Having entered academia in my thirties, I sometimes wondered what it would have been like had I begun graduate school not long after college. It was, after all, the pattern for the majority of my academic friends, peers, and colleagues. I couldn’t help wondering where I’d be on the academic ladder as people of my age now. Yet each time that I thought about it, I always concluded that, most likely, it’d have been a disaster.
For a host of reasons pertaining to the atypical situation of my life, I don’t think I was equipped for graduate studies until at least my late twenties. Or, as it were, my early thirties. In retrospect, I wish I had started two or three years earlier. But to reference a familiar saying by Kierkegaard, whose masterpiece Either/Or my students and I are in the middle of reading, life must be lived forward but could only be understood backwards. I might have been intellectually ready for graduate school at twenty-three or twenty-four: even there, it was no sure bet. But I am pretty confident that I wasn’t ready psychologically, emotionally, culturally, even (especially?) linguistically. There was a lot that I still needed to figure out about myself on the one hand and about America on the other hand.
Most of all, I think I’d have been a disaster in the classroom. Maybe a disaster in research and scholarship too: the call is fifty-fifty there. But it’s almost a certainty that I’d have been a pretty lousy classroom teacher back then. To reference another terrific saying, this time from Bernard Bailyn, the esteemed historian of the American Revolution, the study of history is “sometimes an art, always a craft, never a science.” I think that this well-crafted phrase, no pun intended, also applies to teaching. In my view, teaching is a combination of both art and craft, plus, okay, a touch of science. Had I gone to graduate school before 28 or 29, I’d probably encounter steep challenges in the exercise of the art and craft of teaching, and might possibly quit academia due to discouragement, among other reasons.
These thoughts returned to my mind on this rainy day because last week I submitted my pre-tenure review: the first big step on the academic ladder of tenure and promotion. Even after I heard from senior colleagues that preparation is time-consuming, the task was considerably more time-consuming than I had thought. As anyone that has completed one of these reviews knew, there are separate sections and sub-sections on teaching, research/scholarship, and service. The section on teaching was the most time-consuming for me. There are several reasons, including the fact that my institutional assignment is teaching- rather than research-oriented. Of course, tenure-track faculty at Seaver College, the undergraduate wing of Pepperdine, are expected to give service to the institution and produce an acceptable record of research and publication. Shortage or failure in these categories, especially on scholarship, translates to, well, denial of tenure. There is also a section on support for the Christian mission of the University. Nonetheless, there is a reason that teaching is the first of the main sections to appear on the faculty data form.
Filling out this section also confirmed my thoughts about the alternative scenario of having entered academia in my twenties. Not everything about that scenario should be bad or negative. Had I started graduate school in the mid- or late 1990s, I’d probably take fewer years to complete my master’s degree and dissertation and doctorate than the eleven years that it took me. True, I was technically on leave for one academic year and a half – or was it two years? The horrible job market during the recession didn’t help either. Still, it doesn’t matter because on paper it says that I took that long to finish. Had I entered graduate studies earlier, I’d probably get it done in seven or eight years, possibly even in six years as a few of my peers at Notre Dame did.
On the other hand, I think that the “teaching” section on my pre-tenure review would look a good deal different had I begun a tenure-track position in the early 2000s instead of the mid-2010s. All things considered, I think that I’d be too stiff in the classroom back then, or too formulaic, or too non-creative. One challenge is that there has been little training and mentoring about teaching in graduate school, and oftentimes one is left to one’s own devices. For structural as well as personal reasons, I’d have had a rough time had I begun teaching full-time fifteen years ago.
I also think that my student evaluations would not be as strong had I entered academia early. This is a sensitive issue among academics, to put it mildly. Student evaluations are among standard means of measuring teaching performance for reviews. There are other means such as peer classroom visits and evidence of student learning. But perhaps because student evals occur at the end of every semester for every single course, they appear to be an outsized influence, if not the determining evaluation of one’s teaching. Many academics have their reasons to be against end-of-semester anonymous student evals.
