Teaching Evaluations Too Timid

September 2000

[The following letter by Board member Harvey Shulman, was published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 28, 2000, page B13. The paragraph deleted is printed below.]

In "Some Colleges Pay Students to Go to Class -- to Evaluate Teaching" (June 23), the importance of teaching is again diminished by those who speak most enthusiastically about its importance. To be clear, I am not opposed to teaching evaluations, despite their frequent misuse and misapplication to performance evaluation. This is probably no more distorted than the evaluation of research, which rarely involves reading what is written or asking questions about content, rather than equating scholarship with productivity.

The problem is that universities are too timid and disinclined to address matters of substance and intellectual quality. Teaching evaluations -- like research evaluations--have been packaged, processed, and professionalized. What more can we expect than having teaching assessed in terms of style, delivery, being note-taking-friendly, affability, and being "interactive"? Sadly, the quality that is missing, and seemingly not missed, is content.

Does anyone care what is being said? Does anyone think it is important that instructors spend time reading, and preparing lectures and seminars that say something, ... rather than worry about practicing smiling or watching videos to rid themselves of idiosyncratic mannerisms?

Deleted from the letter submitted:

Does anyone understand the loss to our students of not encountering that professor who inadvertently "smoked" his chalk because he got excited about an idea and rambled on completely disconnected from his class, as he thought and spoke at the same time in some seemingly far-off reflective land, as if no one else was around.

And for this experience the student evaluation might indicate that 63% of the class noted that the professor failed to make eye contact, 72% said he doesn't stick to the lecture outline and 81% pointed out that he had distracting mannerisms. Teaching and learning centers are the morticians of the academy; the body looks good, but the person is dead.