While putting the package together, I remembered that I never read my teaching evaluations from the last semester that I taught in Texas. For over a year, a bundle containing students’ anonymous opinions about my classes sat sealed and untouched since the day they left the registrar’s office. To be honest, I kinda forgot I even taught one of those classes.
I fully remembered my senior-level history class. Those evaluations were perfectly normal with nothing unusual. Looking at an envelope marked “Freshman U.S. History – Reconstruction to the Present,” though, caused me to blink a few times. I taught Freshman History? Really? I checked to see if my name was on the paperwork. Huh – Why didn’t I remember? Was I drunk? Probably. Looking at the evaluations in that envelope, though, made me remember why I
For that Freshman class, I assigned five books. One of those five books recounted the experiences of gay men and lesbians serving in the military during World War II. Why did I assign it? Well, I assigned it for the same reasons that I assigned the other texts: To push at the notion that a universal perspective about U.S. History exists. Different groups encountered and understood their role in the United States based on their race, gender, class, and sexuality. We also read books on African American women, Mexican-American Migrant Workers, Puerto Ricans during the Spanish-American War, and South Asians’ immigration to New York. All those different people considered themselves “American” and their histories impacted the larger nation. I explained that idea on the first day – and printed it on the syllabus – and reiterated it when we started each book – and had it engraved on a coffee mug that I used daily.
Oh, how some Texans in that class hated me and hated learning about the gay men and lesbians. Actually, they seemed to forget that the book was about lesbians as well. They only could remember the gay boys, who were less than 1/5 of the course content. Here is a sample of students’ comments:
The reading for this course was more about homosexuality than the history of the U.S... For a history course required by the university in most degree plans, the reading needed to be more about history than the social movements carried out by a liberal very small minority of the population. It was more of a civil rights and social/homosexual rights course instead of a general history course.
The material was more appropriate for a special topic class, not a basic history course. His readings deal largely on homosexuality and skipped over major events in history... Gay soldiers in World War II had an entire book! ... The material was offensive. While we were given fair warning, this was the only time I could take this required course. He should not [underlined three times] be allowed to teach this same class again.
I am confused as to why homosexuality was involved in our history material. I think this professor would be better off teaching a history of homosexuals course. [Sounds good to me! I hope my department chair reads that.] While I have nothing against homosexuals . . . [intro] history doesn’t mean [intro] homosexuality.
Less readings on gays – they are not important.
This is the worst [underlined three times – Three-times underline must be the universal for expressing strong emotion] class I have ever taken... The subject matter & some of the texts was [sic] undeniably inappropriate and offensive. If I had wanted to take a class about gay culture I would have signed up for it... I do not even believe that your decisions about your sexuality should be a factor in the education I am paying for.
This professor’s extreme fixation with all things homosexual seemed out of place for [intro] history. The books had little historical value, and seemed more in line with a gay sex education class. I hated this class with all my soul.
So, though we read five texts, these students clearly only remembered one -- and not even really that one beyond the subtitle. This was the same class where a student’s mother called the dean’s office asking that I be fired for assigning that book and (HORRORS!) telling my class that I was gay. Clearly, she said, I was pushing my radical queer agenda on her poor child.
You know, I had forgotten about it, but that call really put a crimp in my style. It nearly distracted me from pushing my radical queer agenda on her poor child. (What type of loser, btw, has Mommy call the dean’s office when they are in college? Yeah, way to be an adult there, Timmy.)
This isn’t the first time that I have had these types of comments in freshman classes. Nor do they always go ballistic over gay stuff. I have also had students complain that we read too much about Latinos and African Americans rather than the “real” history of the U.S. My favorite comment on a teaching evaluation came my first semester in Texas, also for a freshman U.S. history class. It said, “American history should be taught by Americans.” That comment left me confused for weeks. Was it an oblique reference to the fact that I am part Latino? Or was my perceived political stance “un-American?” Did he not think New Mexico was part of the U.S.? If I wasn't American, from which nation should I be seeking citizenship?
My home institution is 90 percent white in a state with a non-white majority. I am told that some time ago the university conducted studies to see what happens to their students after they graduate. Well, it turns out that a great many of them land solid jobs right after graduating. They, though, end up being disproportionately fired from those jobs. Why? Because they often encounter racial and sexual diversity for the first time and can’t handle it. They have no idea how to interact with people different from themselves. As a result, the university has tried to improve its curriculum and add “diversity” – Enter GayProf. So, instead of harassing their fellow workers, they get to vent of all of their negative-energy onto professors through anonymous evaluations.
Let’s get this out in the open. When professors complain about teaching evaluations, the automatic reaction is to assume that they are a baby, can’t take criticism, and/or have a delusion that every student will always love them. Well, pass me that pacifier, 'cuz I hate evaluations – And you are lying when you say that all my students don’t adore me.
Teaching evaluations have become so institutionalized, so sacred, that even slightly complaining about them must mean that I hate students; or that I am a terrible teacher; or that I am in league with Catwoman in a secret plot to take over Gotham. Well, okay, that last one is actually true, but that’s just a coincidence.
To be honest, I receive just fine evaluations from students in terms of numeric scores. Actually, I am amazed that I do as well as I do given the material that I teach and the amount of work I assign. Hell, if I was a student, I would resent me – but secretly daydream about me as well. Mmm – Me.
Given all of that, when students break out the number 2 pencils and bubble in their little forms at the end of the semester, I usually come out between “okay” to “pretty darn good.” So, it’s not really sour grapes on my part – More of mildly tart raspberries.
Students, to my mind, should have control and agency over their education. Moreover, professors should be aware and receptive to the needs of their students. Trust me, I pay attention to the things in the evaluations that help me improve my work in the classroom. I make note of the things that students actually like. I have retained certain texts for use in subsequent semesters because students responded to them. Likewise, I have dumped books that clearly left them too confused. I don't just wait for the end of the semester, either. When a particular class is not going well, I will often solicit feedback from students. During the semester, I talk with students about the course direction and their own goals in learning.
Students, however, are not adequately informed to the purpose of the evaluations or criteria to gauge their classes. They don't see them as a professional activity that reflects on them as much as on the professor. As a result, many base their assessments on things other than the amount of content or skills that they learned. They want a class that entertained them. College isn't TiVo. In lieu of being entertained, they will take a class with the least amount of work.
We, both students and professors, need a new system. The bubble-sheet with anonymous comments is just our collective laziness. They really don't tell us that much about how effective we are in the classroom (in the same way that standardized tests tell us nothing about the skills of primary-school teachers).
As a result, nobody really cares about teaching evaluations at my institution. Sure, there is plenty of talk about the evaluations. At the end of the day, though, as long as I don’t burn my students with cigarettes, these evaluations will neither advance nor harm my career.
So, what do I do with these particular evaluations? Well, first they tell me that a) some students remained unconvinced by my pedagogical approach [I would be delusional to think that all would be] and b) Many Texan students are hateful and homophobic to the point that they perceive even learning that gays and lesbians existed in the past as a personal assault on their soul. Those students didn’t like the class because they refuse to see gays and lesbians as really part of the United States – or as human. That’s not really news to me.
To be honest, though, I am simply not in business for those students. Rather, I organize and teach history courses because they are many, many more students who want to know about the past beyond the same old tired stories about George Washington’s false teeth.
If I could use negative evaluations, though, to get out of teaching intro history and, instead, teach a gay-sex class, I would break out the cigarettes right now. In the meantime, I think that I will assign a book on the history of transgender people in the U.S. next semester.