Is anyone else bothered that our primary feedback on our work comes from children? I’m talking, of course, about course evaluations. But if you think about it for a minute, it’s true: most jobs, you complete a project, someone tells you good job (or should). Moreover, the people who observe and evaluate your work are peers and superiors. In academia, the people who observe and evaluate you on a day-to-day basis are distracted 18-year olds who don’t understand what your job actually is. Occasionally you go present a paper at a conference, but most of the people there are strangers; very rarely a colleage in your actual department will be aware of work you’ve done and compliment you on it; periodically an article or whatever comes out, which is nice, but very long-distance and the feedback you get from that is mostly also long-distance and comes from strangers or bare acquaintances. It’s a weird gig, and I swear to god a major part of the reason we all feel so alienated and anxious is because we don’t get feedback or praise from people who count on any kind of regular basis. —“Bitch. Ph.D.” —What’s wrong with academia, part two hundred and twenty-four (Bitch. Ph.D.)
This post from “Bitch” has attracted over a hundred comments so far.
The “thank-yous” and other student comments I get via e-mail and the quality of the work that comes across my desk provide a kind of feedback, and so do the evaluations students submit at the end of the year, but each student is understandably focusing only on his or her own classroom experience. The homework assignment that Sam Student most hates about the course may be the thing that Linda Learner finds most helpful. The classroom activity that Linda finds most boring may be precisely what Sam needs most. This kind of thing is particularly challenging in our American Lit survey courses, since those courses are packed with students who are required to take it, and I feel like in order to accomodate the gen ed students, I’m doing a disservice to the English majors who may be capable of more advanced, more independent work. (That course is morphing into a writing-intensive course that’s capped at 18… I’ll be teaching four sections of it next year, two at a time, so I’ll be reflecting on this deeply over the summer.)
When I used to teach a large number of courses that involved term projects, I often passed out informal midterm evaluations. Students often complained I was always lecturing them about procrastination and that the pressure of deadlines was too great. But at the end of the term, after many of these students did in fact fall victim to the procrastination trap, some of them complained at the end of the course that I was too lax with deadlines. Sometimes you have to eat your vegetables, whether you like them or not.
I do like it when students mention a particular classroom activity or teaching strategy that they feel was particularly helpful (or otherwise), though students who are doing poorly in my classes sometimes tend to complain about weblogs. Truth be told, many of those students who complain that weblogs take up too much time are also the ones who don’t do the reading, who don’t come to class, who turn in their papers late, etc. The newness and strangeness of the weblogs can be convenient target for their frustration.
On the other hand, students who don’t participate in class (due to ESL issues, shyness, difficulty with or disinterest in the subject matter of a required gen-ed course, or personal obligations that keep them off campus) are often extremely punctual and responsible when it comes to posting online responses.