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Evaluations misused

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Evaluations misused
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Even college professors who pretend to be uninterested in what students think about them and their courses probably have trouble resisting an occasional glance at Web sites like www.RateMyProfessors.com.

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These prolific sites provide opportunities for students to evaluate their professors publicly and anonymously on the Web. They make for interesting reading. Some of their assessment standards concern instructional qualities, like "clarity" and "helpfulness"; some are personal, like "hotness." They are rare professors, indeed, who don't derive some private pleasure from the gift of the red-hot chili-pepper icon next to their names.

But few in academia -- professors or students -- take these kinds of assessment sites very seriously, largely because they tend to be patronized by the most satisfied and the least satisfied of self-selected, nameless students.

Besides, it's hard to know how to take a compliment (I think) like the following, which manages to commit several errors in only nine words: "best english teacher ive ever taken for sure. seriously!"

Nevertheless, what students think about their professors and their courses has potential value, and most institutions provide systematic opportunities for students to evaluate professors using instruments that depend on the assumption that students are able to tell whether they're being taught well or not.

The accuracy, fairness and usefulness of these institutional evaluations have undergone considerable debate, however, and many a professor has puzzled over wildly contradictory evaluations by different students in the very same class. But contradictions notwithstanding, most colleges and universities -- and professors -- agree, more or less, that student evaluations of instructors are worth administering.

On the other hand, an idea is emerging from the Texas A&M University System that ignores many of the uncertainties attached to student evaluations of college professors.

According to an Associated Press story published this month, A&M is proposing bonuses of up to $10,000 to university professors based solely on their student evaluations. So far, the response from professors has been underwhelming; few have signed up for the voluntary program, and the faculty senate has voted to oppose it.

The system's chancellor, Mike McKinney, sounds a little frustrated when he is quoted as saying, "I've never had so much trouble giving away a million dollars."

The professors reportedly have several objections: some are concerned that such a reward system would turn into a popularity contest that has little to do with good teaching. And who wouldn't be tempted to pander to students just a bit for $10,000?

In fact, the proposal reportedly puts a great deal of emphasis on making students happy or, as McKinney put it, "customer satisfaction," without examining whether service provider/customer is an apt metaphor for a productive relationship in the classroom. And, of course, it's much harder to make students happy in some courses than in others.

The proposal has other problems, as well, but I suspect that many professors object to the interjection of a blatantly commercial principle into an enterprise that many of them still believe can't be understood, evaluated or rewarded strictly in monetary terms. In general, professors probably agree that their most productive colleagues should also be the best compensated. But evaluating good teaching is much more difficult than evaluating productivity on a factory assembly line, largely because students aren't products, any more than they are, strictly speaking, customers.

In some respects, the A&M proposal -- similar programs have been proposed elsewhere -- is the flip side of a trend in public school districts to pay students for making good grades. Our culture, of course, is commercial to its core, but some things are still worth doing for their own intrinsic value: one of them is learning and another is good teaching.

And while good teaching deserves good compensation, it's a mistake to imagine that everything about the profession can be understood in strictly monetary terms.

-- Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.

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