Why We Should Abolish Teaching Evaluations
William C. Dowling
Monica Devanas (letter to the Editor, Dec 1) seems to me to have
missed the point of Mark Zipkin's excellent column on teaching
The usual objection to student evaluations is that they put pressure
on faculty to do the popular thing rather than the right thing
in the classroom.
That is a reasonable objection. Anyone of my generation, educated
before there were student evaluations, will remember one or two
professors who changed our lives. Most often, they weren't "popular."
They were the ones who pushed us, drove us, demanded more of
us than we thought we had to give.
In the age of teaching evaluation as an end-of-term popularity
contest, that kind of teaching has all but disappeared. The results,
such as dumbed-down instruction and runaway grade inflation,
are visible everywhere in American higher education.
instance, Richard L. McCormick, a recently-hired president of
Rutgers University, routinely refers to Rutgers students as "customers"
in public utterances. He has also gone out of his way to hire
customer-service specialists like Karen
to help him run Rutgers in the same way he ran the University
But Mark Zipkin's column gets at a still deeper problem about
teaching evaluations. We live in an advertising-saturated society
in which young people are invited to imagine everything in their
lives in terms of a "consumer model": you pay your
money, the university provides the product.
Every year, I see more and more students who arrive at Rutgers
unconsciously thinking of education as a sort of product, like
buying a car or a TV set, or a service, like going to the dentist.
You have a cavity, you sit back in the chair, and the dentist
performs a procedure on you. In return, you pay the bill.
The worst thing about the consumer model is that it makes both
genuine teaching and genuine learning impossible. Students who
come to class with the idea that learning is something that "happens"
to them in return for paying tuition, in the same way as a patient
has a cavity fixed by the dentist, have a mindset that quite
literally makes it impossible for them to learn.
In reality, learning philosophy or physics or Greek is an
activity (a process of inward development). It's much more
like training for a marathon or learning to play the violin than
buying a Chevrolet or going to the dentist. It's something you
can only do yourself, with the guidance of the teacher and within
the framework of the curriculum. It is, above all, not something
you can buy.
If the consumer model really is coming to dominate American higher
education -- and it is, increasingly so -- then everything done
to strengthen the idea of education as a product or a service
is destructive to real teaching and learning. That's the problem
with teaching evaluations as "customer satisfaction surveys."
In my office, I have a folder that contains two items: (1) a
copy of the Rutgers Student Instructional Rating Survey, and
(2) a Customer Satisfaction form I once took away from a Holiday
Inn. Making due allowances for the difference in goods and services
provided, they are the same form, produced by the same logic
of market forces and consumer relations.
I'm not saying that the people who circulate teacher evaluation
forms are trying consciously to undermine genuine teaching or
learning. Mostly, they simply haven't thought about the implications
of what they're doing. Nor am I saying that it's just inside
university administrations that the "consumer model"
is doing its damage.
At the national level, for instance, the much-touted newsmagazine
ratings of colleges are really consumer reports, encouraging
students and parents to look at higher education on just the
same terms as they think about buying a new automobile or refrigerator.
I recently saw a magazine promotion that said "Unsure about
which car to buy? Which college to choose for your child? See
our latest rankings.*
At Rutgers, students rose up last spring against the Lawrence
administration's sale of the Rutgers name to the Coca Cola corporation.
But their deeper objection, an admirable one, was to the further
takeover of Rutgers by the consumer model.
I'm sure that Monica A. Devanas is acting in good faith. If she
thought of the Student Instructional Rating Survey as what it
is, a customer satisfaction form, she probably wouldn't continue
to promote it. If she thought of classroom visitations and teaching
portfolios as nothing more than public relations machinery meant
to show the consumers that "we care about teaching"
or "we do it your way," she'd probably be less proud
of being someone who supervises the process.
Nonetheless, there are signs that a revolt against the commodification
of every aspect of human life is underway in American society.
If the revolt is successful, we may see a day when public relations
operations like the "Teaching Excellence Center" are
shut down, and when meaningful teaching and learning once again
move to the center of American higher education.
William C. Dowling, Professor of English,
teaches regularly in the Rutgers General Honors Program
Reprinted from The Daily Targum,
Dec 3, 2000.