GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

Posts Tagged ‘Teaching’

Re-evaluating My Relationship With Student Evaluations

In Janni's Posts on 2013/04/23 at 01:17
Janni Aragon, writing from Victoria, British Columbia in Canada. 

Most universities use student evaluation forms as a means of measuring student satisfaction and teaching effectiveness of the instructors. What many do not know is that most instructors have a like and dislike relationship with the official student evaluations. For contingent faculty, the evaluations are crucial to keeping their jobs. The evaluations are an easy means for a department to let you go, noting, “Well, your student evaluation numbers are really low.” Furthermore, we all know that there is such a large pool of adjunct faculty ready to get a class or pick up an additional class in the quest to attempt to make ends meet. This is an important issue and I recall feeling that the student evaluations gave me that opportunity where I had to prove that the department made a good choice in offering me some courses, when I worked part-time at two to three college campuses or departments.

Anecdotally, I have heard from many faculty that they never read their student evaluations and others note that they wait until the end of the year to review them. I scan the statistics at the term’s end or the end of the year. If I have time, I might read the qualitative comments. You see, I get the statistics emailed to me, but I have to request to get access to the folder of qualitative comments, which means that I do not look at them often. When I started a new team-taught course, I read the qualitative evaluations immediately to assess what the students were thinking. But, usually I review the qualitative comments as I prepare my dossier for a review or some other official process. And, I usually dread reading them, as the one negative comment will stay with me for the next hour or day.

As part of a recent nomination for a Teaching Award, I had to update my teaching dossier, and I just reviewed 18 months of statistics and qualitative comments and I have to say that my relationship with the student evaluations has changed. I cannot even believe that I am typing this, but I found that the both the statistics and qualitative comments tells me exactly what I already knew: I am an effective instructor. From the qualitative comments, I read that some students really like me and a few students do not like me or the assignments. Some comments brought tears to my eyes: students deciding to major based on my course or that my help in office hours made them not drop out of the program or university. I read that I was making a difference in and outside of the classroom—that I should have clones; it was a validating experience to read pages of these comments. Sure, some noted that I require too much reading or writing and I always expect some to make those comments. The statistics also noted that across the board 82-100% of my students enjoy the courses, assignments, my availability, and the overall course. Those are statistics that I can happily live with and add to this the great, hilarious or constructive comments and I feel satisfied with my teaching.

Now, we all are aware of the websites that comment about instructors and I will not name them. Those websites really find the fans and haters making comments and possibly doling out a chili pepper to an instructor.  I do not visit those sites anymore, but going forward, I will make a point of asking for my qualitative comments the same day that I get my statistics.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Honesty As a Resolution

In Janni's Posts on 2013/01/29 at 04:35
Janni Aragon, writing from Victoria, British Columbia in Canada.

I was chatting with a friend and she asked what my New Year’s Resolution was. I paused and thought about how I do not really believe in these sorts of things, but then realized that my resolutions are formed in late August or September, prior to a new school term starting. Last year my resolution was to continue to make mentoring my mandate. This school year my resolution was for honesty. Now, this honesty works both ways. I mean to continue to offer my honest, helpful comments to my students, mentees, and graduate students who I supervise or coach as my Teaching Assistants. But, it also means that I expect honesty.

What has this meant this last term? I have not responded to emails that crossed the line. I have set up face to face meetings with colleagues or students who sent the email to discuss the matter at hand. Life is too short to not communicate clearly and if I have the opportunity, I would rather clarify an issue face to face. This policy has worked like a charm. I have felt clarity with an honest conversation where all parties really come from a place of “I” and not “you”. I think I have to thank the Human Rights office and the two committees that I have sat on for the last year and a half for the foresight and tools to make me a better communicator and also expect the same from my students and colleagues.

In terms of my blogging and social media visibility, this has also meant that trolls exert no power or emotional energy for me. I am not saying that they took up that much space before, but now they take up zero space. I easily ignore them and move on, and this is quite freeing. I have used this place of honesty as a way to forge productive energies. I do not think that trolls are practicing honesty. No, the keyboard warrior is actually a coward. I have previously heard that I am blunt or brutally honest, and I think that these assessments have been fair. However, I do think that this resolution of honesty is different for me and my interactions with students.

