Tuesday, September 23, 2008


Polarizing Professors

This week’s New York Times supplement on teaching once again skipped community colleges completely, even though it found several pages to dedicate to professors’ clothing. 
That said, it had one article that actually brought up a worthwhile issue, if indirectly.
Student evaluations of professors are usually coded statistically, and that works pretty well for professors who are generally considered great, average, or awful.  If someone scores multiple standard deviations below the mean in every category, there’s a pretty good chance that something is going badly wrong.  While it would be a mistake to base a personnel decision on a single data point, there’s nothing wrong with using data to highlight where a second, closer look is warranted. 
But the statistical system doesn’t do as well with professors who aren’t “generally considered” any one thing.  Some professors evoke polarized responses among students: simply put, they’re either loved or hated.  In the numbers, loved and hated might average out to something like “nothing special,” but that’s misleading.  These are where the dreaded judgment calls have to be made.
Any number of things can lead to polarized responses.  I’ll start with the hot-button one of a ‘political agenda.’  Yes, some professors are ham-fisted (or seem that way, depending on your background) in how they present material, and students object to that.  But to me, ‘political opinions’ and ‘teacherly craft’ are separable.  I’ve seen professors with strong beliefs structure their classes to foster a vigorous exchange of ideas, and win the respect (if not the agreement) of those who disagree.  The key variable here isn’t so much a strong set of opinions, but the ability to run a class in a professional and ethical way. 
(Annoyingly, some students simply won’t tolerate any challenge to their pre-existing beliefs.  A student once accused me of advocating cannibalism when I assigned Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” as a reading.  It took some time to get him to acknowledge that there can be value in reading things with which you disagree.)
More commonly, though, sarcasm tends to be polarizing.  Those who feel secure in their grasp of what’s going on often find it refreshing; those who are struggling often find it arrogant.  This tends to hold true regardless of politics.  At PU, one of my math faculty was widely despised by students, despite what I observed to be a clear and accessible teaching style.  Over time I figured out that it was his sarcasm – gentle by my standards, but there it was – that set them off.  Since they were struggling in the class, they heard the occasional aside – rightly or wrongly – as insulting.
Personality conflicts can also play a role.  I had a class at SLAC with a professor whom just about everybody liked; I couldn’t stand him.  Everybody else found him charismatic; I found him smug beyond belief.  Strong personalities will probably elicit more of these responses than others; whether that’s right or wrong I’ll leave to the ethicists.  And those frustrating issues of cultural fit can fall under this category, too, with varying degrees of fairness.
Offbeat subject matter or teaching methods can also elicit unpredictable responses.  In my experience, in-class role play exercises tend to either soar or flop, with little in-between.  I’ve found that some level of honesty when things flop can actually go a long way with students.  They read honestly, correctly, as respect, and respond accordingly. 
I’ll admit to getting a little nervous when a polarizing professor blames negative responses on the students.  There’s often some truth in it, but there’s also the basic fact that the students are who they are, and teaching the students we actually have is the job.  You’ll never reach everybody, and that’s to be expected, but I’m much more sympathetic to the professor who says “I’m having trouble with x group, so I’m trying this new strategy” than with the one who says “x group just isn’t fit to be here.”  There’s also the inconvenient fact that other faculty have the exact same students, and somehow seem to get through.  If 8 out of 9 members of a department seem to be doing fine, and the 9th isn’t, and the 9th’s explanation is that her students suck, I tend to be skeptical.  Anything’s possible, but the burden of proof in that case is pretty heavy.
Wise and worldly readers – what do you think makes a professor polarizing?  Have you been one?

I was what most people at my former institution would describe as a polarizing professor. However, that was due to the loathsome academic culture (long story short, the administrators cared more about student retention than whether or not the students got a degree that was worth more than a square-inch equivalent of toilet paper).
Dear Dean Dad,

Since this story is about my own Zenith, permit me to vent a little: I think the author was so interested in a kind of "culture wars story" -- and the editors so eager to print it -- that they printed something that should not have been printed. Because only the adjunct herself was interviewed (and there is *never* a guarantee of rehiring, even if the adjunct does well), it is a skewed story full of partial truths.

But what I hate most about it is this image of white boys seething at the back of the room waiting to destroy her career. Its just offensive that the Times reproduced this stereotype, since the author had no idea who actually was in the class (except what he was told by Bean), and Bean has no idea who wrote the evaluations. At Zenith, it is just as likely that a professor will be attacked from the left -- yeah, those queer white girls sitting in the front row.

Yes, there are polarizing teachers. But there are also troubled people who become teachers.

