The ethics and politics of peer teaching evaluations

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.

29 thoughts on “The ethics and politics of peer teaching evaluations

  1. Ugh. Our department just started doing these. Part of the reason is that one of our faculty members has been getting somewhat lousy teaching evals in a required core course on a difficult math subject in which she has 2x as many students as the next largest course and 7x as many students as many other classes. Its a worry about who is going to evaluate her–some of the professors are actively opposed to difficult math subject and their classes tend to get high evals and be more fun. On top of that she was very nervous about being videotaped (which is what we’re doing instead of sitting in, so *everybody* can view the video).

    So I haven’t written a letter yet, but unless the prof was legitimately terrible or just irresponsible, I don’t think I would put anything negative in official writing, but instead share room for improvement in person in a pro-active way.


  2. My department does these on a regular basis, with junior faculty and adjuncts getting five peer observations per year. I’m actually observing a colleague’s class tomorrow. The writing of such letters tends to be as you suggest, Historiann. Some departments use a set evaluation rubric, but there’s resistance to that in my department so as to allow for individual styles, and even the vagaries of the fact someone is sitting in on just a single class.


  3. Nicoleandmaggie: Has anyone suggested that maybe it’s unreasonable for one person to teach a difficult math class in a giant section? What about dividing up the class, or at least giving her some T.A.’s who can help guide the students? Videotaping seems like a good idea, but only if the tape is used to start a conversation about how your whole department can help this proffie teach this course productively.

    Brian: FIVE peer evals a year? How does anyone get anything done over in your shop? Geez. (I think one eval a year is just fine.)


  4. I like having five peer evals, and they wind up counting far more for tenure/promotion than the student evals. But we do have high service requirements. With a 4-4 teaching load that the system administration wants to actually increase, I am on five committees and chairing one. We also have research expectations.


  5. We do these by the boxcar full, for adjuncts, all untenured faculty, and during five-year post-tenure reviews. It’s partly a union-driven anti-venin against teaching evaluations by the customers, but it has some rhetorical at least connection to “professional development.” I’ve written a hundred of them if I’ve written one. As Historiann mentioned a few weeks ago of Baa Ram U., we do yearly re-appointments of untenured faculty instead of three-year contract cycles, so everyone is theoretically one blown save away from being optioned or outrighted to Minnetonka. (I hope there’s no college in Minnetonka, if there *is* in fact a “Minnetonka,” and if so, appolgies). I go for the upbeat barring grave performances. If you have to be part of the HR borg might as well not tear up a knee. Anything truly critical–or anything at all that would burn off too many brain cells to articulate and format in print–can as well be saved for quiet “hallway conversations,” as we call them. I learn tons of substantive stuff during the observations themselves, though.

    I would just echo H’ann here on the “anything get done?!?” part. We’ve become apparats’ apparats at this point. Anything that could detain you from, like, actually looking into the past to evaluate *dead people* (what I went to school for) will be seized on, institutionalized, and workshopped for a three-day dean’s retreat. What if accreditors and other accountability people had to actually know something about actual knowledge? It would be something like mystical bedlam!


  6. p.s. I also loved the “like a cry for help” reference, but if so, what kind of help is being cried out for? On the late-arriving observation letter, my first year, a guy came to my class, slapped me on the shoulder and said it was great… and then RETIRED. They had to rouse him from a canasta game for the letter the next year at a point where this ritual actually had some relevance to my situation. He dutifully sent in a perfectly praiseful account of a class I never remembered having taught anywhere. Sabermetrics was his academic specialization, and my OPS went through the roof that spring!!


  7. I should highlight that my department is highly collegial with no problems or problem personalities whatsoever. Also, our administration isn’t as hostile to the faculty union as some. One high-ranking university-wide administrator has been quoted as saying that in the event of a strike, s/he would respond by bringing the picketing faculty drinks and donuts.


  8. Why yes, it has been suggested that the section is too big. This particular track of our program seems to chew up its assistant professors. They don’t have anybody else who can teach the class on the faculty. It is also ridiculous that they haven’t given her TAs (when I got an overload, I got a TA and a promise for a future course release).

