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Teaching Evaluations. I’m Over It

Category: Academia

When I was applying for tenure, I had to compile all of my teaching evaluations. I have rarely found teaching evaluations helpful, but as I looked at the evaluations across semesters and across years, I started to see an interesting pattern. As happens with many of us, my evaluations show very little middle ground. The students either love me or hate me and every semester their comments reflect exactly how much they love or hate me. The love is pretty typical,

“Professor Acosta was so cool… thanks for a great semester.”

Comments from students who are not fans are far more interesting. They too mention my personality. My student’s evaluations of my teaching is more of any evaluation of what they think of me as a person. As one student commented;

“She was not friendly and helpful toward students.”

That’s it? I’m not friendly? I seriously wonder how many of my cis white men colleagues get teaching evaluations that comment on how friendly they are. Helpful is a different story. I absolutely aim to help students learn the material. In meeting with students outside of class, holding study sessions, offering test review guides, I am always trying to be helpful. Thus, this student’s comment nags me. What exactly am I doing that is not helpful? Am I unhelpful because I refuse to deviate from the policies laid out in my syllabus regarding late assignments? Am I unhelpful because my tests are hard? Am I unhelpful because I don’t gift students points they did not earn at the end of the semester to boost their GPAs. I certainly don’t do any of those things but really, who does?

But we know the research, right? Students have gendered expectations of their professors. They expect women professors to bend the rules for them even when they don’t expect this from their men professors. And when students don’t have their expectations met, they make it clear in teaching evaluations. Still even this explanation doesn’t fully explain the pattern I noticed in my teaching evaluations.

Students regularly made comments about my physical body. For instance, one student evaluation stated “Great class! You have really awesome style btw”. How many cis white men receive student evaluations that comment on their clothing choices in the classroom? These comments even when intended to be compliments frustrate me because they point to the casual demeanor that students often take with me, semester after semester. How I dress has nothing to do with my ability to teach this course. When students make such statements in teaching evaluations, it implies that they think of me as their best friend not their professor. I was reminded of this recently when a student in my class raised their hand in front of all the other students to ask me what products I use in my hair. When I looked at her quizzically, she stated “Your hair always looks so nice. How do you care for it”. “I know” … another student concurred, wanting an answer. Obviously, the student was intending to be complementary but isn’t that way too casual of a tone to take on with a professor? Am I being “unfriendly” when I redirect the class to my lesson for the day, instead of entertaining a barrage of questions about Miss Jessie’s, Kinky Curly and Shea Moisture products? Students I am not your bestie! This is my class room and some are here to learn Sociology not fashion/hair tips. But I suppose that sentiment makes me “unfriendly”?

Two years ago, I spent the fall semester teaching while pregnant. In fact, four days after I turned in my final grades my baby was born. So, when I say pregnant I mean REALLY pregnant. The teaching evaluations from that semester are most illuminating. One student wrote,

“Professor Acosta I have up and down views about her, of course nice lady but as a teacher I defiantly feel like she
wasted my money. I did not see one power-point from her EVER. I taught myself all of the material, because coming
to class it was more of a debate between everyone’s opinion on certain things going on in the world than covering
material. Understanding that the topic of Race and Ethnicity is a topic that will always start a debate, but that
is not what I came to her class for I came to learn. To my understanding she was with child, so I feel like she was
kinda over it and… Her office hours conflicted with my class schedule which has never happened to me, but when I
asked her how I could meet with her she just simply said “Email me and we’ll figure something out,” she barely
responded to emails so I knew not to count on that. Honestly, the TA was more helpful with the course than
her.”

There is some useful feedback here to be sure, apparently students take my quick one-line emails personally. I should try to be more responsive. Also, apparently students dislike that I allot time for classroom discussion. My students seem to be more comfortable with a standard powerpoint lecture where they can copy material from the board to memorize for a test. That’s fair. It’s not at all my style but it’s fair. Now I can warn students about my teaching style. Something like ‘I won’t be lecturing for an hour and a half every class and if that is the kind of the course you need consider signing up for another section.’ My focus is always on developing students higher order thinking. The goal for me is that they learn how to apply concepts, make them real to their lives, and learn about the connections between theory and praxis. I won’t apologize for that goal but I have made many modifications in recent semesters to allow for more structure, more guidelines for discussion, more classroom management so that classroom discussions do not derail the learning objectives for the class. While I believe that classroom discussion is crucial for learning, I think it’s fair that students need more of a balance.

All that said, this student’s comment on my pregnancy speaks volumes about how I am viewed in the classroom. Yes, I was growing a human in my uterus that semester… but what would make a student think it’s acceptable to attribute what they perceive to be my shortcomings as a professor to my pregnancy? And in a formal teaching evaluation no less? Do they believe my pregnancy impeded my thought process, making me unable to clearly articulate the material? Do they believe the changes occurring in my physical body made me more irritable and less lenient? What exactly is it about my being pregnant that made this student think “I’m over it”? My reading of this comment is that the student assumed I was so focused on motherhood that I was no longer doing my job. If cis men had uteruses and grew humans, would students make such statements about them in teaching evaluations?

To be sure, this was not an isolated incident. Several other students with favorable evaluations also commented on my pregnancy. They said things like “good luck with the baby”. But I never once discussed my pregnancy with any of my undergraduate students, so why do they feel comfortable being this familiar with me in a formal evaluation? Not addressing my pregnancy all semester long was a conscious choice on my part. I don’t want to have these kinds of conversations with my students. I already have a difficult time getting them to respect boundaries with me. Discussing my pregnancy was never an option. But even still, students brought it up in evaluations.

The inappropriate comments students make in my teaching evaluations are frustrating but it’s more than that. Teaching evaluations are the only discernible measure used at my institution to assess faculty effectiveness. Students’ rank their professors on a 1-5 scale and if they are so inclined, they can add a comment to explain their ranking. The end. I repeatedly hear colleagues discredit teaching evaluations for bias toward women and people of color. We all know teaching evaluations overwhelmingly favor white, cis, men professors, but we still use them at most institutions. So let’s go ahead and add teaching evaluations to the long list of ways that higher education promotes racial and gender inequalities. – signed a woman of color who is absolutely “OVER IT”.

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