Students often don't appreciate a demanding professor until after the class is completed and/or after they enter their chosen career and realize such preparation was necessary. The easier route is to not expect as much in terms of performance from students but I am certain that the latter is not doing our jobs.
Before I get to the "are you polarizing?" question, a comment on the analysis of survey instrucments using a 5 (or 7) point Likert scale. (This is relevant to the polarization issue, by the way.) These are usually coded from "Strongly Agree" to "Strongly Disagree."

Suppose you have 100 respondents to a question, distributed as follows (the Type B professor):

SA (5):..........10
A (4):...........20
Neutral (3):.....40
D (2):...........20
SD (1):..........10

Here, your "average" score is 3.

Now, suppose your 100 responses are distributed like this (The Type P professor):


What's this? Also an "average" of 3.

See, the problem is that the "average" of "I love you" and "I hate you" isn't "I don't care."

And this is where the polarization issue comes in. In many ways, the second distribution of answers shows a professor who is actually doing something interestingin her classes. (The problem with a simple questionnaire is that you can't probe for why you got the responses you got. ) Whereas the professor in the first example is, well, boring but innoffensive.

My experience in looking at a lot of course-teacher evaluations is that one rarely gets a Type P professor. One much more frequently gets the Type B professor.

(Actually, the most frequent result is the Lake Woebegone result, in which everyone is above average, but that's a different story.)

I'm pleased to say I am not a Type B. I'm also not a Type P. I can live with that.
First of all, I loved the fake evaluation form that accompanied this article, complete with spaces to evaluate 'disfluencies' (er, ah, and um)!

I found the article itself to be awful, with the 'dismissed' (i.e. not rehired adjunct) professor portraying herself as a victim of being a victim of a capriciously-interpreted evaluation system. I am sure that there is a LOT more to this story than the printed version. I have been on the receiving end of the same accusations, when we declined to rehire or denied tenure to an allegedly 'polarizing' or 'challenging' or 'rigorous' faculty member.

Let's face it - nobody is dismissed solely on the statistics from one set of student evaluations. In my experience, that set of evaluations constituted the 'final straw' that was preceded by previous iffy evaluations, student complaints, and sub-standard peer/supervisor reviews. The faculty member in question has received feedback regarding his/her performance and has elected to ignore that feedback. When the axe falls, he/she claims that outstanding teachers who go out on a limb, or are challenging/demanding can't be handled by the bean counters at (insert your name) college who only care about FTEs.

In fact, any of us who read student evaluations of faculty know how to distinguish between good vs. mediocre teachers, even if they are 'polarizing'. None of us look merely at the average score for a particular evaluation item (which will be in the average range for a truly polarizing individual). We look at the 'tails' of the curve, i.e. how many students thought that this professor was outstanding versus how many thought he/she was poor. If a significant fraction is located in the 'poor' section, that is an area of concern, and I have never seen an evaluation where the number of poor marks are similar to the number of outstanding marks. Have you?

I do have some polarizing faculty members, but that means that I receive complaints (or some bad evaluations) that are balanced by unsolicited compliments (and good evaluations). Those professors are either highly opinionated or very challenging, and some students can't handle those qualities in their teachers. Still, most of us are smart enough to tell the difference between teachers who are a net positive value to their college, versus those that are not, right?
As someone who has held more than one visiting assistant position, I have to say that Bean's whole portrayal of her situation is odd. With no guarantee of a second year, why didn't she automatically apply elsewhere, in case things didn't work out? And while I find the whole "we might rehire you if your evals are good enough" really strange, the criteria were clear from the start, and she knew after the first semester that she wasn't meeting them. In my experience, at least at the dept level, it isn't the number so much as the written comments that make the difference. If, for example, my evals put me a bit low of the rest of the dept for the mean score, but the students who wrote comments all complain that I expect those taking the class for gen ed credit to do the same work as the majors, then I'm doing what I am expected to do, and that is taken into account. If, on the other hand, the written comments say my grading is unfair or my expectations are unclear, then I'd be in trouble. Doesn't it work like that in most places?
There is an interesting discussion of the Times adjunct article at a zenith student blog. If anonymous comments on a chaotic student blog are any judge, student dissatisfaction with that particular adjunct seems to have cut across racial lines.
I'm a CC Dean/Dad too. Longtime reader, first-time poster...

In my experience, such polarized results might indicate a faculty member who may be indulging a bit too much in "all about me" when teaching.

Strong egos can produce a strong teaching presence -- inspiring some students and repelling others. Either way, it tends to be the product of misplaced energy and at my CC I don't think our student body can afford too much of the repelling.

By the way I agree, this is a data point that warrants a second look (and a third, and then an improvement plan... not simply dismissal.)
Another longtime reader and first-time commenter, here...

