This post continues with the theme of Teaching Evaluations.
As I've mentioned before, I write not only from the point of view of someone who is evaluated by students for my own classes but also as someone who, in the course of serving on various committees, has spent much time poring over other professor's teaching evaluations. In addition, I team-teach with various faculty, so I see them in action in the classroom once or twice a week for a term, and then compare notes with them later when we see our teaching evaluations.
Teaching evaluations are flawed in many ways and should be viewed carefully, but most students know a disorganized instructor when they see one. A large number of consistent negative comments about technical issues such as a professor's lack of organization during class, missed office hours, classes that go way over the scheduled time, assignments that are turned back very late (or never), and other logistical issues are surely accurate.
I doubt, however, that students can accurately evaluate a professor's level of knowledge, the depth of a professor's interest in being a good teacher and, in some cases, whether a professor means to be as rude as he/she seems.
I do not doubt that there are unambiguous cases of professors being rude and insulting to students. Professors who are deliberately rude to students should face negative consequences for this destructive behavior.
But consider these examples:
I team-teach with a professor who cares about teaching and who treats students with respect. He is not, however, a warm and nurturing person. His lectures are clear, he welcomes questions from students during class and answers all questions in a serious way, he conveys interesting and important information during lectures, and he gives exams and assignments that are fair and relevant to the material presented in class. Is he considered a good professor? Not really. Each term, there are comments in student evaluations that he is "unapproachable" and "arrogant". He gets comments about how just because he is so smart doesn't give him the right to look down on students. I can see how students would find him fierce in some ways, but I have been attending his lectures for years and have never seen him be rude to a student or discourage 'stupid' questions. And he works very well with undergraduate students in his research group. He hates reading his teaching evaluations at the end of each term because it is such a demoralizing experience. Why can't students see through the frowns and appreciate the atmosphere of learning and respect? To me, this is a prime example of flaws in the current system of student evaluation of teaching.
And here is an example of a student who interpreted insulting behavior where there was none: A failing student came to my office to talk about her grade. She was extremely upset, near tears, and convinced there was nothing she could do to get a passing grade. I showed her that her grade to date was within range of passing if she passed the final, or even if she showed improvement over her other exams, and I offered to go over the review questions and sample exam with her, question by question, in person or by email. She did not take me up on this offer, nor did her attendance in class improve. In my teaching evaluations, this student (who provided enough identifying and specific information in her comment so that she was the only possible person who could have written it) wrote that she was extremely insulted by how rude I was to her. Her evidence: When she was so upset about the possibility of failing the class, I smiled at her. My smile indicated that I thought it was funny that she was failing and that I was happy that she would fail. She was outraged about this. I should be fired etc. etc. I suspect that many professors have similar stories.
The difference between these two stories is that, in the first case, there is a consistent pattern of criticism. In the second, the student's negative comment was a hostile outlier in an otherwise positive batch of evaluations. Hostile outliers are painful to read, but they are easier to ignore than the other kind, which can look convincing if they persist over time.
I see many hostile outliers in other professors' teaching evaluations. Unless there are many negative reviews with specific comments, many of us who are professors who evaluate teaching performance, in part by examining teaching evaluations, don't consider the hostile ones as significant.
If there is a consistent pattern, we need more information, and we typically have more information -- in the form of peer evaluations, which tend to be quite comprehensive. Also, in cases where there is a clear lack of respect, there are typically many specific anecdotes. In the case of consistent comments along the lines of "He/she was intimidating" but nothing more specific, it's quite possible that the professor has not done anything overtly disrespectful to the students.
I am already anticipating my teaching evaluations for this term. Overall my classes went well (says me), but there was one student with whom I had a persistent communication problem that bordered on the bizarre at times. Another student in another class was sullen and angry the entire term; apparently not because of anything specific to me or the class, but who knows?
Do others anticipate negative comments from students after a particular incident or conversation? I wish I didn't, but it's hard not to.
13 hours ago