Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Student Resistance

This started out as a companion post to Teaching Unwaged Workers below, but has also morphed into a response to a post by Tenured Radical about RateMyProfessors (RMP) -- the infamous site that collects anonymous student ratings and comments about faculty. My starting premise is that the current state of student evaluations is simply another symptom of students' unacknowledged status as unwaged workers and, like so many symptoms, it is unlikely to be cured without addressing the underlying pathology. But to get from here to there, let me start with some of the issues raised by Tenured Radical.

One of Tenured Radical's chief concerns about RMP is the fact that just anyone can write and post a review of a professor, even folks who aren't students.

what this means is that anyone can register as anyone and leave an evaluation -- for anyone -- that says anything. That's right. You could do it from prison if you had internet privileges, or from Afghanistan, if you were just farting around in between avoiding the Taliban.
Now, I have enough worries in my life without the added concern that anti-Taliban refugees might be gaming my student evaluations. For this to rise to the level of an actual concern for me, I would need some evidence that these sorts of abuses are actually having a real impact on the site.

This is from last week's Inside Higher Ed:
Last year, a scholarly study found a high correlation between and a university’s own system of student evaluations. Now, a new study is finding a high correlation between RateMyProfessors and a student evaluation system used nationally. ... The similarities were such that, the journal article says, they offer “preliminary support for the validity of the evaluations on”
This certainly matches my own anecdotal evidence. The comments I get online at RateMyProfessors are very similar to the ones I get in my more traditional student evaluations. And that seems to be true for many of my colleagues as well. If you think that student evaluations have a part to play in teaching assessment, then RMP may be as useful as any other survey instrument we have, even given the absence of any specific sampling controls.

However, further down in the article comes this interesting observation:
For his part, Sonntag [one of the authors of the study] acknowledged that some reviews are “so mean-spirited” that they aren't worth anyone’s time. But he said that if you cast those aside, there are valuable lessons to be learned.
This, I think, is really the point Tenured Radical objects to. It's that the comments on RMP can be so mean-spirited -- coupled with the fact that they are so very public. But why does this vitriol creep into our student evaluations? Where does it come from?

We like to imagine that we are reviewed by students in much the way we review books in our own fields. What matters is the content and ideas, with perhaps some occasional remarks on the style and presentation. But we would never comment on the way an author dressed, or if we thought they were "hot." We are not literature though. We aren't even pulp fiction. And the reviews we receive from our students are not reviews of our self-worth as human beings in any case even though we often tend to experience them that way.

Instead, we are reviewed more like bosses. And our teaching evaluations read much more like the reviews we write about our own Department Chairs and Deans than the reviews we write about scholarly books in our field. What this should point out to us, is that our relationship with our students is not simply one of teacher to student but that it is also colored by the relationship of boss to worker -- and boss to very poorly paid worker at that. Given this, I think it speaks well for our profession that we aren't more universally loathed by our students. That students resist the conditions of their work is unsurprising. That they find avenues to share their experiences with each other online on sites like RMP is also unsurprising. But if we are truly serious about addressing this particular symptom of student dissatisfaction, then we need to take a serious look at the material conditions of our students' lives in the academy that cause them to react like overworked and underpaid employees.


  1. You know, I just can't on board with characterizing the relationship between student and professor as one that mirrors the relationship between worker and boss. I think a better analogy for how the relationship works (that is not mine, but I can't remember where I heard it) is that of the personal trainer. The student, like the person who's trying to become more physically fit, pays someone with a certain knowledge and skill set (professor/trainer) for guidance and instruction. Now, the student/trainee has to do work in order to reach his/her fitness/learning goals. But he/she is not "the worker" in this scenario. The quality of the student's work ultimately doesn't have an impact on the trainer's livelihood (which it would if professors/trainers really were the equivalent of middle-managers with students/trainees as entry-level workers), but the the quality of the trainer's/professor's work (as evaluated by the person paying the trainer/professor) does.

    Also, and this is somewhat unrelated, I'd argue that some comments on student evaluations and on RMP are intended as reviews of the professor's worth as a human being. I've been called a slew of names on evaluations that have absolutely nothing to do with the conditions under which my students labor but rather with the fact that who I am as a person conflicts with their notion of what a single, youngish woman should be. Is this about my self-worth? No. But it is about the worth that they would like to assign me as a human being, regardless of what they learned or didn't learn in my course. It's not about my performance as either a boss or a worker. And I think that women, people of color, gays/lesbians, experience a lot more of this than those outside those groups, and I think that it can be detrimental to one's success in academia precisely because those who don't experience it call those who do too sensitive while at the same time they believe that those comments are as on target as anything else in terms of evaluating teaching.

  2. What Dr. Crazy said in the second paragraph--studies repeatedly show that women and faculty of color get worse evaluations from students. It's possible that all of us are much less knowledgeable and competent than our white, male peers, but unlikely. So, that RMP may track with course evaluations administered by universities doesn't make RMP more valid--it just shows that the same biases are visible in both review instruments.

    But, I don't agree with Dr. Crazy's analogy of the student-professor relationship as that of a customer-personal trainer. I think that the relationship changes depending on what courses you're teaching: are they core or required courses? Are they upper-level courses only for majors? Students who feel coerced are going to feel more like unwilling employees, whereas upper-level students may be more like people seeking the assistance of a personal trainer (but not always.) Students should take responsibility for their performance in classes--but they don't, and so they lash out at faculty members because we're the nearest authority figures, and because we're the ones that set the rules and (apparently ridiculous) expectations in our own classes. We are the bosses--if the price of being the boss means getting called some nasty names by immature jerks, so be it.

  3. Hi Doc Crazy, and hi again Historiann. Welcome to my humble blog.

    I see I'm going to have to work on my student/labor analogy. The distinction I want to make is the one between waged and unwaged labor, but I find that hierarchy difficult to highlight and so the more familiar boss/worker or business/consumer analogies keep creeping in instead. I do think there's still a useful argument to be made that student evaluations reflect their status as unwaged workers in the academy. I'll keep working on it.

    As for your second point, you and Historiann are both absolutely right. Student evaluations of women and faculty of color are significantly lower as compared to their white male counterparts. And that's a huge problem. In my post, I tried to remain agnostic about the value, if any, of student teaching evaluations. My only point was that whatever their value, RMP doesn't seem to have worse problems than any other survey instrument. But given that there are probably similar disparities in employee evaluations of female supervisors too, this difficulty may simply further highlight the ways in which students' views of faculty mirror those of employees' views of supervisors -- right down to the sexist, racist, and homophobic results. However, Dr. Crazy's remarks about the effects of these evaluations on women and minorities on campus are exactly right.