'Tis the season for teaching evaluations (yet again, yet again), so in the spirit of this special time, I shall continue my intermittent evaluation of evaluations and teaching.
On quite a few occasions in my career, I have been a member of various sorts of evaluating committees that examine the research, teaching, and/or service activities of faculty within and beyond my department. In some cases these committees look at a single year of activity, and in some cases they consider a longer record. The latter cases can be quite fascinating, particularly with respect to an individual's teaching experience, because these multi-year records demonstrate in a dramatic way a very important but not surprising thing:
Most of us start out as not-great teachers.
I can't really defend my use of "most". Perhaps I should use "many", as I have not conducted a systematic study of this, but my impression from years of evaluating teaching evaluations is that "most" is probably correct.
To our students: We are sorry. Most of us don't mean to be lousy teachers when we first become professors.
But here's something cheering: Most of us figure out how to improve our teaching after just 1-2 classes within each level of course.
The worst evaluations I have seen for new professors have been for introductory level classes. Introductory level courses for non-majors at a university may be the most difficult kind of course to teach because of the (typically) large number of students, each with different priorities, interests, and learning styles, and because the physical environment (large lecture hall) may not be conducive to positive interaction between professor and student.
Some professors figure out how to improve their teaching with the aid of teaching development workshops; most figure it out just from experience. Student evaluations are important in the self-improvement effort because if something went really wrong in a course, many students comment on it. I always hope that among all the students writing comments along the lines of "You spent too much talking with your back to us while writing on the board", at least one, at some point during the term made a comment on this so that improvement could be made during the course. In many cases, logistical problems like that disappear from the teaching evaluation comments after 1 term.
In theory, some of us learn how to teach as graduate teaching assistants, but being a TA for a lab or a discussion section is very different from teaching a course, so, although TA experience does help, it's not enough. You have to teach a course to learn how to teach that course well.
So again, to the students: We are sorry, but unlike some other professions in which there is a training process for a major job component, many of us focus on research during our 'training' years and then are tossed in front of a class and expected to know how to deal with the complex logistics of teaching. You would think that, after spending many years sitting in classrooms, a person would know what to do and what not to do, but it doesn't work that way.
In some of my classes, students give presentations. These students are in the process of learning how to communicate clearly and effectively (in part by doing these presentations), but it always amazes me how common it is for them to do the very things that they no doubt hate in their professors: long text-filled slides (that they read), mumbling, lots of ummms, inability to answer questions on the spot, no (obvious) statement of the main point, or poor organization of complex information. Clearly, most of us need practice to learn how to convey information in an effective way to a particular audience.
And, unfortunately, we have a system in which professors practice on a class or two before eliminating some problems.
Years ago, I had a minor surgical procedure during which I noticed that the doctor was becoming agitated. He was also taking a very long time. I started getting nervous so I asked him if everything was going OK. He admitted to me then and there, while holding a knife that had already been used on me, that he had never done this procedure before by himself and it wasn't going as well as he had hoped. I asked, as calmly as I could, if it would be possible for him to get another doctor to help him, and he agreed that this was a good idea. A more senior doctor was sought and finished the procedure. I wasn't too happy about being the young doctor's first solo-surgery experience, but I figured: someone has to be the first patient.
I bet that now, years later, that doctor calmly does these procedures often and well. At least I hope that is the case. It is the case if the doctor analogy is at all applicable to professors whose first solo-teaching experience does not go very well. (The analogy does break down a bit after that, though, so go ahead and send your bitter anti-tenure rants and your "I had a professor who had been teaching for 47 years and was horrible" rants if you really must.)
I chose the description "not-so-great" above because, from what I've seen and read, most of the teaching problems are not course-destroyers. That is, most of us are not total disasters when we first start teaching as professors, and even among those who are, in all but rare cases there is improvement after a term or two.
I empathize with the students who are being practiced upon and who may have emotional scars (much like my little surgical scar that could have been avoided with a more experienced doctor), and I am always impressed by those who write evaluations such as "I know this is your first year teaching and [insert helpful suggestions]."
I even feel sorry for those who feel compelled to write, typically in all-caps: PROFESSOR X SHOULD BE FIRED. These students clearly spent months feeling angry, frustrated, and perhaps afraid of the effects of this awful course on their academic careers. I feel sorry for them, but I wish they could know that the professor needs advice (from both students and other professors) and experience, not firing. Advocating firing a new professor who is learning how to teach is not a very constructive suggestion, although perhaps in extreme cases such dire comments help signal the severity of the problems that need correcting.
That said, if someone has been teaching for many years and/or clearly doesn't care about teaching well and/or or has failed to learn how to communicate effectively and/or does not know how to deal well with student questions and course logistics, then such drastic comments are fair.
But in a professor's first year? No. Even though I appreciate how difficult it is for students who are in that first class of a new professor who is struggling to learn how to teach, I think we should all try to figure out a system that would minimize the painful disasters, try to be patient with annoying-but-not-too-terrible problems, and find constructive ways to make the teaching/learning experience better for faculty and students.
10 months ago