It's Not Me, It's You

Professor reading own reviews to the assembled.
By Kate Bowler
The sweet summer cannot fully begin until the season of self-hatred is at an end. It's student evaluation time and by now they should be on your desks, your laptops, or your wastebaskets wetted with tears. Every year I hear professors casually trade wisdom about the act of reading and processing student evaluations. So today I thought I'd categorize the comments that have felled even the mightiest American religious historians among us followed by the best advice I've heard so far.

You Didn't Talk About...
 Alas, this student is not really interested in what you said. After 13 weeks with you, they are very disturbed by what you didn't say. Most likely, they are listing nationalities, religious minorities, or events in American history and adding a question mark. American Taoism + the Vietnam War? Ukrainian Catholics + the Great Depression? These question marks are there to remind you that if this course was a survey or had dates in the title of any kind, your failure to recognize these realities has probably ruined the course. The result can be endless paranoia about the perennial question of coverage.

Best Advice: Return to your course objectives. Did you promise to address something and didn't? Maybe, but probably not. But did you give students a theme or question to explore that they could apply to almost any subject? Make those questions more explicit and give the students regular chances to apply them to their own curiosities. And if they don't or won't, they were lazy to begin with. And were fortunate to have worshiped at the shine of your know-how.

I Think You're Just Trying to Make Me Feel Bad.
American religious history is a therapist's treasure chest, and you have inevitably raised some issues about the ethics of race and gender that have pricked people's consciences. Or just made them feel something and, come evaluation time, you are about to pay for it. Not as in Dead Poet's Society, but more like rabid wolves discovering a Mennonite campsite. 

Best Advice: Find a great intro essay or speech of your own about the responsibilities borne by studying history. What does it mean to inherit a past? Then, if you're really lucky, remind them you're Canadian and that you didn't make this mess.

You Were Insensitive About...
In covering several hundred years of history or a range of subjects about which you are relatively (but probably not perfectly) familiar, you have likely stumbled over a subject that bordered on the deeply personal. You arrive in the classroom not as a talking head but as a whole life, a filter for living memories in a body that has become, for your class, temporarily representative. And your words have become an echo chamber of things you said, things you meant, things you didn't mean, and all the sundry things that people heard. If this were a game of telephone you'd probably give up and try and distract them with birthday cake.

Best Advice: If you were wrong, take the hit. If you were misunderstood, consider re-tooling either the lecture or perhaps the impression of the class as a whole. Do you have a profound lecture on slavery but then never bring it up again? Try and make big issues into regular features or sub-themes to remind the class that you're paying attention. And if your words were grossly distorted, remind yourself that people hear what they want to. This person probably tells department store clerks that their elevator music is too loud.

When life hands you lemons, by all means, feel free to cry because those things are sour. But if some students hand you lemons, remember that you're not the first person to need some (southern) comfort after reading your evals and you are always a shot glass away from some pretty great lemonade.  

What's the best advice you have gotten or given so far?


Historiann said…
This is great advice, Kate--thanks for posting it.

I don't get comments like these on my evaluations, but that's because I don't teach history of religion courses specifically. I feel like I hardly touch on the subject, especially in my survey course, but I've been accused of being a "religious nut" because I've lectured at all about the history of American religion. (That was an evaluation that was very surprising for me to read. I figure the students can smell that I'm a profane scoffer, since so many of them aren't, or aren't yet anyway.)

The ones that bothered me most were the ones I got early in my career that said, "This isn't American history. This is a course only about blacks, women, and Indians." Because none of those people are Americans, right? I'd go back over my syllabi and discover that less than HALF of my syllabus had been devoted to the experience of all of these groups together (who comprise the *majority* of Americans, of course), and realize that many of my white, male students perceive it as a real affront if they're not at the center of historical inquiry. (And I was especially sad to see how very conventional my version of American history was, if white manhood was at the center of more than half of my lectures and readings!)

Age and experience has meant that I rarely get these comments now.
John G. Turner said…
Among the most helpful comments I received early in my teaching career was something to the effect of: "he says um a lot during lectures." Since then, I've made a diligent effort to, um, just pause instead.
Mark T. Edwards said…
I hear you, Historiann. This comment is from last year: "This course (US Survey 1877-Present) should be renamed History of Incorporation of Minorities. What Edwards doesn't understand is that history is the way the majority understands it."
Kabo said…
My sympathies exactly. I believe "there are too many minorities in this class material" was behind the "Are you trying to make me feel bad?" line of inquiry.

Popular Posts