Student evaluations first came onto the scene in the 1920s. In 1953, behavioral psychologist Edwin Guthrie at the University of Washington wrote that they could provide “objective evidence of merit,” and function as at least one factor in promotion, but he also said it would be a “serious” misuse of student evaluations to accept them as the “ultimate measure of merit” (221). Unfortunately, they have only grown in importance since then. A survey of deans of private liberal arts colleges in the 1990s found that student evaluations have become the prime source of information in the evaluation of teaching and are given more weight than classroom visits or examination scores (Seldin 1998).
I spoke to a college professor I know about cell phone use in the classroom. He shared my view that it is pervasive (and I would add disrespectful to a positive learning environment), but sadly, it was because of student evaluations that he could not say what he really wanted to say to students about using their phones. This is a form of self-censorship. Implicitly we are taught that we should not rock the boat; that we should not speak truth to power. This is particularly true for those of us who are not tenured or on the tenure-track. Make no mistake…student evaluations reduce our job and our worth as professors to whether we are well liked—an artificial, subjective, and arbitrary quality that may or may not have any bearing on our expertise, knowledge, or pedagogical acumen.
If you’ve gotten this far in my blog series and still don’t believe me, here are some articles I’ve read that point to many of the same conclusions. To save the reader time, I have summarized the key arguments in bullet point form:
When student evaluations factor heavily into whether professors are hired or fired, as they do now, professors adjust by essentially teaching toward an arbitrary test. It standardizes and routinizes the art of teaching (and yes, teaching is an art form) and as a result, professors are constrained from basing their courses on their own individual, unique personalities and areas of expertise. It promotes a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching. When I was a college student, I always thought it was a joy to experience a diverse range of opinions, ideas, and approaches to various disciplines. In many cases I enjoyed philosophy, political science, and sociology classes as much as I did the history classes that were required for my degree. Students of American history might be familiar with Taylorism in the early-20th century—a method of regimenting employees' work habits in order to maximize efficiency and productivity. Taylorism was supposed to be scientific and rational, but it did give more power to the owners of capital rather than labor. In effect, student evaluations control professors in the same way that Taylorism controlled industrial workers. Over time factory owners discovered that they could better control their workers, and thus, maximize profits, if they cornered workers into a closed factory shop rather than allowing workers to work at leisure from the home as had been customary in the pre- and proto-industrial economies. Workers who experienced a sense of loss and alienation did not go quietly into the night: they often responded with violent strikes and destruction of property. Think of the Luddites here. I am not advocating that professors should be Luddites, but if professors are workers and managers are trying to control them, why would we expect acquiescence from them?
Some technophiles in Silicon Valley and libertarian circles—the same types of folks who would largely ignore the pitfalls of Taylorism—often fall into the “inevitability” fallacy. We’re operating on a 19th-century model, they say, that does not provide “skills” for 21st-century students. There are faulty assumptions at work here, embedded in a neoliberal discourse. Funny how the argument of inevitability only points in one direction: toward greater “consumer choice,” “free markets,” privatization, and deregulation. Proponents of this discourse seem to care little that professors are deskilled and stripped of their once proud authority, or that students are burdened with debt. This bottom-line mentality has no place in public education. If we must have student evaluations, and one of the larger points of this blog series is to argue that they should be relegated to the very bottom of all the criteria we use to judge professors, then we should train students on how to write them. I have taken this idea from a fellow conference-goer. At the end of the day, save for the select few of us who are lucky enough to work at R-I institutions, the fickle opinions of students can have a large impact on our career paths. Therefore, put the following directions in the questionnaire…do not comment on the professor’s appearance, race, clothing, gender, personality, or age. Instead, answer this question: did I learn a lot in this class? This would make things a whole lot easier for everyone.