Just when you think the CoHE first-person essays have settled down into terminal mildness, along comes the pseudonymous Louise Churchill to shake things up. This time, though, multiple targets seem worthy of readerly ire. Certainly, I sympathize with Prof. Churchill's general predicament: she teaches at a college where, apparently, the numbers on one's teaching evaluations somehow overpower all other proofs of teaching quality. Thus, Churchill explains, her chair "had observed me in the classroom and had heard praise about my teaching from students, so she had trouble meshing all of that with my scores, which are generally slightly below our institutional average." In other words, despite Churchill's ability to demonstrate that her students are actually learning something, despite her chair's firsthand knowledge of her pedagogy, and despite the testimony of a number of her students, she is not officially a "good" teacher.
Hence, Churchill argues, there's only one way to improve matters: "I need them [the students] to like me." We all like to be liked, of course, but that hardly measures how effective we actually are in teaching Bleak House. It is unfortunately the case (for us, I mean) that the most incompetent instructors may also be charming, winsome, and personable in all respects, while some of the most brilliant and influential may also be monsters of the first order. By the same token, the monster may be incompetent and the charmer may be brilliant. But it's difficult to know who is who until long after one's schooling is complete. Moreover, education generally involves many things that are not especially fun--I don't recollect enjoying calculus, for example--and not all 18-to-22-year-olds can distinguish their dislike of the subject from their dislike of the instructor (a problem that is not, I hasten to add, limited to that age group!).
Churchill's solution, however, struck me as being both misguided and potentially over-optimistic. Since being warm and cuddly didn't improve matters, she has decided to pump everyone's grades full of helium. After all, "I hear from students and other faculty members that grading standards are quite lax among a significant number of my colleagues, most of whom already have tenure." (I confess to wondering if hiring graduates from this college is altogether a good idea.) Leaving aside the fallacy involved in Churchill's self-justification--no matter how much she qualifies it--it's not clear that scattering high grades with a lavish hand will necessarily result in drastically higher teaching evaluations. Affect them, certainly. But speaking as someone who generally gets respectable teaching evaluations, I find that the course itself influences the scores more than the actual grade distribution. I've received very strong evaluations from courses where nobody got an A, and fairly grouchy evaluations from courses with a lot of As--but required courses always poll lower (sometimes much lower) than electives, no matter how well the class actually performs. Similarly, freshman composition does not inspire students to utter hosannas of praise--and I see that Churchill teaches a couple of composition courses per semester. Now, this behavior may just be our students, but I've heard anecdotes from other colleges which suggest that this is a familar evaluation pattern.
Obviously, if Churchill's campus wants to misuse evaluation data in this fashion, then there's nothing much she can do about the situation. Perhaps, post-tenure, she can give up on being "liked," and return to teaching her students how to punctuate.