More Art Than Science: Evaluating the Evaluations

xhBuPsj Like many law professors, I am in the process of handing out evaluations this week and this posting on Reddit from a fellow law professor’s class caught my eye. Before leaving the classroom for the completion of evaluations, the professor apparently put up on the screen his favorite ding on evaluations with a student who wrote: “I don’t wear my seatbelt driving to school because I want to die before I make it to this class.”

Evaluations can be a challenge to putting a term of fulfillment or frustration into a brief statement.

My two favorite evaluations relate to the same professor at Northwestern University Law School who relished his bad evaluations and framed some in his office. One evaluation referred to his short height and (I will leave out his name) read “I am convinced that in 50 years they will discover that Napoleon as a [blank] problem.” Another evaluation occurred during a term when he had to wear a neck brace following a tennis injury and read simply “I am glad you hurt your neck.”

I was also told of a certain Columbia law professor who used to mock students eager to give him bad evaluations. You will have to forgive the profanity in this one. While leaving the class to allow them to complete their evaluations, he turned to his students and said “do me a favor this year and at least get your spelling right. There are two r’s in ‘arrogant.'” Without missing a beat, a student in the back of class immediately yelled out in response, “Thanks, but are there two s’s in ‘asshole’?”

Have you given or received a flaming evaluation?

18 thoughts on “More Art Than Science: Evaluating the Evaluations”

  1. I prefer one that can teach, not all who take a class are ready to learn. I rarely read teacher/professor evaluations.

  2. Professional evaluations float on the rolling tide of emotion. Love me today; hate me tomorrow. What are we to make of such shifting opinions? Not much I’d say. A better gauge is how many folks go out of their way to hire, seek, or learn from you. That’s the best “evaluation,” and the only one you should care about.

  3. Darren,

    Thanks for that clip. The performance took place in the late 70’s so my evaluator was pre-Amadeus but just as haughty.

    Here’s the piece off of utube (not me singing) … Vivaldi – Gloria VI: Domine Deus … I blame the oboist

  4. Ah..the sweet smell of cowardly innuendo. The 1k bet is still out there for anyone w/ a pair. I’ll prove ANYTHING I’ve said but only for 1k per anecdote.

  5. I could not personally stand some of the best teachers/professors I’ve had. And, in the evaluations I mentioned the personal briefly but gave them kudos for their strengths. I’ve given scathing evaluations[one in particular] to those who were charming but horrible teachers.”If you want a friend, get a dog.” I ask all those capable of intellectual honesty to think back on the BEST teachers you’ve had. I’ll bet you didn’t like most of them @ the time. I had few rules as a teacher and coach. But if you didn’t pay attention or hustle I would get in touch w/ my dark side briefly. Nick Spinelli is mostly light, but can go dark. I always considered evaluations important and did my best on giving them. The evaluations I received as a teacher and coach were often pleasantly surprising. I still have students and players keep in touch, a few that I butted heads w/ back in the day. Of course, these are merely anecdotes and possibly false, but anecdotes were requested.

  6. Critical evaluations should be written in a way that allows the person being critiqued to accept the criticism, otherwise, what is the point? Attacks and insults might make the person writing them feel better but they are essentially ineffective. It is extremely rare I would think to find someone so bad that there isn’t something nice to point out along with the bad stuff.

    As to spelling, I find it an area of creative endeavor for some. My brother is a terrific writer but a very creative speller. I’ve never had a problem in understanding either his prose or his poetry.

  7. I am wracking my brain trying to think of a single professor in 4 years of college and 2 of grad school that I would have given a bad evaluation. They were all fabulous. They were all enthusiastic about their subjects, organized and personable. You only get out of college what you put into it. It is my experience that the students who give bad evaluations are simply in the wrong place. They should look into another field of study that is easier for them or get a job.

  8. I don’t place a lot of value in such things. I’ve found the 80/20 rule they often teach salespeople to be true. 20% of all people aren’t going to like you for whatever reason: they don’t like your voice, how you dress, etc. but rarely is the criticism related to job performance and many of the critics may not have any idea what the job fully or actually entails. For example, I thought one of my professors was a total jackass and by most objective standards this is a reasonable conclusion, however, he did impart a thorough knowledge of the subject matter. I could have flamed him, but in the end, the man did his job so what’s the point? The relevant information is related to the job, not the person, just as the relevant part of an argument is the logic and evidence and not the ad hominem (with the one narrow exception as to the speaker relying upon his/her veracity as evidence of the truth of a matter asserted absent other evidence). Being that 20% is a huge margin of error, I find that sufficient reason to discount the value of both giving and receiving such evaluations. They can be useful in spotting legitimate problems for an employer, but you have to sift through a lot of opinion to get to any sort of usable fact. Objective metrics are a much better measure when appropriate and available, but sadly, sometimes this kind of hugely imperfect tool is the only tool available.

  9. Evaluations fall into the “it is what it is” category.

    I don’t remember doing them when I was in college back in the 80’s. But later courses / continuating education ones they were common. I tried to be as objective as possible but be a human being to the person/instructor.

    Knowing the potential for any instructor to have an overbearing jerk for a boss who looked for anything to attack her, I tried only to focus on the good and not give such a bad boss anything to use nefariously.

  10. My lawyer/agent/manager who always traveled with me and stayed close to my side during such “meet the public” affairs because I was known to have a smart mouth replied, “Well then we’d have to reduce the ticket price which is based on the number of notes sung.”

    Loved that man!

  11. During a reception after a performance, a member of the audience told me she liked the first 2 songs but the third one had “too many notes” in it and I should consider leaving it out of future programs.

  12. Otteray: One problem is often that the department chair, dean, provost etc all want professors to be popular also; and they presume that if you flunk half your class then you must be unreasonable or a bad teacher. Popular professors attract students and that means money.

    A second problem for professors is that they have to supervise graduate students, both as part of their tenure case and to have somebody do the grunt work of new ideas in order to publish papers (at least in hard science disciplines where publishing is not as easy as writing an opinion or interpretation paper, which is sometimes all one has to do in non-science disciplines).

    But choosing a graduate advisor is entirely up to the student, so being disliked can have career consequences. Also, students may not be able to avoid a professor teaching a required course, but being disliked can make students unwilling to take the professor’s “specialty” courses, which are always elective. Such courses are the main way to introduce the basics of your research to the new crop of graduate students, and that is a necessity because they are typically harvested (choose their advisor) in their first two semesters as a candidate.

    The main points for making tenure are Money brought to the school from grants, contracts, and other sources, Papers written and published, and Students mentored or graduated. Some consideration is also given for “Service,” i.e. serving on committees, writing the qualifying exams, serving on the faculty Senate, being a faculty sponsor of campus clubs, etc. Much of that demands some reasonable level of popularity among students, at least indirectly, to attract them to work with you instead of somebody else.

  13. Administrators (and other students) have to be smart enough to read the evaluations properly. When you do, it’s easy to tell the difference between “i hate this person because the class is hard” or “I hate this class because he takes attendance” or “He tests on more than just what’s in the book, i need to take notes in class” and “this teacher is ineffective/unprepared.”

  14. “It is a damn poor mind that can only figure one way to spell a word.” – Andrew Jackson (7th President of

  15. That’s funny, i used the same line on my students before they evaluated me, saying: “Look, don’t embarrass yourselves by mispelling words. Moron is m o r O n, not A n.”

  16. as a student I resented being asked to evaluate my professors. One of the best professors I had was a young PhD who was smart as hell and asked that we use calculus to solve the fluid dynamics problems instead of algebra, I am thinking wow now this is real engineering. The kids who usually got good grades were getting C’s and D’s in that class. Well the professor was gone the next semester much to my disapointment.

    So much for teacher evaluations.

    The best evaluation of a class by an instructor was when one of the electrical engineering professors handed out Wal-Mart employment applications to his students after a particularly tough test.

  17. The primary danger in student evaluations of faculty is that some professors want to be popular rather than teachers. When I was teaching, I always tried to make things as fun and interesting as possible, for the simple reason that more learning takes place that way. However, some students may decide to make a faculty member their “hobby” for reasons that have nothing to do with teaching. That is not an acceptable use of evaluations.

    A professor who would rather be popular than good, is not doing his or her students any favors.

    There was a user on another blog, a college instructor, who was a persistent troll. A couple of people looked up his ratings online and discovered the primary complaint from students was his personal hygiene. As in reporting he had none. So after that, many of the responses to his comments somehow managed to work the word “stinky” into them.

Comments are closed.