What Are Those Evaluations for Anyway?

Posted by Danny Graugnard

The end of a semester marks the end of classes, and in addition to the final exams and term papers, students are also given course evaluations to fill and return to the department of the course they're taking. Although many students don't realize it, evaluations are reviewed in part to determine the quality of the professor's teaching of the course, as well as the course itself. This can influence whether or not a professor may receive academic tenure. But what exactly is academic tenure, and how are these evaluations part of the process? In many colleges and universities, tenure is an academic's contractual right to not have his or her position at the institution terminated without just cause. Tenured positions are considered senior positions within the institution. Like other institutions, Skidmore College awards academic tenure to those who demonstrate a strong record of published research, teaching, and in the liberal arts, consistency in publishing creative work such as books or essays. Indeed, the Faculty Handbook states that, "Decisions to reappoint, promote, or tenure faculty members at Skidmore are based on the quality of their credentials in three areas: performance as teachers, achievement as scholars or artists, and contribution to the welfare of the college community beyond the classroom." For Skidmore, their "performance as teachers" is highly valued, and outweighs the rest of the criteria. Skidmore recognizes the quality of teaching more than the quality of academic or creative work; the handbook asserts "no record of unusual productivity will compensate for unsatisfactory teaching."

As students, we are all too familiar with the class evaluations that we are asked to do at the end of each semester. The evaluations ask us how we experienced the class and whether or not we felt the professor was efficient in teaching the course. It turns out these evaluations are taken very seriously, especially when it comes to new and younger faculty. Within the teaching criteria, there are three areas that are closely reviewed: course management and design, classroom manner and presentation of course materials, and finally knowledge and mastery of one's subject. Evidence that is reviewed for these criteria include the structure of the syllabi, fairness of evaluating student work, and class preparation.

Most systems allow a limited time for the professor to establish this record, which means that professors who wish to receive tenure have a set time to hold their junior titles. The motivation to receive academic tenure is to be granted "academic freedom," which would protect professors when they choose to pursue their own scholarly goals of research, voicing opinion, or other less relative topics. To the extent of Skidmore, faculty with academic freedom are entitled freedom within the classroom as well, to discuss their subject, but are discouraged to discuss "controversial issues" in their teaching. Skidmore College also warns of the actions of professors speaking as community members, which are encouraged to exercise caution on commentary that may lead others within the community to question their profession and as a result, the College itself.

If you enjoy a professor's methods of teaching, the evaluations are your best bet in voicing your opinions. New faculty members heavily rely on these evaluations in addition to their independent academic work if they wish receive academic tenure from the institution. Ultimately, it is the students that hold a big factor in the promotion of prospective professors. 

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