Course Evaluations are a Giant Waste of Time, or, How One Professor Changed My Life

Course evaluations are a waste of time. No way around it; they serve no practical function. They are 100% performative exercises, administrative theatre, put on to provide an illusion of responsiveness by the department, college, and university, and a petty catharsis for frustrated students who want to pretend, for a moment, that someone is actually listening. But they’re not. “On a scale of 1 to 5, 1 being a conversation during Thanksgiving dinner with that one uber-conservative uncle and 5 being tacos, how do you think this class went? Keep in mind that this evaluation will not actually get to the TA or professor until next semester – probably late in the semester, too – and by that time, they will have forgotten most of whatever it was that they did not did not do in the class and the feedback will likely lost all utility.” (I should point out that this is all subtextual, of course; a wonderful exercise of reading between the lines).

The only people that will ever see it are a department administrator, maybe some higher-level faculty member – who really only looks for something extreme, either good or bad – then, much much later, the actual instructor or TA. Most students don’t really put any effort into them. Most faculty are not affected by them, barring some major indiscretion or malfeasance (and yes; the bloated, cumbersome, and often ineffective university bureaucracy only really takes note of sustained poor performance or something that could come back to bite them. In general, they do not actually take note of positive reviews).

TAs really aren’t affected either, mostly because we are a cheap labor force that the university gets to exploit so they don’t really care what we do so long as we show up, give grades, and make the effort of going through the motions. It’s the academic version of doing a Zumba class; you get credit enough for simply trying.  Or unless we unionize; then they lose their shit. Like I said, it’s all theatre, just like TSA.

While there is really no harm in these evaluations, they have become one more part of the end-of-semester routine:

Step 1) Course evaluations;

Step 2) Frantic studying and writing;

Step 3) Panic attack;

Step 4) Finals;

Step 5) Binge drinking (this last one may be different for other people).

It’s one of the predictable realties of the collegiate experience.

I spent several years only on one side of this process, that of the student. I imagined that it would be dramatically different once I was on the other end. Receiving critical feedback on my teaching seemed interesting and potentially even instructive and rewarding. (I should note here that I was one of those weird exceptions; I wrote big, thoughtful evaluations, really taking the time to give them some substance. I was convinced that my critical remarks would be an epiphany to lackluster professors, my praise validation to those who felt that their hard work was underappreciated).

For those first few years that I was a TA, during my Master’s and my Doctorate, I received a slew of evaluations that were nice but ultimately not very helpful. A lot of “He’s really funny” and “He did a good job of presenting and explaining materials.” There were also negative remarks, often around things that I could not control.

Note: the TA generally does not have any authority over the number of assignments, the types of assignments, the frequency or length of assigned readings, or even the general course policies. We are beholden to the professor and their whims, however tedious or unfair they might be.

These first few years yielded little in the way of constructive feedback on evaluations and, aside from the occasional chuckle, were relatively uneventful.

You can see where this is going.

Spring Semester 2018 I was a TA for a class on the History of Democracy, a class that was all-too topical in that moment.  During the Fall of 2017 I had TAd the same class for the same professor so I was fairly confident that I was not the worst TA in the department and might have actually imparted some kind of wisdom onto my students, even if that was just “be on time to class” (something that students still seem to struggle with, mightily).  I had tweaked a few of the quizzes and paper prompts from the Fall in an attempt to improve based on what I observed the first time around. I largely approached the class in the same fashion and I felt that while I had done a decent job, it was in no way anything worth writing about (see what I did there?).

It had been a particularly rough semester for me. I was still dealing – or not dealing – with the loss of my beloved grandfather (Papa) a man that was a part of my life in such a pronounced way that his loss, while something that we all knew was coming, was nonetheless devastating. I was single and had been for some time. Recently, I had come out as bisexual (not to my family, though, because that is not a conversation that I want to have, although I am sure some of them might see this. If you do, keep it to yourself, I guess).

