Pecan Pie

Social Anxiety from the South

Oh RLY, Well, Let me Just Tell You How *I* Feel: Student Evaluations and the Demise of Respect

I’ve actually had to wait a couple of weeks to write this.  Even thinking about this subject basically started me on the spiral downward into the hell that is a panic attack.  Mine are mostly silent, categorized by heart pounding, profuse sweating and “evil moths in my stomach.”

I’ve taught for three semesters now, but one of my universities is notoriously tardy on things like student evaluations, so I’ve never actually seen any of them from any of the classes I’ve taught.  I doubt it would have helped much.  It’s invariably easier to keep it together and avoid lots of situations that cause ugly comments on evaluations by teaching online.  There’s a format for organization, grading is easy and my students are in almost constant contact with me.

I really hadn’t considered what my students might say.  I figured there would be some good, some bad and some benign.  I hadn’t thought to look up how other professors had to learn how to grow a thick skin, or deal with the sexist, racist or homophobic vitriol that was written…I just assumed that most of it would be constructive.

And it was.

The problem is that it’s the ugly comments that stay with you.  Comments about your body, how you dress or even how you deal with more personal issues (like anxiety) cut right to the heart.  In a world where students are used to using technology as a shield to say whatever they like to whomever they want, online evaluations provide a platform to do the same.

The worst part about it is that it’s so final.  There’s no way to respond.

I researched student evaluations for days.  I agonized over whether or not these comments were going to get me fired.  I (still) have no idea how much, if at all, these evaluations matter to my superiors.

But, I blog and so the finality is limited.  I can respond here, consider my reactions to constructive criticisms and maybe give some support to other adjuncts (especially) who are dealing with harsh student evaluations.

1. The Good: Most of the comments were good or constructive.  My early class had great participation (n=21 out of 27 students).  On a scale of 1-4, my average responses for most measures was around 3.4.  For my first semester teaching face to face, I thought that was good.  Well above the mean into the positive range.

2. The Bad: There were several comments about organization.  I wish I had the opportunity to explain to students that I wasn’t adequately supported by the institution.  I had never taught the class before and was hired roughly two weeks prior to the semester starting.  I did not receive the text until approximately a week after that.  While I understand that students deserve a quality experience regardless of these challenges, they are legitimate challenges nonetheless.  Since I had almost no time to prepare (and no time to find out what resources were available to help me) I wound up doing lesson plans the day of or night before class.  Not a good way to do it and I agree.  I was often frazzled or unclear about exactly what material to cover.  I supplemented a lot with media, which I thought the students liked, but I think they felt I was phoning it in.

What I’ve Done About it: Since the semester ended, I have set up each unit with a slideshow, an activity or discussion question and an optional piece of media.  I know how I will run the class based on what I think the format of the class will be (a 2.5 hour class session once a week.)

I have also made clear policies that I hemmed and hawed about during the year.  I had a difficult time sticking to my guns.  Students don’t respect that and it won’t be a mistake I make again.

3. The Ugly: Wow. I had no idea students really talked this way to professors/instructors.  After receiving the following comments and basically falling into disarray, I looked up other instructor experiences and find I am not alone.  Here are my favorites and my responses:

Presentation coming from a professor is key. This professor started out on day one of school, by teaching with her shoes off. When your in a professional atmosphere, yout tattoos should be covered. This professors has tattoos on her breast, back, leg, hand, it seems like their every where. I understand everyone has tattoos, especially in a college setting, but I don’t expect to see them all over a professor body, when the professor is in a professional teaching atmosphere. The professor Sssshhhhhh the class, which we are not children. 

Yes, I often teach with my shoes off.  I also sing and present at conferences with my shoes off if at all possible.  It helps me to feel more stable.  I don’t expect everyone to understand, but I also don’t expect anyone to really care.  Yes, I have tattoos.  One of the reasons I went into academia is to be able to be who I am.  I have tattoos everywhere (but not on my breasts and quite honestly, bringing that up is incredibly sexist and totally inappropriate) and you can expect to see them.  They are part of my body and I wear what I wear regardless of that.  I don’t actually care what you expect to see, since this is college and you should expect to see lots of things you’ve never seen before.

I won’t “shhh” you if you don’t talk in class like a bunch of children.  You know, like during movies or when I’m talking? Also, your writing skills are seriously lacking. kthxbai.

The above was the only negative comment for that class.  The other criticisms were fair and I took them to heart.

Ms. Berry is a very laid-back and nice person but I have to admit that she is very unprofessional. She always shows up to class after the students have already arrived, after class has started, and she would wear 5 inch heels and then takes them off during class time because it hurts her feet (the same with regular shoes). She doesn’t cover up her tattoos and is regularly wears shirts that shows cleavage. Her lectures are unorganized. I understand that the syllabus can change with the teacher’s discretion, but she would tell us that it’s a win-win b/c it’s less material for us to study for our final exam.

