Wednesday, September 22, 2004


Class Observations

One aspect of my job involves doing observations of classes taught by full-time faculty. As a teacher myself, it still feels somehow indecent, voyeuristic. Sure, there’s nothing ‘private’ about getting up in front of 30 students, but it’s hard not to feel a little out-of-place judging other teachers when I know I’m a flawed teacher myself.

Some instructors videotape themselves in the classroom, then watch the tapes later as a form of self-critique. I think I’d rather be doused with honey and tied to an anthill. It took several years of teaching to get past a paralyzing self-consciousness; my not watching tapes of myself is sort of like an alcoholic not drinking. I’m much too prone to self-consciousness as it is; seeing myself on tape would take it to a whole new level. Maybe some people can get away with it, but I suspect no good would come from it.

I try to be the kind of observer I’d want to have – big picture, forgiving of small quirks, couching criticism (when it exists) as suggestions for improvement – and I’ve been lucky in my own teaching that those are the observers I’ve had. Still, it’s not hard to understand why teachers recoil in horror from the idea of ‘merit’-based pay. Justice Potter Stewart famously said of pornography, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it,” which is pretty close to my notion of good teaching. I can define elements of it (subject matter knowledge, organization, projection, addressing multiple learning styles, exemplifying critical thinking, not being unspeakably boring, etc.), but there have been cases where I could check off every box on my mental list, but somehow the class didn’t work. (The converse is also true – the instructor made some basic technical mistakes, but it worked anyway.) There’s just too much art involved. An observer more attuned to the checklist than to the art is every teacher’s nightmare.

That’s probably part of what is behind the movement for ‘outcomes assessment’ – since it can be so difficult to measure inputs, let’s measure outputs. If students succeed, we should assume the instructor is doing something right. This approach has a certain common-sense appeal, but it overlooks what any good teacher can tell you, which is that some students could learn from a rock, and others resemble rocks. I’ve had students so bright and driven that all I had to do was throw some assignments at them and jump out of their way; others, I’ve wondered how they feed themselves. To blame or credit the teacher for either just doesn’t make sense.

I do what I can – look for obvious no-no’s, praise obvious successes – acutely aware that these judgments are, at some basic level, intuitive. I know there’s a literature out there about how the gender and race of the instructor affect student perceptions of the professor’s performance, and I try not to fall into that, but there’s just no way to be sure. (From what I recall, students punish instructors who don’t fit the role that students like to assign – female professors are supposed to be nurturing classroom Moms, male professors are supposed to be intimidating authorities. As Dr. Seuss put it, everything’s fine when a moose dreams of moose juice, and nothing goes wrong when a goose dreams of goose juice, but when mooses go dreaming of juices of gooses…)

There’s also a basic question of motivation. In an institution with a unionized and tenured faculty, and without merit pay, how much do observations really mean? If someone with tenure and union protections does a merely workmanlike job, there’s really nothing I can do about it, other than look vaguely disappointed. Some have enough pride that that’s enough, but some don’t.

Thirty observations in the next thirty days. Ugh.

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