Teaching Evaluations

by Peter

15 January 2009, 0301 EST

Ezra’s post on Texas A&M’s proposal to reward a faculty member with $10,000 for the highest score on its teaching evaluations has generated a whole lot of response across the blogosphere, much of it from fellow university faculty who do in fact take teaching seriously.

I too wanted to chime in with how foolish this idea is, and how little understanding of what we, as faculty, actually do (or what my colleagues do because I in fact do something somewhat different, if you want to be completely accurate). While teaching is an important part of our job, and an important part of the University’s mission, it is not all of our job, and it is not all of the University’s mission. Moreover, Universities divide themselves by mission–some with a greater focus on high-end liberal arts teaching, some with a research focus, some with a broad focus on more vocational teaching. Our job is to teach, pursuant to the mission of our institution, but at the same time, be a full fledged member of our discipline, producing research, participating in the scholarly conversation. Indeed, that level of ‘expertise’ in our area is what ostensibly qualifies us to teach.

We get into this line of work because we love our subject and we love talking about our subject. I, in particular, stay at my job because I love teaching, I enjoy my time with students, and I find it particularly rewarding fulfilling to foster real learning among my students. And for this, I do a bunch of administrative stuff that pays the bills, so I can teach for fun but I don’t get to teach enough for my own taste.

What is poorly understood is the incentive structure in the Academy. We’re judged not by what we actually do for our own university. We’re judged by our contribution to our field, by our peers in journals, books, and conferences. The most important thing to any junior faculty member is Tenure. The top criteria for tenure at most Universities: contribution to the field, as defined by publication. Publish or perish. If you’re a junior faculty member, everyone rightly tells you to forget about teaching, forget about service, and publish, publish, publish enough to get tenure. Then, with tenure, take time to work on that stuff. Hiring is a derivative of this–on search committees, we look for people who can get tenure, which is to say, people who have an interesting research agenda and the promise to publish enough to make a mark in the field to be deemed worthy of tenure.

If you want to make teaching matter, make it a part of the tenure evaluation. That’s the only incentive that really matters. And if you doubt that, then you really don’t understand the academy all that much (not to defend it, but that’s how it is).

Teaching evaluations are a rather problematic way to run an evaluation absent other rigorous evaluation criteria.

I regularly teach our department’s undergrad research methods class. In fact, I now coordinate that class (which is ironic, really, since I’m by no means a methodologist in any sense of the word). My teaching evaluations are quite high for a methods class. But, its a methods class. My evaluations in methods are always lower than my evaluations for substantive classes, regardless of what they are. My evaluations for the 8:30 am class are always lower than they are for the 9:55 am class. I’ve taught those two back to back–the same exact thing, and the later one always, always gets higher points. Are you to punish those of us who teach the morning methods class, knowing full well that there is no way that we can score as high evaluations as the person teaching the mid-afternoon contemporary issues class? (and still, I know I beat most of those folks on the evals, but I crack jokes in class, bring in food, and talk about baseball and TV. Does this alone make me a better teacher? Not necessarily. I’m also very accessible, return emails, and engage my students with class discussion. Which drives the evals? Probably both, but only one should.)

I know I’ve done a good job with my methods class when students talk to me after the class and admit how they’ve continued to use the approaches to research I taught. When seniors say, this really would have been helpful my sophomore year. When sophomores return as seniors and want help with a research design for a Fullbright application. When a student I had in class 3 years ago drops in to discuss his BA/MA Thesis and I tell him to give me a research design and he knows exactly what to do. When students tell me how the class helped them put together a Senior capstone proposal. But none of that will ever show up on an end of semester evaluation.