June 29, 2010 4 Comments
Recently Stanley Fish has published two NY Times columns about the use of student evaluations spurred by some recent activity in Texas that will place a premium on student evaluations for the professional evaluations of faculty at Texas’ public colleges. (Deep in the Heart of Texas and Student Evaluations, Part Two) His basic stance is that student evaluations are not helpful for determining the efficacy of professors because one often doesn’t know what they’ve really learned from a course until years later, it will bend to the whims of students who are more concerned about entertainment and high grades (whether they’ve earned them or not) rather than true learning and critical thinking, it assumes students enter a course knowing what they should or are supposed to learn (in other words grants them expertise on a subject they are usually learning about for the first time), and confuses student happiness/satisfaction with learning and intellectual develpment. In other words, those pushing this development want to treat those sitting in college classes more like consumers than students or apprentices.
There has been some fervent back and forth in the comment sections (which spurred the second post by Fish), but my favorite is this one:
The two greatest teachers in history are Socrates and Jesus. What kind of teaching evaluations would they have gotten? In Texas, perhaps the example of Jesus would be the most salient. Of his twelve chosen pupils, one of them betrayed him. He taught better values than the surrounding community wanted to accept, and questioned the ruling authorities. And the overwhelming majority called for his execution.
Much the same thing happened to Socrates, whose unpopularity — he kept asking questions to make people less comfortable with the received verities of his day — led the citizens of Athens to vote for his death. As he himself put it, as Plato tells us, he was in the position of a doctor being prosecuted by a pastry cook in front of a jury of children.
The popular is not necessarily the good.
I tend to agree with Fish, but recognize there is some value to student evaluations. I’ve had several professors who consciously implement suggestions they have received in evaluations and they have made them more effective in communicating what they are teaching. However, students should not be responsible for tenure decisions or the personality of their teachers in the classroom. I tend to agree with one poster Fish highlights who said evaluations should focus on questions like “Did the professor hold office hours?” and “Were they punctual in turning in grades?” rather than on subjective judgments. For things like classroom demeanor and effective communication other faculty and/or administration should be the ones doing the evaluations, in my opinion.
So, what do you think?