If you’re hurt by mean-spirited student evaluations of teaching (SETs), you’re not alone. A veteran college instructor reported that she reads SETs regularly, but takes a pain killer in anticipation of insults she may receive.
As a first-time teacher a few years back, I was shocked to discover that pouring my soul and intellect into a course was insufficient. The sting of ad hominen commentary drowned the bright spots.
My department chair was an experienced professor who sent over my first end-of-semester SETs with an unruffled, “This is where I’d expect you to be.” He even warned me during the job interview—before I set foot into the classroom—that students were “not shy” about complaining.
Those who’ve been around the academic block expect compliments and daggers, even from students in the same class. However, as an adjunct instructor, I had no idea what was coming my way; a trait shared with other beginners.
A colleague told me about his experience: “I assumed I’d get feedback on my effectiveness, things I might improve upon, what things were most valuable in the class and what things were not important. I was very startled with some of the responses because I had students make personal attacks.”
The Yelp’d Professor
Part of the surprise is the lack of precedence for unrepentant hostility. The professional environments in which I worked relied on institutional guidelines to provide an overview of strengths and weakness. Not every review was an A Ha! moment. Nevertheless, the content was balanced and focused on work. It’s also probable you’ve never been at the business end of unfiltered reviews, in which anonymity means zero accountability.
Yet due to the power inequity of the student-teacher relationship and because students really are in a good position to provide feedback, anonymous evaluations are essential. I wanted to find a better way to manage evaluations. So I spoke to associates from colleges across the country. Though they’d all been hurt, each one wanted to continue reading reviews, Here are some of the strategies they shared about how to plunge into the icy waters.
Know Before You Go
- You Will Get Mixed Feedback. This semester I was pleasantly surprised by positive reviews. But this winning streak will end. No matter what the stature of the instructor, she may receive an earful. At an event recognizing a university’s Distinguished Teaching Award winners, one panel member lamented that the evaluations go “too far” in becoming a forum for unpleasant barbs.
- Evaluations Mirror Social Inequity. A subtly sexist remark caught my attention a few years back: “Professor is a very knowledgeable teacher, who cares about quality of her students. I would suggest that [she] softens her approach and style in supporting her students.”
Unfortunately, this is standard fare. The peer-reviewed literature is rich in documentation that SETs measure student internalization of society’s –isms. So the comments and ratings they ascribe to instructors can be sexist and racist, for example, rather than strictly an assessment of teaching.
- Use The Buddy System. I sit with a colleague when I’m reviewing remarks for the first time or ask them to take a look before I dive in. You may fear calling attention to unflattering commentary. Experienced teachers expect nastiness, so they may be able to provide perspective. In addition, an objective outsider can extract good ideas and provide support when it gets personal. With this in mind, I brought my reviews to my school’s pedagogy center. They instantly pointed out the positive comments and the constructive feedback I missed by focusing on the hurtful aspects.
- Channel Michelle Obama. Former First Lady Michelle Obama regularly endures cruel and humiliating attacks. Despite the hurt and anxiety provoked, she ultimately managed to find value. Though a paradigm of excellence few can match, Ms. Obama has practical advice. As she explained in her Tuskegee University commencement address, she learned to ignore such commentary. “By staying true to the me I’ve always known, I found that this journey has been incredibly freeing. Because no matter what happened, I had the peace of mind of knowing that all of the chatter, the name calling, the doubting -- all of it was just noise. It did not define me. It didn’t change who I was. And most importantly, it couldn’t hold me back.”
- Get Some Distance. Another teacher I know delays reading his SETs. “Two days before the semester starts I dig up the prior evaluation for that course. So I can pump myself up with, ‘Okay, here’s what the audience wants.’ I found that helped because I’m reading with a purpose. Because I want to remember how the students think.” Another professor I spoke with reads her reviews once and puts them aside. Steeled, she’ll return to them later to see what themes emerge and what feedback can be translated into changes that make sense to her. “That helped me because in this way I didn’t hone in on the student who absolutely thought I sucked.”
Teaching is an iterative process. It takes experience and back and forth with students to get it right. Hold on to the compliments and insights that can help improve your skills.
Ultimately, students are expressing their truths—this is how they experience the class and your teaching.
A final piece of advice comes from a veteran instructor who says, “Set your boundaries.” He explained that it’s unnecessary to hold onto every remark, especially when it’s a knock on your character.
I’m hoping to mature into a mindset where insults roll off my back. Until then, I grasp my strategies and hope that day will arrive soon.
How do you approach student evaluations? Let us know in the comments below.
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