I no longer circle around comments and waste time trying to not offend and choose my words ever so carefully. I offer constructive, honest comments and if this means that I state, “This is not your best work. This is sloppy work. You did not review my syllabus closely.” I will say it. I have said it. The reactions from students have varied and I know that one student thanked me profusely for my honesty. His next two assignments were stronger, and during the holidays he sent a nice thank you note. I was clear that he had not submitted his best work and that I expected more from him. I have told my mentee that I expect her to participate more in class—that she does not get a free pass—no favoritism. Guess what—she started talking more. I raised the bar, and many students responded with better work.

Sure, there was a student or two who noted something to the effect of, “I’ve never had a professor be so forward or speak to me this way.” My response was that I was sorry that no one had taken the time to be honest. I do not live my life by the students’ comments on sites about professors—see I won’t give them a shout out. I prefer to see the student do well, try harder, and graduate. I am not in the department to make friends. I am mentoring students and this includes honesty.  The year is halfway over and I will continue on with my resolution of honesty.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

What the Food Network Can Teach Us about Feedback

In Janine's Posts on 2013/01/26 at 08:26
Janine Utell, writing from Chester, Pennsylvania in the US.

I’m not a big television watcher, especially when baseball is in the off-season, but I am a Food Network junkie. This semester, my rethinking feedback (how to give it, what it should focus on, how it contributes to the conversation of a course) while also watching “Chopped” and “Next Iron Chef: Redemption” got me noticing how the programming on the channel is actually focused a lot on giving feedback. We think of cooking channels as providing opportunities for teaching — most of what fills out the daytime schedule, with attractive people in even more attractive kitchens preparing meals that even YOU can make at home with a $5 budget and a $5,000 set of appliances — but the Food Network has shows — especially in prime-time, where the competitive edge comes out — that actually take grading as their emphasis.

My conclusion after much Food Network watching is this:  There are two types of feedback available to chefs, and possibly also ordinary people like students and faculty:  failure-based, with an eye towards exposing weakness and asserting authority; and facilitative, with an eye towards building skills and creating opportunities for growth.

The first  category, failure-based, might be seen in shows like “Chopped” and “Iron Chef.”  Here the work takes place in a cutthroat and competitive environment:  “Iron Chef” is even set in a place called “Kitchen Stadium.”  Chefs who do not complete their timed tasks with weird ingredients (example:  make an entree out of gummy worms, venison, savoy cabbage, and instant grits) will be “chopped,” finding their pathetic attempts at originality, even edibility, rejected by judges who consider with a cold eye “whether they have what it takes.”  The public critique on these shows features fault-finding with the ultimate goal being elimination.

The second category, facilitative, might be seen in shows like “Worst Cooks in America” and “Next Food Network Star.”  Here, chefs work with contenders in a teacher-student mentoring relationship, often in a one-on-one setting targeting individual strengths and weaknesses. Contenders are given challenges, again involving timed tasks and weird ingredients, and are given feedback as part of the same kind of  public critique.  Along with this, however, are extensive conversations with chefs as teachers/mentors suggesting ways to improve and highlighting potential.

It is interesting to note that  “Next Food Network Star” did not used to follow this teaching model.  In its original incarnations, it operated more in the failure-based category; but last season, the format was changed wherein a “star” currently working on the network was paired with a contender as his/her “producer,” and was responsible for mentoring said contender into a finalist position.  Not only is the growth and improvement of the contender at stake; the producer/mentor celebrity chef is held accountable for the extent to which her contender succeeds.  It’s not just the wannabe chef who gets judged:  the celebrity chef is judged equally on whether or not she is a good teacher.  Even “Worst Cooks in America,” which sounds judgmental on the face of it, takes as its starting point the belief that everyone is teachable with the right teacher:  you might have accidentally given your family food poisoning with your tuna noodle casserole, but with the right feedback, guidance, and practice you can do better, possibly even well.

