Friday, January 12, 2007

Evaluation-Induced Guilt

Let's face it: last semester was not my best. Not by a long shot. I was traumatized by relationships with my colleagues, overloaded with projects and meetings, and battling a significant tendency to react to the above with utter torpor. With all of this in mind, it was with great trepidation that I opened my course evaluations from the fall semester.

I was most concerned about my mid-level lit class for the majors. Some of these students had either had me before, or had friends that had. They would be apt to compare my previous perky and responsible teacher-self to my fall semester ascerbic chicken-with-her-head-cut-off persona. This was, after all, the class where I went, a few times, barely having finished the reading--no notes, no thinking time. I came out of those classes feeling defeated and irresponsible. No matter what other kinds of responsibilities I was saddled with, shouldn't I be prepared for class?!! In some circumstances, that would have meant losing hours of sleep, but shouldn't I be willing to do that? What the hell kind of professor am I?

To make a long story short, I was shocked to see the positive responses from my students--and the majors in particular. NOT ONE of them flamed me. Seemingly all of them enjoyed the discussions, and many commented on how the use of blogs allowed/required them to deepen their thinking about the course texts, record ideas for formal papers, and extend class conversations (that's not a transcription of their words, mind you, but my own interpretation).

At first blush, I was totally relieved. After all, these evaluations go first to my departmental review committee, and then go into the tenure file. Thank goodness they're all right. After the initial "thank you, fates, for protecting idiots like me" response, however, I found myself saddened by the students' responses. I don't think that my perception of my performance in that class can be so terribly far off; the students had a clue when I was winging it in class discussion. I returned papers late, I changed the schedule... How is it that they still come away with such a positive response?

My fear is that enthusiasm and sincerity blind them to my vast weaknesses, as they played out this semester. Even on a bad day, I love these texts and make that clear. In addition, I suppose the consistent feedback I get from students is that I listen to them: it matters to me that they try to make sense of a text in their own terms. I'm learning ways of nudging them toward interpretations grounded in the text, or that fall into line with scholarly readings, but at the heart of it, it's most important to me that they discover how the text makes meaning in their own contexts. [I know this is going to be read as: she falls into the "any reading is valid" school. Not true. The integrity of the text is paramount. But I do believe that learning to read is based in learning how to negotiate between your own world and that of the text.]

Could it be the case that these points overshadow my lack? Are they so starved for these qualities that they ignore other criteria of good teaching like organization and preparation?!! Don't they know they've been robbed?! In the end, I suppose I can't control these things, other than to vow to be more on the ball this semester. Can future classes benefit from what you've denied those in the past? Let's hope so.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, man. I know this feeling so well. It's enough to make a girl wonder whether her prep work--or indeed, what she does in the classroom--actually matters when it comes to evals. Sometimes the students are responding to your enthusiasm, sometimes they're responding to their OWN enthusiasm, or group chemistry, or lack thereof. . .

In a sense, though, it's nice to know that the ingredients for a good class are so unstable, and so not in one's own control.

Monday, January 15, 2007 12:54:00 AM  
Blogger kfluff said...

I know that I should be happy that they read me as positively as they do, but the lack of control is a bit hard to accept. I'd be happy to think that they're responding to their own enthusiasm, however. Perhaps I'll just start chalking it up to that!

Monday, January 15, 2007 10:14:00 PM  

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