Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The votes are in...

The results of the Fall 2010 course evaluations (performed on-line for the first time at our school...that a whole 'nother can o' worms I don't want to open right now, but, time permitting, about which I may soon blog) have just been released to faculty.

I'm not surprised by most of what I see in the numbers; my averages on most of the items are where they've been historically...translating the old items roughly into their new equivalents. I'm also not surprised by most of the qualitative responses to the very open-ended "strengths/weaknesses of the instructor/course" questions: very little that I've not seen before. I'm used, by now, to getting negative comments like "he goes very fast through some things..." I find this one particularly risible, since I know that I am the slowest and most methodical teacher in my department: I'd love to see what these students would have to say about some of my colleagues!

Though I take a handful (generally 3 or 4 out of some 80 or so students who responded, all told) of these in stride, and though there was a similar handful of critical but very helpful comments that will help me re-craft my classes in the future, there was one comment that troubled me. A student in one of my classes mentioned that s/he felt I "give different grades for people in different majors."

This, my friends, is out-and-out nonsense. I'm a little taken aback by this insinuation of favoritism. I do all that I can to avoid inconsistency in my grading. I do all that I can to ensure fairness, regardless of major, class rank, age, color, marital status, gender identity, religion...

Although I'm certain that an occasional inconsistency pops up on one item or another on a problem set or an exam (Bob got a 3 out of 5 while Alice got a 4, for essentially the same response), I don't hesitate a second to correct my own error if it's brought to my attention.

During one semester while I was a postdoc at Illinois, I taught a Mathematica-based probability course with about 75 students in it. (Many fun stories there, I can tell you...) Very close to the end of the semester, a student came up to me in the hall after class and said something along the lines of "just so you know, you've been really inconsistent in your grading all semester. My friend and I always give exactly the same answers and you always give him a higher score than me."

I was as taken aback then as I am just now, and said "this is troubling. I definitely don't intend for this to happen. It's hard to grade 75 papers consistently, and mistakes might pop up now and then. Can you bring me your work and show me where I've done this? I'll correct it right away."

He looked at me really sheepishly (or, rather, didn't look at me and looked away, at the wall) and replied: "well, I don't really have any examples on me, but I know it's happened."

My interpretation (especially given the fact that it was on the last day of class that this perception was brought to my attention): "I'm doing really shittily in this class, and rather than owning up to my own lack of effort during the past four months, I'm going to make a vague accusation of favoritism on the part of the professor at the last minute, hoping he'll cave."

Is this the case here? I don't know.

Listen: if this ever, ever, happens to you in one of my classes, let me know. Immediately. I will tend to it. Immediately. I'm a pretty approachable guy, I think, and I'm pretty easy to talk to and receptive of constructive criticism. I can't do a damned thing if you don't let me know how you're perceiving things, though.

I hope I've made myself clear.

Not to be continued, I hope.

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