Sunday, November 03, 2013


Observing Classes Outside Your Field

Any dean will face this at some point.  You have to do a classroom observation as part of a professor’s evaluation protocol, but the professor teaches a subject in which you have no background.  What do you do?

I’ve faced this one myself.  At my previous college, I was responsible for everything in the humanities and social sciences.  Among other things, that meant observing classes in which I had less background than the students, such as Advanced Music Theory or Italian II.  That didn’t excuse me from doing observations, though.

The best way I’ve found for handling cases like those is to be realistic about what you’re observing.  Nobody is a subject-matter expert in everything, and it would be absurd to expect that anyone could be.  So instead of thinking of myself as the Content Police -- a quixotic task in the best of times -- I reframed the observation.  Instead of focusing entirely on what the professor was doing, I focused largely on what the students were doing.  

That meant looking less at content -- honestly, I have no idea whether every chord resolution was correct -- and more at the structure of the class and the demeanor of the students.  Does the professor seem to have the students’ respect?  (That shows in a lot of different ways, but when it’s missing, you can tell.)  Does everyone seem to know what to expect?  Are the students engaged, or is it a sea of thousand-yard stares?  Is there a discernible structure to the class?  

In a sense, that’s where having a fresh perspective can be useful.  As an outside observer, you’re stepping into a course that has already been running for a month or two.  It has established its own rhythm.  Coming in from the outside, you haven’t been privy to any of that; you just see a snapshot.  Sometimes a snapshot can reveal odd and unintended things that have gradually come to seem normal in that context.  

That’s obviously limited, which is why it’s important that any meaningful evaluation protocol have multiple inputs.  Student evaluations are imperfect in many ways, but students are in a position to notice certain sorts of things -- like a professor not bothering to return papers for a month -- that no expert, no matter how sharp, could possibly pick up in a single day.  Informal peer observations can be helpful with specific content, as well as with the culture and practices of a given department.  Deans’ observations can be useful in bringing new eyes to the process, and in the case of experienced deans, bringing suggestions to the faculty picked up from seeing the best of their colleagues.

No single input is flawless, of course, but having multiple inputs can correct for some of the worst flaws of any one.  A dean is one person, so a dean’s writeup is vulnerable to the charge of being “subjective” to some degree.  But if the dean’s observation is consistent with what students report, there’s probably something there.

The mysterious case, for me, is when the dean and the students disagree dramatically.  I had that happen many years ago at DeVry.  I observed a professor whom many students loathed, and I honestly couldn’t see what the fuss was about.  In class, everything seemed pretty straightforward; he presented the material clearly, the students were with him, and nothing seemed odd.  If I hadn’t known his reputation beforehand, I would have considered it a solid B or B-plus performance and forgotten about it.  Yet for reasons I never really understood, students hated him.  I noted his student evals, because I had to, but wound up going with what I saw.  Whatever they didn’t like, I couldn’t see it.  

The opposite case is easier.  I’ve observed classes in which my first, visceral reaction was “wow, I would never do that…,” but they worked anyway.  That’s where observing the students pays off.  If the students are engaged, the wheels are turning, and all seems well, it’s usually best to bracket your own stylistic differences and call it good.  In the current parlance, it’s about “outcomes” rather than “inputs;” if the professor gets good results and isn’t doing anything unethical, put aside matters of personal taste and move on to the next class.  (I once saw a professor do an in-class version of “Jeopardy” to teach Freud.  It worked, though I, personally, would never have done that.)  

The key is to recognize the limited role of the dean’s observation.  Let the department focus on content, and rely on the students for feedback about things you’d never catch in a single day, like frequent absences or painfully late grading.  You can’t be, and don’t have to be, the expert on everything.  Just look for engagement and a few basics, and trust that the rest will show up in other ways.

Program Note: The blog will be on break for a few days, as I gear up for a talk at the NEACRAO conference in Newport.  

That seems wise.

I guess I don't have much else to add.

I once observed and then counseled a faculty member who had been accused of cheating by the peers who observed him/her. The student evals were poor, but the peers (and I) saw a good teacher who was organized, caring, and doing all the right things in the classroom. Rather than see if there were any problems with the system -- for one, the student eval instruments *stank* for reliability and validity -- they accused the faculty member of dialing up the performance on the day they observed. I was livid. The faculty member was heartbroken.

Thank goodness you knew better, Dean Dad.
Classes that are "hard" or "weeders" almost always have lower evaluations at our school. Gen Eds have high scores. Also, at my college, women score lower than men and older faculty score lower than younger ones. Online courses have lower scores than in-person classes. It's a very demoralizing system and I wish we had something better.
Looked up that conference and was most amused to see Don't miss "Dean Dad"! as the promo for the keynote speaker. I'm sure you will keep them awake during and after lunch!

I've never understood why evaluation visits are scheduled. Apart from exam days (although observing one of them might be useful as well), I feel that my classroom should be open to my Dean or even the college President on any day of the week.

That goes double in a case like Anonymous@12:45PM describes. The faculty member shouldn't have been heartbroken, ze should simply open the classroom to the alleged peers on any day they chose to attend, with the "peers" classes equally open to Heartbroken Prof and yourself. Maybe their evals are high because they have low expectations and high pass rates.
I notice that at least one frequent commenter over on the IHE site made the assumptions that "Heartbroken's" peers made. And that person was apparently in a position to act on those assumptions. This seems unfortunate because somebody who is a bad teacher or who has been phoning it in for years probably is not capable of masking that or turning that all around for one class. Consequently, if there are a lot of student complaints, but those complaints don't match what you see when you observe, I'd say go with what you saw. Maybe observe more than once, if it is really worrisome.
Great to see you speak today! Really enjoyed your talk. :-)
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