Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.
Sun, 10 Apr 1994
Trick or Treat! I'll bet that you didn't know it is still halloween. At least, it seems that way on our campuses. That realization came to me this rare but deliciously nippy April morning as I walked through a slight fog that cast a supernatural haze over the landscape.
I had left the house with what I thought was little on my mind except anticipating the agonizing effects of a week's layoff because of a knee I had wrenched while gardening last weekend. Anyway, about a couple of blocks into my walk, I was startled momentarily almost out of my grubbies. I stopped to catch my breath. My heart fluttered a bit. I dared to look across the street. On the curb was a darkened, irregularly shaped mass ominously looming out from the ground. Its contorted shadows seemed to reveal concealed grotesque demons. As I approached it, I saw that it was the heaping results of what was obviously a weekend of robust spring cleaning. Then, I saw what had caught the corner of my eye. In this pile of shadowy garage sale rejects, reflecting the light from the street lamp from across the street, shone a bright orange plastic jack-o-lantern. It was secretly peering out from under the slightly open lid of a city garbage container. It's two sharply angled black eyes glaring at me with sinister mischievousness as if it had been laying in ambush for some innocent to pass by and now was about to jump out at me to rip out my throat. I chuckled and started off again.
But, as I regained my pace I began to think mischievous thoughts about that pumpkin and how so many faculty would love to place it at their door to ward off a particular hobgoblin that is haunting the halls of ivy. Its presence makes so many faculty jittery. They walk nervously about, constantly glancing over their shoulders, their ears sharpened for its slightest sound, their eyes roaming to detect its slightest movement. They are ever on the alert for the presence of this phantom, ready to make a mad dash for their lives should it suddenly appear. They sit tensely at their desks, behind the protection of heavily barricaded doors. They stand behind the lectern, casting nervous glances at the door, fearful that it will enter their classrooms when they least expect it and they are the most exposed. Their blood turns ice cold at the thought of confronting its twisted, snarled gargoyle features. They shake with uncontrollable fright as the eerie sound of its ghoulish moaning and groaning that reminds them that it never rests in its quest for fresh victims.
The hobgoblin's minions of students and administrators, disguised to look like normal people, are everywhere, ready to betray the presence of weakest soul. They're running about knocking on every door. They dance tauntingly about any faculty who dares to travel the campus. They teasingly wave wads of questionnaires, computerized answer sheets, portfolio models, grade surveys, student grape-vine sheets, enrollment figures, salary endorsements, and promotion and tenure recommendations in the sweating faces of the harassed faculty. Their high pitched cackling betrays the sadistic glee they get out of their torment.
With fearful resignation, professors know that there is no place to hide from this dreaded phantom. Ultimately they know that they will fall prey to it. When it has them in its clutches, they fear it will pluck out their hearts, tear them limb from limb, and condemn their souls to torturous purgatory. Oh, it is a fearsome creature, a heinous gremlin, a merciless ghoul, a profane demon, a pernicious fiend. Its very name strikes terror in their hearts. It is called the "faculty evaluation."
To protect themselves, the faculty offer magical incantations to banish this monster and its serving hordes from the campuses. "Nobody really knows what good teaching is, so how can anyone measure it?" they chant. They supplicate, "There is little to teaching beyond knowing the subject." "Student evaluations are worthless," they sing,`" because they're related to the grades the students receive." They cry out, "Students do not know what's best for them." "We have to keep the amateurs, the politicians, and administrators out of the classroom," they wail in anguish.
We can be facetious and smirk about the irony of professors being so nervous about being evaluated when they always are saying that they are in the business of evaluating the performance of others. I think, however, there is something to be said about questioning the validity of the measuring instrument, about being skeptical of any call for faculty evaluations of teaching when all the other signals on our campuses seem to indicate a general administrative disinterest in both classroom teaching and the creation of the campus as a learning community, about being anxious about its misuse and abuse, and about being suspicious of the true and hidden purpose of it all. But, I think there is more to this issue of evaluation of faculty than meets the eye.
All that skepticism, cynicism, and anger about evaluations hide fear, a fear of being judged for something that most of faculty do not think they are. For the truth is that few professors identify themselves as teachers in the first place. "It's a case of mistaken identity," they protest. They are not teachers of this or of that. They are scholars in this or that field; they are professors of this or that discipline. They find themselves in the classroom, but feel far more comfortable in an archive researching this or in a lab experimenting on that, or writing this, or presenting that, or consulting that this. Their sense of purpose, accomplishment, and success has little to with the classroom. Few were hired for their classroom mastery. All too many of them cringe at being evaluated for doing something about which few of them know very much other than writing an essay called a lecture, standing up in front of a class, and talking. They're being measured on something for which they were not trained to do, about which they seldom reflect, and on which they seldom articulate.