    I do not know why they haven’t tried to hire someone temporary to teach another section– I know there are people on campus who have taught this class before or who teach it in different departments. It does get expensive– we pay adjuncts around 10K/section for the core math class I teach when our sections get too big, and it is easier to find people who can teach my class. And she can’t teach another section because she’s the only person who can teach this other required upper-level course, and she’s already overloaded with doing the summer program (though there’s now another assistant professor who could take that instead of her).

    They really need to hire another full-time person who can teach that class. It sounds like they may be leaning that direction with one of their searches this year, although last year they weren’t (that search failed, hence this year).

    I think there may also be department politics beyond my ken going on.


  9. What timing! I just met with a colleague about a class I’m to observe and write a letter about later in the day.

    In my department, I think we’re pretty good about these, and the observer is never the only person to write letters and such, which also help.

    My sense is: I think of the person as a colleague that I care about and want to see succeed, so if there’s something I can suggest that’s helpful, good. If there’s great stuff happening, I talk about that (and steal as much as I can), and if there’s a problem, then we talk about it, and maybe it’s not really a problem, or maybe it’s a bad day, or something happened, and I need to think about how to deal with it in the letter.

    But you’re absolutely right about thinking generously. I think the other thing, and maybe that’s harder, is recognizing that different things can work really well for different folks. So if I lecture and it works, great. And if someone else sits in the back of the room and it works, great, and if someone sits in a circle, or walks around, sits on the floor, whatever, if it works, I can get a sense of that and see its value. It’s not about trying to clone myself or think that I have the only or the best way.

    ps. I love Brian’s administrator mentioned above.


  10. Modesty as well as common sense are in limited supply. Therefore it’s good advise to the chair who nominates class reviewers. Nit picking is always petty. In our department politics dominate. The two main camps will fight until the end of time.

    As a reviewer I am looking for depth flow consistency discussion class mode and decency. The rest


  11. I agree that at least in most cases, unkind motives are easy to spot in review letters. Whether that matters or not depends on the strength of the ol’ boy network and other political forcings, as koshembos suggests.

    Teaching evaluation is very student driven in my department. Judging by responses from colleagues elsewhere on campus, we are unusual in our approach. We use the data (statistics plus written comments) from end-of-term evaluations of graded classes taught during the 9-month regular appointment period (so you can’t jack up your numbers with lightweight stuff) AND our students appoint two representatives–one undergraduate and one graduate–to serve on the promotion and tenure committee for the year. The students solicit input from their peers and write reports that are a synthesis of teaching, mentoring, and life of the department. These reports become part of the permanent record. While teaching is clearly their focus, student representatives participate in all committee meetings and discussions, evaluate the whole record, and their votes have equal weight to ours.


  12. The petty approach is sadly familiar. That said, we don’t do a formal regime of teaching evaluations. We probably should but I worry about it adding to the workload and possibly landing us in the laps of the administrators in some unwanted way.

    H’ann, your approach would be what I’d prefer. Once a year, done in respectful acceptance of the other prof’s syllabus and course aims with feedback provided informally at first so they know exactly what’s coming in the letter: that sounds pretty close to perfect.


  13. I’m always kind of humbled when I observe my colleagues teaching. Mostly I come out thinking they’re all better than I’ll ever be, and get depressed! Then I look for things I can use to improve, but I also have to accept that we all have different teaching personalities and styles, and that I’ll never be the hilarious/ life-changing/ paradigm-rocking prof that I’d like to be. I work hard on my teaching and take it seriously, but I don’t think I’m a “natural” (whatever that is). So when writing evaluations my tendency is to be very appreciative. On the few occasions I’ve observed a so-so class, I’ve still found lots of good things to say, and I focus on those.

    Also, a class session is a strange, dynamic, entity, with its lulls and high points every day. I find that micro-observations about particular moments are not always helpful in that they can miss the big picture. For example, an instructor might have encouraged the students, during a previous session, not to shy away from silence, and to use it to focus their thoughts etc. But a peer observer might sit in on one class session, see a lot of students being silent, and assume that the instructor is failing to engage them. Also, blow-by-blow evaluations tend to hold the session up to an impossible model of exemplary pedagogy every single minute. No human relationship can stand up to that test! Occasional misunderstandings, discomfort, and boredom are par for the course.

