Am I a good professor?

I think so, but even my own best evidence is of questionable reliability:

  • I get very high numerical evaluations by students in my classes.  These are on forms that are distributed only to students in my class, and the results are not reported unless a large percentage of students respond.  Again, this is good, but there is limited evidence that student satisfaction correlates with learning.  As I tell my colleagues ad nauseam, there is empirical evidence of a correlation between student learning and student responses to only two questions:  “Did the professor stimulate your interest in the topic?” and “Did the professor help you learn?”  (Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do, p. 13.)  Neither question is on my school’s numerical evaluations.
  • I give out far fewer A’s and A-‘s in my classes than the school average.  In theory, this means that I am holding my students to a higher standard.  This is probably good in itself.  We don’t need half of our students assuming they are exceptionally talented at things they are merely slightly above average at.  But I succumb to institutional peer pressure in giving out far too many B’s and too few C’s.   Besides, even if I am more demanding in my grading, does that really show I am teaching students more, or giving them better skills?
  • I sincerely work to respond effectively to student reactions and feedback.  I put a lot of energy into class discussions and lectures:  I walk around the room, I gesticulate, I modulate my voice, I tell anecdotes, I write on the board, I make self-deprecating jokes, I try to invite shy students into the discussion.  I have also modified many aspects of the course to find what works.  For example, I used to assign only essays, but I added a final exam because I found that even some earnest students were not absorbing all the basic facts I wanted them to grasp by the end of the course.  Once again, the preceding earns me a pat on the head, but does it make me more than a “hard-working” professor?
  • I have had students tell me long after grades were handed in things like, “I found your course inspiring” or “Your course changed my life.”  Good, but there is a size of sample problem.  In addition, how do I know that I have influenced students in a good way?  Charles Manson’s disciples found him inspiring too.  (Quick disclaimer:  I am deeply grateful to and touched by the students who told me these things.  I’m just trying to look at what they reported dispassionately as evidence.)

Part of the difficulty in evaluating my teaching (or that of anyone in the humanities) is that the criteria for success are more nebulous.  If you try to teach students calculus, and they know how to use it after your class, you have taught them successfully.  If I try to teach students to write clearly and persuasively, to read texts with more attentiveness and insight, and to be more reflective about their lives and the world — it is very hard to know how to test whether I have succeeded.  However, the alternative is not to try to teach them those things, and it’s better to live with the uncertainty than not to try.

About The Doc

"The Doc" is a professor at Vassar College (USA). However, the views expressed in his blog and comments are not necessarily those of Vassar, its administration, or other employees, none of whom bears any responsibility for his opinions.
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