At what point do we say, “It’s my fault students aren’t learning?”

It’s the time of a year when I’m required to fill out a self evaluation in preparation for a formal performance evaluation by my department chair. These things always bother me for several reasons. The fact that we have no one on campus who is an expert at faculty evaluation is right there on the list, but I can usually ignore that reality. It’s always implicitly assumed that chairs and other administrators are indeed expert evaluators, even with a wink and a nudge. What has always bugged me more is that our teaching is never evaluated. In the old days, our evaluations were done only by students in certain random sections of certain random courses, never consistently from year to year so it was impossible to get anything statistically meaningful. Then, as usual, the evaluation had nothing to do with teaching, but rather with whether or not we performed certain administrative tasks (e.g. took attendance, handed out a syllabus on day one, started and stopped class on time, etc.). It was only in the past four years or so that anyone acknowledged that the old evaluations had nothing to do with teaching, so at least that awareness has been achieved, and that’s a small victory itself.

But recently, with the encroaching business mentality into academia, I can’t help but think there’s something sinister at work. There seems to be an ethos that one can never achieve one’s desirable goals, and if one reports having done that, then one is accused of not taking self evaluation seriously or “professionally.” People who know me know I’m a very reflective and self conscious teacher. People who know me really well know that I’m my own harshest critic and would never knowingly or intentionally do anything to keep students from succeeding. Yet, we are apparently not allowed to say that we really are doing everything we can in the classroom to help students succeed. We are not allowed to point out that at some point, students must decide to engage or not to engage because doing so is somehow unprofessional in that it shifts the burden onto students. Well, yes, the burden of learning indeed lies with the student and I don’t see how that can be ignored or twisted around into anything else. In my environment, I’ve had students tell me outright that they have no intention of doing this or that, usually because of lack of time on their part. Okay, then they need to rethink why they’re in college but I’m never allowed to use that as a reason for them not learning. I can’t accept that, and I also can’t force someone to learn when they don’t want to; ┬áthat has to be their choice. For me, the most troubling thing is having someone outside of my discipline tell me, based on a solitary observation each year, what I “need” to do to plan for the remainder of the academic year to be “more effective.” Two years ago, I was told that special relativity is not appropriate for introductory physics because the observer (not a physicist) found it too confusing and therefore so to must the students. That really happened, and the observer was quite serious about that recommendation. Of course I ignored it, having begun the course with relativity for several previous semesters.

Here’s a typical translation table of things I experience and what I’m told about my job responsibilities.

“Students didn’t read the assigned pages ands weren’t able to discuss it in class.”

“Joe, you need to test them on it to force them to read it.”

“Students didn’t do the WebAssign sets for class.”

“Joe, you’re not encouraging them enough.”

“Students aren’t coming to office hours.”

“Joe, you’re too intimidating and that keeps students from seeking your help.”

“Students aren’t doing well on tests.”

“Joe, you need to give them more work to reinforce what you want them to learn.”

The list goes on. Somehow, it always comes down to my failures, of which I am already painfully aware, and never to student responsibility. Every year, I’m torn between telling the truth on my self evaluation or just playing along and accepting responsibility for things I cannot be responsible for and hoping that upper administrators looking for that next position to cut understand the impossibility of these expectations. It’s humiliating. It’s a game I never expected to be forced to play. Even when I go into my most metacognitive mode I dutifully put forth suggestions knowing there’s not a chance in hell of them working unless students engage and decide they want to learn.

In a previous post, I gave what amounts to my newly formulated teaching philosophy, informed by years of reflection and review of the teaching literature and based on feedback from students and colleagues. I formulated this philosophy over about two years so it’s not just something I cooked up overnight. I consistently solicit feedback on it from students and colleagues (mostly via Twitter). Given certain aspects of my reality, I’m beginning to wonder if it is even realistic. For about two years, I have had more than a few students contact me upon transferring to universities to tell me how important the way physics or astronomy was presented in our courses was to their decision to pursue physics or engineering (and in one case, meteorology). I cannot help but think of their success as being at least in part to my doing things in a way that helped them, but my experience is that these things don’t matter in my self evaluation. Again, I feel I’m apparently not allowed to say anything positive, only negative.

So I guess I’m at an impasse. If I say I’m doing everything I can to help students, I’m told I must be lying and I’m not allowed to take that position. If I suggest improvement, I risk being lectured by people unqualified to judge anything about my discipline and/or the teaching thereof and am told it’s my fault students aren’t learning. I honestly don’t know what to do anymore. At what point do I give up and just accept that perhaps it is my fault?