In both cases the standards and expectations are high, but facilitating learning and constructive work means giving the feedback that might enable someone to meet them.  I’m struck by the tension between these two impulses, because it strikes me as not unlike my own work.  Is our job in giving feedback to reward the excellent and punish the weak?  Do I approach the giving of feedback from a failure-based standpoint, or from a commitment to be facilitative?  In higher ed teaching in general, and in the work we might do as faculty and administrators, what seems to be the dominant mode of thinking about student and faculty work?

At the conclusion of this semester, I made a commitment to be more facilitative up until the very end, sort of like the adjustment described in this ProfHacker post:  not just judging the final product of a course but thinking about where that student might be in a few weeks at the start of the spring semester and beyond.  The “mind hack” described by Lincoln Mullen is about keeping that process-oriented approach up to the end of the semester and beyond; facilitation doesn’t end with a paper deadline.  At the end of it all, students might not be celebrity chef quality, but hopefully, I taught them how to create a few new and exciting dishes that won’t poison anyone.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Teaching Difficult Topics

In Afshan's Posts on 2013/01/26 at 08:23
Afshan Jafar, writing from New London, Connecticut in the US.

I am a sociologist. I teach some of those courses that many academics wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. One such course is Sex, Gender, and Society. I also teach other courses or segments of other courses that deal with sexuality, globalization, imperialism, wars, religion, sweatshops.  These are all difficult courses and topics to teach.  Many of my colleagues think I am a glutton for punishment for wanting to teach these courses (if these weren’t enough I just added Sociology of the Body and Embodiment to the list of courses I teach).

These are some of my favorite subjects to teach, but I also know, especially as a junior faculty, that these subjects can create a backlash among students and how they view and evaluate the teaching of these subjects. Over the years, I have realized that there are some steps that I can take that make for a better experience for me (and maybe better evaluations that actually judge my teaching and not penalize me because of the topic).  Here are the three most important lessons I’ve learned about teaching sensitive topics:

Dealing with the “F” word:  Feminist. That’s the dirty word that students are afraid to say out loud but is on everybody’s mind when they walk into one of my gender-related courses. By now I know very well what students think of feminists: biased, man-haters, no sense of humor, angry, and so on. So now, I discuss what it means to be a feminist from the first day of my gender courses. I encourage students to voice what their concerns might be coming into a course like mine and ask them why they chose to take this course. Turns out most of them have what would be classified as “feminist” reasons for taking the course! I spend a lot of time making them comfortable with that label and getting them to embrace it. Most of the difficult subjects we teach have some baggage in terms of the preconceived ideas that students bring with them about the subject and its teacher. These notions need to be addressed and corrected starting from day one, and then the message needs to be reinforced repeatedly throughout the course (for instance feminists aren’t man-haters; if you teach race, it doesn’t mean you hate white people and so on).

It’s Not About You: As a sociologist one of the messages that is most important in my classes is getting students to see how our actions, our lives are part of larger patterns and larger systems. One of the most difficult things about teaching sensitive topics (race and gender for instance), is that it’s bound to make people defensive. Discussing male privilege or white privilege often gets read as a teacher accusing them: “You are sexist” “You are racist”. My job is to constantly remind students that “It’s not personal”, that this is about larger structures and patterns of privilege. Related to that is the need to get students to see past their personal experience (see previous post and the section on “personal as proof”) and evaluate the evidence in front of them.  This particular message cannot be emphasized enough when teaching sensitive topics.

