Graded By My Students


    Ben Marcus weighs what his students want and what they need

    As the fall semester ended, my students had a chance to turn the tables on their teacher. They got to grade me anonymously, assessing the clarity of my thinking, my organizational skills and the depth of my knowledge. At their best, such evaluations keep me alert to what works and what does not. Students reflect my performance back to me, and I am glad to learn what they think of my teaching, so that I might try to improve.

    I am also aware that the students' comments become the primary evidence of my abilities, a paper trail following me throughout my career. My dossier will swell with their statements about me, and when I come up for review, the promotion committee will examine my evaluations to determine just what kind of teacher I am. It is in my best interest to keep my evaluations as favorable as I can.

    There is, of course, nothing wrong with accountability. But this system assumes that what students need is the same as what they want. Reading my evaluations every semester has taught me otherwise. Many students' expectations for their courses have changed, reflecting, in part, the business model more universities are following. Classes are considered services, and parents are eager to get their money's worth from their children's education. Students feel pressure from their parents to derive practical use from their courses, and they also would like to feel some degree of mastery when a class ends.

    This could make sense for an engineering course, but in my field, creative writing, which rarely churns out polished 21-year-old writers, it is trickier to provide the results that the career-minded student craves. A creative writer might graduate with only a sharper sense of just how hard it is to write professionally. Some students suck it up and meet the challenge. Others look around wildly for someone to blame, and the teacher is often the closest person at hand.

    It might sound as though I am defending some bad evaluations. The problem is the reverse. I am admitting to good evaluations received sneakily. After early struggles with students who resisted challenges and barked at any criticism, who refused to regard themselves as beginners or who were furious if I didn't regard their short stories as brilliant, I stumbled upon some dubious teaching techniques, reversed the criticisms of these chronically unhappy students and improved my student evaluations for the semester. My record would reflect a smart, attentive, encouraging teacher. But I would argue that I taught these students little. They loved me because I agreed that writing should be easy.

    The deception involved telling the students what they wanted to hear and praising them however much they foundered. At evaluation time, they would be pleased enough by their "success" that they would return the praise. Teaching, in such a light, amounted to flattery. Submitting students to the rigors of learning seemed only to incur the wrath of many of them, which entered the record as my teacherly shortcoming.

    I know other teachers who have done the same thing: teach your heart out to the teachable but be sure to please the unteachable, to keep your ratings high, like a politician trying to improve his poll results. The turning point for me was a student who came to my office because she didn't like any of the writing assignments. She wanted instead to write for 21 Jump Street. When I pointed out that the show had been off the air for several years, she claimed not to care. I realized then that the only thing to do was to encourage her, to tell her it was a fantastic idea. After that, we were cohorts against learning. I imagine she sang my praises on the evaluation.

    Yes, she conned me. But we disagreed over the purpose of the class, and I could either back down (and praise her away) or challenge her intellectually and insist that she complete the assignments, as I try to do with most students. I believe in the struggle, and most students I have met do too. But I still can't help wincing when I read, "The instructor is mean." "Marcus is not committed to my work." "This class sucks." The business model has taught me that the customer is always right. But maybe a few more dissatisfied customers would mean a better learning experience.

    Ben Marcus is an assistant professor at Columbia University and author of a book of fiction, The Age of Wire and String