Irreducible Immaturity

God, people, stop being such victims. If you feel that “evaluations encourage students to place total responsibility for the quality of their education on their instructors,” take your life into your own hands and change what you don’t like.

At my department, we got together, formed a committee, rewrote the evaluations form, and added a section that asks students to take responsibility for their learning. That’s it, problem solved. Students give very insightful, honest responses to the questions like, “did you work as much as you should have outside of the classroom to prepare for class? Did you participate enough in class? What could you have done differently to improve your chances of success in the class?” It takes a couple of hours to figure this out as a group and then that’s it, no more problem, go moan about something else.

I’ve never seen anywhere else the kind of glorious and smug immaturity that exists in academia.

Also, I’m very tired of the demonization of students whom many deeply immature academics place in the role of the disapproving and volatile parental figure. If you hate and fear students so much, you need to look for another profession. The absolute majority of students are well-meaning, good people who very sincerely want to learn and do well. If you don’t see that, you are incapable of performing your work duties. With this bleak outlook on human nature, you should find a job on Wall Street, instead.

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7 thoughts on “Irreducible Immaturity”

  1. Also, I’m very tired of the demonization of students whom many deeply immature academics place in the role of the disapproving and volatile parental figure.

    I know. Every now and then I get downright disoriented by the disconnect between the (mostly) earnest hard working students that I interact with and the entitled hectoring assholes that I constantly read about online. The latest was from an elite liberal arts college where an evolutionary biology professor (a “woman of color” from South America, no less) was complaining that she could barely teach her class with the students constantly interrupting to police her language. “Kin selection” is apparently bad for some reason, and of course any reference to sex at all is “problematic”.

    I don’t doubt that these people exist, and their prevalence seems to increase with the price tag of the school, but I have to remind myself that it’s a big world out there and it’s not defined by the freaks you read about on the internet.

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  2. The absolute majority of students are well-meaning, good people who very sincerely want to learn and do well.

    Yes, absolutely.
    At the end of the day, you have to enjoy teaching, working with young people to be a good teacher. Grading is a chore. Talking to students, answering their questions, figuring out a way to make the material more interesting or engaging — these are not chores.

    I have a colleague who hates teaching undergrads. He thinks they are stupid and disinterested. We teach several of the same courses. I always get far higher evaluations than him, because students are not stupid. They appreciate enthusiasm and a positive attitude toward them and toward teaching, they appreciate the care and effort that goes into presenting difficult material so that they can grasp and master it, and that makes them (a vast majority of them) want to put in the work and do even better.

    Students can also sense contempt.

    I am at a state research school, so people get tenured with mediocre teaching if they pull in grant money. I really wish we could dispense with those who don’t care about teaching, because we definitely have quite a few who are like that, who consider teaching a tax on doing research, rather than a core part of their job that students pay through the nose for.

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  3. You’re so lucky! Our evaluation questions are set by the University Senate, evaluations run by the centralised Student Administration Hub, results are seen first by the Faculty, then individuals have to produce action plans and departmental teaching leads (e.g. programme leaders) have to attend a review meeting in which they have to explain all anomalies and present action plans for the whole department on the basis of which financial decisions are made. They aren’t used too blatently for promotions here, but that’s mostly because despite the mission statements the university cares about grant income and apparently a certain self-promoting personality type far more than teaching (as in, the people getting promoted the fastest and the people who are most considered problematic by students and colleagues for things like not giving feedback for months, never replying to emails, skipping office hours – concrete things, not opinion things – have about an 80% overlap. Bad teaching does NOT hold you back).

