How I “Improved” My Teaching Evaluations: A Survival Manual for the Politically Incorrect

“A Great Teacher” Anonymous

Editors’ note:This article may disturb some readers. Our anonymous author is a politically incorrect professor who decided to forego effective pedagogy in order to obtain the good student evaluations that secured his right to teach a certain course in his research area. He is clearly a thoughtful and conscientious teacher, and he makes his decision only after careful deliberation, but the measures he implements once that decision has been made might cause the reader to cringe. Nevertheless, we thought the article worthwhile in making so nakedly and undeniably plain the extent to which those ubiquitous evaluations have compromised teaching and debased the college classroom.

I was the fair-haired boy in our department—the rising young scholar who had just won tenure. Then a dreadful discovery was made: I was a conservative. Not, mind you, the sort of conservative who merely urges “progressives” to go slow and, after losing gracefully, helps straighten up the mess they make. No, I was a sharp-edges-type conservative, willing to state my mind in the public arena—willing to promote tax cuts and traditional values—willing even to suggest openly that in tough economic times my own state university could get by with less money.

And so it was that my faculty and administration learned that they had made a terrible mistake in hiring me, promoting me, and awarding me tenure. Because I didn’t talk politics on the job, they hadn’t known my political views; because I seemed intelligent and productive, they had assumed I was a “progressive.” Like them.

From their point of view, clearly something had to be done. I was an embarrassment to a department assiduously engaged in a long-term move leftward.

When you seek to rid yourself of a faculty colleague, you face some major hurdles if the colleague already has tenure, keeps his personal life in order, faithfully performs service obligations, is one of the department’s most prolific scholars, and recently won the faculty teaching award. In that situation, your only real alternative is to make his professional life miserable and hope he quits.

For that purpose, it helps to have an ostensible reason other than political differences. In my case, the ostensible reason was “low” scores on end-of-term student evaluations. This article relates why I eventually decided to sacrifice pedagogical quality to “raise” those scores, and how I went about raising them. My experience may prove useful to other professors who need to protect their careers by becoming more popular with students.

The SNEF

For much of the decade following the dreadful discovery, the general approach toward me by most faculty in the department was isolation punctuated by harassment. Our students, who generally share the faculty’s political biases, felt licensed to join the harassment. One of their assault vehicles was the end-of-term faculty evaluation—or as English professor Paul Trout has labeled it, the Student-Generated Numerical Evaluation Form (SNEF).1 Even when students used our SNEF in good faith, it was a pretty useless device for measuring pedagogical effectiveness. A central university bureaucrat had composed it without consideration of different pedagogical needs. Several of the multiple-choice questions were worded so as necessarily to inflate the scores of spoon-feeders and deflate those of more rigorous teachers. The survey invariably was conducted a week or two before the final examination, just when students were feeling most anxious about their grades—thereby further disadvantaging teachers who offered difficult courses or adhered to higher standards. In my department, therefore, most faculty had compromised by making courses easy, awarding primarily As and Bs, and otherwise conforming to the bias of the survey.

I was assigned to teach a required course whose subject matter was widely considered the most difficult in the department, and I refused to compromise pedagogical standards. Those factors certainly depressed my popularity with students somewhat, but did not prevent me from winning the teaching award in my third year. Only after my conservative political stance became known did a large number of students begin to employ the SNEF as an instrument of attack. They would bomb me on the multiple-choice questions and add blistering comments at the end. The most frequent comments were that I assigned too much work and intimidated students by calling on them randomly and grilling them in class. Although this was a technical course with minimal political content and I was careful to keep my politics strictly off-campus, some students registered direct political complaints: I was a Neanderthal, a sexist, a misogynist, a homophobe. One student even accused me—and in his view this justified instant dismissal—of advocating that the university be privatized.

