weird and unprofessional?

I received my teaching evaluations back from one of the universities at which I was employed last semester. Overall they were mostly ‘negative’. ‘Negative’ in a relative sense, I got 3.72 out of 5.0 when the minimum is 3.9 and 4.3 earns you a letter of commendation. How to take the criticism? Some of the comments were extremely helpful and even thinking about students assessing my performance helped me think about my teaching practice. Some questions were not really relevant (no materials in the library — didn’t use the library; lack of direction — I didn’t have much direction either as I was given it 2 weeks before semester with no material!! etc.). Adjusted then, I got pretty close to the ‘minimum’. If I was to teach the course again (which I am not), then it would be very different. Some responses were interesting however, especially the critical comments about my blog. Here are some cut’n’pasted comments from the section about me (that don’t include any indentifiable references to the course). Spelling, etc. retained from original, while numbering has been added:

1) I feel that Glenn is not confident in his teaching. I also would like to take this opportunity to raise awarenes to Glens blog on the net. I feel this blog is inaapropriate especialy when students work is mentioned
2) A bit vague at times but fun dynamic and extremely interactive. I liked having a younger teacher as he made me feel like we can actuallyachieve this as a career in the near future.
3) He is a good lectureer and knows his stuff however sometimes he can be a little intimidating to approach & not always gives adequate feedback
4) Not always approchable often very negative towards students
5) overall – a good teacher
6) mumbles – but we have realised that is how he talks which is understandable. Straightforward which is good but I believe he could be better and he has a blog which is weird and unprofessional

Hmmm. Weird and unprofessional? Really? Maybe my students don’t understand they can write comments on my blog if they don’t agree with something I have written, as a few students have in the past? And that I am even willing to let through abusive and offensive comments as I have also done in the past (albeit not from students, not unless they moved to Korea).

In a certain sense, I do have a real problem being ‘professional’. ‘Professional’ has a number of senses. ‘Professional’ can mean the construction of a persona for the purpose of some sort ritualised social relation organised around the service-based economic exchange of skilled labour. I am pretty good at what I do, and I am learning all the time, so I don’t think it was this sense of ‘professionalism’.

There is another level of ‘professionalism’. I understood very quickly I needed to be ‘professional’ for the sake of my students who cannot cope with their teacher being human; affectively, it is a question of comfort. (A bit like not wanting to think about eggs as baby chickens.) The problem is I don’t believe learning is meant to be ‘comfortable’. Some students can cope with being uncomfortable, question why they feel uncomfortable and rise to the challenge of whatever is uncomfortable; others want to expel whatever stimuli is producing discomfort (‘this is too hard’, ‘you are not nice’, ‘weird’, etc.). Sometimes this lack of teacher-as-robot ‘professionalism’ is a product of having an excess of charisma and the opposite problem of students being too comfortable arises. This is the problem I had with one tutorial cohort second semester last year. I guess I need to find a balance.

Of course, the distinction between public/private is reproduced in the context of the university, especially those universities that directly service the bourgeois… So the presence on the internet of something that these students would like to keep private (even though I have never revealed any identifiable information when discussing students), means that these students find it uncomfortable or even offensive. It is odd how some students readily admit they are being lazy and so on, but others want to cover up such character flaws. Having a blog doesn’t really allow you cover up anything…

17 replies on “weird and unprofessional?”

  1. Here are some of my observations, which I can’t really knit into anything coherent. (I have an inexplicable headache)

    – You tend to use the blog, and sometimes your teaching, as epistemological opportunities, ways to think through the processes of thinking. Perhaps the students don’t like feeling as though they are cogs in your cognition?

    – Or maybe they are alienated by the abstract ways you approach things and that is why they think your blog is ‘weird’

    – Perhaps there’s a balance between discomfiting the students and placating them. I think you should take heart from the student who said you were fun and dynamic and made Young Academia look achievable to them

    – You say learning isn’t meant to be comfortable; but perhaps your students thought you weren’t comfortable as a teacher (symptoms: the mumbling, the unapproachability, the vagueness)

    – Your students appear hesitant to engage with your blog. Perhaps they think of it as ‘your space’, would leaving comments here seem to them like picking a fight with you in your university office?

    – I would disregard the ‘unprofessional’ thing as I reckon it’s one of those buzzwords people use when they want to be generally critical or can’t articulate precisely what they were uncomfortable about

  2. “Perhaps the students don’t like feeling as though they are cogs in your cognition?”

