Saturday, January 6, 2018

Course evaluations and the Jedi

Philip Stark, chairman of UC Berkeley's Department of Statistics, has persuasively argued that student course evaluations often inversely correlate with teaching effectiveness and are distorted by gender bias. Nonetheless, my faculty colleagues and I read the evaluations for ideas on how we might improve. And indeed, this semester I received some specific comments related to course organization problems and bumpiness of one of the midterms, which used a brand-new format; those comments are fair, valuable, and actionable.

But I am not accustomed to (anonymous) comments such as the following, quoted unredacted from the evaluations for the software engineering course I just wrapped up:
  • "Armando gives his students and their time little respect"
  • "the horrible experience I had with this specific professor ruined the entire curriculum for me"
  • "Where is my tuition going to?! What is the school paying him to do? Faculty like this should be removed. It is not okay for a school like Berkeley to have a 'professor' like Armando."
  • "Armando, you ruined this semester for me and a lot of other students. I hope you take a good chunk of time to review all these evaluations and think carefully about what it means to be a professor. If you want to do your 'research' then I suggest you go do industrial research or somewhere where you do not jeopardize the learning of hundreds of students. Berkeley CS has a name to uphold and this is the worst course I have seen in my 4 years at Berkeley. Don't waste anyone's time anymore, please. If your time is valuable to you, my time is valuable to me. If you do end up returning to teach again, please show your students some respect."
If you want more, or want to make sure you're reading them in context, I've posted the full unredacted evaluations. Bear in mind that only 38/124 bothered to respond, only 10/124 wrote any freeform comments, and of those 10, six of them apparently coordinated their efforts to write bad evaluations (as evidenced by the comment "Everyone on my team [of 6] is submitting a negative evaluation"). Still, despite 17 years of teaching during which I frequently have thought about what it means to be a professor and even received numerous citations for good teaching, it is hard to completely depersonalize such comments.

The reason such comments sap one's inspiration and motivation is that they are ad hominem. Nothing in the above comments is specific or actionable; they serve only to antagonize. (Read them again and find one actionable suggestion or specific grievance.) Indeed, if a student made these comments to another student, it might well be labeled as bullying.

Of course, the above students did not identify themselves. The abdication of accountability fueled by anonymity is a toxic element of Internet culture and the reason I avoid most social media. I held office hours during all but two of the 15 weeks of the semester, and I accommodated many students' requests for private appointments outside scheduled office hours. I will bet my lunch that none of the above students came.

Having just seen the most recent Star Wars installment, I can't help but wonder how a Jedi Master would react if an apprentice behaved this way. (In fact, the one Jedi apprentice who dissed his mentors is Anakin Skywalker, and we know what happened to him.) First the Jedi Master would use the Force to figure out which anonymous apprentice made such vitriolic comments. And then the Master would…

…dangle the apprentice threateningly over a Dagobah swamp? No. Revenge paves the path to the Dark Side.

…eject the apprentice from the Jedi Temple? Might as well drive them right into the arms of the Sith.

…conclude "This one, I cannot teach"? Maybe. But probably the Master would at least try to find a teachable moment in this situation.

How might that work? One method used with great success by my own Jedi mentor, David Patterson, is to semi-humorously offer bad advice, making it clear that success requires doing the opposite.

To that end, I might well say: "Students, when you go into the workforce, here is a poor way to write a critical evaluation of your supervisor (or your advisor, if you go to grad school). Your supervisor/advisor will appreciate your telling them to 'think carefully' about their career, as they may never have done so before your insightful suggestion. Don't hold back with your criticisms—since it's anonymously written, they'll know you're not pulling any punches. Your supervisor/advisor will quickly realize that rather than questioning how you have contributed to the organization and your peers, they should be focusing on how they are failing your needs and expectations. Also, if something else is bothering you, even if it's not totally related to the review, this is a great opportunity to get all that poison out of your system, because it's anonymous."

Except, of course, that in workplaces (and grad school) such interactions are usually not anonymous, and I have no doubt that comments such as the above would be long remembered.

When I compose any professional communication—even anonymously—I ask myself, "Would I stand behind my words if I were identified as the author? How will this post reflect upon me as an individual? Will it send the message to my colleagues that I'm a valuable contributor who is sincerely interested in improving the organization? Are my remarks worthy of a professional engineer and Cal alumnus?"

I should count my blessings: at least these students stopped short of calling forth a plague of locusts upon me, or placing a curse on my spouse and family. And the anonymous commenter who demands that I "show some respect" might consider that the integrity to stand behind one's words, as I am doing by putting my name to this post, is one way to do so.

But the bigger risk is that if students use course evaluations as a way to vent anonymously rather than as a constructive channel for feedback, the evaluations will lose credibility—and faculty who would otherwise earnestly mine them for ideas on how to improve their teaching will simply stop doing so, because who wants to be trolled?

And that way, surely, lies the Dark Side.

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