Columnist Evaluates Evaluations

by Staff

We’re almost done with the semester. We have two or three weeksleft, I think, but I’m not really sure. I haven’thad much sleep lately, and the nervous facial twitches I have arescaring people away. Therefore, no one will tell me how many weeksare left; no one will help me cheat either. Don’t worry, professor(your name here); I’m only kidding. It’s my elves who help me cheat,and they’re invisible.

Beside the huge projects and the cramming for finals, we also havefaculty evaluations, which we are expected to complete. Of course,we’re not really expected to complete them, because our professorsdon’t watch us fill them out. They leave the room. So, as a PalmBeach County vote hand-counter and MENSA once said, the choice isours.

But, do we really know how to evaluate a professor? What does agood professor do? Of course, a good professor gives us A’s and isnice. What else? Does he respect our ideas? Does he allow all ourideas to be valid?Is he a person with whom we can talk about “life?”

I wouldn’t be surprised if most faculty evaluations studentscomplete have a high correlation with the expected grade the studentcircles.

For example, if the expected grade is an F, the professor is whatthey call in academic circles a “moron.” If the grade is A, theprofessor is God. Very objective. The evaluations are only partiallyscored by machine, so people who read them have plenty of ways todetermine what the student meant (that was a Florida joke in case youmissed it).

There is no way to determine the actual grades given to thesestudents, because the evaluations are anonymous. Hmm … I guess thatmeans a professor, when he gets these back in a few months, won’t beable to tell if the girl who answered phone calls in class to discussher weight, McDonald’s and Reed Albergotti was the one who evaluatedhim with words like f**k and sh**. Still, I hypothesize thatunfulfilled students are the ones giving the nastiest reviews.

This is a reason these reviews shouldn’t be made public. There isno way to know whether the reviewer actually knew how to evaluate aprofessor; the reviewer could have countless gripes, all of themfrivolous or unrelated to the class. Meanwhile, a few hundredfreshmen reading these evaluations before they take a professor’sclass will decide they don’t want a professor who “yells” or “givesdifficult assignments” or “sometimes embarrasses students.”

But what these freshmen didn’t know was the reviewer got no sleepthe previous night, couldn’t park the next morning, and got F’s onthree assignments in his other classes.

And, of course, the bad reviews always stand out. All it takes isone “cockroach in the french fries” report from Jack-in-the-Box andnobody shows up for a month. Likewise, starting rumors aboutProfessor X by means of some pretty dubious evaluations gives angryor malicious students unreasonable and undeserved power over theuniversity.

It’s a little perverse, in a university where part of a student’srite of passage depends upon his ability to adjust to differentclasses and professors, to expect students to choose professors whomatch their needs. Let’s try to keep the first few “drop a class anddon’t feel guilty about it” weeks as close as we get to Consumer U.

So how does one evaluate a professor? I don’t pretend to be anexpert here, but as a student … oh, screw it. Does anyone careabout evaluations? Does anybody on campus vote? Is Alec Baldwin onlypretending to be the stupidest person since that banjo playing inbredin “Deliverance?” Everyone, except the greenest of freshmen, seesevaluations as an extra 15 minute passing period.

Not since the announcement of History 406 have students beenhappier.

This part, therefore, is for the people who actually doevaluations (giggle, snort). There are definitely some excellentprofessors to be found here, and it’s important to know how to findthem.

Great professors make college worthwhile. In their book”Reaffirming Higher Education,” Jacob and Noam Neusner describe greatteachers as those “who want to become obsolete in the life of thestudent,” preferring to make one lasting impression, rather thanspending hours discussing everything but academic material.

Great teachers rarely make learning easy or fun, but always makeit an adventure. They are the ones who pick apart words and thoughts;they grade work precisely, they ask tough questions and they takestudents seriously.

They sometimes let students win arguments, but always press themto think critically. Students either love or hate them because theircharacter, their methods and their lectures demand attention andengagement.

I recall, a few semesters back, one professor. He assigned bookswhich gave supreme insight into general course topics. At the end ofeach topic, he hosted discussion sessions. During these, he let hisstudents debate him and the ideas. He didn’t indoctrinate or trainthem to think any way but critically. He took students seriously,which helped them take themselves seriously. He was a favoritebecause he listened more than he spoke; he enjoyed debates and waspensive and funny.

He was a tough grader because he cared. He assigned only writtenwork and took the time to correct arguments and grammar andpunctuation. He never gave multiple choice tests because they weren’tappropriate for the course.

Sure, that gave him much more work; it also demanded work from hisstudents.

His lectures were so skillfully prepared and delivered they seemeda continuous narrative, moving from abstractions to specifics in anamazing way. He knew the subject well enough to present itcoherently, and I’m still seeing his details and concepts everywhere.But he was a professor; he put academic theories and discourse intothe course because it helped students understand.

And he wanted me to keep writing. He even gave me a copy of”Strunk and White” because he knew I liked to write. Of course, anybad writing one finds here is my fault, not his. But this writing ishere, good or bad, because of him.

That is what good teachers are about. Do the evaluations if youwant, but at least write a few words for your best teachers; I’m surethey’ll be glad you did.

–Benjamin Abel is a social science junior. Send e-mail

–This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of TheDaily Aztec.

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