But Sometimes It Is About You . . . And About Me: I once received a comment on a course evaluation that said, “she is the scariest professor I know”. People who know me well (including my students who’ve taken several classes with me) find this utterly hilarious. Me? Scary? What had I done? I had held the student accountable and hadn’t extend the deadline for a paper. I think this speaks to gendered notions that students bring with them when they come to the classroom. As a young female professor, especially a young mother, they expect me to be nurturing and when I am not, they get frustrated or scared. Clearly, sometimes it is not the message being conveyed, but who is conveying the message that rubs students the wrong way. While I have some colleagues who are very critical of immigration policies (in this country and in Europe) their message, as White Americans, is seen as nothing more and nothing less than critical insight. The same message delivered by a brown-skinned immigrant can be seen as “having an axe to grind”, being “anti – (fill in the name of the country in question). I now make it a point to discuss students’ expectations of and reactions to their professors and how these might vary (even when the subject itself doesn’t) based on the professor’s gender, race, nationality, age, and so on.

Teaching sensitive topics is difficult and there is no way around that. But I do think that the above steps have helped me over the years (sometimes more successfully than others), to get students to evaluate their own responses and reactions before they evaluate me as a professor.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Teaching an Unmotivated Audience

In Under the Rain With No Umbrella on 2013/01/23 at 04:19
Itir Toksöz, writing from Istanbul, Turkey

In Turkey, students are admitted into universities through a nationwide test. After the students take the test and receive their scores, they submit a list of choices of the institutions and programs they want to attend to a nationwide center which places them to one of their choices. This placement is a result of not only the test score of the student but also the relative scores of all other students who made the same choice across the country.

Getting into a university programme is a highly competitive process, often called a race, which requires a high investment on all fronts, in terms of the hours students spend studying after school and taking practice tests to prepare for this one big exam; in terms of the money spent on the part of the families since the students often attend extra courses at the weekends or take private lessons to do better on the exam, and in terms of the focus in the classroom in high schools since all the attention is geared towards getting the students better prepared for this exam during their last year.

The result is generally twofold: a tired student body entering into university life and a considerable number of students who are placed into programmes, and therefore into professions and futures, that they do not like to begin with.

The tired student body entering into university life is a factor which reduces the quality of higher education when students get into university after one or two years of intense, non-stop studying. Especially if they come to study in a city where they won’t live with their families for the first time, they often end up going out and enjoying life without enjoying the educational experience that they have worked so hard to attain. They mostly study just to pass exams; although they are clever and can do better, they have high rates of inattendance and read almost nothing outside of the minimum assigned for their class.

Of course this cannot be said for every university student. There are some very motivated students in higher education. As I don’t have statistics, I cannot give an exact number about the rate of students who are placed into programmes they don’t like. However, from the informal conversations I have had with students over the course of the years, I know that the number is far greater than many academics would like to admit. The number is also enough to make teaching a challenge.

In the short term, this process results in an unmotivated student body, disconnected from the classroom, uninterested in the topic they study. In the medium term, it creates a body of fresh graduates out of higher education who don’t know what to do in life. In the long-term, it causes a part of the population being unhappy with their jobs and their lives.

Since changing departments or universities is very difficult (which means either you have to retake the test or you try to get a good GPA to qualify for a transfer to another department, which in itself is difficult since the process is only open to students with a good GPA, something a student is not likely to have when he/she does not like his/her department or if a student applies for a double major which again has the GPA requirement) and since the investment to start over is too high, the students are stuck in their majors.

Teaching intensively in the classroom, it’s been a huge problem for me trying to reach out to these students, engage them, attract their interests and feel that I am able to teach them something about the substance. I am not in a position to suggest solutions to this nationwide problem. However, I must find ways of reviving my class atmosphere when I have such a group of students.

Linking topics with the everyday lives of the students is one way of engaging them. Group work asking students to deal with the topics among their peers and using teaching methods which include material such as films, cartoons, and songs which the students find easier to relate to is also important.

Since I teach international relations, doing the above is not difficult, as events of international politics are on the news everyday. I wouldn’t know what to do if I were teaching a different topic not so closely related with our everyday lives.

Any other suggestions would surely be welcome…

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

How am I doing? Reflections on What Teaching Entails

In Ponderings of a Peregrine Pinoy Professor on 2013/01/18 at 22:49
Rosalie Arcala Hall, writing from Iloilo, Philippines

At a General Education course training, I was disconcerted by a colleague’s presentation which showed carefully selected personal notes from students, which she made them write at the end of every session. I was equally perturbed by other news that one of my younger colleagues has been cooking(!) in his Southeast Asian History class; and another opted for a study tour in place of a written final exam.