There’s a lot to cover here, some good, some bad, some inappropriate.  First, I was never more than 2 minutes late.  The difference between a student leaving class and an instructor leaving is that I’ve always got students needing my attention after class.  I try to keep a handle on it, but many times it was impossible.  I never dawdled and I often ran.  I wish the university had scheduled my classrooms nearer to each other, but there wasn’t anything to be done about that.  Though…in a class where regularly there were 5+ students who never made it to class on time, I’m skeptical of this comment.

I don’t even own a pair of 5″ heels.  See above for taking my shoes off.  Again, bringing up my breasts…not appropriate.  I always dress casually or professionally and never lewd.  If your delicate sensibilities are that…well, delicate, move on.

Notice how this comment is so similar to the one above?  Coincidence? Maybe. I’ve heard tales of students banding together to make negative evals.  Of course, it’s just rumor.

That last comment isn’t exactly what I said…but okay.

She was never ready for class and alway got there late, complaing that she has to walk from B to A, when I walk from C to A and make it there four minutes before noon. None of the power points were hers and this caused her to rush through and not know half the stuff that was on the screen. She was not helpful when it came to review time, responding to questions with”it’s in your book” and “like i said before” making you not want to do any work at all. She was just really unhelpful and pretty rude.

I’ve covered the lateness.  Again, within the margin of error on a clock.  I realize students may not know or care why this is, but there is a reason and it’s a valid one.  No, many of the presentations weren’t mine (but many were), I was counseled to not “reinvent the wheel” when that’s just more work.  Good instructors use good resources wherever they can find them.  I used the presentations that go with the book or from other, more experienced instructors.  I can’t imagine I didn’t know what was on them.  It’s an intro class and I’m pretty sure I know most of the book without looking.

“Never ready for class” is of course, completely untrue. An over-exaggeration from a student who was overall unsatisfied with the class.

Yes, I often said “like I said before” and “it’s in your book” because I did (multiple times) and it was (probably you should read).  This remark is coming from a class that had multiple ‘F’s’ including on the final where all questions came from quizzes available to them online. I gave a crossword puzzle for fun, but prepping for an exam is the student’s responsibility…

I know. I’m very mean.


4. Lessons Learned:

  • Ask for help if I’m not getting the support I need from the school (i.e. classroom distance.)
  • Be VERY clear about policies for grading.
  • Preface the class with a disclaimer: you might be offended, you might not like how I dress or that I take my shoes off, but you will learn some shit you didn’t know.
  • Grow a thicker skin
  • Make a better effort to connect with my students.
  • Don’t teach more than 3-4 classes again until I’m more experienced.
  • Take control of my classroom.

In all, I learned a lot and I really look forward to putting those lessons into practice this fall and have an improved semester with my next class!


Written by thelittlepecan

May 23, 2013 at 11:29 am

4 Responses

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  1. Thanks for the post. I taught a new class at a new university this semester and clearly did not connect with many of my students like I have at other places. There are some definitely some things I know can do to improve, but I have never had evaluations like this semester’s. My averages were average which is fine but my students’ opinions of me were strongly bimodal and many of the negative comments were very viscous and/or outlandish (I was apparently wonderful and “unqualified” all at once and expecting them to do the reading and writing that was clearly stated in the syllabus since day one made me “unfair” and “tricky” (?)). Anyway, I have my theories about this and I’m doing my best to put it all in perspective, but I’ve had to spend the morning reading other peoples’ accounts of coming to have an appropriate personal response to student evaluations in order to soothe myself. Your post was very helpful. Thanks! (And don’t you wish we got to do evaluations of them in return? “You slept through my class and didn’t bring your readings with you to class. How could we possibly discuss them?…And you think *I’m* unorganized??”)


    June 14, 2013 at 10:58 am

    • Hi Cactus!
      Thanks for reading. I really grieved through this whole process. There are some great articles on the Chronicle of Higher Education website (and other places around the web) that really helped me.

      And yes, I do. I guess their grade counts as an overall evaluation, but doing so without comment is frustrating sometimes. Even my grade school kids get comments on their report cards.

      I actually had a student come to class with her toddler one day…*smdh*.


      June 14, 2013 at 11:05 am

  2. Alas as a new teacher you have to develop a thick skin. The longer you teach, the less significant the ranters will seem although you never completely forget them. I had a prof in university (sociology 101 in fact) who often took his shoes of and lectured while stretching out across his desk. He was quirky, but what and how he taught stuck with me as I went into teaching. I honestly wonder if some of the people who take the time to complain actually think about the content of your message each lecture. Furthermore, if they are so concerned about professionalism, maybe they should pay attention to spelling and grammar! Thank you for taking the time to blog about your feelings as it is important to be able to vent. Best wishes in your chosen career and in your running pursuits.
    Twitter Education posts: @haledogg
    Twitter Running/Fitness posts: @SeeHaleRun

    Chris Hale

    May 25, 2013 at 10:50 am

    • First, thanks Chris for taking the time to read and comment!

      Second, that’s exactly what my sister said, “If they don’t know the correct spelling of ‘THERE’ I doubt you should pay any attention at all.”

      Clearly my notes on their papers weren’t taken seriously.

      I am optimistic about the fall semester.


      May 25, 2013 at 11:10 am

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