comes from the heart of the Hindu tradition, the tradition that I came to St. Olaf College, almost 35 years ago, to share with my students and my colleagues. (The story of my journey from a small rural village in Trinidad to Saint Olaf is one for another occasion).

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The Pandemic Mirror

These days, we barely recognize our lives: teleconferencing in sweat pants, teaching skeletal versions of our classes, socializing and exercising only through screens. Yet in some ways the pandemic is a mirror in which we and our communities are reflected with vivid, urgent clarity. We know what matters now, in our teaching and our friendships, our families, in the places we live. We know what matters to our leaders: we see politics playing out with stark and immediate consequences. We see the usually opaque mechanisms of access, equity, race and privilege made visible in who gets tested, who gets care, who gets sick and who dies. We are watching ourselves rise to the occasion, so many of us voluntarily exceeding the directives of our mayors, governors and president. We are seeing what remains when so much is swept away.

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