Friday, October 15, 2010

When Heaven and Earth Change Places

You know how Frankenstein’s monster felt when throngs of angry citizens came after him with clubs and torches? Well, I do, because I’ve had a lot of experience reading student evaluations of my teaching.

OK, my evaluations are not all that bad (or I would have been fired long ago), but nonetheless, the ones that express dissatisfaction can be harsh. At the end of each semester I dread the prospect of reading a student’s comment that says something like, “Professor Moore is a lot like Bob Newhart would be if Bob Newhart were really boring.”

(Though, since current college students were born mainly in the 1990s, it is decreasingly likely that many of them can now identify Bob Newhart. -- who was not at all boring, by the way.)

For those who may not be in the know, student evaluations are the report cards that students write about their professors at the end of the semester. Unlike the grades the professors dole out, the students’ evaluations are anonymous, as they must be, to ensure candor. Not that we professors all have small, vindictive hearts. (It just seems that way in the movies sometimes.)

In addition to official campus evaluations there are various on-line professor evaluation sites. My favorite student once clued me in to such a site when she said to me, “Hey Dad, someone on RateMyProfessors said you are a Communist.” Of course I have no idea who wrote that anonymous, on-line comment, but whoever it was, they obviously can’t tell the difference between a Communist and a curmudgeon.

Different institutions handle student evaluations in different ways. The administrators at my own college, in a spirit of fiendishly sadistic exuberance, encourage every student to evaluate every single professor in every course. Naturally this comes back to torture them when they have to sit down and read all these comments at the end of the year. Ha!

The thoughtful professor always knows how to “interpret” the comments that students may make in their evaluations. For example, if a student writes, “Professor Moore is too difficult!” I interpret that to mean, “The level of difficulty in Professor Moore’s class is just right!”

I interpret the comment, “Professor Moore is disorganized,” to mean, “Anyone who gives me this much homework has no regard for how badly this disrupts my ability to improve my Grand Theft Auto game skills!”

If a student were to write, “Professor Moore is a lot like Bob Newhart would be if Bob Newhart were really boring,” I would interpret this to mean, “Professor Moore is a lot like that lovable TV character, Bob Newhart!”

Of course there are other ways to respond to student evaluations. If I were to order in popular breakfasts for my morning classes, say a box of warm Krispie Kreme doughnuts and a case of Diet Coke, this might well improve my evaluations, though some might consider this response on my part to miss the spirit of self-reflection. Cynics.

On the other hand, it might also make sense for me to respond to student comments by trying to improve my weak points. On the matter of organization, for example, I happen to have the perfect plan to overcome this perceived peccadillo right here among the papers on my desk. Well actually it might be here in one of these piles of papers, or it could be in one of my file cabinets. In any case, if I ever find it, I will be able to transform myself into a veritable organizational genius. Then we’ll just see who deserves to be flogged with such harsh and callous comments as “could use a little work in the area of organization.”