    When doing a peer eval, like H-Ann, I might bring up the not-so-good aspects orally, but that’s usually because the colleague in question is aware of them hirself, and asks me for feedback. The only concerns i would put in writing would be abusive, racist, sexist (etc.) behaviour or comments, or abuse of power – which have never happened thankfully.


  14. You’d think that we’d do some sort of peer evaluation of teaching at my teaching-intensive institution…. but we don’t. (In spite of me suggesting it on numerous occasions, particularly since we went to all on-line evals and the response rates are spotty at best.) Which basically “teaching” only counts inasmuch as people somehow have the idea that you’re good in the classroom from student evals and from talk in the hallways.

    In my fantasy world, such evaluations would be done (at least at first) on a voluntary basis, and they could count as one form of evidence in the p and t binders, but the person applying could determine whether they wanted to include it. The letters that would be generated would include three components: praise for awesomeness, suggestions for possible ways to develop one’s teaching (not necessarily criticisms – just suggestions about possible new approaches or ways to evolve as a teacher) and then, only if necessary, things that really “need work.” To me, supporting teaching, and encouraging innovative teaching, should involve a *discussion* of teaching, and I think that peer evals would be one way to foster such discussion.

    But none of my colleagues are interested. And I’ve got to choose my battles.


  15. In my opinion, peer observation of the teaching of untenured faculty should be done on a system. The goal should be that no instructor is disadvantaged because formal teaching reports were lacking, and no decision about retention or tenure is compromised because of that problem. I think that systems should be developed at the departmental level; I am not convinced that the physics department needs the same arrangement as an English department. (May I say, Dr. Crazy, that I find what you say shocking?)

    Now, the difficulty is that when we observe colleagues’ teaching we are asked to serve as both coach and referee. This combination of roles may be awkward, but it is the same one we routinely assume with our students. I disagree with your approach, Historiann, if you would not put any substantial criticism in a formal report unless the instructor was “disrespectful to a student” or students were disrespectful toward each other. I have a similar objection when LouMac writes that “The only concerns [I] would put in writing would be abusive, racist, sexist (etc.) behaviour or comments, or abuse of power.” It is an odd world where the only flaw in an untenured person’s teaching that belongs on paper is unprofessional or unethical behavior! Now, I recognize that in an English or History department we simply aren’t going to see much ineffective teaching. Observers also run the risk that a single criticism may be magnified inappropriately at a later date. But there is such a thing as teaching that does not meet the institutional standards for tenure, promotion, or retention. Probably we should differentiate observation reports that we submit when the instructor has time to improve from reports we submit when time is almost up and a decision is nigh.


  16. EngLitProf: will your department refuse to tenure someone on the sole grounds of their teaching? Mine won’t, but that’s not because we’re poor or thoughtless teachers. (And I don’t think that’s what you were implying.) I guess my view is that by the time a tenure-track faculty member succeeds in getting a job in my department (and in most others), they already have years of teaching experience, and are pretty darn good when they arrive. That’s a function of the crap job market for 42 years, and it’s also why I’ve long argued that instead of the Bad Old Days, we should think of this as a Golden Age in which highly competent and demanding scholars and teachers are teaching everywhere, not just in elite colleges and unis.

    (I think the quality of teaching in my department, for example, is head and shoulders above the teaching I was subjected to at my elite college 25 years ago, and I don’t think my department stands alone.)

    Dr. Crazy, I’m dismayed but not surprised that you don’t do peer reviews. Friends of mine teach at a similar-sounding uni, a place that prides itself on its intensive teaching, and they don’t do peer evals either. I just think that student evals aren’t enough–and that it’s in my interest as a faculty member to do periodic evaluations and to initiate conversations about teaching. A healthy amount of scrutiny serves us all well.


