Who Wants to Be Evaluated by Students?

Student Evaluations.jpgMany in the academy, whether on the left or right, will agree that in the late 1960s, a fundamental change took place in the balance between student demands and faculty authority.  At about the same moment when many schools began eliminating comprehensive examinations to assess the competence of students in their major subjects, these same schools introduced what has become known as teaching evaluations. These evaluations have become the staple of administrations everywhere.  They are used to decide tenure and promotion decisions, and in some cases they are mandatory (e.g., a student cannot know her final grade for a course until she fills out an evaluation, provided conveniently online).  Such enforced democratic participation is pursued with the kind of determination once attributed to the enforcement practices of grade-school teachers.

It seems nearly impossible to imagine that once-upon-a-time, such institutions as Columbia University struggled over whether to promote to tenure someone whose politics were considered “radical”. The origins of the American Association of University Professors, founded in 1915, devoted itself for forty years to the protection of dissent and academic freedom. Students played no more than a whispering role in such disputes.

Arthur O. Lovejoy, one of the founders of the AAUP (whose experience at Stanford University had much to do with his understanding and defense of academic freedom) resigned from the AAUP in the 1950s in response to the question of national loyalty: Should a Communist, taking direction from foreign agents, be protected by academic freedom? He thought not. Again, students and their opinions hardly registered in what were then taken to be such serious matters.

The Draft Plays a Key Role       

By the 1960s, questions of national loyalty were pitted against more urgent concerns about the role of the United States in foreign conflicts.  Why would this moment have been the catalyst for the rise of student voices in particular in colleges and universities?  My simple but I trust not simplistic answer is: the draft.  The expectation to serve in the military endured for more than a decade after the end of the Second World War, with even Princeton men, for example, going on to serve their country upon graduation.  (I must remark here parenthetically that one of those men was the late Charles Moskos, a sociologist whose appreciation and sympathy for the role of the military in a democratic society was taken to task by members of his professional association, the American Sociological Association, when he was awarded one of its honors.  The protest by his fellow sociologists, or at least some of them, was about his pivotal role in the formulation of the policy known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a policy that anyone who carefully followed its aftermath knows was an important stepping stone to the military’s present policy.  Change did not come all at once, but Moskos was a genuine pragmatist, not an ideologue like those who protested against his selection for an honor by his professional association.)

Perhaps Moskos’s military experience helped to determine his clear-headed attitude about the pace of change itself in all kinds of institutions.  Not so for those who arrived in the halls of academe a little more than a decade later.  The draft that drew men from all social strata was given a trap-door: stay in school and remain exempt from serving.  The tumultuous 1960s were about the self-interest inherent in avoiding the draft into a military fighting an increasingly unpopular war.  The joining of student protest against the war with student demands for a greater voice in university administration seems in retrospect inevitable because the draft in 1967 implicated the generation we now call the baby boomers.  And as the war came to an end, those students who led the war protests either became professors or grew up.

So what became of teaching evaluations in subsequent decades?  Those initial student protests were driven by charismatic leaders who used the generation gap to further their interests against the professional authority of their teachers.  The notion that they were simply supporting the most radical teachers at the time misconstrues the impact that such support really had on higher education.  The student protests of the 1960s were routinized into the teaching evaluation system of today, rarely, if ever, based on protest, but maintained in the interests of managerial goals. Students at one time may have demanded a greater role in the collective decisions being made about certain professors.  The genius of teaching evaluations was to democratize that demand to apply to all professors.  One unintended consequence of that genius was that protest was transformed into a mechanism for gauging what is now consumer interest.

An Entertainment Culture in the Throes of Therapeutic Self-Regard

The change in the balance between student demands and faculty authority, then, in higher education centered first on politics, but after politics in our time, always, there is therapy.  What students think of teaching is more often now described as the evaluation of performance, literally a theatrical category.  To be a student is to be a critic of the theatre.  But this is no ordinary theatre, because the performance ostensibly is supposed to be about more than whether one was entertained. The evaluation forms, of course, do not ask the obvious with such blunt focus on whether or not a student was entertained.  Instead the questions call for the kind of assessment that inquires whether a student thought he learned something or whether a teacher or a course is strongly recommended,  recommended, neither recommended nor discouraged, discouraged, or strongly discouraged.  Circle one.

These are the assessment categories of an entertainment culture in the throes of its own therapeutic self-regard.  That is to say, students are habituated to think that learning is always assessed less by what they measurably know than by what they subjectively think they know. The problem with such satisfaction surveys is that they are really self-satisfaction surveys.  No one asks in a consumer survey: Do you feel good about your refrigerator?  Such surveys may ask: Are you satisfied with your refrigerator?  The former question is about self-satisfaction, a tribute to the long arc of narcissism that originated in the baby boomers’ self-regard for themselves.  Opposing the decisions of one’s country is one of the greatest of our democratic privileges.  But contending that one’s own opinion is always morally superior is a form of self-satisfaction that led in its own way to the present circumstance in which teachers at any level of our education system can be fired simply for giving offense.  That students can use the charge of taking offense as a means to affect the employment of any teacher is, at bottom, the rotten fruit of teaching evaluations.

When I think of several of my old teachers in college and graduate school, long since departed, I am struck by how difficult it would be for some of them to get along in the managerial environment of higher education today. It is being argued lately that faculty need to reassert their authority.  What authority?  Many years ago, one of my now retired colleagues remarked on a novel idea: suspend the use of teaching evaluations for a semester or year, and see what happens.  He described the moratorium as “a vacation from death.”  His argument was straightforward.  We might experience a challenge to the unconscious conformities that dominate the present entertainment culture of higher education.  We might gain a modicum of authority.

Jonathan Imber

Jonathan Imber

Jonathan B. Imber is Jean Glasscock Professor of Sociology at Wellesley College.

One thought on “Who Wants to Be Evaluated by Students?”

  1. I was one of those students who thought it was measure of power added to be able to “rate” my professors. I was, of course, in no position to do so. Replace ‘rate’ with ‘assess’, ‘evaluate’ and there is still a suggestion of measurement. Psychometrics is the science of this business. But a person has never been measurable in any sense. A human being’s body can be measured, but not a person. The questionnaire was developed as a substitute for a written consideration. Now statistics, polls, and the like command the attention of a number-oriented culture. These are used in the case of Student Evaluations of Teaching (SET) to help decide on a teacher’s retention, rank and tenure. They are entirely worthless on psychometric grounds (given that psychometrics is an oxymoron). More important, even if they are presented in the form of comments, they are even worth less, since they are hurrahs for “I like this teacher” or the grossest kind of put-down. Let’s realize all this nonsense for what it is. A nationwide refusal by ALL teachers at ALL colleges is all it would take.

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