It’s the beginning of a new semester. One of the things that this means is that I have gotten the numerical and written feedback from students for the courses I taught last semester. The numerical feedback is what counts for promotion and merit pay increases, but, ironically, I take more seriously the written feedback, even though only I get to see it. (By College regulations, faculty may not include the written feedback in their “packets” for promotion and tenure.)
After the first semester I taught at Vassar, I saw my numerical evaluations and was very pleased with myself … until I noticed the note attached from my Chair, who said, “I’m sure you find these numbers very disappointing, but don’t despair. Many professors improve a great deal after their first couple of semesters.” It turns out that evaluations considered very solid at other schools I’ve taught at, or even in other departments at Vassar, are not considered good enough by the Philosophy Department.
Through hard work and listening to my students, I’ve gotten much better at teaching. On the numerical scores, 4s and 5s are considered good, and we hope to have 75% or more of the responses be in this range, particularly on three “key questions”: “How well the course met its objectives as stated by instructor,” “Overall effectiveness of instructor,” and “As a result of this course, how much have your knowledge and understanding of the subject matter increased?” In my Early Chinese Philosophy class, I got 100% 4s and 5s on the first two questions (92% and 82% 5s, respectively) and 93% 4s and 5s on the third question (62% 5s). This is pleasant, but as I say I don’t weight it too heavily. There is actually no empirical evidence that scoring well on our numerical student satisfaction surveys shows you are doing a good job of teaching knowledge and skills to your students.
However, the written evaluations give me more content. I always get compliments for being open-minded: “I really appreciated that you were enormously open-minded while acknowledging your own bias/position.” I am surprised by how often students use the word “inspiring”: “has inspired me to take other philosophy courses”; “inspired me to continue in my studies in the philosophy department”; “you are an academic and lifelong inspiration.” I worry that this reflects how “uninspiring” so much of our culture is, though. After being exposed to nothing but video games and Jersey Shore, it’s hard to not be inspired by a professor (any professor) teaching Confucius and Aquinas.
I think my favorite comments this time around, though, were the ones written in blotchy ink, saying, “Really enjoyed the class. Regret waiting till senior year to take a class with you. My pen is running out of ink.”