None of these charges was true, although in retrospect I wish the last had been. A significant minority of students (God bless them!) went out of their way to rebut the charges. Certainly visitors to my classes, including those who made spot checks without my knowledge, could find no basis for any of the accusations. Even the most hostile students admitted that my course was challenging, and that I was knowledgeable and always prepared. Most also admitted that they were learning enormous amounts in my classes, a fact corroborated by our department’s longitudinal survey. Still, the nasty comments and the low comparative ratings persisted year after year.

I had already taught full- or part-time at several other institutions, and negative student evaluations were a new experience for me. In previous positions, my SNEFs had ranged from “good” to “off-the-charts.” Even here, SNEF negativity was confined to my required course. Students taking my electives continued to rate me well; but there were far more students in my required offering than in my electives. So the story soon spread that not only was I an extreme right-wing ideologue, but a terrible teacher as well. This helped to justify whatever the department head and my “colleagues” might wish to do to me.

The SNEF as Shield

Administrators and faculty with administrative responsibilities sometimes use SNEF outcomes to justify decisions actually made for other reasons. One year, for example, we had what was (for us) the unusual opportunity of hiring a visiting scholar of growing renown. His intellect and his libertarian views would have been a challenge to everyone in the department. Predictably, our department opted to hire a mediocrity instead, allegedly because the libertarian scholar was a bad teacher as shown by “poor” SNEFs. A few weeks later, the scholar received his home institution’s “outstanding teacher” award.

In my case also, the department cited SNEF scores as a cover for actions taken for other reasons.

Events reached a crisis when I asked to teach a course, then vacant, within my area of research. For at least thirty years, such requests had always been granted. Mine was denied. The department head claimed one reason for the denial was my “low” performance on the SNEF. I knew this to be fiction.2

I decided to appeal the decision. The process lasted nearly a year. Competent and disinterested arbiters would have rejected SNEF scores as evidence, but I had reason to believe that some of the arbiters would not be disinterested.3 I knew that to win I needed more than a good case; I needed an overwhelming case. Every hole had to be plugged. There must be no excuse for deciding against me. That meant I had to raise my student evaluations.

SNEF-Bending

SNEF scores often depend heavily on factors that have little to do with effective teaching, especially if you measure effective teaching by how well students learn.4 If you understand those factors and are in a position to control them, you can manipulate SNEF results. I already knew this, but deciding whether to act on that knowledge was for me a difficult ethical question.

The problem was that nearly all the changes necessary to raise my SNEF evaluations would involve abandoning more effective teaching techniques for less effective ones. The pedagogical cost of some changes would be relatively small, but the cost of others would be significant. I would raise my popularity, but reduce the long-term benefit to students.

On the other hand, victory might hearten other academic dissenters. More importantly, I knew our department: its sorry record of recent faculty appointments almost guaranteed that anyone else the department might dredge up to teach the course would be worse for the students than I would be—even if I had been pedagogically compromised.

I decided to do what was necessary to raise my SNEF scores. For guidance, I turned to previous research on student evaluations of teaching.

SNEF-Bolstering

In 1996, Ian Neath published an article summarizing SNEF research under the title, “How to Improve Your Teaching Evaluations Without Improving Your Teaching.5 Neath listed twenty “tips” on scoring higher on SNEFs. These tips included factors that were entirely or largely uncontrollable (for example, “Be Male” and “Teach Only Male Students”), major and controllable (“Grade Leniently”), and trivial (“Keep all of your lecture notes in a three-ring binder with neatly punched holes”).

The following year, Prof. Trout published a semi-humorous piece with a very similar title: “How to Improve Your Teaching Evaluation Scores Without Improving Your Teaching.” Like Neath, Trout summarized the research, and deduced tactics for SNEF-manipulation. Trout’s findings and recommendations corroborated those of his predecessor. However, Trout focused exclusively on major controllable factors, and limited his advice to six items:

  • Carefully manipulate the impression you make on the first day of class.

  • Be personable and charismatic.

  • Give lots of high grades.

  • Teach undemanding courses.