I’d always enjoyed a drink or two but this confluence of life events had pushed me passed the point of occasional social drinking and well onto the path of alcohol abuse or something more serious and more dangerous. I was drinking too much. I wasn’t drinking enough. Three or four nights a week I’d go to a bar, sometimes for a few hours, sometimes all day. Three or four mornings a week I woke up smelling of cigarettes and booze. Nothing in life was really going my way and I desperately needed a win.

People like to say that we make our own happiness. I don’t know if that is 100% true and I do not take credit for what happened next. Maybe and maybe not.

One day I went into the main department office to get my mail. In my mailbox were the unmistakable large white office folders that the department always used for our course evaluations. I took the up to my office and started to read them. Most of them were right in line with the kind of responses I mentioned earlier. But one caught my eye.

“Honestly, he was my favorite instructor this semester and this was my favorite class.”

One short but honest sentence. No explanation. No qualifications. Just a simple statement but oh my did it feel great. I never set out looking for validation in the pages of these evaluations. I really don’t expect much of anything. It’s a 10 minute break that will probably yield one or two funny lines that I tell me friends later. But that line made me stop. I had done something right. A tiny, restorative victory in what had been a slew of crushing defeats. A high five after being kicked repeatedly.

I brought it up later that day when I was talking to my mom (Side note: I call my mom several times a week. If you have a good relationship with your mother, call her; she wants to hear from you). She thought it was nice. But in the incredibly wise way that only mothers and video game NPCs seem to have, she made me see the bigger picture. “How nice that you made a difference for that student. Especially since it’s a freshman class; you gave them a good class during a difficult time [the first year of college].”

I’ll be honest; I had kind of overlooked that. In my excitement over my anonymous validation, I stopped to consider the more personal implications; to consider it from their perspective. I was looking for a win in my personal life. Maybe this student was, too. Or had been. Maybe my class was a win for them.

The first year of college is absolutely terrifying. The call your mom crying-eat too much pizza-experiment with drugs and alcohol-try to reinvent yourself-question your own worthiness and quality as a person, kind of terrifying. I hated almost everything about my first year of college. Maybe this student had a hard year. Maybe the intense and incredibly well-documented but generally sidestepped or ignored stress culture had taken a toll on them. Maybe for 50 minutes a week my recitation was a respite, a safe space, a place of laughter (my students almost unanimously report that they find me to be extraordinarily funny) learning and self-affirmation.

Maybe I was able to do for this student a little bit of what one professor did for me.

Fall Semester 2008. 18. Overweight. Nervous. I’m walking on the campus of the University of Toledo for the first time as an actual enrolled student. Toledo is only about two and a half hours from my hometown of Canton but it seemed considerably further. The presence of my older sister on campus (she was close to finishing up her degree and her dorm was only a short walk from mine) did little to alleviate the absolute clusterfuck of emotions that were weighing down my every step.

I was terrified of school. Not specifically the reality of being on my own, although that was occasionally a source of embarrassment.[1] The biggest fear that I had was that of a severe and crippling belief that I was not qualified to be in college. I graduated from an incredibly average high school in an incredibly average town in Ohio. My grades were…below average. I had something like a 2.7 or 2.8 GPA and I think a 26 or 27 on the ACT (I don’t remember exactly; it’s been awhile and all you need to know is that they were not impressive at all).

I was a little confused by my relentless mediocrity. I was always able to test into AP and Honors courses in History, Literature, and Government.  In elementary school I always did well and all of my teachers told me I was bright. Middle school and junior high were a four year nightmare (we had a 6th and 7th grade middle school and then and 8th and 9th grade junior high; it made no sense). I took remedial math and science courses in middle school, yet somehow managed to maintain a reputation amongst the faculty as a smart kid. I was called on a lot. My family and teachers complained about my poor academic performance; I was “clearly smart” so I “must just be lazy.”

