Higher Education

On the Market VI: Excellence in Teaching and Student Evaluations

This year’s academic job application season is drawing to a close, and, as ever, I find the compilation of the last few packets to be tinged with the kind of grim urgency that accompanies the knowledge that all of the searches I applied to earlier in the year have already moved on without me. These few February deadlines mark the last chance for employment in the 2016-17 academic year: there will be no opportunities between these and the first 2017-18 postings that come out in August.


Hope you filled up.

But that’s the nature of the business, and I’m not here to complain about it. At least not today. Rather, I’m going to talk about an issue that came up while I was putting together one of these last few applications. As I noted in the last installation of this series, every academic job posting requires its own unique constellation of documents. These sometimes include evidence of “excellence in teaching,” which seems to mean different things to different schools. Sometimes this means a kind of teaching portfolio that includes a philosophy statement and a sample syllabus, sometimes it means written evaluations from faculty observers and/or former students, and sometimes it means a literal video of you teaching in the classroom and being “excellent” for the camera.

Sometimes the posting doesn’t really specify, and you’re left to decide for yourself what kind of documents they might want to see.

All this is to say that, in the name of demonstrating my “excellence in teaching,” I recently had reason to dig through all my old teaching evaluations in order to pick out the best ones to include in my little portfolio. And as anyone who has taught in higher education knows, reading teaching evaluations is not an emotionally neutral experience. Even the best of us get negative comments, and sometimes even surprisingly vicious ones. I’ll never forget one student who wrote that they couldn’t even sit in the front of the class, because they “couldn’t bear to look at [my] smarmy face.”

All part of the job, I guess? Though I suppose it calls for a reminder to students everywhere that, though they might fire off these comments in a fit of annoyance or anger and never see them again, they have a life that extends far beyond the course itself–and they retain their capacity to wound years down the line.


Socrates, following one of history’s worst teaching evaluations.

In any case, going through my old teaching evaluations led to an important discovery on my part. Like many institutions, the online evaluations at the university where I did my undergraduate teaching are split into two parts: a purely numerical portion where students click on bubbles to rate the class and their instructors’ abilities, and an optional section where students are invited to write responses in their own words.

There is one class that I taught three times during my tenure at the school. Each time I covered the same material, and gave students the same kinds of assignments. I would also say that, generally speaking, my classroom demeanour is about the same in any class I teach. And as one might expect, all three times I found the numerical portion of the evaluations to be essentially the same. At the same time, though, I found the written responses tended to be much more negative for the latter two sections.

At first I wondered why this might be: could I really have gotten worse with experience? Had I become jaded or disconnected without knowing it?

But then it hit me: the first class section was much smaller than the other two, and the difference between having 180 and 300 students in the class was clearly affecting everyone’s experience in a negative way. In fact, nearly all the negative comments arose from things either directly or indirectly connected to the larger class size.

Many students in the larger sections, for example, felt that I was less approachable and harder to get in touch with, despite the fact that I doubled my office hours (to which very few ever came). Much of this feeling seemed to stem from my rather draconian email policy, which insisted students email their TAs first rather than contacting me directly. I wrote more in-depth about the email problem a couple of years ago, but the basic fact is this: if I get four emails per term from every student in a 300-person lecture, that equals 1200 emails. Assuming 3 minutes per email, that is an extra 60 hours of labour for which I, as an adjunct, was not paid. Curt responses, too, were noted as rude rather than an attempt to be efficient, especially if they pointed out that students’ questions were answered on the online syllabus.

The increased organisational demands of such a large section caused their own problems. One year a TA lost about a dozen student assignments, a fact which did not become clear until after the assignments had been graded and several students had received 0s for apparently not turning it in (they were later found and fixed). In taking responsibility for the mistake, I invited a firestorm of unhappy comments in the evaluations, despite the fact that no lasting damage had been done.

Limits on TA employment hours meant marking students’ written work with a minimum of commentary, though students were invited to come to us directly during office hours if they had questions or needed explanations. This too was widely unpopular, and spawned a number of comments in the evaluations (if no increase in office hour attendance).

The vast majority of undergraduates don’t know enough about the mechanics of higher education to be able to tell when their educational experience is being compromised by structural factors–like universities’ increasing reliance on adjuncts and large theatre lectures–rather than simple professorial incompetence. They do, however, have an innate sense that something is wrong and that they are not getting the kind of education they should be getting. And so they express their frustrations in their evaluations, thinking that–as the person nominally in charge–these kind of systemic failures are the professor’s fault.

I do think that if students better understood these issues, and especially the ways in which adjunctification and large classes directly impact the quality of their educations, they could be powerful allies in the fight against these trends in higher education. I think it is important for us as educators to let them know. As it stands a very large percentage of undergraduates probably couldn’t tell you if a class they are taking is taught by permanent or temporary faculty, and this needs to change. To that end, adjuncts especially should note both in the syllabus and as part of their introduction to each course that they are, in fact, adjuncts, and precisely what this means for them and for the students.

I’ll be posting an example of what I think this notice should look like later this week. Until then, it’s back to applications…


Featured image: Kai Schreiber

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Dan has a PhD in historical musicology and has taught music history and theory at a major Canadian university. He mainly studies music from the Italian Renaissance when he's not busy performing stand-up comedy or playing JRPGs with his cat, Roy. He occasionally tweets as @incontrariomotu and blogs about geeky stuff at The Otaku Skeptic. He is also the glorious editor-in-chief of School of Doubt.

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