The Huffington Post College page seems like an excellent new source for information on academic matters, but I think they handled this article from the Stanford Daily very badly. Their link is labeled, “Course Evaluations Set Professor Salaries,” which nearly gave me a heart attack. The reality is this:
Professors who are being evaluated for promotion or tenure must submit all course evaluations since their last promotion, according to Patricia Jones, the vice provost for faculty development and a biology professor. The results of those evaluations play a role in decisions about whether or not to promote a professor, as well as whether or not to hire a teaching assistant (TA) as a full faculty member.
The $64,000 Question is, of course, “What role?” I have no problem with the idea that one’s evaluation are ONE factor in determining whether someone is a good teacher or not, but then this quote nearly gave me a heart attack again:
Of course, although course evaluations are part of the promotion and salary-setting processes, Jones said the University values course evaluations as a measurement of teaching quality, too.
“Teaching is an important part of faculty work,” Jones said. “It is expected that our faculty are good teachers.”
Before going on, I should say that in ten+ years of teaching my evaluations have been consistently average. My numbers in survey classes are always lower than the average for the rest of my college. My numbers in upper level classes are always higher. I’m OK with that as I think it says a lot more about my students than it does about me. Therefore, I don’t really feel like I have a dog in this fight.
Nevertheless, what bothers me about that last quote is that teaching evaluations can also be an excellent indicator of horrible teaching. Just because a professor is popular is not necessarily an indicator of whether someone is a good teacher. Indeed, it might be the opposite. The only way to tell is for the people evaluating a professor’s teaching to visit the class themselves or read the comments accompanying the raw numbers which can tell you how seriously the students took the class. At Stanford, however:
“[D]epartment heads and administrators can only see the numerical rankings, while the individual professors and TAs may see the short answers — which Jones said lend useful insight.”
Why doesn’t anyone at Stanford seem to think that that’s a problem? I certainly hope the people judging salaries, tenure and promotion there take the time to read them all.