  • Flatter the political biases of students.

  • Suck up.

Reluctantly, I decided to see if these cynical ideas really worked.

The SNEF Experiment

My experiment with the Neath-Trout hypotheses would be run during spring term, while the arbiters of my appeal were investigating and deliberating on my case. I had already taught these students during fall term (although not yet awarded grades), so the time for truly first impressions had passed. Nevertheless, there were some ways to improve student pre-course opinion.

First, there was the matter of what grades I gave my students for their fall term work. Students with higher expected marks tend to evaluate professors more favorably.6 High grades in my fall course would raise grade expectations for my spring course, and thus position me better for the spring SNEFs, which would be administered before the spring final exam.

My practice in my required course had been to assess at or above a normal curve centering in the B- to C+ range, although I never let the curve stop me from giving higher grades if students earned them. On average, perhaps half of my students had been receiving As and Bs. I suspected that some of my chief tormenters on the faculty were being more generous. So for the first time in several years, I checked out departmental grade distributions. My suspicion was borne out: They had been giving As and Bs in required courses to about 85 percent of students enrolled. No wonder their SNEFs were “better” than mine!

I swallowed hard and followed suit, pushing my range upward to match theirs. When my fall term grades became known, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Students were delighted. I was instantly more popular than I had been in years. The only negative comment I heard was from one of the tormentors, who clearly resented my muscling in on his racket.

Two other ways to create a good pre-course impression are textbook selection and syllabus-drafting. I selected a popular text by an author well-known as an outspoken leftist. In my syllabus, I conveyed a sense of organization by listing assignments for the entire term in advance. This sense of organization was a false one, since in my discipline one can never know that far ahead just how far and fast classes will go; but the SNEF research suggests that the appearance of order comforts some students.

I think one reason first impression has such a powerful effect on final results is that people like to make choices consistent with their earlier choices. A voter who casts his ballot for Candidate A thereby becomes more likely to vote for Candidate A in the next election. Thus, one way to encourage “good” end-of-the-term SNEF evaluations is to garner “good” pre-SNEF evaluations. At a particularly opportune time in the course, therefore, I administered to my students a simple survey asking how I was doing and what I could change. Consistent with Prof. Neath’s suggestion, I was present for part of the process. As expected, the results from this “pre-SNEF” were very positive, setting the stage for a better end-of-term outcome.

Neath had concluded that one way to improve evaluations was to “[t]each small classes; do not teach large classes.” That matched my experience: I previously had improved evaluations by slicing the class into smaller sections. I had not done this recently, because sectionalizing had produced no improvement in student learning, so I believed it made more sense to invest the extra hours elsewhere. In preparation for my appeal, however, I sectionalized again.

Trout had written that a key to higher SNEFs was to “[b]e personable and charismatic.” In my political and civic activity, I had picked up a few charisma tips (e.g., gesture with palms up, not palms down), so I imported them into class. I also smiled more, and I never, ever categorized a student answer as “wrong.” I ditched my necktie in favor of open-neck shirts and other relatively informal attire. I sometimes professed to know less about the subject matter than I really did, thus appearing more humble and vulnerable. And because high grades encourage high SNEFs, in addition to raising the fall grades, I administered some easy quizzes. For each student, I automatically dropped the lowest score.

I had a reputation for being perhaps the most demanding teacher in the department, and my practice of calling on students and asking them to discuss the assigned material had generated a great deal of whining. But I could no longer afford such whining. I followed Prof. Trout’s advice: “Teach undemanding courses.” Or, in Prof. Neath’s phrase: “Teach what they want how they want it.”

I made the course as easy as my conscience would let me. I quit calling on students, even though I knew challenging them in class was the best way for them to learn the subject matter. When I wanted discussion, I called only on volunteers. Mostly, though, I followed Prof. Neath’s “tip 13”—that is, “Entertain.” Fortunately, I’m a fluent and entertaining lecturer, so I spent more time talking while students spent more time taking notes, relaxing, or (as we learned later) cruising the Net on their laptops.

Another of Prof. Neath’s tips was “Gimmicks are good.” I didn’t use as many gimmicks as I might have, but I did show a video or two. As a safety measure, I also arranged to videotape my classes, so hostile students would know in advance that any charges they made would be subject to falsification. That seems to have played a role in reducing outrageous accusations on the SNEF. The videotaping also had an unexpected benefit: late in the term, a hostile outsider visited one of my classes. Before the end of the period, he stalked out and went directly to the department head, accusing me of having inexcusably insulted another visitor. The department head gleefully commenced an investigation. Unfortunately for both of them, the camera had been running—and I had the tape.

“Flatter the political biases of students,” Prof. Trout writes. It was clear where those biases lay: The department, always relatively liberal, had moved steadily to the left since I had been hired; it was now “progressive” even by state university standards. Recruitment had been focused on liberal students, and it had become difficult to elicit any non-leftist opinions in class, even for purposes of debate.

I didn’t care for flattering those political biases, partly because they were so often based on ignorance and partly because I already had made such unwarranted compromises as trading in the correct pronouns of indefinite gender for the “he or she” paraphrasis and the barbarism of the singular “they.”

I overcame my reluctance, though. During the critical period, I was careful to stay out of the public eye, so students would not be reminded of my distasteful political opinions. As already noted, I chose a textbook by a leftist author. In class, I piled on the politically correct pronouns, switching from “he or she” to “she or he,” or “SHE [voice emphasis] or he,” or just using “she” as a generic. When lecturing, I went out of my way to refer to American oppression of racial minorities. In one humiliating moment, I emotionally explained why I wasn’t a homophobe. One day when it was relevant to the subject, I burst into liberal oratory.7 My speech was filled with misstatements and errors of logic, and when I had finished I asked the class where, if they were to attack my argument, they would begin. No one could think of a thing. Everyone was happy.

Prof. Trout’s final bit of advice—“suck up!”—is open-ended enough to include almost any kind of professorial pandering. Two of my other steps seem to fit in this category:

  • I announced that I would be giving an open-book exam that each student could take home for any twenty-four-hour period during a two-week stretch. Previously, my required course finals had been closed-book, in-class tests largely or entirely in essay format, because experience suggested it was the best assessment technique for that subject matter. However, this made some students nervous, and lowered my SNEFs, which were administered a week or two before the test.8

  • I instituted class “contests” in which students could win cookies, other small gifts, and fulsome applause with a minimum of effort.

The Results

What were the results of my experiment? The consequences for learning were not good. Students did less well than expected even on deliberately easy quizzes. Their final exam papers proved to be among the worst I had seen in years. Most students displayed only a superficial knowledge of the material. It was clear that some had concluded that with a kinder, gentler me, one didn’t need to work as hard.

Although the pedagogical consequences were poor, the results for me were great! My SNEF scores went through the roof. As the grievance committee (which resolved the dispute in my favor) pointed out, student comments “varied from positive to enthusiastic....The praise was occasionally close to ecstatic.”

The results for my professional career were also excellent. The department’s efforts against me collapsed. Although my evaluations slipped somewhat later when I reemerged as a conservative opinion leader, they stayed high enough for survival, and I became free to teach and research unhampered.

This article relates only a personal experience, but that experience does tend to corroborate the Neath-Trout hypotheses. Although SNEF forms could conceivably be drafted to correlate with teacher effectiveness, they frequently are not. Rather, the SNEF scores may depend on exogenous factors, some of them manipulable by professors who are ambitious or, as in my case, fighting for survival.

I still have qualms about sacrificing effective pedagogy to the gods of popularity. However, I sought popularity for reasons beyond personal advantage: to preserve at least a minimum of ideological diversity in our department and to prevent students from being placed in the care of someone worse.

For each of us, there comes a time to compromise; this was mine.

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