    Very good question. I never thought about it like that. I was blinded by my own sense of adventure. I guess I’ll have to reassess how I present material.

    I was very uncomfortable teaching this class much of the time. It wasn’t really in my field and I do not really like the way it is normally taught in universities. I came to terms with this early in the semester, however. It forced me to adjust my ‘normal’ teaching style.

    I didn’t have an office!! (Which made consultation a little difficult…)

    Some good points, mel. Thanks.

  3. Yeah, I don’t wanna sound critical or something but i would be a little put off if i were a student of your’s and said something on those evaluations that ended up on here. for one, that seems very dodgy privacy wise (and not in the bullshit legalistic sense, but more in that the evaluations are best thought of as a contract between students and their teachers where opinion is not meant to go beyond internal university systems). and for two, it’s just unimpeachable – first students offer criticism (constructive or otherwise) then they see it splashed up here, in a space that definitely is your own, no matter how much you push the dialogic nature of blogs. where can they go?

    but then, of course, i’ve only ever been on one side of the equation. i just get a sense, like Mel, that students are simply instruments in a quest to something else. that’s a disservice. well, actually, at worst it repeats service-like characterisations of student-hood.

    i’ll stop punching above my weight, now.

  4. But, Lawson, how would students know that these comments belong to them? Or, more importantly, how would anyone else know? You can comment anon.

    The evaluations are not primarily a contract with students and teachers, but a disciplinary tool used by university administration who, unfortunately, have no idea what the course is about or the way it is run. For a brief moment students gain the power of a dean or something to assess the performance of teaching staff.

    Even one of my best students said (in person) I was an arrogant ass, albeit one that pushed her to achieve her best work, which she did. That is the way I have taught until now. I haven’t really cared what my students think of me, just as long as they achieve something. These sort of student evaluations change that dynamic and I don’t know how useful it is. I don’t plan on being ‘nice’.

    Students would be a resource on a quest to something else, beyond reflecting on my pedagogical practice, which is what this is, if the course was relevant to my own interests; as a sessional lecturer or tutor, the courses very rarely are (maybe part of one reading or something).

    There is another problem that I have been thinking about in terms of ‘dignity’, like I don’t seem to have a functional appreciation of ‘dignity’ and it kind of shocks me when I hear people speak at the bookshop with extreme gravitas, but that is for another blog post.

  5. I’m completely with glen on the disciplinary function (and much more besides) of evaluations. Basically the whole process is fucked, and I can’t think of a single redeeming feature — at least, not in its current form. Perhaps there are ways in which such evaluations could be used and administered such that they could break with the education-service-consumerist, “student-centred”, learning-“experience” logics that have overrun (and which over-run) university education, but I’m not interested in lending any legitimacy to the present system — i.e. by effectively depicting it as imperfect but well-intentioned and ameliorable attempt to make teaching accountable — by offering suggestions in that direction.

    Having said that, there’s something in Lawson’s comment and glen’s response warrants thought. Lawson suggets that there’s something dodgy “privacy-wise” about posting student comments to this blog, and glen counters with the very reasonable point that it’s all anonymous, so no one’s privacy has been invaded. But I wonder whether the affective response on the part of the student has less to do with a feeling that his/her privacy has been invaded than with the differend between the privacy discourse and the student’s sense of the status of the feedback. The discourse of privacy here is what causes the wrong, precisely by privatising it and denying the possibility of any wrong via the mechanism of anonymity, thereby defining hurt only as a public experience (and thus only according to a very specific concept of public-ness). In effect, the discourse of privacy says there can be no (public) hurt in this instance, because no one’s identity has been revealed and therefore no one knows who wrote the comment.

    But someone does know who wrote the comment (or at least thinks they know who): the author of the comment. Of course, it’s always possible that someone else wrote the comment, that the student is wrong and was not, in fact, the author of that particular comment, either because the teacher is citing an identical or near-identical comment by someone else, or because the student has incorrectly remembered what he/she wrote, or because the student merely identifies his/her own thought with that expressed by the comment, and so thinks of the comment as something he/she could have written. All of that just goes to show, however, that the private is never actually private and that student feedback is not so much anonymous as pseudonymous (the lack of a signature being a type of open-access nom-de-plume, rather than an absence of author-ity as such).

