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Cookies, Donuts, Extra Credit: The Answer?

For those of us going on the job market in the near future, revising and updating our teaching portfolios, refining our management techniques, keeping up-to-date on current theories of pedagogy, and mastering the use of technology in the classroom are all pressing issues with the potential to contribute to the endemic insomnia of the ABD grad student. And then there are those pesky student evaluations . . .

I’ve heard countless conversations in the mailroom speculating as to how we can inspire our students to write better evaluations. Usually such inspiration involves chocolate or other sugar-related machinations. Chronicle blogger Gene C. Fant Jr. agrees that teachers will go to great lengths to solicit better evaluations from their students at the end of each semester: “Local doughnut shops tend to see sales rise that week as professors buy treats for their classes. Extra-credit assignments seem to pop up like mushrooms after a nice long spring shower. Pep talks about how much the students make life worth living are heard resounding in the hallways.”

It turns out that this is a common and troubling issue. “Ms. Mentor,” an advice columnist for The Chronicle who has also written a book, Ms. Mentor’s Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia, was asked by a young female teacher: ” I work twice as hard at teaching as anyone I know, but I still can’t get good student evaluations. Is it possible that my low evaluations stem from personality issues that I can’t do anything about? Am I alone?” Unfortunately no, she is not.

In an opinion column for The New York Times, Stanley Fish explains that negative student evaluations “can lead to the abandoning or blighting of a career” and “even those who are aware that there is little correlation between student evaluations and effective teaching (the preponderance of studies document this non-correlation), and therefore know that negative comments do not reflect an informed judgment, are nevertheless pained and humiliated by them.” Often evaluations serve more as a reflection of the encroaching student-as-consumer mindset and less as a measure of excellence in teaching. In fact, Fish asserts, “The deleterious effects of student evaluations extend beyond the personal injuries these comments rehearse; they infect the entire system of higher education.”

Fant’s blog boasts 51 responses to his question, “What is the most interesting ‘trick’ you have seen faculty members use to bargain for better student evaluations?” Some of the more creative ideas involve “an instructor up for tenure [who] projected a picture of his wife and child on a large screen while the evaluations were being written” and “taking the entire class out for lunch and distributing the evaluations with dessert.” Ms. Mentor recommends “Use more hand gestures, modulate your voice more, and walk while you talk. Students give higher evaluations to teachers who are good-looking or very dramatic.” Seriously?

The real issue here is not particularly humorous. In an already precarious job market, Universities are looking for candidates who display excellence in teaching. In schools across the country, such value is measured by large groups of hormonal 18 and 19-year-olds. Is this the best way? Fish acknowledges that there are evident problems with this system and “even students . . . [express] disgust at colleagues who anonymously settle personal grievances or retaliate for low grades by trashing instructors unable to defend themselves. These anonymous and accountability-free reasons, a former professor complains (he is “former” for just this reason), ‘can destroy a career that took a decade to train for.'”

So, I ask you – is it ethical to ply students with flattery, treats, and grade inflation in order to further our own careers? Aren’t we here to be the best teachers we can possibly be, no matter what the cost? Perhaps my studies of early modern literature have turned me into a die-hard idealist, but in my opinion, respect for students is a given. We trust our teachers in the classroom, and certainly we should remind them to strive towards continual improvement, but how is such improvement brought about by a 1-9 rating system with vague questions such as (Ms. Mentor notes) “concerned about students.” Are cookies, donuts and extra credit really the answer?

 Works Cited

Fant, Gene C. Jr. “Tricks for Boosting Student Evaluations.” The Chronicle of Higher Education: On Hiring, advice on managing the academic career 24 March 2010.

Fish, Stanley. “Student Evaluations, Part Two.” The New York T’imes: The Opinion Pages 28 June 2010.

Ms. Mentor. “The Torment of Teaching Evaluations.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 24 March 2003.