It’s not a brilliant insight that children are incredibly impressionable. Teenagers and preteens perhaps even more so, in certain ways. I hated being at school so much that I faked being sick, sometimes weekly. The barrage of external dissonance that swept over me on a daily basis was dizzying.  “You’re too smart to be doing poorly.” “You need to try harder.” “Why are you so lazy?” “Your friends are all smart and do well; you should be more like them.”

That one really messed me up. Aside from the gross practice of saying “you should be more like someone else” it was true. I had a lot of smart and successful friends. Still do. As a kid, you see your friends as people like you: People you have a lot of things in common with and that generally are more like you than not. My closest friends from school – still some of my closet friends to this day – were all smart kids. AP everything. 4.0+ GPAs. High ACT scores and scholarships galore to schools I never even considered. Loved by teachers and administrators alike. They were the hot fever dreams of parents all over the country.

Because of my association with them I saw myself as one of them. We had a lot of classes together, albeit with occasionally different results. This didn’t matter to me, though, because I saw my friends as just like me.

Parents see the friends of their kids far differently, though. In their eyes, their child’s friends are a reflection of their child.  If your son is friends with one fifth of the Academic Top 25 but has almost half of their GPA? He probably doesn’t belong, or is different, or there’s something he’s not doing. Soon, they become curious what behaviors you have that they don’t. They become weirdly obsessive detectives, asking questions. My parents were shocked, absolutely shocked – I cannot emphasize “shocked” enough here – to find out that my best friend had a bedroom that was even messier than mine (I still maintain that mine wasn’t “messy” per se, but rather, “cluttered”). They were convinced that leaving books and clothes on the floor was a sign of something sinister; a deeply-buried secret to my poor school performance that manifested outwardly as a disrespect for room tidiness and decorum. For them, intellectual effort = tidy (it should come as no surprise that my sister, who was very high-achieving in high school, was and is highly OCD).

For years, I had daily conversations with myself, (often at night, because who doesn’t confront all of their fears and insecurities alone in the darkness, am I right?):

“Hey Brad?”

“Yea, Brad, what’s up?”

“You’re not stupid, are you?”

“Hmm. I don’t think so, no.”

“Are you lazy?”

“No lazier than any other person who hates doing certain things. I mean, I do read and write a lot. And I like to learn things.”

“So why do you do so poorly in school?”

“I don’t know. I feel like I’m smart. I just…I get to school and I hate it. Everything about it. I sit there, I’m sad, scared, tired, distracted, and before I know it class is over and I didn’t catch a thing that was said, I fail the homework and the quiz and the test and I hate to ask for help because then people look at me like I am stupid and then I want to cry but it’s not OK for big fat guys to cry in school so instead I just look angry and then people don’t want to talk to me…”

“Dude, holy shit, slow it down. You’re talking to yourself, remember?”

This gets all the more interesting based on a conversation I had a few years ago with my parents. I casually mentioned some of the aforementioned issues that I had in school as a kid. Apparently, when I was about 10, the teachers and counselors at my elementary school contacted by parents; they thought that I was struggling occasionally in school – academically but also socially – not because I was a bad student but because I was gifted (they thought). Their theory was that I was not being challenged in school and in turn it was making me disinterested and “lazy.”

My parents met with the director of the gifted education program and decided that I was not a good fit. Their reasoning was that the woman who was the director of the program “was a bit goofy.” I was incensed; of course the person who teaches gifted students is going to be “a bit goofy!” I’d be shocked if that person was not a little bit eccentric.

I don’t hold this against my parents and we’ve talked about this several times. They were doing what they thought was best. And no one, no one, is more insanely proud of me than them (honestly, they BRAG about me, folks, B-R-A-G about their son “the soon-to-be Doctor). And they have been unbelievably supportive of my during my grad school years. But, the result was that for almost a decade, I was convinced that I was actually stupid or lazy. The validation and development that would have come from being in the gifted program would have had a dramatic change on my youth.