    Now, if we begin from the fact that someone feels a hurt from seeing their feedback published, rather than from the question of whether it is right that he/she should feel such a hurt, we are met with a question: why does (as distinct from why should) this person feel such a hurt? what kind of a relationship between addressor and addressee is imagined by the addressor, such that he/she feels a hurt in this way? Given the fact that within the terms and available comportments of privacy discourse no such hurt could be felt, this suggests that the student does not in fact understand the communication to be private as such. And that’s not all that surprising given the ways in which both public and private spaces are rapidly being reconfigured and reinscribed by mobile and internet technologies, surveillance technologies, consumerist modes of address, legal challenges, etc., such that privacy is increasingly being de-coupled from anonymity and domesticity, among other things (though this topic deserves a full-length post of its own).

    I’m speculating now, but I wonder whether the student sees the feedback provided via evaluations not so much as a private communication, then, as a personal one, as one addressed to this person (i.e. the teacher) and this person alone (even though the communication is received in or by several points within the institution before it arrives at its supposed detination). To that extent, what’s at issue here is not a breach of privacy but a betrayal of trust or of confidence, such that the communication has something like the structure of a secret. It’s speech act begins thus: “I ask you not to tell anyone that I think that …”. In that scenario, the publishing of the comments breaks the confidence regardless of whether the author is named or not.

    None of the above should be taken, by the way, as an attempt to legitimate the student’s complaint. It’s rather simply an attempt to identify what’s happening. Personally, I’d be just as inclined to tell the student to get over it as to recognise their right to feel aggrieved.

  6. i think glen that your students thought you were educated for the course you were teaching why apply for a job that you are not confident enough to do.. you let down your students and most of them got frustated with you because you couldnt teach them probably
    i love [university] for firing you it was very good of them to realise you werent a good teacher at all

    glen: edited to remove university name

  7. also if you want to be professional how about you dont have a blog that displays private evaluation comments on it .. they are for private issues.. stop doing it maybe so your students might take you seriously

  8. anita, thanks for participating in this ongoing conversation. You raise many important points, here are a few points in response.

    Teaching should not be a private issue. ‘Private’ implies something that should be hidden. I have been careful not to reveal any information that could indicate what the course I taught involved or even which university it was, because to do so would be to ‘reveal’ something I don’t think I should reveal. I don’t presume to speak for others.

    On the other hand, I value getting feedback from readers as they give me different perspectives and actually help me think about teaching as a craft. I understand I am relatively young to be an academic and I am learning how to be an effective teacher as I go. Maybe you do not understand the context, but this is actually the first formal feedback I have received for a course I have completely run by myself (albeit one I inherited from someone else).

    Perhaps instead of blasting me for whatever deficiencies you may perceive it would be more productive to think about how and why the human capital (experience, confidence, etc.) of academics is not developed or seen as a worthy investment by the contemporary university. I luckily have friends and mentors who have no formal workplace responsibility to assist me, but actually do go out of their way to offer support and advice.

    But not everyone has this support. One of the things I thought about before posting this post was the lack of open discussion about teaching in unversities. I have no qualms posting material like this, even though, for example, it may paint me in a bad light. Besides revealing the nature of the course, another reason I didn’t post the positive comments because I know what I am good at, as do most people. In a professional context, I don’t know in what areas I need improvement, because otherwise I would improve those areas. Maybe this post will help a few junior academics? I don’t know. Maybe it will also help a few students understand that their lecturers and tutors are not the knowledge-based service-industry fastfood cheeseburgers.

    I wasn’t fired. I was employed on a short term contract that wasn’t renewed. Apparently the university in question now draws on the teaching resources of a large institution in the relevant profession. This is a very good scenario for the very few students who have a chance at getting a job there (perhaps one or two students). Not so good for the rest.

    Lastly, and maybe you’ll be surprised to know this: I didn’t apply for the job, I was contacted by the university to teach. They actually wanted me to run two units, but I already had responsibilities teaching at two other (better paying) universities.

  9. Hey Glen,

    I was apart of your class last semester. I’m not here to have a go at you. I think that most of the class has already done that, even to the point of going on your blog.

    I won’t deny that i, and i can only speak for myself here, did give you an evaluation that wasn’t as nice as the others that i gave.

    Whilst this may sound childish, it is part of the reason why i made the comments i did. Most of the lectureers that i had, even teachers, when i was in school, seemed to enjoy what they were teaching. As you pointed out, comfortability was one of the problems you had. I think that also impeded on your enjoyment of teaching the subject. In this way, i found it difficult to connect with the content of the subject, as you yourself seemed to have a difficult time connecting to it, for whatever reason.

    If this was the first formal teaching experiance you had at a UNI then well done for trying. I think that it’s more than i could do, and would take a degree of courage. Credit should be given where due. Whilst i’d like to say that i was fair in my evaluation, i won’t lie to myself and say so. Perhaps if i had known i would not have been so harsh, or inconsiderate. I think this may also bring up the fact that despite your inability to connect with the subject matter, you failed to connect with the class, at the very least. Which would account for some of them saying that you were arrogant and, in lay- men’s terms, a hard- ass.

    Like i said before, i am not speaking on behalf of anyone else apart of the class. I am speaking for myself. I haven’t lied to myself or to you through this “confession”, if you’d like to think of it that way. I have been honest. I don’t think that you connected with the subject to be comfortable, and enjoy teaching it. On top of that, you didn’t connect with the students or the class. I think if you could have at least achieved this, your evaluations would have been half- decent.

    In the end, i did come out of that subject knowing something i entered it not knowing. So i left with more knowledge. That can only be a good sign for you. At least you made a difference in the class to one student. I’m sure if you took away the anger and the hate some of the others have towards you, you, and they, would probably be able to tell of one thing they learnt.

    In the end, i don’t think that time spent learning is time wasted, ever. Even if it is just one thing that i can say i learnt. Truth be told, i’ve been able to use most of what i was taught in conversations, so i guess i owe you a thank you for making me sound smarter! 🙂

  10. Hi John,

    Thanks for your comments.

    Not the first time teaching by far; rather, it is the first formal student evaluation. However, this is my first year of teaching without having to do a PhD at the same time.

    I can be arrogant and a hard ass. For sure, these are some of the things I am working on.

    I did not want to dwell on the feeling of being uncomfortable, as I had tried to express my point with some tact. But both you and anita seem to be hung up on these lines:

    “I was very uncomfortable teaching this class much of the time. It wasn’t really in my field and I do not really like the way it is normally taught in universities.”

    This could be unpacked, it is late, briefly:

    It was not the course content I felt uncomfortable about.

    The student cohort was radically different to the students I normally teach, and with which I have experience. The university was also very different. I was warned about the differences, but didn’t really understand what this actually meant. The ‘class’ was not the content but the actual students and university context.

    My field is something I am an expert in, i.e. I could give lectures on it without preparing too much at all, perhaps a few loose notes. For that to happen I need to design the course. This unit was problematic because the set text was chosen and the reader and unit outline were already assembled before I was hired. I had to figure out how the course was designed. This was annoying and sometimes confusing for me. I now know that I should knock back work running a course when I have no hand in designing the course.

    I did not like the way the course was designed, not because of that course in particular, but because of the assumptions in such university courses in general about future employment and the character of the job market. I take a different perspective on the direction of the profession; that it is changing, and the way it has been taught for 20 years needs a re-jig. Maybe I should not have tried to nudge the class in the direction I think the profession is going.

    So different student and university context and the way the unit was designed were problematic for me. Content is actually the easiest thing about teaching.

    I am glad you learnt something. I hope it proves useful in the future. If that does happen, maybe I’ll get another evalulation…

  11. Hi Glen,

    I made the second comment that is listed in your original post in my evaluation and I just wanted to let you know that I thought the class was worthwhile and I enjoyed it. I’m not here to point out your flaws or ridicule you in a public forum, merely I just wish to reiterate the positive aspects of the class that I think have been somewhat overlooked.

    Although you would have designed and ran the course differently if given it again, I thought the class provided me with an opportunity to challenge my own perceptions on what I considered to be a “university education”. It isn’t always possible to have a course served on a silver-platter by the perfect waiter and to ask for it is to ask for something without a human condition, something that doesn’t make mistakes and go AWOL for a while but rather lives and breathes a perfect deliverance, a perfected content and perfect relationships with others. If anybody could find this person, be it a lecturer or not, I would beg to meet him but something tells me I will meet him only on deaths door. Being presented with this challenged me to overcome mindsets like “uni is a breeze”, “all I need is to get a pass” and “my lecturer is such a pushover” and gave me further motivation to learn and develop my own skills outside the standard 3 hour teaching slot.