  17. Like you, Historiann, I have done this as a member of our PTM committee; we evaluate all untenured faculty every year. Our College requires this. When I was on the College level committee these could be really helpful: if the person had had bad student evaluations, a colleague could write “He was concerned about X after reading the student evaluations, and after observing the class, I think the students are writing Y because Z. I discussed this with him and he made a plan to do A, B and C.” Then it shows concern for improvement, and hopefully a trajectory of improvement. It also gives a colleague the opportunity to note “This class was in a horrible classroom with poor light and chairs fixed to the floor so that students couldn’t break up into groups. She did a great job under the circumstances.”

    I probably do more of these evaluations for graduate student instructors than I do for colleagues, actually. The letter that goes in the file is mainly descriptive–this is what happened in the class, this is what the students did, this is how they reacted–with a summary evaluative comment at the end. Then I write a longer one which goes to the person being evaluated.

    At my previous institution another colleague and I drew up a plan to try to solve the problem of summative vs formative evaluations (the problem of being judge and coach at the same time). Under that plan, all faculty, not just untenured, would be divided into pairs who observed each other’s teaching. All that went in the file was a note saying that the person’s teaching had been observed, which is what the college required. Any other comments went only to the person being observed, although they were free to put them in their file if they wanted. I have to say, this system sounded good in theory, but it didn’t work in practice. A senior person evaluating a junior person is always going to be perceived as judging, by one or both of them, even if that’s not the purpose.


  18. Historiann, I certainly agree with everything you say about the effects of the horrible job market on disciplines like yours and mine. The day when someone could get a tenure-track job in the humanities without being a talented teacher are long gone in most places. So, to answer your question as fully as I may: in practice, it is not likely that a department like mine will need to recommend that a person be denied tenure because his or her teaching has not met the contractual standard, nor that a department like mine will have needed to make such a recommendation recently.

    However, I think we should be less confident about tenured or tenure-track faculty in academic disciplines where market pressures are weaker and where new assistant professors are often thin on teaching experience. We can’t take effective teaching for granted there. You also mentioned observation of faculty who are not tenure-track. As a rule, they are not hired with the same attention as tenure-track faculty, and the classroom performance of part-timers ranges widely.

    My point was that the methods we use to look for effective teaching must permit us to discover that we have not found it. (I’m sorry to go Karl Popper on you.) Ruth, if I’m understanding what you say about your previous institution, an applicant for tenure (or promotion to full, or a merit raise) is permitted to pick and choose which teaching observation reports are included in the application materials. Doesn’t the evidence have less weight than it would if all reports were included? Shouldn’t it have less weight?


  19. I’ve never observed anyone (because I’m not on the tenure track), but I’ve been observed many times, at several different institutions. The approach I’ve found most useful is the one you describe, h’ann: the letter concentrates mostly on strengths, and suggestions for improvement are delivered mostly in a conversation (with perhaps a brief mention in the letter). They’re still an odd genre, especially when they serve multiple purposes: mentoring/professional development, salary/promotion review (contingent faculty have some opportunity for promotion, not to tenure-track jobs, but to longer contracts and/or contract versions of associate and full, sadly without corresponding salary bumps), possibly even defense against administrators who put too much stock in student evals.

    I’m certainly glad that we have class visits, but it’s still an imperfect system. In particular, we’re facing several problems that have to do with the odd structure of the department (a large writing program delivering core courses staffed primarily by non-tenure track people nested within a literature department with a declining number of majors but a much higher proportion of tenure-track faculty). One problem that arises is that the tenure-track visitors, almost all of whom are primarily literature teachers, don’t always understand the goals, format, etc. of a writing course (they tend to want to see “a discussion,” and to judge the success of the class on whether this mode is successful, even though many writing classes these days are workshop/group-work-based, with relatively little whole-class discussion). The other is that, since many of the non-TT faculty are quite experienced, and observations constitute part of the load for tenure-track (as well as tenured) faculty, it’s increasingly common to have a TT faculty member only a few years out of grad school observing a non-TT faculty member with 20 or more years’ experience in the classroom. That kind of disparity can work, especially when visits are reciprocal, but ours aren’t, and the situation does tend to highlight the fact that one assumption underlying many of the department’s procedures — that contingent positions are temporary and/or junior appointments — is incorrect. We contingents who teach comp would really like to visit and review each other, but we can’t because that would be “service,” and we don’t do service.

