I read this piece in the Emory Wheel and asked permission of the Emory University student newspaper editors and the author to reprint in the AJC as I thought it was well done and interesting. The author is Andrew Brown, a senior at Emory University. Enjoy. You can read the Emory Wheel online.
By Andrew Brown
As I write this op-ed, I am sitting in the penultimate lecture of one of my classes at Emory University. In a moment, the professor will begin to teach. But I will keep writing this piece rather than pay attention to her because this lecture (like every other one she has given this semester) will be boring and disjointed, and it will tell me nothing that I won’t learn from reading the textbook.
Unfortunately, I think many Emory students have had similar experiences in their courses. In this particular class, only about half of the students show up to each lecture — and those who do pass the time by noodling on their iPhones or doing work for other classes. (At the moment, the student to my left is reading “The Game” by Neil Strauss, and the one on my right is playing games on his calculator.)
But today is unusual in that not a single student is skipping this class. (That doesn’t mean they are paying attention though — they aren’t). This is because the professor is going to add 1 percent as extra credit to the final grade of the students who come to class today. This incentive was given because today we fill out course evaluations. Useless as her lectures may be, my professor is right to stress the importance of evaluations. (Whether she is right to give bonus points for filling them out is another question, but I’m not complaining.)
What she may not realize is that Emory’s system for evaluating professors is broken. Course evaluations are really important. In theory, they allow professors to improve on weak areas of their teaching while also allowing the dean of faculty to detect incompetent professors and take the appropriate measures in response. I say “in theory” because that isn’t what actually happens. What actually happens is that everyone tears through the college’s bubble sheet evaluation and maybe writes a sentence or two on the department’s course-specific evaluation form.
No one really says what they actually think about the class or professor because to distill their thoughts might actually require 15 or 20 minutes of contemplative writing. That would mean having to remain in class longer than absolutely necessary, and who would want to do that?
Certainly not me.
I am as guilty as the rest. I fly through evaluations simply so I can leave earlier, and I must confess that most of my professors have therefore been deprived of the criticism they have earned.
But today I will make an exception. I feel so strongly about this professor that I am actually going to take my time with the evaluations and speak my mind. Tuition is $19,000 a semester at Emory — for that significant of an investment, I demand a certain standard of education.
But it shouldn’t take a semester’s worth of bad lectures to inspire me actually to finish an evaluation. There should be a new system for evaluating professors. The bubble sheet alone is inadequate; any meaningful critique of the professor must come through words.
Even if students are given ample time to complete evaluations, they still probably won’t fill them out thoughtfully.
Therefore, the writing of evaluations must be incentivized in some way. Maybe every student should be required to write a short essay, say 200 to 300 words, about each class. This would force students to do some thinking.
Never mind that no one wants to write that much. The benefits that come from such a system will far outweigh the student discomfort.(And of course, if such a change were implemented, I will have graduated by then, so writing four more essays at the end of the semester won’t be my problem.) Maybe the essay idea isn’t a feasible solution. The department heads may not be able to take the time to read thousands of short essays. (But do they even take the time to read the thousands of short answers produced by the current system?)
But Emory administrators must at least recognize the problems with the current process for course evaluations and take necessary steps toward improvement. Students come to Emory seeking a solid education — bad professors should not continually be allowed slip through the cracks simply for lack of an effective evaluation system.
– From Maureen Downey at the AJC Get Schooled blog