Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Course Evaluations

By now, you've all read (and possibly already forgotten) the New York Times editorial by Stanley Fish:

Students tend to like everything neatly laid out; they want to know exactly where they are; they don’t welcome the introduction of multiple perspectives, especially when no master perspective reconciles them; they want the answers.

But sometimes (although not always) effective teaching involves the deliberate inducing of confusion, the withholding of clarity, the refusal to provide answers; sometimes a class or an entire semester is spent being taken down various garden paths leading to dead ends that require inquiry to begin all over again, with the same discombobulating result; sometimes your expectations have been systematically disappointed.
Fish extrapolates from the above that student course/teacher evaluations may well be useless. I don't necessarily think that's the case, but he does make a good point about the ways that students sometimes think about their courses. I know that as a learner, I too like to know what the trajectory is, where we're going with something and why. But I'm also used enough to learning that I know that sometimes getting surprised is a good thing. Sometimes the lesson isn't what you thought it would be. (Thanks, yoga!) Fish also makes a point about teaching that can easily be applied to what the reading and discussion of literature is: "various garden paths leading to dead ends that require inquiry to begin all over again." At least, that's what I think it should be, often. I'm appalled by people's assertions that there is one definitive way to read a symbol in a given text. Maybe the green light in Gatsby is money. Or freedom. Or a trap. Or maybe we've got it all wrong. We don't know until we've followed the image to its logical conclusion. And then we write about it, and try to figure out what we think we know.

That's all a long preamble to the main point of this post: I recently read my course evaluations from the spring term. This spring I taught two courses: Greeks (English 2B, required course for sophomores) and Modern American Literature (a junior/senior elective). But the course evaluations were very different, as was the experience of teaching the two courses.

Greeks is a class in which I am an expert: My MA is in Classics, and my specialty as a classicist was Greek literature. So I can easily give impromptu lessons on aspects of Greek life and the context of the tragedies we're reading, and I can bring in my Greek texts to check the translations we're using. Since this is my field of expertise, I'm obviously excited about the material I'm teaching. That enthusiasm translates to positive feedback, in general. There are aspects of the class that I can keep tweaking—I'm still wondering how to give the best possible feedback on writing, for example. But overall, the things that my students say are helpful and good are the things that I'm pretty sure are indeed helpful and good. And the things my students disliked—like my desire to have them read a little too much Greek literature for 12 weeks—I also felt needed work. Overall, however, my teacher-instincts and my students' experiences generally matched up (there were a couple of outliers, but there always are).

On the other hand, the evaluations for Modern American Literature were dismal, at least in comparison to some other upper-level classes I've taught, and even in comparison to the two sections I taught of the same class in the fall. Now, my teacher-senses also tingled about this class. I knew it didn't go well. There was a palpable lack of energy in the room most days, probably due to several factors: senioritis (I had 9 seniors and 2 juniors), long readings, shy personalities, etc. So I wasn't expecting great accolades in my course evaluations. But I also wasn't expecting some of what I did get:

You definitely tried to create some threads, and sometimes we followed them, sometimes not. But I think that giving us some meaning/answers or your ideas about what the books meant would be helpful--sometimes it was hard when it was up to the students and no one had anything to say. So maybe some more lectures? I do like discussions, but a mix of both would be helpful sometimes. sometimes our discussions got us to somewhere big and important, but I didn't feel like they were always super helpful in thinking about what these books mean.

This comment appeared in response to an open-ended question, the last question on my survey: "Any other thoughts or suggestions not covered above?" My initial reaction was shock: English classes at Urban are not, in my experience, lecture-based. Now I know I just said that I would often lecture extemporaneously on Greek stuff, but those weren't really lectures. More like 10-minutes of "oh, let me tell you about this cool thing that's kind of relevant to what we're talking about." And while I don't think of myself as never revealing what I think to students, I do think my job as a teacher is to encourage students to form their own ideas. I'm there to ask questions and direct the conversation. Apparently, doing that is not quite enough:

I did not enjoy this class because I did not learn anything deeper that I could [not] have thought of on my own. I like it when the teacher says something amazing once or twice a class period to redirect our thinking, but that never happened in this class.
This comment came from a different student. The implication that I personally lack innate amazingness is hard to ignore. But I'm willing to experiment next time around: a little more structure for upper-level students, with a little less expecting them to hold their own and generate the topics of conversation and a lot more of my own theses about the texts. Doubtless, I'll then get comments about how I am too focused on my plan and structure and ideas. But every year is a new chance to practice, learn, and refine. And every group of students is different.

I do think that Fish is right to ask us to be aware of students' biases when they're writing evaluations, but I won't stop asking students to evaluate my courses. Under the best of circumstances, I get some good ideas from students about the nature of the class, and how to improve it; under the worst circumstances, I get to ask myself questions about whether I'm as effective as I want to be (not a bad thing at all, really). So things I want to change will change, and aspects of the course that are good-for-you-but-not-fun (like eating liver in anything other than paté) will remain or get tweaked. But, just to be safe, should I build up a reserve of amazing insights to offer forth to my students next year in brief, measured doses?

No comments: