I wrote this article for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency while sitting on the couch on a weekday, trying to rest after I totaled my car two days prior in an accident. For context, I love teaching and I love my students, but I do not love student course evaluations and how they are used. Research shows that these anonymous course evaluations are biased against women and POC, that higher grades lead to higher scores, and a whole litany of other issues. Then there’s the part about this problematic tool being one of the only ways to evaluate teaching, and being part of our dossiers for promotion. I’m a teaching-track professor, so it’s a significant component of my dossier.
My course evals are actually excellent, especially considering that I teach a large-enrollment general education course (another factor that tends to lower scores), as well as an extremely difficult core class. My respect for students is my highest score (after enthusiasm–yup, that was mine). But they haven’t always been. When I taught in the writing program at Duke as one of the only natural scientists, my classes were filled with engineers who, guess what, hated writing. My course evals were consistently low, which felt terrible. Finally, an angry and unfair comment can stick with you for a decade.
I think that the best advice I’ve received about course evaluations was from my PhD adviser. “Ten percent of the students will think that you are the greatest thing since sliced bread. And ten percent will hate your guts no matter what you do. Throw that 20% out and read the rest, and you might learn something useful.” It’s true–I do learn important and useful information from course evaluations. I just don’t think they are a good measure of the quality of my teaching.
I LOVE McSweeney’s satire, and given the current discourse around course evaluations, this piece was ridiculously easy to write. What a thrill to contribute to one of my favorite reading outlets!