The Professor-Student Non-Aggression Pact
The dubiousness of student evaluations
William J. Bennett and David Wilezol, Is College Worth It? (Thomas Nelson 2013), p. 134:
Knowing that students prefer to spend more time having fun than studying, professors are more comfortable awarding good grades while requiring a minimum amount of work. In return, students give favorable personal evaluations to professors who desire to be well received by students as a condition of preserving their employment status. Indeed, the popularity of the student evaluation, which began in the 1970s, has had a pernicious effect.
It has indeed. Here is an anecdote to illustrate the Bennett thesis. In early 1984 I was 'up for tenure.' And so in the '83 fall semester I was more than usually concerned about the quality of my student evaluations. One of my classes that semester was an upper-level seminar conducted in the library over a beautiful oak table. One day one of the students began carving into the beautiful table with his pen.
In an abdication of authority that part of me regrets and another part excuses, I said nothing. The student liked me and I knew it. I expected a glowing recommendation from him and feared losing it. So I held my tongue while the kid defaced university property.
Jeff H. and I had entered into a tacit 'non-aggression pact.' (And I got tenure.)
The problem is not that students are given an opportunity to comment upon and complain about their teachers. The problem is the use to which student evaluations are put for tenure, promotion, and salary 'merit-increase' decisions. My chairman at the time was an officious organization man who would calculate student evaluation averages to one or two decimal places, and then rank department members as to their teaching effectiveness. Without getting into this too deeply for a Substack entry, there is something highly dubious about equating teaching effectiveness with whatever the student evaluations measure, and something absurd about the false precision of calculating averages out to one or two decimal places.
Is Jones a better teacher than Smith because her average is 3.2 while his is only 3.1? Well, no, but if the chairman is asked to justify his decision, he can point to the numbers. This is mindless quantification, but it takes someone more thoughtful than an administrator to see it.
I strongly recommend the Bennett-Wilezol book to anyone thinking of attending college or thinking of bankrolling someone's attendance. Here is a review.