So this is who I was when I walked into my first college course at the University of Toledo in Fall 2008. My first ever class was something about using technology in the classroom (I was initially a double major in History and Education). It was an absolute joke. In 2008, classroom tech was basically iMovie (“look; the text crawl effect from Star Wars!”), early iterations of programs like Blackboard (that most schools and universities didn’t adopt right away), and touch boards (basically a giant touchscreen board but with really terrible interfacing). I don’t think they every really caught on, because when I last taught in Spring of 2020, I was in a classroom that still uses an old-fashioned sliding chalkboard (that I openly am in love with).

I’m technologically illiterate. This computer aside, I am analog all the way (I wrote the first draft of this in one of those green book test examination booklets that we all used on exams). To make matters worse, this class used Macs, which I had no experience with at all. I ended up doing OK in the class but it was like pulling teeth, and in those first few weeks, and especially on the first day, I left feeling lost and stupid.

I got back to my dorm room somewhat breathless and more than a little frustrated. I was only through my first day and I was already terrified that college was going to be a repeat of high school, only shorter (in my mind, I was already destined to be a dropout). I felt like crying, but at this point my sense of my own masculinity was so stunted that I just played video games (I didn’t learn how to address my feelings until I was older).

I took a look at my schedule, the one I had no say in making; my next class was English Comp I, a class that everyone in college takes. It’s the class where you invariably read some turgid and miserable “How to Write” textbook (5th Edition, now with more appendices!), write some boring and uninspired essays, and typically serves as a decent chunk of the non-science writing that most undergrads will do in their lives.

At some universities, this class is taught by caffeine-addicted, overworked and underpaid adjuncts or grad students, trying to make ends meet. It is no criticism of the instructor when I say that this course is generally uninspired, forgetful, and one that students tend to discount and more a critique of how badly Humanities and Social Science departments are funded as schools become increasingly fixated on STEM courses.

As someone who teaches and has taught freshmen-level humanities courses, I can tell you that it’s occasionally a struggle. Students frequently don’t care. It’s likely not for their major so they often put in the minimal amount of effort (I know of students who use the syllabus to calculate, before the first assignment, what they can get on every assignment, how many classes they can miss, etc, and still get a certain grade). The material is often dry or at the very least, you did not get to construct.

There is really no incentive to do a good job. Your pay is set and the evaluations you get, as I mentioned, basically mean nothing. Probably not even any kind of acknowledgement. (Sorry; my generation is obsessed with participation trophies. You’ll have to blame our parents for that…since they are the ones that bought us the damn trophies and demanded that we get them. Like 10 year old kids were buying themselves trophies…seriously.)

I used to work in a factory and I can tell you that this kind of work can compete with the assembly line for pure drudgery.

Now a lot of this I learned after the fact, through experience on both sides of the lectern. So I really was not sure what to expect when I came to class. Sitting there with my classmates – all of whom somehow looked considerably older than myself – I was somewhat shocked to see an older woman walk into the room. Jet black dark, glasses, dressed in a way that I’ve now come to think of as “eccentric professor” (you know exactly what I am talking about; don’t pretend you don’t). Dr. Barbara Mann, our instructor, was a tenured professor in the English Department. She’d written several books and actually liked teaching this class.

Given the content and sentiment of all of this, you are probably expecting me to recall that first day in its entirety. A crystal-clear, play-by-play recap of the entire 75 minutes. The exact moment when I realized that this was going to be a huge turning point in my life. Truth is I don’t.  Partly because that particular day was not, in any way, remarkable.  But also  because that’s simply not the way our memories work. Our brains are not so sophisticated. Most people think that our memories work like photo albums; perfectly capturing and distilling snapshots of our lives and putting them into a scrapbook that we can flip through later.

