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Ask a Senior Colleague- Fall 2017

Section Editor: Elaina Behounek

For this installment of Ask a Senior Colleague, I inquired about how to handle feedback/critique and evaluations. We received a plethora of detailed responses. As always, thank you for your contribution!

How do you deal with feedback/critiques/evaluations? In our positions we are evaluated (nearly constantly it seems). What are some strategies you use to deal with feedback that you may not necessarily find helpful or constructive? Also, those giving the feedback (ie. Those who may be on our T&P committees), what ways should we be handling feedback?

Response #1:
Feedback can be very difficult and is ubiquitous to college professors, especially women.

Teaching Evaluations:

When I started teaching, I focused on the mean comments primarily; not intentionally but those seemed to be the ones I remembered most clearly. This attention is part of human nature to focus on the bad.  But after a few years, I learned to shift through course evaluations to find useful information.  First I identified items that I could change; e.g. clarity on assignments, giving them practice items, and appearing available.  I then shifted comments into three categories: 1) things that I can change; 2) things that are not about me and 3) things that come from bias.  If you are not aware of the literature on student course evaluations as being bias based on gender and race, I suggest that you look at it.  Much has been studied in the last 10 years.  Once I have those categories, I try to find the useful and use that in my classroom.

Faculty Evaluation Generally:

The other thing I have done is to bring the literature on student course evaluations to the attention of the administration.  I have done this advocacy as a faculty representative.  I have helped to develop and write policies around faculty evaluations and am now focused on student course evaluations, which at my school, have not been adjusted in over 60% of the university since their inception.  Administration recognizes that the lack of development on course evaluations is a major problem.

In my own evaluations, I have written memos when I disagree with an evaluation and have refused to sign evaluations with which I disagree. Many faculty feel pressured to sign the evaluation and do not research the policies surrounding their rights and recourse.  I read the policies and try to use shared governance to the best of my ability.  It is time consuming to do this type of service from serving on governing bodies, writing bylaws, and writing policies but it is a crucial role if one wants fair evaluations.  For example, my new dean informed me that he only reads the first page or so of my narrative for my annual evaluations.  He looks primarily at the numbers to decide things.  This type of supervision does not recognize the richness of my contributions.   I still write my multiple page narrative and provide him a snapshot of items.  If I don't receive a fair evaluation, I have the groundwork to appeal such a rating.  Since many things that we do are not immediately apparent, it is up to use to create the context for others.

When all else fails, I still have wine and chocolate; and friends who understand.

Response #2:
Positive feedback is encouraging.  Criticism can be taken two ways: it indicates ways you can improve your teaching and hence, at tenure/promotion time, you can point to improvement in your teaching; or, you can explain the criticism as a reflection of the fact that material or analyses you offered are "controversial."  I did promotion and tenure counseling for years on my (Indiana U-Bloomington) campus and in support of people across the country preparing for promotion and tenure, or appealing negative decisions.

Response #3:
My suggestion is tied to the university/college you are a part of – more on that later. Feedback on these sorts of documents/dossiers/files often have critiques – in my estimation that’s a good thing, generally. Nobody is perfect. All of us can use critiques of our work to do better, even though we hate to see them. So, first, take the critiques as feedback to do better. I mean, we can always publish more – standard line, right? Publish more with students, co-authors … right. Be more creative in your teaching of difficult subjects … take part in more service. These can be general comments that we’d expect, or more specific – and these often “hurt” more than the expected/general ones.

One university I worked at always had what I considered “hard” critiques in our annual reviews, 3rd year reviews/etc. I felt that this was a way to have evidence on hand should tenure be denied. This is not constructive in my opinion. It gave me the impression that they were getting ready to kick me to the curb every year, without providing a means to “fix” the issue. That’s just how I took it.

The university I am at now is different. If there is a critique of, say, teaching, the individual is recommended to enroll in a relevant class provided by our in-house Excellence in Teaching program. So it’s much more positive a critique that can be addressed and “fixed.”

To navigate whether the critique/feedback is helpful or not, work with a colleague who knows the ropes at your institution. I expect, via these “ask a tenured prof” columns,  it has been suggested to have some sort of a pre-tenure committee in your department or college – review the feedback with them and see what they think for an institution-specific response (for example, perhaps the Dean always says this and everyone knows it, or it’s normal “here” for that feedback – should you worry or not?). Also, having a group of similarly ranked faculty, perhaps from your hiring cohort, who you can discuss these issues with might be helpful.