I don't know whether I've ever been a polarizing professor, but I've certainly had one -- a man whom about a third of the English majors at my undergrad college adored and another third hated (and most of the rest were too chicken to take a class with him). He was an abrasive New Yorker at a tradition-minded southern school: demanding, occasionally arrogant, not one to suffer fools gladly (and a shade too quick to call people fools). In my four years there, I heard him described as everything from a condescending jerk to an "emotional rapist" (whatever that means). He was, and is, also a provocative and thoughtful teacher who took the time to model the sort of connections thinking people make, a professor who believed students had something worthwhile to say and accordingly kept his expectations high, and a mentor who continued to be generous with time and advice long after students had left his classroom. I hope I can polarize students like that one of these days. I know I'm not there yet.

I don't know whether any of this is true of the VAP profiled in the article, of course, but I suspect that most faculty whose classes are worth taking would be hard-pressed to please 85% of the students all the time.
I want to read the article about Profesor's clothing as my student evaluations ALWAYS seem to include at least 3 - 4 comments about my clothes. Either I really am the best dressed professor at li'l ol' CC of the midwest or my competition isn't very stiff. Also, I can't figure out why the students think it's important to mention my fashion sense on a course eval.
I've been in the mildly polarizing group -- I've often had a few students who just hated me. (My favorite comment: "X sucks" -- that was the whole evaluation. Very helpful, yes?) But others liked me. I got screwed over at tenure because some colleagues decided that if anyone did not like you, there was some problem with you as a teacher!

But I thought the Times piece was silly; anyone on a one year who puts all her marbles on the off chance that she'll be extended needs to learn something else. (And maybe make her way outside the rarified SLACs where she has had trouble.)
Thistles: "I can't figure out why the students think it's important to mention my fashion sense on a course eval."

When I was in college, I used to do this. In retrospect, and now that I'm teaching, I'm not entirely sure WHY I did this, but I think it was a way of connecting with and supporting my professors and saying that I paid attention to them. I'm also midwestern, and a lot of my friends did it to, so maybe it's a midwestern thing. I find my midwestern students are often very encouraging when I'm teaching and want to make sure everything's going well for me. I think it's sweet.

Sometimes, though, a professor went so far out of his way to wear awesome ties, I really just felt like they deserved recognition!

If they're complimentary about your clothes, I'd take it as an indication that they like you and want you to succeed. If they start being complimentary about your BODY, (or worse, being UNcomplimentary about it) then I think you're into the "inappropriately personal" territory. When it's your clothes, though, I think they're trying to make a personal connection.
That story was particularly bizarre because I read it *after* reading the Wesleyan blog about it. If that many students will comment on the record about the class, clearly the writer didn't spend much time looking for students to comment on this instructor if some are already organizing a letter to the NYTimes.

It was also odd how this case (a one-year visiting gig with no guarantee of reappointment) got mixed in with a discussion of student evaluations and tenure. And it never answered my question, which is how could a person with a degree in theater put on such a poor show in class? Acting!

As for your main question, I could never articulate what it is that I do that appears to be so effective with many of my students, nor could I explain the few disasters I have witnessed. One, way back when I was a senior on the college's student advisory committee, does stick in my mind. The riot of complaints that came our way long before the 10-week term was over seemed to arise from a double barrel blast: annoyingly patronizing plus a lack of content.
Dean Dad: spoken like a true administrator, unfortunately. I'm really a bit shocked by the smugness of some responses to this topic. I have seen evaluations used in terrible ways, especially in small colleges where deans (sorry, DD)really do believe that good evaluations come from good teaching, which sometimes happens still, but can also come from unchallenging assignments, grade inflation, or pizza delivered to class. Small departments can manipulate students and the results of evaluations to terrible ends, e.g. getting rid of a colleague who may outshine them, or simply because playing with people has become part of their world. The part of the NYTimes article that no one has mentioned so far is the incident of the male junior prof discussed by his chair, concerned for the young man's welfare, and essentially condoning the grade inflation he employed to acquire tenure. A woman would not be treated with that kind of tolerance, whereas, though it is a stereotype, the boys' club still allows it. The NYTimes article followed this pattern: the two major cases where names were used were women. They, their careers and their names, the issues on their evaluations are exposed to scrutiny (and can be used by any future disenchanted student, so a complaint may ring very true). Any men that this has happened to are, as usual, protected. Wake up.
'brows: Nope, no comments so far about my body. And the fashion-related comments so far have been quite positive....except for one. And it went something like this "Dear Professor Thistles: I liked everything you wore this semester except that white skirt with the flowers. I'm sorry, but it looked like an apron. Have a good summer. A. Student."

Psychology class or Project Runway episode? I am hard pressed to tell the difference.

In all seriousness, the hard-core feminist in me is a bit miffed. If I were a man, no one one would scrutinize my fashion choices so intensely. Save, interesting ties, I suppose.

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