Let's face it. Almost all learning about teaching takes place on the job, often at the expense of students. Without few, if any, alternative classroom models, or without any training, most professors fall back on their own experiences as students and base their own teaching on the model of their lecturing professors. "Hey, that's the way I was taught," they proclaim. "And Dr. so and so was a damn good teacher. He knew what he was doing. Look how much I learned. And, if it was good enough for me, it's good enough for them."
Faculty know how to comb archives or to run experiments in labs or to draw up surveys. They can analyze a document or the results of a lab experiment or the outcome of a clinical study. They were trained to present conference papers, publish scholarly articles and books, and talk in a professional jargon. They were educated to reflect on the sophisticated issues associated with their disciplines. They were not trained to articulate a philosophy of education.
They were not trained in the processes of learning. They were not taught how to use the tools of teaching. They were taught so little that would allow them to make intelligent choices about teaching, about ways to introduce a variety of instruction other than lecturing, about involving students in a variety of roles other than as passive note takers, about evaluating students, about using new technologies, about doing so much more in the classroom other than lecture. The future scholars were not shown how to be future teachers; they were not shown how to communicate their knowledge to those who are not knowledgeable; they were not shown how to find the intellectual, attitudinal, and emotional entry passageways into the students hearts, souls and minds.
It's little wonder that faculty are far more secure talking about their discipline. They have the virtual unassailable control of the expert and they have a greater sense of who they are. In effect, it seems to them that amateurish outsiders are doing more than just changing the rules of engagement on them without a protective grandfather clause. They are challenging beloved values, altering priorities, stripping away control, exposing weaknesses, ripping away masks, revealing amateurishness, eroding authority, questioning identity, challenging purpose, and establishing new goals. They are threatening the very souls of the professor. They are attacking the meaning of professor's existence.
All that skepticism, cynicism, and anger about evaluations hide fear, a fear of being judged by the students. Can you imagine resting your salary, your promotion, your tenure, your future on the opinion of some teenage kid or some older uniformed adult whom you don't know and who doesn't know you? One of my colleagues phrased it this way, "If they know so much about what should be going on in the classroom, why aren't they teaching the course. Who's the professor here? I mean, if they know so much about what's good for them and what I am supposed to do, what am I here for?" For those professors who don't care about the students, who don't want to know them, who don't even want to learn their names, who are not going to be "touchy-feely" with the students, for those professors who exercise power over students rather than be in a state of mutuality with them, for those professors who meekly stand by without protest as classes grow in size while they and the students become faint specks on the horizon to each other, for those professors who do not forge bonds of trust with their students or create learning communities in their classrooms, for those professors who see no need to reconstruct one-way dictation into two-way communication, for those professors who have little mutuality and relatedness with the students, for all those professors such anonymity and distance is coming back to haunt them. They don't know who is evaluating them anymore than they believe those who are evaluating them know them. They see it as an intolerable situation of inept suspicious strangers judging knowledgeable, suspicious strangers.
But, at the heart of it all, all that skepticism, cynicism, and anger about evaluations hide fear, a fear of looking at themselves in a mirror, a fear of how their professional and personal lives might be changed or have to be changed if the world talks back. Professors say they are agents of change in society and the classroom, but are fearful of changing themselves; they talk so much about that world out there, but cringe at attempts to understand the world inside themselves. Evaluation in its highest form is not so much about subject knowledge or technical competence of classroom delivery, as it is about inner drives and desires, a reminder that an education is, as I have said so often, an inward journey. We academics have so arrogantly, so long promoted the myth of objectivity, that accurate judgements can only be made disengaged from afar, that claims truth can be attained only if it is untainted by personal bias, that insists on a form of personal and professional distance learning that holds only from faraway can we truly evaluate and accurately know things. For "things" read not only subject matter, but students as well. We have so distorted our view of life by believing that we can easily remove ourselves from ourselves and students.
We live, however, in a world of subjectivity, and I think that scares a lot of us because subjectivity makes demands on our personal lives. It requires that we acknowledge our involvement with the world around us, that we recognize that we are frail humans no less than are the students. I think so often we forget that our humanity and subjectivity was not erased with the bestowal of the hood.
