Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Radio Silence and the Bullshit of Student Evaluations

Quick note: between the end of a busy semester and the beginning of an even busier semester, I took a few months off of all non-essential activities, blogging included. Life is once again in a manageable state, so blogging will resume. Schedule your life accordingly.

I just got my student evaluations from last semester. Student evals are a lot like novelty liquors -- amusing for a bit, but something that doesn't serve any real purpose (and gets gross pretty quickly). We've long known that they're basically bullshit, measuring less if an instructor is effective and more whether the students thought the class was easy or the instructor was white enough. And yet, like so many things we know don't work, student evals still form a cornerstone of evaluating instruction.

Because I'm a youngish white guy whose classes are fairly easy, I overwhelmingly get good reviews. But one type of comment I get at least once or twice every semester just drives me up the damn wall -- specifically, when a student claims I have a "liberal bias."

This annoys me for so damn many reasons, chief amongst them being that I'm not at all a liberal, so it's weird to be labeled as being biased toward a political view you don't even hold (it always reminds me of the time my religious hero Frank Cordaro was at a panel discussion and someone accused the panel of being too liberal, which caused Frank to bolt upright from his seat and shout "I'm offended at the very accusation! I'm not a liberal, dammit, I'm a radical!").

But the bigger reason it annoys me is because I strive very much to include a wide variety of perspectives in my courses. Hell, I have my students read James Q. Wilson! Which is a name you either had to google or you're already an academic criminologist. To save you the few seconds on google, Wilson is probably the most prominent conservative criminologist in the history of the US. I bring this up not only as a concrete example of the fact that I include at least one ideology I don't hold in my courses, but because it demonstrates the real reason why I find accusation of liberal bias to be so annoying -- to legitimately assess my level of bias means the accuser would have to be so familiar with the entire field of criminology, in both breadth and depth, as to be able to discern that I am either omitting or greatly misrepresenting one or more schools of thought. However, to have the level of knowledge necessary to make that call, you would basically have to have a Ph.D. in the field, or at least be a very advanced graduate student. And if you have a Ph.D. or are an advanced grad student, what are you doing in my 300-level undergrad course?

Because as much as I try not to be, I may still be biased in the classroom, but no undergraduate student is in the position to judge whether or not that's true. This is one of the many reasons I wish these evals were not anonymous, so I could actually ask these students what they mean by the accusation. Do they have a real argument as to why they think I'm biased (which would be super interesting and I'd love to hear), or is it (as I very much suspect) that calling card of modern conservatism in which any fact that challenges your world view has to be not the result of serious scientific inquiry but instead the pernicious crime of liberal bias? Because every time a student has accused me of being biased in person it has always become quickly clear by "bias" they meant "teaching things I don't personally agree with."

To bring all of this back to this most recent batch of evaluations, I got a new one this semester. According to one student (this is a verbatim quote from the evaluation), my course this past semester was the "only sociology class in which I actually learned something and without far-left rhetoric being shoved down my throat."

Of course I'm not trying to position this eval as more real because it speaks positively of me and the others as bullshit because they don't, I include it because it's just as bullshit as the "bias" evals, and pretty concretely demonstrates the point I'm making. If students actually had the requisite knowledge to judge the level of my bias, they should probably come to similar conclusions.

And regards to the exact same class, for one student I had a liberal bias and for another student I was the only person in the entire department to not have a liberal bias. Why it's almost as if these comments are not at all rooted in an empirical assessment of my teaching abilities, but instead based on the vague notions of people barely out of their teenage years...

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