When Student Evaluations Attack

I didn’t originally want to be a librarian. I wanted to be a college English professor. I got an MA in English from BYU, and through the course of that program I taught a number of freshman composition classes and advanced composition classes. I enjoyed teaching, but I didn’t adore it. I don’t mind being up in front of a class, but it can be draining. That said, I really liked getting to know most of my students, and I liked being able to help them become better writers.

The one thing about teaching that I unequivocally did NOT like was student evaluations.

In theory, they make sense. Give the teacher a chance to analyze his or her teaching to see where things can be improved. Some honest feedback can’t be bad, can it? But in reality, these evaluations often didn’t end up being so hot, and for a variety of reasons.

First, the students who are doing the evaluation have just gone through a semester of having you evaluate them and their work. This might come as a surprise to some, but not all students are actually good students. (Being blunt here. Sorry.) However, almost all students think they’re good students, much in the same way that everyone likes to complain about how many awful drivers there are on the road, but no one ever steps up and admits to being an awful driver. If a student did poorly in a class or on an assignment, then it couldn’t be because they did poorly. It had to be the teacher’s fault. So class evaluations could turn into a form of student revenge.

How many times in the professional world does an employee evaluate his or her supervisor? While a case could certainly be made for that being a useful process, it rarely happens. Generally it only comes up when the supervisor is doing such a poor job of supervising that the employees go around him or her and complain to the higher ups.

Second, often the students just wouldn’t care that much about the evaluations themselves. They’d fill them out quickly, paying little attention to the responses. Because they were almost always done with a scale, the results felt very random. “My instructor is good.” Do you strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree? What does that even really mean?

The worst thing about it was that I felt like these evaluations could have a real impact on my future career. And so when things didn’t pan out for the whole PhD option, evaluations were the thing I missed the least. (Let’s just leave it at that.)

These days, I still get evaluations now and then. I get a yearly one from my supervisor, and I give yearly evaluations to the employees I supervise. But there are few surprises there. When issues come up, it’s not like we wait until the yearly evaluation to iron things out. But I also still teach a class occasionally, and so I get student evaluations occasionally as well. And they still leave me flummoxed. Not all of them, but some of them. I’ll read them over and wonder what in the world went on. If I was even in the same class that some of these evaluations are based on.

Of course, it’s important to reflect on your performance from time to time to see how well you’re doing. And I’m all for constructive feedback, and I suppose in some cases, the only way you’ll really know what a person thinks is when that person can speak anonymously. But if there’s one thing every comment board on the internet ever has taught us, it’s that when people can speak anonymously, they often stop behaving and speaking as people. Even on evaluations.

But since none of it really impacts me or my career these days, I can just sort of shake my head, shrug, and try to think of ways I can improve in the future, instead of worrying what this might do to me financially.

Book reviews, on the other hand . . .

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