    And yes, the whole evaluation process is especially fraught for those of us who are evaluated on teaching only (no service or research), because teaching is especially hard to evaluate (at least once you get past some basic measures of competence). But a system which includes class visits and review of teaching materials, however flawed those approaches may be, is vastly superior to one which relies on student evals alone.


  20. Even if Karl Popper hired on to do the observations, the delineation of “effective teaching” based on its mere observation is pretty much a phantasm–at least by comparison with a lot of other aspects of occupational evaluation. A sales manager who stood on the doorstep with the drummer and heard the pitch and then went away without knowing whether a sale was made would have little to report. A scout who raved over a picture- perfect swing and the sweet pop of the bat, or the racket, or the shoe, on the ball, but didn’t know that the ball was still rolling two years later could not provide much feedback to the organization. An eye-crinklingly calm and coherent classroom instructor may be just a good performer or role player, and a seemingly mesmerized but still “engaged” student may get to the fitness center two hours later without an idea or even a fact in hir head. The “assessment” movement has tried to fill in this gap, but unless you’re a lot less skeptical about the short-term existence–much less measurability– of “learning outcomes,” this is mostly a dumb show to pacify the “accountability” crowd. Maybe every instructor of record, tenured or not, should be obligated to designate one student from each class for which they submit grades who will be debriefed in depth (at institutional expense) at the graduation+10 year mark, to see how their education contributed to their life trajectory. This wouldn’t tell you who not to tenure or reappoint in the meantime, of course, and at the end of the day, personnel decisions have to be made. But we should not be too optimistic that the tools are in hand or even in prospect yet to distinguish between effective teaching and effective classroom management. I’m sure they’ll be bringing the “value added” “instrument” up from Bloombergia USA to a campus near us before we know it, but hopefully not in my time.

    The most heart-stopping observation I ever submitted to had nothing to do with contractual requirements or with the process monkey. I was visiting at a department and one of the very luminaries in my field agreed to write letters for me but then sort of engagingly mused that it would probably help if ze could comment on my teaching. So there I stood a few days later on the verge of a stroke, with hir in the back row and me moving through still another knotty part of the basic course that I had neatly managed to steer around while teaching freshman seminars as a post-doc. I’m sure I screwed up about twelve major things in just that fifteen minute segment of the lecture, but on hir way out ze said “you know, I’ve been teaching this stuff for Xty-two years, and I had completely forgotten that so-and-so also went to X place in addition to his more famous expedition to Y…” Affirmation gratefully accepted. The dozens of observations that I underwent after landing on the tenure track were by comparison mostly just ritual.

    I especially liked Contingent Cassandra’s remarks, many of which resonated deeply, even though I haven’t seen specific examples of some of them in action.


  21. Thanks for your response, EngLitProf. I hear you. Perhaps Nicoleandmaggie (in the first comment) have maybe a situation like the one you describe on their hands. I don’t have to teach anything nearly as complicated as that math proffie must teach–I would imagine that breaking down a subject like that in order to teach it effectively is much more difficult compared to what I have to do.

    I hear what you’re saying about putting it all down in the letters, but I guess it all depends on your ultimate goal. If your goal is to improve the quality of teaching around your shop, then conversations about teaching are probably a better way to encourage that than admonishing letters. But as Ruth and you have pointed out, it’s not like the classroom visit and the letter itself can only be interpreted in one way. I can *say* that *I* want to have a conversation about teaching, but many junior and adjunct faculty might hear me being a busybody and a self-important jerk.

    Contingent Cassandra makes some good points about why I think that regular and contingent faculty should be treated the same (ideally humane) way in these evals. Contingent faculty are usually on 100% teaching contracts, but many if not most are also on the job market. I’m aware that people may include a letter from me in their teaching portfolios, and my goal is to help them find tenure-track employment if that’s what they’re after.