And so, evaluations make us address the detached, impersonal, inanimate teach-talk" that we are fond of unconsciously using. In this professional jargon one human being becomes a separated lifeless thing called "teacher." Another becomes a faceless image called "student." It's like we walk through a wax museum. We disengage from ourselves; we stand apart and look at ourselves and students as something else, a place outside of us and them where education supposedly takes place. When we teach-talk, we lose our connection with ourselves, our humanity, our past, present and future; we lose our connection with others. Evaluations can have the uncomfortable impact of proclaiming that learning, education, teaching is a human, personal experience of living which takes place within both the teacher and the student. What happens in the classroom happens to a ME, to a HIM or a HER, not to an IT or a SOMETHING. And when we evaluate teaching, we are evaluating what goes on inside of us, our being, not something out there. The evaluation forces us to confront the need to surrender power over the students and create a mutuality with them. We are in charge of our classes. Whether we use that responsibility creatively and productively to foster a relatedness to them is another matter. Imagine how much our lives would be changed if we let the students talk back to us and establish a relatedness which has hitherto either been lost or never had existed. I will repeat that I believe teaches are care-givers. To be a care-giver, however, you must trust; to trust, you must understand; to understand, you must listen; to listen, you must hear. You must understand, listen to, and hear yourself; you must understand, listen to and hear others. It we do not, we cannot care for ourselves; if we cannot care for ourselves, we cannot care for others.
Teaching, I think, is a vulnerable act of "spilling your guts" by which the personal becomes public. For me to properly teach, I have to reveal things about which I feel very deeply. Sometime that means even the intimate details of my personal life, but more often it means issues I find crucial and compelling which have helped shape who I am. Such vulnerability requires a lot of courage to exercise among strangers. To do that, I risk the judgement that comes with the exposure of my passions to public scrutiny.
I like to hear from students. I want to hear from students. I think that is important. Too many of us professors talk too much. Too many of us listen too little. I think there are two general categories of teachers. There are those who are very much taken with themselves and are the same with everyone and, therefore, oblivious to the human diversity with whom they deal. There are others who are concerned with those with whom they deal and are different with different students and vary themselves to meet the needs of the students. In a caring environment you must listen. If you listen, you're groping to find out what students need and what they say about their current education. I'm a better teacher if I am informed. I encourage students to be open and honest in their comments, to be frank with me about their feelings, their angers, their fears, and their disappointments. It's part of the process of learning who we are in our professional lives. I have found deep insights in student's comments if I have the courage to listen.
So, I think we should welcome such evaluations. I don't see them as tormenting gremlins and threatening hobgoblins to be combatted, but I greet them as soothing angels of renewal. I have found that the sense of defenseless exposure wanes proportionally to the growing strength of a trust bond in the classroom. For an effective and honest evaluation, faculty have to draw students into community with them. I work very hard to establish a bond of trust in my classes. It's the life's blood of the learning community that emerges. I spend the whole first week or two of class with personal introductory, trust, and bonding exercises in which I also partake. During that time, we have, as one student insightfully commented in her journal, "started stripping away our fears, defenses, and excuses for not doing things because we've started to know and trust each other and feel relaxed about things." I guess that's one reason I'm not afraid of evaluations and why my students almost always demand that they sign them. To the contrary, I welcome my students' comments. I have confidence in their judgement because I know them and they know me. I respect them and they respect me. I trust them and they trust me. My classes are one big, ongoing evaluation: weekly evaluations, weekly journals, daily personal discussions, open class evaluations, final evaluations, and unsolicited personal letters. I'm constantly asking my students "How's this working?" "What do you think?" "Should we adjust this, drop that, add this?" "How do you feel?" "Am I doing my job?" I find it's marvelous, uneasy, exciting, exhilarating, nerve-wracking, adventurous, uncomfortable to let the world talk back to me.
No, the evaluations are not the hobgoblin out there. The real hobgoblin is here inside us. I need that evaluation to help me avoid stagnation. It helps me to forever climb my mountain. It helps me to change and to grow, and help nurture the new that is coming behind me. I need that evaluation, that feedback, that assessment, whatever you want to call it, to help me teach and live both fully and well. I need that evaluation to help me reflect on how I label myself, how that labelling affects how I perceive myself, how I expect myself to behave, how I label students, how I perceive them, how I expect them to behave. I need that evaluation to help me assess my skills in getting to both myself and the students. I need that evaluation to help me to see if I know how to use those skills, if I have the courage to use them, and what I have to do to improve them. Evaluations help me to understand my own inner drives and desires; why I do what I do. Evaluations help prevent me from removing myself from both myself and the students, and to stay in a state of relatedness with both. Then, and only then, can I create that bond of trust among students and between the students and myself which I believe is so essential to true learning. Only then, can I create an authentic learning community with my students, my own spirit, my subject and hopefully my fellow teachers.
Make it a good day. --Louis-- Louis Schmier (912-333-5947) email@example.com Department of History /~\ /\ /\ Valdosta State University /^\ / \ / /~ \ /~\__/\ Valdosta, Georgia 31698 / \__/ \/ / /\ /~ \ /\/\-/ /^\___\______\_______/__/_______/^\ -_~ / "If you want to climb mountains, \ /^\ _ _ / don't practice on mole hills" -\____