by J J Cohen
The fall semester trickles to its end, and such is the perversity of the academic calendar that the time has arrived to think about the spring, with its vigorous new crop of students, papers, and grade complaints. I'm teaching the newest course in my rotation, Myths of Britain, and as a prelude to tinkering with its syllabus have been rereading the student evaluations from last spring.
Mostly, the evaluations are quite strong -- and I'm pleased that students responded favorably to a challenging course that offers literature they mostly would not otherwise have read. Although some of those who take the class go on to become English majors, the majority do not: the course was for them a way to satisfy their Humanities or Writing in the Disciplines requirements. Predictably, therefore, most of the negative comments were pleas to make the course easier, to not require attendance, to grade on a curve or with reduction in rigor, to assign less writing. Many student comments were negated by their peers: "Remove Shakespeare from the syllabus!" on one evaluation form, "Teach more than two Shakespeare plays!" on the next. Beowulf was likewise a lightning rod. Quite a number of students stated they were tired of reading it, and quite a few observed that they had never been assigned the poem before. Some student comments are incredibly sweet; some make me feel naked under the cold glare of their observing eyes; most are filled with an enthusiasm that makes me eager to teach the class again; a few are meanspirited; some give me a chuckle. My favorite: "Prof Cohen is adorable and knowledgeable. It is so entertaining to watch him lecture even though at times the content can get tedious." Um, yeah. I'm happy that I can be amusing despite my dull content.
Taking lessons away from the evaluations is not easy, especially when there are so many of them and the comments are contradictory. Perhaps after two decades of teaching I am also just comfortable with my style -- though, then again, I do try to add new components each time I teach a course. In Myths of Britain, for example, I intend to call on more students at random, to have them read aloud and then be "interviewed," and I will perhaps walk the room a bit more (the class takes place in a fairly large space, since it enrolls 90). I'll likely repeat course objectives regularly and relate assignments back to these objectives, and add a lecture-end summary, since those things were requested. I've swapped a few readings as well (out: Lear, Malory; in: Mandeville, Song of Roland), but not because of student feedback.
So what about you? Do you find course-end evaluations useful? How do you use them -- or do you use them -- in planning your future teaching?