By Fraser Raeburn |
For the first time this year, I made my classes fill out anonymous student evaluations at the end of semester. To be honest, I would have done this earlier had I realised that providing tutorial-specific feedback wasn’t built into the official feedback system as it had been during my undergrad. It seemed inherently useful to get a window into how my teaching was experienced, and more cynically, I’ve been hearing more and more about the concept of the teaching portfolio as part of an academic CV. Starting to collect and collate feedback seemed like a smart move.
On the other hand, research is now showing just how flawed these feedback forms can be, particularly when it comes to gender, with female teachers routinely graded more harshly than their male colleagues. This is of course problematic in and of itself, but made far worse if these evaluations are being used to judge your worth as an employee. This meant that the decision to use these tools has prompted a fair bit of soul searching ever since.
Ultimately, I decided that despite these obvious problems, it had been a useful exercise. First and foremost, these surveys provided really important affirmation that teaching had been worthwhile. We get few enough wins during our PhDs that we shouldn’t throw them away when we get them. The end of the teaching period was a pretty tough time for me, as I felt my goals for the year slipping away from me, and student feedback was a welcome reminder that I had in fact achieved something over the past few months.
Beyond that, the ultimate usefulness of the experience depended a great deal on several other factors:
Not assigning numerical values: I made an unconscious choice not to use any sort of scale, and for once my subconscious was dead right about something. Forcing students to answer using words made it more likely that answers would be substantive and useful. More than that, I (subjectively) think it’s harder to be needlessly harsh when writing an answer rather than circling a number.
Not having a numerical value also made it impossible to use it as a metric – which is where I think a lot of the more formal systems fall down, especially in light of the gender-bias research. If it can be easily boiled down to numbers, it’s an easy bet that an administrator or hiring panel will want that as an easy way to (badly) compare people.
Using constructive questions: I talked to a few colleagues about what sort of surveys they use in their own teaching, and my impression was that one of the classic, basic forms was leading down the wrong path. I’m talking about the basic traffic light model: red for stop doing these things, yellow for changing things, green for things to keep doing. My problem with this is that two-thirds of the categories invite criticism of your teaching, not praise. By framing questions positively – Was the learning environment inclusive? Did you feel comfortable contributing to discussion? – you invite more positive and constructive comments. Encouraging students to be hypercritical in this context isn’t good for anything – least of all your self-esteem.
Oh, and constructive criticism is the most useful for informing your teaching practice. That’s also important I guess.
Where does the onus for change lie?: Part of my concern about using the feedback was that it might be reinforcing the underlying problem. Put another way, was I simply asserting my considerable privilege in a way that would implicitly frame me in a better light than others? Am I just exploiting a gendered feedback-gap that works in my favour?
In the end, I decided that the onus for change here does not lie on individual postgrads and ECRs. Whatever privilege I have, I’m virtually powerless in the system I’ve found myself in – I have little choice but to shape myself to the demands of employers, and that means using whatever tools are available to sell myself as a capable teacher. There are two ways that change might happen here. Either senior academics and the hiring panels they sit on look for better ways to assess candidates’ teaching, or we take some sort of collective action as job seekers and start withholding this information from our applications.
I’m up for it if you are.
Fraser is relatively sure he is still involved in Pubs and Pubs but has missed a couple of meetings lately and isn’t entirely sure what his role is any more. You can read more about his teaching (and basically his entire, pathetic CV) on his new website, which he made instead of finishing his thesis.
(Cover image (CC) https://www.flickr.com/photos/billsophoto; Images 1-2 pixabay.com)