I am not passing judgment on these creative or technologically-innovative ways of teaching, but this great pedagogical diversity is making me wonder whether as a University, we are losing sight of the nuts and bolts of our profession. Previous attempts at peer-to-peer teaching assessment, where another teacher sits through your class and offers suggestions for improvement have been rebuffed by worries of infringement on academic freedom.

With over twenty years in the business and with experience at a US institution for comparison, here is a summary of my own lessons on what works:

1. Focus on the takeaway.

Every class is about what students learn at the end of each encounter.  I take to heart a former professor’s wisdom of delivering 3 or 4 maximum points per session, to arrange, reiterate and sum up my lecture or activity around those points and those points alone. Students have busy lives; they have other matters to think about. What makes your lessons stand out are their portability and enduring character. Vocabulary building,  human stories–these are things that will stay with them longer.

2. One size does not fit all when it comes to class materials.

There is a need to customize reading selections with the type of students/nature of class (i.e. level? homogenous versus mixed majors? undergraduates or graduate level?). In the US, this is solved by the instructor’s choice of a textbook or a custom-made reading packet that meets the minimum criteria of (a) readability and (b) content match with syllabus themes. There is no merit in inducing undergrad student “nose bleed” by assigning them materials you were given as a PhD student (no matter how brilliant you think the material is).

3. Keep students busy with short and easily-done assignments.

I routinely have my students handwrite (an anti-plagiarism measure) reflection papers from audio files and deliver news reports for sharing. In one GE class on gender, I had them keep a diary based on themes I pre-assign. It’s a lot of work marking assignments for 20-30 students but well worth the effort of making sure some “internal” learning process have occurred.

4. There is no substitute for face time.

I insist on actual make-up classes for sessions I miss due to official travel for meetings or research. I pre-schedule individual consultations for reports, papers and thesis; 10-15 minute minimum face time turning my office into a never-ending queue of waiting students. Students I find, place value on those encounters. It’s also a foolproof way of flagging under performers and absentees, as well as giving positive feedback to those who do their job well.

5. Do not assume that students know.

My classes come with Lego toy-esque instructions. I spend time walking students through the rubrics of writing essays, the format of scholarly papers with correct citations, how to deliver good oral reports (do NOT read from your notes; limit slides to 10 and use parsimonious text; use summary tables), speaking and writing English properly (I correct grammar and punctuation), and how NOT to plagiarize. More than content, students need to know what and whether they’re doing things right.

6. Treat students with respect.  

Contractual obligations in the syllabi run BOTH ways. If students get marked down for absences, tardiness and delay in turning in exams and papers, then the same holds true for the teacher. Scolding students for shortcomings in front of their peers or dismissing their responses as inconsequential show insensitivity. In my class, there is no wrong response when asked, but affirmation of how their answers link to the matter at hand.

There may be a thousand and one ways to be the best teacher one can be. To me, putting the student’s interest first, not your ego or your convenience, is key. That and remembering to always put yourself in their 16-18 year old shoes.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

In Praise of Female Friendships: Women Professors, Women Students, and Academic Generations

In Liminal Thinking on 2013/01/15 at 23:10
Denise Horn, writing from Boston, Massachusetts in the US.

One evening last month, I met up with a small group of young women, and went home feeling uplifted, happy and inspired. These are women I have known for many years, and they are more than dear to me. They are funny, smart, witty and adventurous. We have traveled together, had countless dinner parties together, gossiped, and learned together. The common bond between us (aside from a mutual affinity) is that I was once their professor and they were once my students.

I have been teaching in my university long enough that I have witnessed the development of several classes of students from young, naïve, bright-eyed 18-year-olds to savvy, confident and sometimes cynical young men and women. And over the years, long after they have graduated, many of these students still see me as a mentor, but many see me as a friend. They are not afraid to come to me for advice, nor are they afraid to offer their own.

