Weaponizing Student Evaluations

Above The Law:

I remember a poignant conversation with an associate dean. The associate dean called me into his office because one of my courses had lower than average student evaluations. More specifically, one evaluation had something along the lines of “I HATE YOU! I HATE YOUR BOOK! I HATE YOUR FACE! I JUST HATE EVERYTHING ABOUT YOU!” You know, the important feedback we are supposed to get from evaluations.

The associate dean then proceeded to talk to me as if I were a terrible teacher. I called him out: “Can we stop talking like I’m a terrible teacher?” My evaluations were, apart from this outlier, completely fine. He replied, “We’d be having this discussion even if you were a great teacher!” Yes, he said that. I then looked up his student evaluations. Let’s just say he wasn’t “a great teacher,” either.

I now instruct my students not to cause drama on student evaluations. I’m fine with comments about pedagogy, about the curriculum, and statements that will help me improve as a teacher. But that isn’t usually what I get. I get numbers and either “You rock!” or “I hate you!”

But I’m tenured. If the associate dean doesn’t like how I teach, the punishment is to put me in smaller classes with fewer students, with fewer exams to grade. That’s right: That’s the punishment. But it’s only punishment for those of us who enjoy and care about what we do, and the untenured for whom this might count as a death knell.