The reality is way less optimistic, so I’ll use a reference that my fellow Millennials will appreciate. Our memories are more like the DNA from Jurassic Park: we have a decent amount stored in there, like a scaffolding, but there a huge chunks that are missing and we fill them in with whatever garbage is close at hand (frog DNA anyone? No? How about Shirtless Jeff Goldblum? Yea, I figured you would like that better).

It’s also why you can never remember which password you used for which account (unless you’re one of those galoots who uses the same password for everything) but you can remember the name, in numerical order, of every single of the original 150 Pokémon.

The specifics of that day do not matter. Neither does the content of the first two assignments that we had, the discussions that we had, or anything else. What I do remember, and what is important, is what happened after those first few weeks.

After our second assignment – the one that didn’t matter – Dr. Mann asked to speak with me after class. I had done really well on the first two assignments and had done my best to contribute to the conversations in class (no one laughed at anything I said that was serious and did laugh at what was supposed to be funny; I considered that an unqualified success).

I was a bit nervous to talk to her. At 18, we are conditioned to be nervous when talking to authority figures. High school teachers were frequently bad enough, but a professors was a nightmare-ish prospect. Movies and TV had painted an image of college professors as angry, taciturn individuals who spoke at you, using last names in an informal “I don’t really care who you are” kind of way, most often walking us carefully and forcefully into some kind of logical or rhetorical trap designed to make us feel small and inadequate. Even though I had no rational reason to think this, I was terrified.

I was thoroughly unprepared for what happened.

Dr. Mann was anything but intimidating. She asked me how I thought I was doing in the course, did I enjoy the class, how was I adapting to college, etc. They seemed like leading questions that ended with my demise. Instead she asked me, point blank; Had I considered the Honors College? I told her truthfully that I had not. I had not heard of t although I had a rough idea of what it was (context clues!). She informed me that it was a program at the university, a distinct college, for students who were high-achieving, gifted, and that it was very intellectually rigorous. Harder, but significantly more interesting, courses were offered to students in the program. For non-Honors courses, I was required to add extra work (for my History courses, I usually had to write an extra or longer paper. I had to maintain a minimum GPA (3.5 I think). And the final piece; I had to write an original senior thesis. She said that she thought I was a good candidate for the college, based on my early class results. Was I interested?

Was I interested?

I was terrified. Elated. Confused. Embarrassed (I was and still am awful at accepting compliments of any kind) proud, nervous, anxious, intimidated, and joyous. Did I mention intimidated and nervous? In that moment I was so completely overwhelmed that I had no idea what to do, what to say.

This was the first time that anyone ever suggested, in a positive way, that I might be capable of more. That I had potential of any kind. And rather than criticize me for not reaching to a potential that no one told me that I had but still expected me to reach, actually appealed to it.  She wasn’t upset that I was being “lazy.” She was suggesting the opposite, in a way, that not only was I not lazy but that perhaps I actually needed a challenge.

I immediately said yes.

Just as immediately, the feeling of confidence and self-worth that I had left me, replaced by dread. What if this was going to be like my AP classes in high school, where I only masqueraded as someone who belonged, a facsimile of an intelligent person? It was not until graduate school that I became familiar with the idea of the imposter syndrome. (I laugh at the pithy, lip-service articles, often written by tenured faculty at Ivy League schools with Ivy League degrees, who write about the subject. I understand the concept – that no matter what level of success you attain you feel as though you are not qualified – but if you study or teach at an Ivy League school, which just sounds like humble-bragging or faux-complaining. Get out of here with that).

This feeling is generally not based in reality and is instead just a manifestation of other insecurities that we all have. I’ve noted that the people who suffer from this the most tend to actually be the most competent. And vice versa; the most brash, confident, and annoying individuals are often terrified and trying to get by on bluster. You know, like writing a book on the claim of expertise? Who would ever do that…

Most of this was flooding into and through my brain while I stood there with her. In one of several instances where I felt she was clairvoyant, Dr. Mann told me that she taught in the Honors College and was always looking for students who maybe did not consider the option or who did not have the traditional Honors College credentials coming into college. She felt, based on my work, that I was exactly what they were looking for and that I would be better served transferring.

