Field of Science

Another fine semester shot to hell

As they say about flying, any landing you can walk away from was successful, so this was a successful semester. There will still be a few loose ends: a senior who wants to use all too familiar excuses in lieu of accomplishments. The day or two following a semester can be eerie on a college campus; the quiet, the emptiness. A quad that was bustling with people just a day ago is totally deserted, and if you don’t have some gizmo stuck in your ear or buzzing in your pocket, the quiet provides you with an opportunity for reflective thought, a dying art in an era of short attention spans, mobile distractions, and jingoism discourse. Where are thoughtful young people going to come from? Even in the university thought seems at a premium, and so my thoughts turned to a student commentator who opined that student evaluations of “teachers” were a sham because no matter how “bad” the evaluation the faculty never got fired. Indeed, what of student evaluations in this day and age? Speaking from a great deal of experience, you learn a lot about what students like and don’t like, but very little about what was effective teaching. After all, what do students know of teaching or learning? Do we ask students what was effective some 5 or 10 years post graduation? No, let’s get an opinion right now while those labor-intensive assignments are still fresh in their minds and they have yet to see what success in the real world is all about. And if you are one of those reviled professors, was it because you made them think, and it was hard, like really, really hard? Many moons ago my fate was intertwined with a senior colleague in a team-taught course, and his pandering, his lite-weight coverage of the subject, and his easy exams were shocking , and his teaching evaluations were sky high while mine languished at merely average. And he taught what seemed to be the behavior of baby zoo animals while genetics and evolution were left for me. Cute vs. dihybrid crosses, easy vs. hard, fluff vs. basic biology; clearly a no win situation when the scale is based on student likes and dislikes. In subsequent years, when partnered with another member of the faculty, my teaching evaluations instantly jumped over 1.5 points on a 5 point scale without changing a thing except the basis for comparison. So what do really high teaching evaluations tell you? And thus my expectations for teaching accolades are modest, and the grand thing is that they do not matter at all at this time of year when quiet reigns.

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