Tuesday, February 26, 2013

'Dr. Douglas is a bit of a drag as a professor. He does not provide study guides for the test which means you must study the book VERY well...'

I cribbed the title from the first entry at my Rate My Professors profile:
Loved the class material and enjoyed reading the book. However, Dr. Douglas is a bit of a drag as a professor. He does not provide study guides for the test which means you must study the book VERY well. Not a lot of class work, and no homework. I would recommend you take someone else if you are a polsc major or wish to gain from the course.
I haven't checked the evaluations over there in a couple of years. They're largely useless from the instructor's perspective. (Or at least from my perspective.) And they have no impact on me professionally, so I ignore them. I've always thought students are poorly equipped to evaluate the quality of teaching, and not just because they have a vested interest in a good grade. Students don't have training in pedagogy and most of them haven't the foggiest idea of what constitutes excellent instruction. As for the student's evaluation above, I'm sorta tickled by that review. Sure, the student didn't like my class, but only because I didn't make it easy for her. I made her read the book "VERY" well, which is exactly as planned. That the student thoroughly enjoyed the material is only added positive feedback. Moreover, I do provide study guides --- just not the photocopied handouts that many faculty members provide to students. My class textbook (which the student enjoyed) comes with a tremendously helpful companion website that features online practice tests, glossaries of all the key terms and concepts, electronic flashcards and fill-in-the-blank exercises, problem simulations based on the readings, and more. Students have access to the material. It's up to them to make use of it. I don't spoon feed, and for a lot of students, that makes me a "poor quality" instructor.

C'est la vie.

What got me going on this is Janice Fiamengo's piece at PJ Media, "How Well Does ‘Rate My Professors’ Rate?"

It doesn't rate very well, obviously, but let's hear it from Professor Fiamengo:
No one, likely, will be surprised to discover that students are critical of instructors who have a high standard and mark them down when they fail to reach it: “A sweet person who seems to really care about her students,” runs a typical comment attached to an “Average Quality” ranking, “but don’t expect an A, even if your [sic] sure you aced the test.” Statistical researcher Valen Johnson has demonstrated in Grade Inflation: A Crisis in College Education (2003) that student responses to their university experience have been corrupted by an entitlement mentality about grades. Because students tend to excuse poor performance by pointing to external factors, they often blame their teachers when marks are lower than expected — when, as one student wrote on the site, they are “completely blindsided by a bad grade.” The problem is acute in the grade-inflating Humanities disciplines, where an element of subjectivity is always present and where one instructor’s decision to give higher marks than the material deserves — whether from pedagogical principle or to grease the wheels of a happy classroom — creates pressure on other instructors to do the same, and leads to negative evaluations of those who will not. As even a cursory perusal of Rate My Professors uncovers, “Very hard marker” almost always equates to a “Poor Quality” evaluation. This fact alone, as Johnson concludes and as many thoughtful observers can attest, makes teacher evaluations, which are widely used as a ranking method in the modern university, next to meaningless.

In such a context, it might seem that the most valuable commendations are those — and they are certainly the most heartening — that warn against the professor’s difficulty or dryness while still recommending him or her. “Sure, he’s tough, even mean. But he is also brilliant.” “You’ll find no great excitement in her lecture room, but you will have the chance to hear tremendously intelligent and thoughtful ideas on life and literature that will stay with you outside the classroom.” For a student to find a professor’s teaching valuable despite the instructor’s refusal to provide esteem-boosting marks or a jazzy presentation speaks to some other quality that has touched the student. But what is the quality, exactly? Can it be distinguished from personal charm, winsomeness, superficial articulateness, or an engrossing manner? Can the vast majority of students tell if an instructor actually knows his subject or has wisdom to impart?

Not very likely. Given that a significant percentage of students, according to a recent National Post article based on a study by a Memorial University (Newfoundland) professor, cannot locate the continent of Africa on a world map or even identify the Atlantic Ocean, how can they possibly locate their professors on the scale of intelligence and knowledge? Too frequently, the most enthusiastic declarations about an instructor’s “amazing lectures” and “brilliance” also dwell on the sexy looks and other forms of personal appeal that make him or her so easy to listen to. “Never worked so hard for an A. Loved the material, and his lectures were stimulating and hilarious. He’s hot too, great outfits.”

This, really, is what Rate My Professors most consistently highlights, that physical attractiveness, a magnetic style, and the ability to relate good stories, deliver witty one-liners, or toss off nuggets of seeming profundity (with today’s short attention spans, they can only be nuggets, usually liberally interspersed with jokes, chitchat, and sentimental fluff) have come to define “good teaching” — and make it nearly indistinguishable from a diverting performance — for the majority of students. In the main, such teaching does not meet the standard that David Solway defined in Education Lost (1989), where he analyzed education as a performative co-encounter in which the teacher “performs” the “initiating presence” and the student “impersonates his ideal or projected self” in a complex drama taking full account of the “prolonged” and often “agonistic” process of learning.
That sounds about right, but it's nothing new to me. Websites like RateMyProfessors.com can be actually painful for instructors who're worried about their evaluations. Rumor has it that administrators read the evaluations --- a horrifying thought in light of the criticisms mentioned above. But again, I personally don't care. But part-timers or probationary faculty members probably check their ratings --- I did --- because some of the same kind of comments are submitted by students on the college-sponsored teaching evaluations that are required periodically. So this stuff matters. (Note that RateMyProfessors can be gameed easily and legitimately, simply by asking the students who do well in classes, the ones who've developed relationships with their instructors, to post their own evaluations. Indeed, the RateMyProfessors feedback page suggests just that to instructors who're unhappy with their rankings.)

In any case, here's the remainder of my ratings from the front page:
Talks a lot about current events during class, sometimes leaves little time for lecture. Only writes titles of sections on board. Writing notes is useless. Have to read book. Grade consist of 5 tests and one report.
I wish Dr. D would give more time to discuss the lesson than talk about current events. And I wish that he will give study guides, so that the students will know what he expects from them. Dr. D is a nice professor, though.
He is a very good teacher. You must attend class because he notices and will call you out on it. There's two books required for this class. He only goes over one and the other you have to read on your own. He is available during office hours and tells you where your [sic] at and what you need to do to pass the class.
And by the way, the student rankings are 2 "poor quality," 1 "average quality," and 2 "good quality" --- which is pretty interesting, quite balanced, actually, and useful! The students here are expressing straight evaluations rather than trying to attack the professor and harm his ratings in revenge for a poor grade (something that's pretty common with this kind of thing).

In any case, there's still more at PJ Media, at the link.