    Albeit your teaching methods may not have been ideal they certainly were not mundane. Breaking through our delusions that we will be top award-winning journalists in our first year out and enlightening us on the struggles of freelance journalism, your hard-hitting (and sometimes hard to hear) and unconventional methods if anything made the course seem more real and something worth attaining if we had the mental strength to do so.

    Similarly, I liked the challenge of being presented with content I was unfamiliar with and a lecturer who was a square peg in a round hole in a world of academics who, according to stereotypes, are most commonly older and “stuffy” in their teaching methods.

    I find it interesting that my peers feel that you could not or did not connect with them. I disagree with these statements and I would challenge that ‘connecting’ with someone is based on mutual two-way communication and understanding. Although they may claim that you did not reciprocate in this relationship, we cannot forget to ask how forthcoming were they really? Did they make a wholehearted effort to understand you, how you work/teach and the unit or did they find it easier to simply slander you as ‘unconventional’, ‘unprofessional’ and ‘weird’ because you weren’t what they expected? I think you made the best effort you could with the best resources you had available and that you should be commended for what you tried to achieve in this class.

    On a side note, calling you strange because of your blog is unjustified. I would challenge whether their Facebook profile makes them any less of a “professional” student or a “professional” at their job. Our teachers as well as our close friends are allowed to have faces outside the halls of universities.

    I’m not going to point out the flaws in how the unit was handled – I think that has been over-done at this stage and that we have all learnt from it – I just wanted to let you know that not all of your students thought the class was pointless. I agree with John’s comment where he says “at least you made a difference in the class to one student” and I would reiterate that you actually made a difference to two – myself included.

  12. Hey Glen,

    Interesting conversation here. Which is why I do not think student evaluations simply mean a ‘student centered’ process, as someone suggested. What has resulted is a lively discussion where students have engaged with this blog as a medium, and honest opinions have been expressed between ‘teacher’ and ‘student’ ( an old dichotomy if I ever saw one). I think you are right about having a close awareness/involvement of the design of a course. Unfortunately, with sessional teaching and the casualisation this is no longer possible. I am about to undertake teaching a course for the first time whereby I have had no input into its design etc. My approach is going to be being clear about where I am coming from at the start, and work very hard with students to think through the material together, allowing plenty of time for their opinions. I am seeing my role as getting them to review the course, rather than me. I see myself, at this point, as simply a facilitator with certain theoretical tools at my disposal. This may change though.



  13. Hi Glen

    I do not think anita speaks for the whole class as I know for a fact that half the class thouroughly enjoyed the subject and the way you approached and taught it. I am confident you made a difference to more than just one student in the class and I think you deserve to know that. Its a shame your contract was not renewed.

    Good Luck in the future.

  14. Glen,

    I have enjoyed reading the comments given by your students and your well-thought out responses to each point. I do believe that the blog is certainly a new and undiscovered medium that allows feedback to be discussed at least in a “turn-taking” manner, unlike other arenas ie. face-to-face debate. Your ability to have your students to give you formal feedback and then to be able to follow this through with their reasoning is a testament to that you have certainly encouraged them to reflect on their learning process.

    The days of didactic teaching are well and truly gone when you are able to discuss feedback and allow others to justify their criticisms.

    As you know with my field, I am responsible for only small group teaching and on occasion single lectures, but it is often with material that is well and truly above the student’s level of understanding. In my limited teaching, I have not received formal feedback and wish I could have the opportunity to hear both positive and negative feedback, and miss out on this aspect to learn “how to be an effective teacher”.

    I am sure none of your students will be forgetting your class any time soon…

  15. Glen,

    I was also a part of your class last semester and truth be told, I had a love/hate relationship with you, and the subject itself.

    I don’t think the issue was really how awkward or uncomfortable you felt, it was just that you got off to a bit of a rocky start, and the students had less respect for you from day one.

    You gave me relatively good marks, I was pretty stoked to get a HD for my final article, and even though I was sure you may have attempted to cut my idea down. You provided me with constructive criticism, which I appreciated.

    It was pretty shit that those evaluations were so harsh…that was partly due to bad timing. I know that I talked to another student towards the end and we agreed that we shouldn’t have been so harsh…you were getting better and better every week.

    I really enjoyed the class…and I am happy to say that I did learn a fair bit from your lectures and experiences.

    Good luck in the future mate.

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