I have felt so enriched by these relationships that I am always surprised by fellow faculty members who never see beyond professor/student roles, and those who are very clear that they want no other role (except, perhaps to write letters of recommendation for grad school). I understand the need to keep a student at arm’s length when one is directly supervising the student. As a feminist, however, I believe in the vital importance of the mentoring relationship, particularly between women. I also appreciate that women often relate to each other in non-hierarchical ways that offer the possibility of fostering deeper relationships—not mentorship, but friendship.

I think of the long friendships I have with many of my former students in terms of academic generations, in which my experience of growth is joined with theirs. Among the relationships that I cherish most, for example, represent my first and second years of teaching–I was younger when I met them, and, in a sense, grew up with them. They were looking to me for guidance and advice when I was in the process of figuring out my own life—navigating the unfamiliar territory of a new career and a new university, going through the growing pains of intimate relationships, and for all intents and purposes, becoming an adult.  Each one of those friends/former students from that time buoyed me up with her wit, her curiosity and her creativity, without actually knowing she was helping me learn as well.

Our profession is inherently social and personal—we are, after all, engaged in shaping minds and fostering learning. As women academics, we are, by nature of our gender, role models to countless young women, and I take that as a serious responsibility. Our strengths, our weaknesses, our successes and our failures can always be material for teaching and mentoring—in the true feminist sense of the personal being political.

Yes, being an academic and being a teacher are intellectual pursuits, and worthy of the respect that many professors demand from their students. But the satisfaction of our jobs may actually lie elsewhere. When, someday, I look back at my career, I’ll think of the books and articles I’ve written, of course. But, I will see those as artifacts of a former me who explored ephemeral puzzles and was fascinated by esoteric theories. The “real” me, the lived me, will be traced in different ways: those that I have loved, those that I have cherished, and the academic generations of women who have or will have taught me so much, even as I was teaching them.


This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

The Chronicles of Nonsensia: The Sad, the Infuriating, and the Incredible

In Afshan's Posts on 2013/01/14 at 00:44
Afshan Jafar, writing from New London, Connecticut in the US.

If you’re in academia, chances are you’ve spent some time thinking about and discussing student writing. You may have found yourself enraged at something, or laughing out loud, running to share the hilarity with the nearest living being. Maybe you scribbled it down somewhere, or perhaps it seared itself into your brain and never needed to be written down.  Following are some themes from student writing that resurface over and over again and some memorable quotes from over the years. Some will make you laugh, others will make you cry and some might make you do both.

The Either/Or, Good/Bad:  This is the kind of writing where nuance and complexity don’t really exist. Things are either all bad or all good, and the idea that most things, people, cultures are more complex than that, is not really entertained. There is a need to come up with a right and wrong answer, to take sides, to conclusively declare something as good or bad.

The Appeal to a Higher Power:  As a sociologist, this one is probably one of the more frustrating ones.  This can take many forms. For instance:  “Mother Nature intended it to be this way”, “This is God’s doing”, “It’s only natural”. “It’s because of testosterones”. Sometimes the higher power is of an interplanetary kind: “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus”.

The Hyperbolic/The Grandiose: This kind of writing is prone to showing up in an opening sentence, where the writer wishes to impress the reader by making a grand, sweeping statement. Of course the problem with grand, sweeping statements is just that: they are grand and they are sweeping and thus inaccurate. Students particularly love these kinds of sentences in introductory paragraphs. Here are some examples: “Since the dawn of time . . . ”, “Ever since Adam and Eve . . . ”, or for those of a less religious nature, “Ever since cavemen . . .”, “In all societies throughout history . . .”

The Resigned: Contrary to what you might think, this kind of writing doesn’t necessarily strike the particularly pessimistic; just the particularly lazy, who don’t want to think through a specific issue too deeply. This kind of writing comes out in phrases such as: “That’s just how it is.” “That’s how it’s always been”, “Nothing will ever change”.
(Notice how resignation is combined with the hyperbolic in the last two examples).