  22. For clarification: Tenure files at our institution include required materials, which include annual peer observations, student evaluations, and letters from former students solicited by the department. The files may also include optional materials submitted by the candidate, which may include letters from colleagues who have seen hir teach other than as part of a formal peer review, student letters solicited by the candidate, etc. So, the candidate does not get to decide what is included in the required part of the dossier, but may add supplemental materials.


  23. @Historiann: for whatever it’s worth, the great majority of the contingents in my program *aren’t* on the market, but instead have accepted that these are the jobs we can get, at least for the forseeable future, and are trying to make the best of the situation. There are varying reasons for that decision (including the fact that we receive something approaching a living wage, and do receive both health and retirement benefits; these are good contingent jobs as contingent jobs go, but it’s still galling that we don’t receive the same level of salary or job security or participation in governance/evaluation as the TT faculty, since our work is equally necessary to the work of the university). In my own case, I may at some point go back on the market, but it would make no sense for me to do that without having published more. I’m working on that, but of course it’s nearly impossible to keep up with those who are teaching 2/2s rather than 4/4/2s. Of course, if I were to pull together job materials and apply each year, I’d be spending even more time on activities other than the ones (writing/research/publishing) that might actually better my chances of getting a better job.

    My preferred solution to this would be to implement an approach the AAUP has suggested: transforming longterm teaching-intensive non-TT jobs (full- or part-time) into TT jobs with a teaching focus. I don’t have any illusions that that will happen anytime soon, if ever, since it would be expensive. Until it happens, however, trying to help present non-TT faculty get TT jobs isn’t going to do much good, since enough jobs simply don’t exist (though the work people in those jobs would do, and the workers who would fill them, do), and those TT jobs that do exist tend to value exactly what non-TT faculty have little time to do: publish.


  24. Another thing I was thinking about, only marginally-relevant to some of the key points on this thread, but when I do these observations–from the perspective of a small-to-medium size department– there are always in the classes a number of majors, who we see around the halls and offices regularly, and often more than once in our classes. When I go in to observe, I sometimes find myself watching students who I know, either well or more peripherally, but either way from the front of the classroom or across the desk during office hours or advising, or in some other structured heirarchical framework. And whatever the mission embedded in the observation “process,” I often find myself looking at and/or curious about other things [my K-teacher, Mrs. Goldsmith, would here roll her eyes and say, whatEVER, seen THAT one before…]. Because the same people behave differently in different roles and contexts, and it’s instructive to contemplate that fact in a concrete setting. This is good for vernacular anthropology and for my previously cited curiosity. What it does for the observee and the process gods may be another question.

    I also formulaically begin my observation reports by noting that there were three loud maintenance vehicles right outside the window backing and forthing, with those pestilential “back-up” beep-beep-beepers, or a Pepsi guy in the hallway by the door slam-dunking cans of ‘Light into the vending machine, because even if neither of those specific things is happening, there is always some sort of inexcusable and distracting sonic intrustion going on between the instructor and the rest of the room, and I want that to be a part of the cumulative archival record–presuming there is any such thing.


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  26. I like the idea of generosity and modesty and conversations about improvement; however, when someone is truly awful, I’m not sure generosity is fair to students, modesty is fair to the institution, or conversations about improvement are sufficient. As a TA I taught for the worst teacher I’ve ever encountered. The professor was relatively new, the class terribly disorganized (at the level of the syllabus and the the lectures), and the students were very frustrated (which was fair — it was hard to learn anything in that class). I spoke with the appropriate person in the department, but at the time there was no formal process for evaluating teaching — even of new faculty! The department saw the (deservedly) crappy evals and had heard (orally) from me, but there was no official record of anyone senior visiting, observing, and writing down the problems. When it came time for review, all the department had was the professor’s response to the crappy evals, but nothing from a colleague or supervisor that assessed the situation. If an institution wants to show that teaching is irrelevant, this is certainly a good way to go. But it seems to me to be irresponsible — to the students and to the faculty member. This is not a representative case and perhaps shouldn’t guide policy, but I think it’s a reason to not only evaluate faculty but to have clear expectations about what a review letter should cover. If nothing else: can a reasonably intelligent adult follow the class? can students figure out what’s going on? what might improve student learning?


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