Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Feedback and Evaluation

So if you haven’t read the new collective bargaining agreement, also known as the Faculty Contract, you may not have noticed a little change in the student evaluations requirement. Under previous contracts, faculty were required to offer course evaluations to 50% of their students during a semester. Under the new contract 100% of students now must be offered an opportunity to complete a course evaluation. The university administration has directed the Center for Teaching and Research Excellence to implement an automated online system of student course evaluations. It seemed at first blush like two problems are solved by this new reality. First, an automated online system would standardize the course evaluation process across the university, eliminating the hodge podge of evaluations and relieving department administrative staff or the Institutional Research staff of responsibility of compiling data for faculty. Secondly, an automated system will provide a more comprehensive statistical analysis of the data. And of course with any new innovation there is a cost. The cost is embedded in the second problem that was “solved.” Any reliance of statistics to measure the ability or performance of a faculty member is misguided and intellectually lazy. Using a scoring system can open the door to all sorts of administrative mischief. For example, it I get a score of X and my departmental colleagues get a score of X+1 does that disqualify me from teaching that class or from serving on a departmental committee? Will it preclude me from being awarded a PAI or Faculty Excellence award? Will I be required to only teach certain courses because of my score? What I believe underscores the angst expressed by some faculty isn’t in the instrument or the process. I believe it is a fundamental lack of trust on the part of the faculty with the current regime. The incredibly inept College of Arts & Sciences reorganization is but one example of decisions made by administrators with no concept of how universities should be organized. The outcome of bad decisions like this is the erosion of trust. So when an ostensibly good idea, like this course evaluation scheme, is raised it can be attacked because the administration by its actions has laid a substantial groundwork for mistrust.
I believe there is an opportunity here to create some clarity for faculty as well. I believe that precision in language is important because language constructs ideas. Faculty should be evaluated as to their competence, performance etc. The only people who can evaluate faculty are people who are faculty and this should include Chairs and Deans because they should have been faculty and be prepared to return to faculty. All others may have opinions and those opinions should hold no weight. Evaluations connote a consequence. Performance evaluations connote some consequence for the person being evaluated. Students should never evaluate faculty. They should provide feedback to faculty about their experience. Feedback does not connote a consequence. Evaluation should be viewed differently from feedback. People with expertise evaluate and all others provide feedback. Maybe it is time to differentiate between the two and have the Departmental Application of Criteria reflect that. Students giving feedback should be done for the benefit of the faculty member improving his or her course. Peer and chair evaluations should also be done for the benefit of the faculty member and to create a consequence in the normal personnel process. It is up to faculty to eliminate the intellectual laziness that has pervaded our personnel process for years. Bring the substantial collective intellect to bear and address this important issue. Don’t get sidetracked by “killing the messenger” who brought the instrument. Focus on the underlying issue of what is important to faculty and don’t allow yourselves to get buffaloed by an administration that has routinely dismissed our centrality.

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