There are so many articles by academics complaining about student evals that I won’t bother linking them. Most tend to be anecdotal, but some also cite or report studies about problems. All right, let me link the article with my favorite title: “Student Evaluations: Feared, Loathed, and Not Going Anywhere.” The most remarkable thing about this article is the very first thing it states: that due to the weight placed on student evals by reviewers and administrators, the instructor, who is non-tenure-track and full-time, is obsessed with the 4.7 or above mark (out of 5) from her classes. “Seriously?” I thought when I first read it. Does the desired 4.7 reflect evals inflation in the minds of reviewers, analogous to grade inflation in the minds of students in the last two or three decades? The other surprise has to do with the method of evaluation: paper and pencil in class. “Really?” I asked, “paper forms in this day and age?” I suppose that not every university’s budget allows for online evaluations.
In any event, had I begun teaching at a younger age, I might have been terrified of student evals as much as the professor in this article. These evals are a part of review, after all, and no one likes to look bad in numbers. Likewise, some of the comments, especially long ones, could be wounding or hurtful, especially to a newcomer to teaching. Conversely, some of the positive comments may sound flattering to the instructor’s ego, but they tend to be brief and do not always translate to insights and understanding about what one had done right. When I was at Notre Dame, the equally esteemed Jim Turner – he knew Bailyn for decades and called him “Bud Bailyn” – told us at the end of his graduate colloquium on nineteenth-century America that he held a low opinion about student evaluations and did not give them out to class. (There weren’t any online evals yet.) “But if there is something that you like me to know,” added Jim, “please put a note in my mailbox.” I’d imagine that many college professors would choose this route were they in a position to be able to disregard student evals as Jim did.
From my perspective today, I think that there is an appropriate purpose to student evals. Institutions should not – cannot – get rid of them, as a number of academics have proposed. Without some sort of direct input from learners, how else could an instructor recognize and address issues in order to teach more effectively? Yes, I concur that student evals should be done better, and I better leave the debate on reforming them to others. But I also want to confirm that there is an important place for these evals as well.
In my pre-tenure review, I wrote at length about student evals and I look forward to hear the feedback and recommendations from my reviewers about my teaching. Here, I’d like to add that student evals can be especially helpful when they are placed in the broader context beyond a single semester or an academic year. Peer and committee reviewers of my review have access to the scores and numbers of all my evals. But for the purpose of comparison, I included the following chart in my review.
The chart shows five courses that I’ve taught on a regular basis. Since I’ve taught each Great Books course twice (including this semester), I arrange them accordingly for the purpose of comparison.
During Fall 2013, my first semester at Pepperdine, I taught only one section of Great Books III. Thereafter, I’ve taught two sections each semester. For this chart, I include numbers from the section with the higher ratio of evals completed. (In retrospect, I should have combined the scores from both sections and averaged them out. Oh well, next time.) For the the history survey course, I include the section with the higher ratio from the first time I taught it, followed by the lone section when I last completed teaching it in Fall 2015.
The numbers vary from course to course, but the overall trajectory is that my teaching of any given course has improved the second time. They don’t normally reach the “4.7 or above” level in the linked article above, but it is not my goal at all. Although limited in meaning and implication, the numbers were useful in conjunction with other factors to help me locate issues and make necessary changes for the next time. In addition, they collectively gave me a clearer confirmation on how I have done up to this point.
(There are two other courses that I have taught, but only once each. I don’t include them precisely because there is no comparison.)
Perhaps my favorite “bad” class was the first time I taught Great Books II during Spring 2015. In the previous semester, I had a great time teaching two sections of first-year students in Great Books I. Because of them, Fall 2014 is forever etched in my memory. The next semester, however, my performance was decidedly two or three notches down. I was quite unhappy, and it probably would have depressed me had it occurred ten or twelve years earlier. But I was older and more together now, and eventually made several changes to the course when I taught it again a year later. It improved a good deal, and I remember feeling quite happy even before seeing student evals.
Was the improvement up to my desired level? Not at all. Teaching, again, isn’t a fixed science but an art and a craft. There may be legitimate issues and problems with student evals as they are currently carried out. But they could be quite helpful, depending on how one approaches them. Let perfection be the goal after, hopefully, earning tenure. For now, my goal isn’t perfection but improvement. I am happy that I didn’t enter academia until my early thirties. Notwithstanding some moments of unhappiness and insecurity about student evals, I am generally happy for the place they have played in the improvement of my teaching life so far.