Evaluating Teacher Evaluations

I was intrigued by the proposal to make public students’ evaluations of their UC Irvine instructors in the “Motion to Release Teacher Evaluations” article on Feb. 9. It would be a nice way to end the misguided dependence some have on RateMyProfessors.com (RMP), where anyone, student or not, can post an evaluation, and there is no control over sample sizes or bias of participants. A number of assertions made by interviewees in the New University article, however, need context and consideration before they serve as a basis for a new policy.
ASUCI Vice President Oracio Sanchez claims, “There is no accountability” associated with evaluations. Despite the honest sentiments behind the initiative, this claim is simply not true. A teaching assistant or non-tenured instructor could be prevented from future teaching on the basis of poor evaluations, just as she may receive a raise on the basis of exceptional ones. Tenure-track professors may find their status imperiled by consistently poor evaluations as well. As for Sanchez’s claim that the Academic Senate’s recommendation to encourage better participation in online evaluations would not work, I have to say that it has indeed worked for the course I teach; a pilot program last year netted over 90 percent electronic evaluation participation, and the percentage remained high for fall 2008.
UC San Diego student Deepak Ravi suggests that publicly available evaluations would promote professorial “competition [that] is healthy because professors can no longer ignore students,” and responds to the suggestion that professors may aim to be more entertaining or give higher grades to improve their ratings this way: “such assumptions degrade students.” Before acting on this initiative, UCI policymakers should research the many studies that demonstrate statistical correlation between instructors’ physical attractiveness and higher evaluation scores, and other studies that link higher grade averages with higher evaluations. The latter is important in part because studies have also shown that students’ physical attractiveness leads to higher assessments from their teachers.
More generally, Ravi’s claim about professors “ignoring” students degrades all of the instructors who do quite the opposite, yet are often ignored by some students in their classes. To address what seem to be gaps in trust, credibility and perhaps accountability among some students and instructors, a number of suggestions come to mind in the spirit of this proposal to reinstate the Teacher Evaluation and Course Handbook program, of which I offer two for the discussion ahead:
1. On the assumption that free information about instructors’ past performance will positively affect the way teachers interact with students, with no way for prospective students to interpret any skewed data (How attractive is the professor? Did her spouse die in a car accident that quarter when she got really low numbers? What kind of person is the student? Or any number of non-teaching-quality concerns), I propose that students’ high school and college transcripts be made available to instructors so that we know what to expect from them when they enroll in our courses. Surely our expectations of students’ past work will positively affect how we interact with them in class. Perhaps photos of the instructor and student from a random day in class should be included as well, to help prospective students determine possible physical biases.
2. I take my students’ assessments of my work very seriously, and very often they read like letters to me: specific, productive, thoughtful and not public postings; that private quality changes my teaching more than my RateMyProfessor.com ratings could ever do. If students would feel so much responsibility for other current and future students and therefore be serious and honest in their evaluations, they should not feel troubled by filling out a second evaluation for public use. Keep the current evaluation system as it is, and supplement it with a university-based (i.e. non-RMP) way to share their feelings. Perhaps ASUCI could sponsor such a resource, since UCI’s budget may be too strained at present to consider such expenditures.

Brook Haley is an instructor for Humanities Core Course. She can be reached at jbhaley@uci.edu.