Tuesday, May 15, 2012


So, I just got what are described as Course Instructor Feedback forms, which are course evaluations.  Of course, I never feel that the course is being evaluated.  It is me.  And my evaluations this time placed me in the very good but not quite excellent category -- a number that should satisfy but feels like failure. 

This semester, I taught two theory classes.  One in film theory and one in feminist and gender theory.  These are always tough.  Both are required courses for the major and both involve lots of dense and difficult reading, with lots of jargony language. I try to account for that as best I can, to unpack the readings and make them seem relevant to the students.  Generally, there are a small number of students who love the courses -- the super smart kids, the ones who like the really tough stuff.  And there are a few who hate it, and me.  Often, these are kids who do not like or cannot handle super academic stuff  (weird, right?  at college?  But the vast majority do not like theory, want film classes to be more or less film appreciation, or to teach them what they already believe.)   Usually, the ones who hate it latch onto feminism as a way of saying what's wrong with me.  "How was the teacher?"  "She was a feminist."  So, in a sixteen week class in which we discussed feminism one week and queer theory one other week, one of the film theory respondents said that I spent the whole semester doing feminism and that it was not a film theory class at all.  I guess he forgot about Munsterberg, Benjamin, Metz, Altman, Kracauer, Bazin, Chion, Gorbman and all the others we read who had NOTHING to say about feminism or gender.  Others will complain that I make them see old movies -- they want me to show what is in theaters, I guess, instead of things like THE PAWNBROKER, BAREFOOT IN THE PARK, FRANKENSTEIN, KLUTE, THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP (isn't that recent?), DR. HORRIBLE'S SING A LONG BLOG (again, isn't that kind of recent?), ALIEN (how bad is that?), LETTER TO THREE WIVES, SOME LIKE IT HOT, PILLOW TALK, or HAIRSPRAY (okay, that is three that are from this century) I am supposed to show, what, TWILIGHT?  IRON MAN?
So, I know that evaluations will reflect this span and that in a difficult required course I am facing an uphill battle.

But what baffles me is the gap between my experience of the class and the final evaluation.  In the gender theory class, especially, I felt like I was reading the wrong evaluation.  This was a class with students who had chosen gender studies and therefore would not blame me for being a feminist.  This was a survey in which the span of readings -- from Wollstonecraft to Halberstam -- was clearly mapped out. This was a class in which the kids came to class every day prepared and ready to speak.  They had opinions about the readings and always seemed excited to talk about them.  And they were able to talk about them on their final exam.  We got into deep discussions daily and we also laughed and seemed to form a bond. It seemed like a love fest.   But when I got the evaluations, there were clearly some people who felt differently. 

But even more baffling is that in both classes the numbers did not match the comments.  In the written portion, they said I was a great teacher, well organized, knowledgeable, accessible, that the class was well organized, that I explained things clearly, was accessible, etc.  In gender, they loved that I had them blog and do a PR project.  In film, they appreciated that I let them do a film instead of a paper for their final assignment. 

Ad it isn't just me.  A very good friend of mine has also faced this lately.  I taught with her, have seen her in the classroom, admire her teaching tremendously and know that she really teaches her students well.  But the evaluations never reflect that. 

So, where was the failure?  Part of me imagines that people who get the tip top marks on these things pander to students.  But that is probably a cop out. Maybe I am the teacher they remember later?    Maybe challenging students is undesirable in the current student as client climate?   Maybe I just have a dissociative disorder and can't tell a good experience from a bad? Is this what it will feel like when my kids have to go to therapy to deal with whatever damage I have done to them, whatever troubles I am blamed for?   


  1. "what baffles me is the gap between my experience of the class and the final evaluation" -this is often my sense too, whether the evals are good or not as good as I'd like. They generally reveal that what I think of as a class "going well" is very different from what a student is likely to think of as a "good class." I think this may be inevitable but that doesn't mean it's not depressing to think about it. Another thing that I find equally vexing: courses I think of as successful might have lower numerical scores than courses I remember as frustrating, disappointing, to the point I would avoid teaching them again. So the longer I teach, the less I invest myself in this kind of feedback.

    Anyhow, I always like your blog - have been reading for awhile. Chris Becker sent me.

    -mike newman

  2. I know, but while I may think it is not super useful, I know that the university takes it seriously and pays/renews/promotes on the basis of it. Still, good to know I am not the only one who can't figure it out.