Accessible Course Evaluations

Mark Sample, professor of Contemporary American Literature and New Media Studies in the English Department at George Mason University, is a smart fellow. I knew that even through the 140-character bursts from his Twitter account, but then he went and wrote this thought-provoking blog post: “Transparency, Teaching, and Taking My Evaluations Public”, the bottom line of which is this statement:

In addition to my research, I believe the other half of my job—teaching undergraduate and graduate students—should be as public as possible. Even if I weren’t an employee of the Commonwealth of Virginia, working in a publicly funded state university, I would still argue that virtually all aspects of my job—what I earn, what I teach, what my students think about my teaching—should be transparent.

Sample goes on to describe how he (and many others, myself included) makes his course material public (online syllabi, assignments, etc) but that students/other instructors/interested parties have no easy way to learn about the effectiveness of his pedagogy—the “system” is not terribly useful, as he reminds us “these ratings are based upon a professor’s charisma or workload, rather than any kind of systematic statistical data. (Is a chili pepper statistically significant?) These sites tell us what a few self-selected students think about a professor, not what they think about a professor’s teaching.”

Sample’s solution? Post all of his evaluations, “complete with every single enthusiastic or blistering or apathetic student comment.”

My initial thought was “Yes. That’s wonderful. I want to do the same!” Then I remembered I don’t have a job yet. Technically I’m still a PhD student and not even blessed with the magical title of “PhD candidate” yet. Then I said to myself, “self, so what?”

I haven’t finished my degree, but I am still a teacher, and have been at two separate universities (my MA institution, San Jose State, and here at Washington State). I’m an instructor of record. From this semester onward, I will likely teach courses that students will choose to take, rather than have to take, and thus the students will have a vested interest in knowing as much about me as they can. I believe in that—it’s why I don’t hide my blog, my Twitter feed, my syllabi, or anything else. I’ll answer questions about courses before they begin. I’m okay with students course-shopping—for whatever their reasons. So why not post the information I have?

Sample’s post was re-tweeted quite a bit, and the comments on this Prof. Hacker post about the idea are quite interesting and thoughtful. Questions were raised about the copyright to the students’ written evaluations, and suggestions were made along those lines. Through some examples, Nels Highberg provided a sobering reminder of the potential of giving “some of the sexist, racist, and homophobic things that some students write on evaluations […] an even bigger audience and sense of legitimacy.” That’s true; I haven’t experienced any sexist or homophobic comments in my course evaluations—which I find both shocking and heartening since I would be an easy target—but I imagine someday I will.

I also imagine that someday I will fail miserably in teaching a course. It’s inevitable—teaching isn’t always puppies and rainbows, as we know. Things go wrong for many reasons—the students, the content, the instructor, the time of day, the cycle of the moon, whatever. I can commit to showing the bad numbers with the good numbers. Anyone taking the time to look will hopefully see a pattern of improvement in areas that might occasionally tank—and if there isn’t a pattern of improvement, that’s on me.

I just said “numbers,” good and bad, not full written evaluations from students. I don’t know if I’ll do that in the future—if I do, it will be at the institution where I get a job after my degree (see how I’m thinking positively about that?), only because I don’t want to be “that grad student doing weird stuff with her evals.” I also want some time to see what happens in the realm of copyrights and permissions surrounding such things. Finally, I just don’t have all of the written comments from my past evals, and even if I did I wouldn’t have any explicit permission to post them. So, for now, it’s all numbers.

Anyone interested in my course evaluations (statistics only) can find them on my “courses” page in PDF format [note: with the site redesign in Dec 2011 I haven’t put these back online, but I will if you call me on it…I’m also no longer teaching]. Maybe it will end up being useful in the job search, maybe it will be considered “too much information,” who knows. I feel good about it, like I’m doing the right thing, even as a lowly ol’ PhD student.

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1 Comment on “Accessible Course Evaluations

  1. Thanks for the mention! It’s interesting that you mention that the Commonwealth owns the rights to your evaluations. I’m not surprised that GMU makes the ratings information so hard to find (though I had no idea you couldn’t access it from outside of Mason), as someone who has worked with Broadside at GMU, I can tell you that Mason tends to err on the extreme side when it comes to any sort of information of this sort.
    You may be familiar with which notes that salary information, which should be available to the public since GMU is a public university, can only be found via FOIA request. The need for transparency in education in general, and Mason in particular, is important. I hope that, if you have the opportunity, you take your argument “that virtually all aspects of my job—what I earn, what I teach, what my students think about my teaching—should be transparent” to the top. Finding out basic information about professors, their courses, their syllabi, even their salaries, should not be as difficult as it is.

    This comment was originally posted on SAMPLE REALITY

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