“How many classes,” asked a faculty at the end of a committee meeting three years ago, “is a tenured professor at Stanford required to teach each year?” None of us gave the correct answer, which is one. The same is probably true at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT, and other top Research I universities in America. I have no idea how teaching is evaluated among these folks—or if it is a category for evaluation. I’d guess, however, that teaching evaluations matter little or not at all at these institutions.

They matter plenty, though, at most other institutions of higher education. At my own institution, teaching counts for 50% in applications for tenure and promotion while the other half is split evenly between research and service. It also means that course evals from students matter a good deal. 

Student evals have been a controversial subject among academics since at least the 1980s: sometimes mild and sometimes heated. Click here for an opinion from twenty years ago, and here for an opinion from a few months ago. Per my pre-tenure review, I’ve shared some thoughts about them here.  

(The emphasis is usually on academics not liking them, but there is the flip side that some students may not like them either because they don’t think evals lead to changes for the better.)

The concern of this post, however, is not about the system itself but a recent personal experience of giving some guidance to first-year students. It is no more than anecdotal but has shed one or two insights worth sharing. 

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During my first three years at Pepperdine, I taught two sections of first-year seminars (FYS) each fall, typically with 15–18 students in each section. (I also taught many sections of the history survey course that enrolled mostly sophomores, juniors, and seniors.) Then for the next two years, I did not teach FYS or another class of primarily first-year students, but only classes taken mostly or wholly by sophomores, juniors, and seniors. 

An insight came to me at the end of this five-year run: in comparison to their  older counterparts, first-year students are somewhat more prone to “extreme” ratings and comments.

I attribute it to the more “spirited” side among the college newbies. In the Republic, Plato considers the soul tripartite because it is controlled by reason, spirit, and appetite. Justice for the soul is possible when each of these parts functions properly and all parts harmoniously: reason at the top and appetite bottom. Reason and appetite are also fairly easy to understand. Trickier is “spirit” in the middle. Sometimes translated as “anger,” it has to do with the passions. Indispensable among the pre-Socratic Greek dramatists, spirit is decidedly inferior to reason according to the Platonic scheme.

Well, I think that first-year students are more “spirited” in comparison to their more older and more seasoned sophomores, juniors and seniors. Due to newness to the residential college experience, among other reasons, their reactions to grades, criticism, and other things may be more “spirited.” When it comes to course evals, some of them, perhaps many, tend to over-praise a professor or, conversely, to overly disapprove of his or her teaching. 

I returned to teaching FYS this past semester. Due to the Borderline shooting, wildfires, and campus closure in November, the duration for filling out online course evals was shorter than usual. Which actually worked well because it gave me a chance to share the insight above with my FYS students. They had read the Republic and should have understood what I said.  

As usual, I also encouraged students to fill out the evals, emphasizing that it is best for me to receive as many as possible. One nice thing about evals participation before the Internet is the fact that students did them in the classroom, usually at the end of the last class, and participation was high as a result. Online evals has made it more difficult. “Last year,” I said to the FYS students, “I had 100% participation rate for the first time ever–in three classes–and I’m hoping for the same this semester.” The greater participation probably means the more “accurate” of the overall experience. Take some time, I said, to think about your experience in each class and with each professor. If you do not have time to type up comments, at least give your ratings on all the categories. 

I also encouraged my students to be honest and fair. No professor is perfect or completely imperfect, I said, and no one could be 100% amazing or 100% horrible. I told them that the most helpful comments, be they positive or negative about a course and/or professor, tend to be specific rather than general.

Positively, for example, I have been frequently noted for having a lot of office hours. Negatively, a couple of students during my first two years commented that they wished I did not interrupt students during class discussion. The first example informs me of what I did “right” and, therefore, I should keep it. Conversely, the second example lets me know of what I did “wrong” and, therefore, ought to change. 

Finally, I noted that anonymity could be a bit tricky. Depending on how many comments or even how a student wrote them, it might not be difficult for a professor to have an idea on who wrote what. (It applies for negative and positive comments alike.) This situation may not apply to a large lecture class of, say, 100 students or more, but it is true of a small or medium-sized class. “Be truthful,” I said, “but also be fair and cautious and diplomatic when you criticize in the comments.”

As an example, I said that they may not ever take a professor again during the rest of their time in college, but two or three years from now they may apply for a scholarship or a position and that professor may chair the committee that reviews and decides on your application. “I am protective of you,” I added, “and I encourage you not to burn any bridges so early in your undergrad career.” In short, be smart while navigating the end of your first semester in college. 

It took me five or six minutes to share the above with my students, and I think—I hope—it was beneficial to them. This reflection, of course, is not about the big and controversial subject of course evals per se. But I think it shows what a faculty could do, appropriately and helpfully, to guide students, especially those on their first college semester, about an important and sensitive matter. 

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