The Supernatural: These are rare and often deliciously hilarious. They often come about due to sloppiness and not reading (and writing) carefully. I will share with you an example from some years ago when I was a graduate student teaching assistant. A student was summarizing a crime from the previous night’s news and wrote: “The parents woke up to find themselves dead”. Wow. That’s rough. And I get cranky waking up at 5:45 am. And no, this was not a news story about the paranormal.

The Conversational: This kind of writing fails to distinguish between a formal essay and (sometimes a late night) conversation with a roommate. Consider the following example: “The girls were struttin’ their stuff, trying to snag a piece of ass for the night”. This kind of writing shows up more commonly in less egregious forms than the above example, as a piece of writing that sounds like a conversation instead of a research paper.  “The man is insanely muscular” (analyzing images of masculinity in the media), “Her boobs are jacked-up (analyzing images of femininity in the media).

The My-Dog-Daisy or the Personal as Proof: This is the kind of writing (or in-class discussion) where the student insists on presenting a singular incident from their life as evidence against the social scientific research being discussed in class.  Many years ago I had a student present “evidence” of the inherent differences among races by stating that his “dog, Daisy, a very sweet and loving dog, never barked at anyone except black people”. Daisy knew something that criminologists had apparently missed. Other examples:  “My brother is very sensitive” (thus it is proof that there is no expectation in American culture for men to be in control of their emotions); or “My grandparents were immigrants and went on to become very rich and successful” (thus it is proof that the American Dream is alive, well, and not to be questioned).

Let me be clear: This is not just another rant against our students and how poorly they write. I think these themes reflect larger patterns of thinking in American culture. They also represent how information is presented in various media outlets. It is no surprise then, that our students replicate these ways of thinking in their writing.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Evaluate the Evaluation: Course Evaluations and External Biases

In Anamaria's Posts on 2012/12/02 at 00:08
Anamaria Dutceac Segesten, writing from Lund, Sweden.

Course evaluations: everyone knows them and uses them, but does everyone know what are they good for? Opinions are very much split on how to evaluate the evaluation. University teachers differ from university administrators, for example, when they assign importance to the results of course evaluations. Whereas faculty are more skeptical, administrators rather confidently believe that the responses to end-of-course assessments represent an accurate description of teacher effectiveness (Morgan, Sneed and Swinney 2003).

The truth of the matter is that we do not know for sure what the impact of these evaluations is. Do they really help improve teaching? Do they help improve learning? And perhaps most interestingly, are course evaluations true? I would like to discuss here this last point, and to rephrase it in a milder form: Do course evaluations deliver the answers expected by teachers and administrators? Or do students respond based on assumptions outside the scope of the course?

Research done in several academic environments points out that the students’ answers cannot be taken as facts, but are raw data in need of interpretation and contextualization. In a study performed at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Kwan (1999) reaches the conclusion that students base their answers on factors external to the course. This is reflected in the following four observations:

1. Humanities courses tend to get better evaluations than science courses, regardless of the variation within the respective curricula;

2. Courses  with fewer students (the borderline is at around 20) get much more positive evaluations than large courses;

3. Courses at the advanced level get slightly better evals than those at the basic level;

4. Optional courses are better appreciated than obligatory ones.

I do not wish to engage here with the possible explanations of these results, even though, of course, it is very interesting to investigate why these phenomena happen,  I concern myself here with the accuracy of course evaluations. If a teacher is assigned a mandatory first-year course with one hundred students, she is very likely to get poorer results on the course evaluations than a colleague teaching a smaller, optional course for the third-year students. And this is regardless of the actual pedagogical skills and competence of the persons in question!

In another very recent study, this time on Swedish students active on a site equivalent to the US “Rate My Professor”, Karlsson and Lundberg (2012) analyze 98 assessments of faculty from across the universities in Sweden. They come to the conclusion that there is a clear gender and age bias in the ratings provided on the site. Younger teachers tend to obtain lower marks in comparison with more senior faculty. Women teachers also consistently receive poorer ratings in comparison with their male counterparts. The effects are worse if the two negative factors are combined: if you are a young female teacher your evaluations are likely to be significantly below those of a senior male teacher at the same institution.

