Monday, January 30, 2023

File Under: "No Good Deed Goes Unpunished."

On Friday, I got my course evaluations from my fall classes. At my school, students fill out online evaluations (anonymously) and can do it at any time within a set window. I will admit that I did not have a minute to spare in this particular course to spend class time having students fill out forms in front of me (also, it is really awkward). So, only two of my twenty-one students submitted responses. And of those two, one really hated the class and the other one basically said, “meh.”

The one written comment (and there was only one unpunctuated sentence of “comments”) said that my lack of strict deadlines was annoying. They also said I didn’t go over assignments in class (which is provably inaccurate, I recorded every class), and that my grading was slow (that is somewhat accurate, but I pushed back my flexible deadlines so that no assignment was due before the previous one was returned with feedback). That student also said that they had attended all the classes and was doing well in school (possibly, but unlikely).  

I will not lie-this was the worst evaluation I’ve gotten since my first year of teaching (a long, long while ago), when a student claimed that my eating Cheerios from a Ziploc baggie during class was unprofessional (but I thought puking from morning sickness or bringing in the box would have been worse…). I am hurt, sad, angry, and a little queasy about this evaluation. I know there are students who really loved this class and came back and told me how much their grades improved in January but seeing bad numbers (and nasty words) in print is just a gut punch.

The other two classes of students I taught last fall responded in greater numbers and had much nicer things to say. Of my over sixty students, only the one seemed even remotely disgruntled.  I know that women get the short end of the evaluation stick, and that the system is extremely unfair to faculty of color (both male and female-but most of all to female faculty of color). This is all true, but I don’t think it was the reason this student was dissatisfied. I actually did have a soft and loose deadline policy.

And I am not going to change it. Yes, it is a holdover from COVID (but isn’t COVID also a holdover from COVID now?). More importantly, the trauma of COVID: online learning, isolation, and just the fear (or worse, the reality) of the student or a family member being seriously ill or dying from a virus that seemed like it was coming for all of us is certainly still on the table for these students-well, a large majority of them. I have always thought that if I am teaching a class of academically struggling students, my class would be the one that gives when something needs to give. I say this out loud in the first class, I reiterate it throughout the semester, and I remind students of this at the end of the term. I said what I meant, and I meant what I said. I don’t penalize for lateness if there is communication about it as close to the deadline as possible.

I kept my word last semester, and while I stand by it, I also think that students struggling to get all the work in are not necessarily in a position to do an evaluation survey unless they are given class time (again, that’s on me). When I immediately called my supervisor about the evaluation of doom, he reassured me that two students were not statistically significant and gently walked me off the cliff. I am grateful.

Interestingly, nineteen of the twenty-one students in that fall class took my intersession (or spring version) required class. I will make sure that they complete the evals this time (even though they are going to be released after the class ended this time). If my dissatisfied student is one of them, then I hope their complaints are at least diluted by the larger group; but if they took another class with me voluntarily, when they certainly had other options, then shame on them.

(Liz Stillman)

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