Evaluating the Evaluations

It’s evaluation time. For instructors and TA’s, I mean. And mine came out just as I imagined, all over the board. Some students loved me, others hated me, and a few were in the middle. I got comments like “Gradmommy is the best TA I’ve had at Stanford so far!” and “Gradmommy was unnecessarily aggressive and caustic and I didn’t feel comfortable sharing my opinion.”

I anticipated these diverse opinions. The class was on a topic that I am well-versed in, sociology and culture, and education and race. The class was mixed – from undergrads to master’s students, all in education. The class was theory-based, while the students were mostly policy oriented. They were to co-facilitate the discussion with me, but when I felt they were moving the discussion in the wrong direction, I moved it back.

I know I differed from my other TA’s in several ways. First, I am the only one that has children. And I think that makes a difference when we are talking about children and education. It’s one thing to think about all the things that need to happen in education, what things need to change, what parents need to do, yadda, yadda, but when you don’t have any kids of your own, when you can’t put yourself in a parent’s shoes, the reality doesn’t hit you as hard. So I know I brought that into my section.

Second, I didn’t hesitate to being my opinions, my research, my point of view into the room. I also tried, and maybe did not always succeed, to make sure that every student should feel like their opinions are welcome in the room. I made a point of speaking personally to one student who I knew his POV was more conservative and traditional to let him know that I welcomed his comments. I tried to challenge all my students, even the very leftist ones, the very progressive ones. One student commented on the evals that they enjoyed being challenged, and that other students were definitely put off by it, but that they thought it was good for them as critical thinkers. That’s what I thought too.

Lastly, sometimes I told my students things instead of spending a lot of time trying to get them to come to it on their own. For example, in lecture we had a short discussion where some very stereotypical comments about Asian Americans were aired and just laid out there as truth. The professor asked us TA’s to address it in section. I think the expectation was to have a short discussion about it, but to me, a discussion wasn’t going to work because it seemed that few people found what was said in lecture to be problematic. So instead of discussing, I just tried to breakdown why the comments were in fact problematic, the racism that underpinned those comments, how we as a society would not say those things about any other group, and how we need to think about such things before we open our mouths to say them. I admit, I was angry and annoyed, as I usually am when I encounter racism and ignorance. Some of my students probably didn’t like that.

I wonder how my other TAs evaluations turned out. I shouldn’t neglect to mention that this was a class taught by a black woman, and that the other TA is also a black woman. I shouldn’t therefore be too surprised that my evaluations are so varied; had I been a white man, perhaps “aggressive” and “caustic” may not have been the adjectives that particular student would have used to describe me. I guess there are things I can learn from these evaluations, but I’m not quite sure exactly what.

2 thoughts on “Evaluating the Evaluations

  1. I felt foolish years later when I had to look my evaluations over for job applications, but the truth is that I never read them during the 5 years I was reading. The problem is that I’m an overly sensitive person and I loathed even the idea of reading them.

    The only ones I looked at briefly were the ones from my Continuing education classes,since those were sent directly to me after the term was over. And I My other regular dept. classes’ evaluations, remained with the dept’s secretary.

    Mentoring was scarce, nearly non-existent in my dept, so the professors never told me to go read them. I probably should. Doing so might have thickened my skin and made me a better TA and instructor (I TAed for 3 years, then was an instructor on my own for nearly 2).

    I’m not very confident about my teaching at all, so yeah… I should have used the evaluations from all those years as a sounding board to get better and to learn and become a better teacher.

    I’m glad you can be so objective in “evaluating the evaluations.” And then, again, you most certainly have much thicker skin than I do. I can’t stand my own sensitiveness, in fact. Sigh.

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  2. I think my thick skin in this case is only because I could tell what the students thought about me, and the things they said were actually true. I know that I have a strong assertive personality and I’m a black woman, and some students are going to have a hard time with that when the topic is race. And I’m a hard grader (although I give TONS of comments and actively encourage office hours), so evaluations are going to be low simply because of that. And the type of students didn’t mesh well with the type of class – it was a lot of actual teachers coming to get their masters in educational policy, in an sociology of education class that was very theoretical, and not policy oriented at all. I think they were bound to be unhappy with the class, and who best to take it out on but me.

    I think I’m really able to take this well because all I wanted to do was get through this quarter, and finish the TA experience. The last time I TA’d, I didn’t finish the quarter because I went into the hospital. So my goal was simply to finish. And I did that. So I was pleased with myself!

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