The Swedish study corroborates with the earlier investigation on students at US universities by Sprague and Massoni (2005). They asked almost 300 students the decievingly simple question “who was the best respectively the worst teacher you have ever had?”.  The answers reveal, among other things, the “Ginger Rogers effect”: in order for a women teacher to obtain the same level of recognition they need to invest more energy and emotional commitment in their students in comparison with a male teacher. Or, as one of my colleagues put it, as a women faculty member “one has to do the same dance steps, but in high heels”.

As we have seen, factors extrinsic to the course affect the evaluation results and do not provide an accurate description of the teacher’s effectiveness. Moreover, evaluations need to be properly situated in their cultural and social context, as students who respond to them often share the general prejudices and stereotypes that are the norm in a given society. Before judging teacher performance, tenure assessment committees should certainly evaluate the course evaluation.

Karlsson, Martin och Erik Lundberg. 2012. “I betraktarens ögon – Betydelsen av kön och ålder för studenters läraromdömen.”  Högre utbildning 2:1, 19-32.

Kwan, Kam‐por. 1999. ” How Fair are Student Ratings in Assessing the Teaching Performance of University Teachers?”. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 24:2

Morgan, Donald A., John Sneed and Laura Swinney. 2003. “Are student evaluations a valid measure of teaching effectiveness: perceptions of accounting faculty members and administrators”, Management Research News, 26 (7): 17-32.

Sprague, Joey and Kelley Massoni. 2005. “Student Evaluations And Gendered Expectations: What We Can’t Count Can Hurt Us.” Sex Roles: A Journal of Research 53, 11‐12: 779‐793.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Managing Your Time Effectively

In Janni's Posts on 2012/12/01 at 02:40

Janni Aragon, writing from Victoria, British Columbia in Canada.

We all have our tricks with time management. Some are effective and others have the appearance of helping you manage your time, but might just make you think that you’re organized. I don’t have any easy answers, but I will share how I manage my time effectively. I first have to thank a colleague for insisting that I establish boundaries for getting work done. About four years ago, Dr. Matt James politely encouraged me to shut my door. Not a week doesn’t go by that I don’t thank him for this simple suggestion for effective time management. It was really hard for me to shut my door and establish this first boundary.

We were both working as Undergraduate Advisors at the time and were chatting about all the time that advising can take. He smiled and said, “I have a suggestion for you–you should shut your door to get work done. Don’t keep your door open when you don’t have office hours.” Now, this wasn’t new advice, but it resonated with me differently given that I was three months in to my first full-time tenure track job. I thought that if the Chair of the Undergraduate Committee was encouraging me to shut my door, then maybe I should. Previously, I’d d had a mostly open door policy, but prior to that I didn’t have the same expectations for advising, teaching, and extensive committee work. My job security increased, but so did the demands for my time.

Related to managing my time effectively, I also keep an excel spreadsheet for all the family members and the respective activities that we are all engaged in Monday through Friday. On Sunday nights we review all our calendars and make sure that we are all in sync, as this saves lots of headaches. Now, back to my work schedule, I have taken to scheduling my lunch and work out times directly in my schedule so that no one can book appointments during this time. Many of my colleagues and those in administration use Outlook, so sure enough people can see when you’re busy and when you’re available. By booking my lunch hour or workout time (even if it’s at 6 am or 6 pm, I’ve made an appointment for and with myself. Yes, this is time for me. I am going on six months of making a concerted effort to not eat at my desk or in my office. I am going outside to eat, to a colleague’s office or even to the larger lunchroom downstairs. This way I am away from a screen and actually enjoy a break away from the computer screens.

I also schedule in writing time or thinking time, too. I do this to protect my time, as otherwise I might not have the time to do so. It also offers me that precious 15-59 minutes to think about the project. As academics there is always something for us to read, review, grade, and write. We have the luxury of flexibility (allegedly), but the job is often with us. That nagging to do list hovers in the backdrop.

How do you manage your time?

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed