I got my student comments from last term’s intro mechanics course yesterday, which is always a stressful moment. As tends to happen, they were all over the map, with some students really liking me and others absolutely hating me.
It struck me while I was reading through the written comments that the experience is a lot like reading Amazon reviews of my book. I think there’s actually a decent analogy between the response of authors to reviews and the response of faculty to student evaluations:
— Really good comments can make you feel great, but the negative ones make you feel worse. I’ve got one of my favorite student-evaluation comments ever quoted over in the left sidebar, but I remember some of the negative remarks just as well (some because they’re unintentionally funny– one student called my comments on his grammar “boarderline [sic] unprofessional” a few years ago).
— Some of them will completely miss the point, and you need to find a way to accept that and move on. I get a fair number of negative comments of the form “This professor sucked because he made us do a lot of work,” which, yeah, nothing to be done about that. Introductory college physics will always involve a ton of work, and some students will always hate that.
— Individual negative responses might cost you a few sales, but you shouldn’t worry too much about them– a few people will read a negative book review and not buy the book as a result; a few students will talk to their friends who hated you class, and not take a course with you as a result. That’s not going to damage anything too major, though– other faculty and deans know that a few negative comments here and there is not a major problem.
— A consistent pattern of negativity could cost you your job. If the reviews of your classes are uniformly negative, you won’t get tenure. If the reviews of your book are uniformly negative, leading to bad sales, nobody will pay you to write a second one.
— Responding directly to them is one of the most efficient ways to end your career. This week has seen yet another instance of the “author discovers people saying Bad Things, and responds poorly” phenomenon, which comes around every couple of months. Hunting up negative reviews and responding with lengthy rants about how the reviewers are idiots will get you a reputation as That Crazy Person from the Internet, and probably make it much harder to get publishers to talk to you.
Similarly, responding at length to specific comments is a great way to to torpedo an academic career. There have been a couple of times when I’m pretty sure I could identify the specific student who wrote something, but I would never even consider saying anything about it. I’m pretty sure that would get even tenured faculty run off in a hurry.
Maddening as some of the comments faculty receive are, we need to approach them with the same Zen detachment authors need when confronting bad reviews on the Internet– read them, take anything useful that you find, and let the rest pass by.
Of course, that’s easier said than done, from either the author or professor side…