Flawed evaluations

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December 7, 2007

3:30 PM

It was an awfully awkward moment.

p. No one in class had done the assigned reading — it was the height of midterms — and the professor’s questions were all met with silence.

p. “Look,” he said. “I know you didn’t read. Professors are supposed to pretend like they don’t know students don’t read sometimes, but we do.”

p. We all had to face an uncomfortable truth that we all wished wasn’t so true. This week, as professors passed out those little scantron evaluation forms, there were similar awkward moments in classrooms across campus. Everyone had to face another unfortunate truth — student evaluations directly influence whether professors are awarded tenure. And maybe they shouldn’t.

p. Most of us only spend a few moments considering how to grade our professors on their work over the semester. After all, it’s the end of the year, we’re tired and the final exams and essays are stacking up faster than we can keep track. But those tiny series of bubbles, insignificant though they might seem, can play a big role in your professor’s life.

p. Consider what it means to be awarded or denied tenure. Whereas untenured, visiting professors are limited to a few short years at the College and are paid barely enough to keep up with student loans from that Ph.D. program they just spent a half-decade struggling through, tenured professors have a guaranteed job and a guaranteed salary sufficient (if just barely) to support a family.

p. Tenure is not just a bigger paycheck and added job security, it is the sole deciding factor between two disparate lives — one of prosperity or one of anxiety; one of safety or one of uncertainty; one of raising a family or one of thinking twice before committing to have a child. Though tenure may not be a matter of life and death, it can be and has frequently become one of life.

p. Even if students were sufficiently qualified judges of professorial ability to make these kinds of determinations, there are significant statistical problems in using professor evaluations to compare one professor with another.

p. Any reasonable statistical study must test the same population to objectively determine the differences in how that population responds to two different things. But professor evaluations don’t test one population, and so their conclusions are unreliable.

p. Professor evaluations grade Professor X with Professor X’s students and Professor Y with Professor Y’s students and then compare the results to decide whether X or Y gets tenure. This assumes that both groups of students will grade their professors with exactly the same standard, but of course this isn’t necessarily true.

p. Maybe the students in X’s class are tougher judges of character than those in Y’s class. Or maybe they’re grumpier because X’s class meets earlier in the morning or in a darker, colder classroom and that subconsciously lowers their appreciation of the class.

p. Maybe Professor X teaches history of the Holocaust or modernist literature or criminal psychology and so has more cynical students who might be tougher graders. Or maybe Professor X teaches introductory-level classes that weed out a lot of freshmen ill-suited to that academic department, whereas Professor Y teachers upper-level classes full of departmental majors who all know Professor Y from other classes.

p. There are hundreds of reasons that Professor X’s student evaluations might be lower than Professor Y’s, none of which have a damn thing to do with X’s ability and worth as an educator. In fact, X might be a better professor than Y, but for all or some or just one of the reasons listed above, X might be denied tenure over Y.

p. Professors, we often forget, are real multi-dimensional human beings rather than some kind of omniscient wisdom machines. Human beings who have chosen to pursue a career path that does not pay particularly well, compared to other fields an intelligent multiple-degree-holder might enter. Human beings who have heating bills to pay, parents to visit and children to feed, clothe and educate.

p. Denying a fellow human being the money to do these things because I was tired when I filled out the evaluation forms and gave him or her threes instead of fours is a moral crisis we all faced this week. But, even if each of us dedicated hours to professor evaluations and made every effort to grade objectively, it wouldn’t matter.

p. The evaluations are statistically flawed and so will never accurately compare one professor with another. Yet, professors are awarded or denied tenure as a result of these evaluations. This isn’t just unfair to professors — it’s unfair to students. If our educators are selected by an inadequate measurement, then I fear our education may itself become inadequate.

p. __Max Fisher is a senior at the College.__

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