The term “watershed moment” is frequently overused by historians. Really, just way too much. Actually, academics in general do it. To prove a point, to make a case for the importance of an invention, publication, person, theory, event, moment, they resort to a dualistic way of thinking: “Everything before and after X was qualitatively different.” That being said, I am going to exercise complete subjectivity, extreme personal bias, and an utter lack of perspective and just say that this was a watershed moment in my personal history.

Nothing was ever the same after this.

Shortly after this conversation, I went and had a meeting with another person who would end of being a major influence in my life; Dr. Thomas Barden. Now retired, he was the then Dean of the Honors College and, as fate would have it, my future academic advisor. Bearded, spectacled, and possessing a seemingly perpetual and inexhaustible good-natured optimism, he told me that Dr. Mann had mentioned me to him. We talked about the program some more. He asked me about my interests, personal and academic. He asked me if I wanted to transfer into the college and, if so, if I was free to do so right now.

Right now? Then? That exact moment? Fucking hell that was fast. I barely had any time to think about it. The one concern that crossed my mind was that GPA requirement. That first semester, I was taking Latin, Algebra, and Microeconomics: by the end of the semester my grades in those courses were B-, C+, and D+, respectively. Even at that moment, now 3 weeks into the semester, I was pretty sure that I was going to do quite poorly in at least two of those classes.

I said “Sure why not?”           

I immediately dropped English Comp I, much to my disappointment (Dr. Mann was a fabulous professor and I very much enjoyed her class; I was overjoyed a few years later when I was able to take one of her Honors College courses).

Apparently, Dr. Barden was also a mind reader. At that moment he mentioned the GPA requirement: “Don’t worry about the GPA requirement at first; we don’t kick people out because of an off semester. It takes time to get into the swing of things. Just do your best.”

I started off my Honors Classes that next week. There was an immediate and noticeable difference. Not only were the classes more enjoyable, more engaging, and more challenging, but I noticed that for the first time in my life I was enjoying school. I was actually looking forward to organized learning. This seems like a small detail but for me, and I’m guessing for you, this was no small thing. Education is often something that we do, or rather is done to us, with a heavy dose of resignation and reluctance.

The realities of the modern American primary and secondary education systems – exams, grade chasing, standardized tests, expense, stress, massive amounts of homework – means that very few of us enthusiastically, or even functionally, participate in our own learning. After over a decade of feeling hopelessly alone and out of place, I was finally in a situation where not only did people want me to succeed and were willing to help me do that, but I actually felt as though I could. And I wanted to. It is a common misconception that the best quality in an educator us the ability to convey information. And while that is definitely important (let’s even say essential) I would argue that an even more essential quality is being able to help students believe in themselves and to help them enjoy the experience. The best classes are the ones where you walk away with more than just a good grade.

College was so much better from there on. Really, it’s remarkable the difference one person can make. I must have done well enough. As I write this in March 2020 during the great COVID-19 quarantine, I just submitted a draft of Chapter 2 of my dissertation. I have no idea if Dr. Mann is still teaching. Her name appears infrequently on the university website but that seems somewhat meaningless I guess because there are pages on the UT website that list people who I know are not actually still there. So who knows.

Irrespective of where she may or not be, I regret that I ever told her how much I appreciate what she did for me. I suspect, like most great teachers, that she would likely brush off my thanks and my gratitude, saying only that “She was just doing her job.” And it’s entirely possible that is the case; she probably was just doing her job, the best and only way that she knew how, and that it wasn’t really anything personal. I would say that it doesn’t really matter. The fact remains that I didn’t believe in myself until someone else saw something in me worth believing in and without her support, I would undoubtedly not be here today. So in a way, it’s really all her fault.

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