A couple of years ago I noted that course evaluations do not necessarily help us understand our strengths and weaknesses as teachers because most of the time the responses are so contradictory. Last term’s batch, which just arrived in my mailbox, is no different. Some samples, from the Brit Lit survey:
One the one hand…
I really liked the collaborative wiki; it made for an engaging project that encouraged me to keep up with my readings.
The wiki pages worked well.
Her wikis are a great way to keep a class engaged and to help study for finals.
The wiki assignments are interesting and useful.
The wiki assignment is somewhat progressive and relevant.
but on the other hand,
I hated the wiki assignment!
The wiki was an unfair aspect of the course due to the amount of work it required … the wiki is a waste of time and effort for most of the students in the class.
Stop doing the wiki pages, just because we’ve moved into a technological era doesn’t mean we’re going to do something like this or want to.
On the one hand…
The material assigned helped the professor to be stimulating, and some lectures were inspiring.
Dr. Maitzen is brilliant and funny, and a pleasure to hear speak.
Dr. Maitzen made the course enjoyable and the lectures were easy to follow.
Maitzen is amazing at being informative and witty at the same time.
Maitzen did a great job being interesting with the material. The class moves along quickly but I was able to gain a good understanding of British literature.
but on the other hand,
Dr. Maitzen speaks too fast! … it is important for students to be able to follow.
The lectures were normally quite dry and boring.
I found it very difficult to stay interested in this class because of the teaching style.
On the one hand…
She also excelled in pushing her students to relate [to] course material with such a broad selection of writers.
The breadth of the material covered in this class was really nice.
but on the other hand,
Too much material to fit into one semester!
I think that Maitzen could have focused on fewer texts in a greater amount of detail.
The only thing I didn’t enjoy as much is the amount of poetry that we talked about. Poetry is not one of my favorite things to analyze.
I did not enjoy the amount of poetry, I would rather have more stories / novels.
Professor Maitzen is very enthusiastic. She has a good influence on students to become excited about their studies. Also, she is able to relate to the various positions of students in order to maximize development.
The instructor led a superb class in which I learned quite a bit. I am very glad it was a required class as I gained valuable skills for my major.
One of the most engaging professors I’ve had so far at Dal, she’s brilliant but not in an intimidating way.
The instructor is interested in the students and makes sure they are engaged in the course, concerned with students’ academic success & cares about overall wellbeing of students.
Always willing to meet outside of class to help the student.
easy to approach!
She engaged the class in discussion often, making the class intellectually stimulating.
Although challenging at times, such difficult is necessary to learn.
She is approachable and lovely.
She was great! Really smart and interesting & I always left wishing class wasn’t over!
She is a wonderful prof who seems very interested in the material and in her students.
I appreciated how thoroughly Dr. Maitzen would prepare us for our assignments.
Professor Maitzen was an average instructor. She did what was necessary to get her point across.
Dr. Maitzen didn’t seem to care how we did in the course. By this I mean she only offered help when it was convenient for her and she offered no sympathy if you were busy with other school work.
A bit intimidating.
Not as bland as most instructors can be.
I found her classes very structured but not very stimulating.
I think she may have been a little too demanding in her assignment requirements.
Well, obviously you can’t please all of the people all of the time, and on balance the responses were actually more positive than I expected for this particular course. But what can I learn from these comments, going forward? Some of the reiterated complaints were predictable given the nature of the course. For instance, though I explained frequently that we would cover selected examples in class but that they should then be able to analyze the other assigned readings independently, using the information and models they learned, many of them objected to having been assigned readings that weren’t lectured on. I can do better, perhaps, to clarify the relationship between class time and their own reading, though I know they will always (wrongly!) feel better served if all the material has been “covered” by me explicitly.
There are some other fairly consistent comments across the set that I willcertainly keep in mind. One is that the course was very clearly organized–that I followed the schedule and syllabus closely, and so on (these comments always make me wonder what happens in their other classes!). It’s good to know that my efforts to be clear and consistent are appreciated. The other is that I talk too fast and they do not want to be responsible for putting their hands up and asking me to repeat things or slow down (as I always encourage them to do, if I start getting carried away). A couple of them felt it was easier for them to stay with me when I used PowerPoint slides; this is something I’ll think about, but mostly I need to keep reminding myself to slow down. My own perception often is that I am going slowly, doing a lot of repeating of key words and arguments, and so on, but enough of them felt harried by my pace that I should take their input seriously. Also, by and large they loved Atonement but not Mary Barton (but wait, here’s one who “particularly enjoyed Mary Barton“!). When (if!) I teach this survey course again, I’ll weigh my options again, but I think their lukewarm reaction to Mary Barton is as much a function of their unfamiliarity with long discursive novels in general (the most common specific complaint was about its length) as of Mary Barton in particular. Last year my exemplary Victorian novel was Great Expectations and the reaction was not that different. Also, though they were very enthusiastic about Atonement, their papers suggested a lot of them did not understand it very well! So as always, their preferences will not be the only, or even a major, influence on my book orders.
I must say, it’s easier to take in all this mixed and fairly personal feedback when I’m not going right back in the classroom. Although years of experience somewhat inures us all to the knowledge that we are being judged in this way, it’s still hard not to want to respond, sometimes quite sharply, to some of these comments (I did too care how you did in the course! And I held office hours every week that nobody came too, and I always invited students to set up appointments if those times weren’t convenient! And why are you an English major at all if you don’t like poetry? And I bet you didn’t think the wikis were a waste of time when you were using them to study for the final exam!). At the same time, the nice comments are a seduction that has its own dangers. You can’t teach well if you want too much to be liked. As one of the students says, with great (and rare) maturity, “difficulty is necessary to learn,” but difficulty is uncomfortable, and you may not realize until well after a particular course is over whether it was valuable to you or not–which is, surely, a more important issue than whether you enjoyed it in the moment.