    And they are used for individual appraisals, by the head of department when deciding which service roles and classes you get assigned etc., and it sure FEELS punitive when you get told that “oh so-and-so is so popular, of course they get to continue teaching their small honours option module, it will be good for NSS (the national survey of final year student satisfaction which feeds hugely into league tables etc.)” – even though as staff one can’t help feeling it’s easy to be popular when you teach a final year option to majors only, use the evaluation class as “cake day” with a themed baking contest, and you’ve got all the “advantaged class” characters of the “good teacher” (extravert, bantering white male with authoritative height, good hair, outdoorsy good looks etc.). Note that even the head of department isn’t saying they’re a better teacher, just that they get better evaluations, and that that is what matters.

    So – lucky. You CONTROL THE QUESTIONS? You don’t have everything checked and controlled by some central authority which doesn’t teach, never mind teach your department’s discipline and students? Yes, compared to your situation I DO feel like I am the victim of the student evaluations.

    Victimhood is about lack of control. I take what control I can – I do my own quick “temperature checks” in class and use them to improve my own teaching, I try to protect my more junior colleagues, I bang on and on about the statistical invalidity of the data produced and the poor phrasing and design of the questions imposed on us (I TEACH this sort of thing as part of the basic skills classes…) – but it does not actually affect anything that matters to the Powers That Be.

    I really find your commentary on many of the trends you see insightful and interesting, but I wish there was a bit more awareness of the situational aspects of many of these university related things – in your context, claiming victimhood sounds like it involves ignoring potential agency, so your critique is entirely valid. In my context, we continue to fight for any kind of agency we can get, but most of the things you were able to change are completely out of our control at the department level, so yes, people DO feel like victims when they believe they will be blamed for things outside their control and that their careers are being directly affected by this system they don’t control (especially if they are on insecure contracts or in areas with poor recruitment or do not get on with/trust their Head of Department or teach less popular classes or whose classes are affected by something like having their teaching affected by problems with central room booking* or a snow day).

    *I had six timetabled slots for a module over three weeks – the times and days were different for each slot, and each was in a different room. I have NO control over that, but I am expected to explain the poor score students give me for “organisation and timetabling”. Sigh…

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    1. Ours are set by an administrative committee and are the only thing used to evaluate teaching. It’s still all right, more or less, if you’ve had control of your course (you designed it, you chose the materials), so you can make the course go well. If you are stuck with a poor program, or if there is contention among instructors in a multi-section sequence (and all are competing by making it easy), it can go less well and be out of your hands … a problem if that’s the only instrument used to evaluate you.

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  4. I’ve never had a significant problem with student course evaluations, meaning that I’ve always done fairly well.

    I do believe that all students want to do well, i.e., earn a high GPA. However, I also believe that far too many students don’t care about learning, and far two many of them do not like to have to do more work than they think they should have to do. I’m going to assume that there is a difference here between major courses and general education classes, and that students are generally more interested in learning and being pushed in their major courses.

    I think that my primary concern with student evaluations is that students are not really qualified to evaluate college teaching. What I mean is that the majority of comments I get do not really focus on what was good or bad about the design of the course or about my skills as an instructor. Instead, most comments state that I am nice or rude, that I am helpful or indifferent, that the homework is helpful or that I give too much homework, that the course is easy or too hard, etc. At the same time, I’m not opposed to student evaluations, and I do believe that student feedback is not useless.

    I’m not sure whether or not these evaluations are sexist or racist. In my own experience, I’ve found that women professors in the Humanities and Social Sciences who are maternal and considered “understanding”–i.e., they give more extra credit than they probably should–often get really high scores on their evaluations. And I bet that in “hard” courses, e.g., the sciences and math, many students who aren’t doing well are more likely to give a black female professor lower scores than they would give to a white male professor.

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  5. Our university has standardized evaluations. We aren’t allowed to modify them in any way. I always get a bad score on the question about whether or not I used Christian values in my classes. Eyeroll …

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    1. We also have standardized evaluations. We didn’t modify them. We simply added a section that comes before and puts students in a more self-critical state of mind. One can also do it as an exercise right before administering the evaluations. There’s evidence that results are very different if students are asked to reflect on their contribution to the course right before doing evaluations.

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