Stanley Fish: Good Teaching and Student Evaluations
I don't claim to be the best of teachers, but I always strive to do my best to teach students how to think, and I suppose that Stanley Fish does as well . . . if not better.
Nevertheless, Professor Fish doubts that students themselves are consistently the best judge of good teaching since much of what is learned doesn't immediately come to fruition, an observation upon which he elaborates in a recent article that a friend called to my attention, "Deep in the Heart of Texas" (June 21, 2010), written for Fish's "Opinionator" column in The New York Times:
A number of responses to my column about the education I received at Classical High (a public school in Providence, RI) rehearsed a story of late-flowering gratitude after an earlier period of frustration and resentment. "I had a high school (or a college) experience like yours," the poster typically said, "and I hated it and complained all the time about the homework, the demands and the discipline; but now I am so pleased that I stayed the course and acquired skills that have served me well throughout my entire life."Why does Fish think that students would be so blind to the fact that they are getting a good education from teachers whom they may even resent:
Now suppose those who wrote in to me had been asked when they were young if they were satisfied with the instruction they were receiving? Were they getting their money's worth? Would they recommend the renewal of their teachers' contracts? I suspect the answers would have been "no," "no" and "no," and if their answers had been taken seriously and the curriculum they felt oppressed by had been altered accordingly, they would not have had the rich intellectual lives they now happily report, or acquired some of the skills that have stood them in good stead all these years.
Students tend to like everything neatly laid out; they want to know exactly where they are; they don't welcome the introduction of multiple perspectives, especially when no master perspective reconciles them; they want the answers.In short, says Fish, concerning student evaluations of teachers:
But sometimes (although not always) effective teaching involves the deliberate inducing of confusion, the withholding of clarity, the refusal to provide answers; sometimes a class or an entire semester is spent being taken down various garden paths leading to dead ends that require inquiry to begin all over again, with the same discombobulating result; sometimes your expectations have been systematically disappointed. And sometimes that disappointment, while extremely annoying at the moment, is the sign that you've just been the beneficiary of a great course, although you may not realize it for decades.
Needless to say, that kind of teaching is unlikely to receive high marks on a questionnaire that rewards the linear delivery of information and penalizes a pedagogy that probes, discomforts and fails to provide closure.
"Deferred judgment" or "judgment in the fullness of time" seems to be appropriate to the evaluation of teaching.I have some mixed feelings on this point, for student evaluations can serve a useful purpose if reliably interpreted and properly balanced against other things, but I believe that I'm otherwise largely in agreement with what Fish lays out. As I remarked to the friend who sent me the column:
And that is why student evaluations (against which I have inveighed since I first saw them in the '60s) are all wrong as a way of assessing teaching performance: they measure present satisfaction in relation to a set of expectations that may have little to do with the deep efficacy of learning.
I'll have to think about Fish's arguments, though I've long held to some variant of them . . . without entirely dismissing student evaluations.I would hope that other students have had similar experiences of re-evaluating my teaching as time goes by, but that sort of thing will never show up on student evaluations handed in at the end of a semester when student are reacting to what they believe they've learned -- as Fish has made clear in his "Opinionator" column.
At Korea University, some students hated me for giving failing grades on plagiarized papers. One student, however, later . . . [was quoted in] an article [published in KU's student magazine, Granite Tower (March 27, 2007),] about the experience [of being caught plagiarizing] and receiving an "F":I suspect that at the time, this student at KU gave me a poor evaluation, but within a semester or two, the student's views had already shifted . . . albeit too late to do me any good (as Fish would note).At first, I really did hate him. I thought he was weird and odd. But now that I think about it, that professor was doing what was only right. College is a place that requires official documentation of a person's ideas and research. It is also a place that teaches academic attainments that can sometimes be abstract. It's a shame that the techniques to express the abstract knowledge are not offered at such a place.Later in the interview, the student added:Honestly, I don't think that other professors take the time to look over reports that we hand in compared to the professor who gave me the F.
I would add that in the article for Korea University's student magazine, Granite Tower, the student who later praised my teaching was in error about one thing:
We were never given a specific definition or exact regulation of plagiarizing by the professor nor by the school.This is incorrect. I always define plagiarism for my students, and very clearly, so I can only infer that the student must not have paid close enough attention to my warnings about plagiarism until she received a failing grade on the first draft of her essay.
But I'm sure that she understood by the time that she was working on the second draft.