As a member of my departments Tenure and Promotion and Executive Committees this year, I’ll likely be writing at least two evaluations of the teaching of my regular junior and adjunct colleagues. I’ve read dozens of these over the years by my colleagues (and have written at least half a dozen myself, if not more). Additionally, as a friendly informal mentor to several junior women in my field, I’ve had the chance to read letters evaluating their teaching by their colleagues.
One of my mentees sent me a letter today that got me thinking about the ethics and politics of writing these evaluation letters. She just recently received a letter from a colleague that was 1) from a class taught nearly six months ago which then proceeded to 2) pick nits about the introductory blurb on her syllabus, and 3) criticize her for letting her students figure out a primary source together in class rather than just telling them everything they need to know. Would you be surprised to learn that this is also a letter from a person who has been an Associate Professor for at least 30 years? No, I didn’t think so. The writer of this letter just couldn’t let someone 30-some years his junior, and the author of three peer-reviewed articles in top journals and a forthcoming book, be an expert in her own field.
(Every time I read a letter like this, whether it’s in a tenure file or passed to me by a friend looking for advice, I’m reminded of the value of modesty and generosity in being a good colleague. Because, really: who wants to be THAT guy? Those letters are so transparent–like a cry for help, almost. Any smart committee, chair or dean can see right through them.)
Here’s my question for you readers: if you are in the position to write letters like this, what’s your approach? What are you likely to praise or criticize? What ethics or principles guide your efforts in evaluating your colleagues’ teaching? If you are on the receiving end of these letters, which letters have you found most helpful and/or most unhelpful? My experience is that I always learn a lot in my colleagues’ classes–factual information, of course, because there is so very much in world history of which I am ignorant, but I also take in pedagogical information that’s useful in my own teaching. Before I do a classroom visit, I meet with my colleague and ask for a copy of the syllabus. After I observe a class, I go out for coffee or lunch with the colleague to talk to them about their teaching: how do they think their classes are going? I share any ideas I might have for working through any issues they raise or that I saw in class right there, in that informal setting. I write my evaluation letter in the next few days, and I always provide the person being evaluated with a copy of the letter at the same time as I forward a copy to the relevant committee.
In my letters of evaluation, I always praise the things that are done well in my opinion, and any suggestions I might have are framed as just that–a suggestion, not a complaint or a command. Because we’ve talked about this before, I think it’s easier to see it written in a letter. But, I often share these ideas only in our conversation, and I don’t always write them down in the evaluation letters. (How helpful would it be to write, “don’t be afraid of silence–give your students more time to mull over a question or problem.” Are we really going to deny someone tenure on that basis? Of course not.) If I saw an instructor be disrespectful to a student, or students being disrespectful of other students, I would address that immediately and write about it in my letter–that’s about the only thing that I would find alarming enough to take action and to record it officially, but even then, my first step would be to talk about it with my colleague.
Like I said: modesty and generosity are my guiding principles. I have improved a great deal as a teacher over the past fifteen years, and I strive to continue to improve. I think most college and university faculty are like this–no one likes feeling like they’re doing a bad job, and everyone needs to work out their own style in the classroom. I’m grateful to my senior colleagues for letting me find my teaching style and for permitting me to make some mistakes along the way. I sure don’t have all of the answers, which is why I try to keep an open mind in these conversations.