Taking Action on Teaching Evaluations

evalsI received a batch of student evaluations this afternoon (still waiting on a few others).

Some students were positively glowing, giving me high marks on nearly all standards. Yet a handful of students were displeased with my teaching, primarily because my grading was (from their perspective) far too difficult, as though I were assessing graduate students and not students in an online literature course.

This is perhaps the most common complaint I receive, that I grade too hard.

When I first started teaching, it was an accurate one.

Since then, however, I’ve made adjustments to the way I grade. I use detailed rubrics with that spell out the qualities of every level of work, from the lowest right up to the very best. The standards I hold my students to are the usual in my field; in discussions, for instance, my students are expected to quote or refer to what happens in the story we’re discussing, and explain their thoughts on the story. None of this is particularly hard stuff. I am not a hard grader.

And yet.

I’ve been reading The World Beyond Your Head lately, and in one of the chapters I worked through today, Crawford makes an interesting point.

He notes that in considering whether our actions accurately express who we are, “Some will say that sincerity is the key element here; whether or not an act is a true expression of the self is determined entirely by the inner psychological state of the agent” (152).

This passage reminds me of Ender’s ethical formulation in Speaker for the Dead, that an act is moral or immoral based entirely on the actor’s motive; what matters is not necessarily what we accomplish (since acting in the real world can be messy) but what we mean to accomplish.

Under this formulation, I am not a hard grader, because I do not mean to be; it is my students’ fault, not mine, that they misperceive my rubrics and videotaped feedback as excessively hard.

But Crawford (drawing on Hegel) pushes back on this way of evaluating whether our actions are successful.

He writes, in reference to Hegel, “You have not executed an intention successfully unless others attribute to you the deed and intention you attribute to yourself.” (quoting Robert Pippin). Crawford adds that although there are exceptions to this view, “it serves well as a corrective to the cult of sincerity, which perhaps amounts to this: the idea that you yourself can be the source of the norms by which you justify yourself.” (153).

In reference to my teaching, this means that if imagine myself to be not a hard grader, I am not actually not a hard grader unless my students also perceive me as such. Put more simply, it doesn’t matter if I imagine that I’m a fair grader, unless my students agree with me.

So what should I do about this?

There are two things to be said here, I think.

One, I can adjust the way that I grade. I do not necessarily need to become easier; but I clearly need to become better at articulating why certain grades are assigned and why certain work is expected. This primarily involves providing more feedback: adding notes in the LMS rather than in a Word document I upload for the students, for example, or creating more screencasts.

It also involves providing a different kind of feedback. I could explain more about why the standards I’ve set are necessary, for instance. I could make sure to start feedback with the students’ strengths, not their weaknesses (I thought I did this, but obviously not enough.)

Two, even though I can (and should) make some adjustments, it’s important that I not accept student evaluations are the only valid source of feedback on my teaching. I am prone to self-doubt as an instructor, quicker to see my students’ shortcomings as an error in my instruction than in their work.

Crawford speaks, if not to this doubt as an experienced emotion, at least to the question of whether student evaluations are a sufficient measure of my work’s effectiveness. Developing his example of who judges a carpenter’s work, he writes that “the discrimination made by practitioners of an art respond to subtleties that may not be visible to the bystander. Only a fellow journeyman is entitled to say, ‘Nicely done.'”

In reference to my teaching, I make decisions as an instructor on how I assess students and present the material that may not be entirely clear to my students, who are certainly not English scholars and likely not teachers; they lack, therefore, the requisite knowledge needed to make an accurate judgment of whether my teaching is effective.

This is, of course, all the more reason for me to explicitly walk my students through why I make the instructional decisions that I do.

It’s also an important reason for people to work together in community, with colleagues who can serve as a touchstone for whether a particular pedagogical decision is or is not working. I have certainly been grateful for the input of my fellow instructors in my own teaching; they have shaped my work, helped me figure out what worked and what doesn’t, and made me a better teacher.



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