In a recent piece for CNN about universities adopting a pass/fail policy for students during the COVID-19 crisis, David Perry added a few thoughts about faculty as well:
Faculty also need to be judged on a pass/fail basis. Online teaching is uniquely hard and cannot be mastered as a skill in a couple of hours or days. Student evaluations — which for pre-tenure or pre-promotion faculty are vitally important to their career advancement — will be useless in this new arrangement, as will any evaluations of research productivity.
Perry’s comments are spot on and worth serious consideration. While much of the conversation in higher ed at this time has rightly focused on students–because of the major disruption caused by the coronavirus, the emotional and psychological turmoil brought on by the crisis, and the sudden transition to a new learning environment–faculty are facing all of this too. Universities should grant faculty the same grace they are extending to students and administrators should not evaluate their teaching in the same way they would in other semesters.
There are several options for how we might proceed with respect to student evaluations of teaching (SETs for short; some people also call them student ratings of instruction, or SRIs, but I’m not splitting semantic hairs in this post) at this time, and I’ve divided those options into four categories below:
Category 1: Change nothing about the current process of collecting SETs and using them for decisions that affect a person’s career.
Analysis: To my mind this is an unjustifiable approach at this time. As I noted above, faculty are working in an unprecedented situation where they are being asked to do so much with tools, parameters, and environments that are–in many cases–unfamiliar. They’re doing amazing work, but it is unfair to evaluate them as if they were teaching in traditional circumstances.
Category 2a: Collect SETs but do not use them for reappointment, promotion, and/or tenure.
Category 2b: Collect SETs but allow faculty to choose whether or not to include the results when they are up for reappointment, promotion, and/or tenure.
Analysis: Both of these options look reasonable on the surface, but they share a common flaw. If the results are out there, then it is possible that people other than the faculty member will see the results. This may lead to implicit bias down the road when faculty are being evaluated for reappointment, promotion, and/or tenure. Similarly, I think the choice option is the least desirable. Imagine a situation where two faculty are going up for tenure at the same time. One has chosen to include results from the COVID-19 affected semester and one has not. How will both of these faculty be evaluated at that time? Also, will faculty feel undue pressure to make a choice they are uncomfortable with? These options simply open up too many potential scenarios that undermine their utility.
Category 3: Design a new SET that focuses more on learning than on teaching behaviors.
Analysis: Great idea; it’s never going to happen given the compressed timeframe.
Category 4: Do not collect SETs during COVID-affected semesters.
Analysis: This, to me, is the most equitable model. This is the option with the least possibility for misuse (because there will not be anything to misuse) and it is the only one that truly levels the playing field.
I know what you’re thinking: but, Josh, don’t we want student feedback on their experience this semester? Yes, we do, but we want different kinds of feedback. Just like with any semester, those faculty who want individualized, formative feedback from their students should be encouraged to create a short survey in Survey Monkey, Qualtrics, etc. to ask their students these questions, or they could work with their friendly neighborhood teaching center to develop such a survey. This is right in our (meaning those who work in teaching centers) wheelhouse!
Secondly, we also want student feedback on the transition process–glitches in the technology, workload across the board, etc.–independent of what is happening with individual courses. We need to develop mechanisms to get this feedback sent directly to IT and the Provost’s Office in ways that are anonymized and that have no impact on a person’s career.
In short, this is a tumultuous semester for everyone. Faculty should not have their careers negatively affected by this disruptive transition, just as students should not have to worry about the effect of all of this on their grades. SETs have an impact on faculty of every stripe–adjuncts, full-time NTT faculty, and tenure-stream faculty. We need to look carefully at how we can address their use in the weeks and months ahead.
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