Depending on the institution, these reviews can be every year, at 3rd year, or just when up for T&P. While time consuming to compile/etc., having annual reviews/reports (most departments have some kind of Faculty Annual Reviews) is useful. “Issues” can be identified and “fixed” so that when you are up for renewal, T&P, or post tenure review any “issue” will have been remedied.

Response #4:
Essential that the department develop a "rubric" for classroom visitations--one for online- one for face to face that peers and chairs use.

The "rubric" should be provided well in advance to the person being evaluated.

The day of visitation should be agreed on in advance between the two.  Syllabi, reading for that day etc. should be shared in advance.  For online, the dept. needs to make sure there is equity.  For example, for a peer evaluation in face to face--we go one day and comment on one lecture--seems to me that online should not be any different--a "unit" or "module" should be agreed upon rather than the entire contents of the online course.

Departments should provide the opportunity for an "additional" evaluation--particularly important in departments that are made up of multiple disciplines.

Pre-Tenure faculty should have the opportunity for formative evaluations--by this I mean--evals that do not become part of the personnel file.  In some ways this is connected to mentoring but in my experience most places do a pretty shitty job of that.

Response #5:
Faculty get all kinds of evaluations: student’s opinion surveys; annual, tenure, and/or promotion reviews; and manuscript reviews and editor decisions. Evaluations are always challenging, especially for women. Women are socialized to want to be liked, never speak up or out, never rock the boat, never ask for anything, and feel like they must be perfect. In these circumstances even positive feedback feels somehow wrong: “I’m not that good,” “Gosh, I wonder who they’re talking about?,” and “They like me! They really like me!!!” Of course, negative feedback is worse and punches us in the gut because we don’t read it as a criticism and call to action of just one thing; rather, we read it as an attack on our whole self. So, prepare for evaluations before you get them by strategizing how to deal with them.

When you open an evaluation and feel that it’s negative, unhelpful, or not constructive, first take a deep breath and let it out slowly and then take four more such breaths. When we are attacked we start feeling and stop thinking, our heart races and blood rushes; deep breathing helps slow this process down so we can return to thinking. So breathe first and then put the evaluation away for a day or two and do something that brings you life and joy. Remember that you are loved and good as a human being. A couple of days later take the evaluation out and read it with your thinking brain; some of it is probably correct even if it could have been said better. Learn from that. Treat this as a gift since someone volunteered their time to give you feedback. If it’s not helpful or constructive feel free to ignore it, assuming you have the power and privilege to do so. But if it comes from a power structure that has something you want – reviewers and editors you want to accept and publish your work; faculty, chairs, and deans from whom you want a raise, tenure, or promotion; students from whom you want good evaluations – then you must listen carefully and try to discern what they are saying because they’re not all crazy idiots who are out to get you. If necessary, take your evaluation to a trusted colleague or friend and ask for their help interpreting it. They are likely to see things you’re missing because they are more objective.

I’ve hated every rejection and difficult R&R I’ve ever gotten from a journal and was immediately certain they were wrong. During my second (or third) reading a few days later, I knew they were right. Reviewers and editors gave me the gift of their time (they sure weren’t getting paid) and it’s incumbent on me to listen to and learn from them.

I have also let go of the idea that I can please everyone or make everyone happy. Some students or colleagues will not like me or my work no what, so I actively choose to focus on those with whom I can work. A couple of people voted against my application for full professor; I was promoted anyway and chose to ignore the negative votes and comments. These seems like an easy choice, and it was for me, but I’ve seen people continue to gripe about negative votes long after they mattered. Move on. Life is short and goes by very fast.

Response #6:
I recommend the book Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well by Douglas Stone & Sheila Heen.

Response #7:
As a "senior" faculty member who evaluates "junior" faculty, I try to be supportive and give as much constructive feedback as possible. I have run into resistance from male faculty members who, not surprisingly, sometimes take a different view. To the extent I can, I focus on "objective" measures, but also point out the intangibles and provide much-needed context, such as the nature of courses (some of which, as we know, require more emotional work than others), advising loads, service, etc. I think it's been well established that female faculty members take on a lot of the emotional work in academia, so I try to frame that in ways I think will be appreciated by others, especially those outside my department who also evaluate. For example, a colleague who advises our campus PRIDE room (providing support and services to our LGBTQIA community); outside our department, faculty may not be aware of the tremendous value of this work and how it differ from advising other student groups.