This topic has been popping in and out of my mind for months now, but I never seem to have the time to jot anything down before I forget again… So today is the day!

Professors, do you go commencement ceremonies to hood your PhD graduates?

I did it with my first PhD graduate. While I am sure it meant something to her, it was loud, crowded, and just a pain in the butt for me. Then several students following her didn’t attend their ceremonies, so my hooding services were not required.

Last spring two of my PhD students “walked.” They were talking about their families coming for the ceremony, and they seemingly casually asked if I would be attending with them, but I cited a conflict and that was that. The truth is, if I had wanted to go, I would have made the time, but I didn’t and admit to feeling a little guilty about it. I am not even sure where my cap and gown are, probably in the office; wherever they are, they need ironing and/or dusting since they haven’t seen the light of day in years.

I really don’t like crowds and will avoid them in every way I can. So a big ceremony is really unpleasant for me; however, once could say that I should suck it up and do it for my students. My PhD advisor went to hood every one of his graduating students (obviously, including me), but many of his colleagues never did. Many of my colleagues don’t seem to go hood anyone ever.

DH, who fortunately has enough of a celebratory and holiday spirit for both of us (else our kids would never know the consumerist joys of Christmas or Halloween), thought it was very uncool that I had weaseled out of hooding my students this spring; I know he has a point that it’s the students’ once-in-a-lifetime celebration and do feel a little bad about not playing my part. But I just couldn’t stomach the idea of hours of ceremony, and hanging out awkwardly with the students and their families. We did have a small party to send the students off, with the whole group, several hours before the ceremony; I bought food for everyone and the parents were there as well. I generally make a point of feeding everyone when someone graduates (I buy lunch or dinner for everyone), so it’s not that I don’t want to celebrate my students’ success. I just don’t like the craziness that are the crowds of thousands of young’uns and their extended families in a huge arena for hours on end, and I don’t care for the shared captivity, with the ensuing awkwardness, with my soon-to-be former group members.

What say you, blogosphere? Professors, do you hood your PhD students? Graduate students/postdocs, do you care about the hooding ceremony and your advisor being there? Everyone who’s received a PhD, did you elect to go to the ceremony, and do you have any feelings whatsoever about it today? 

Haters Gonna Hate… Not?

It’s that time of year again, when undergrads start enrolling in their spring semester classes. I am scheduled to teach a large undergrad course, let’s call it A, one that’s required for majors and offered every semester, and it’s nearly full to capacity. I looked at the roster and there are probably a couple of dozen students whom I had last spring in another large required course, B. What’s interesting is who these folks are: some of them I could have sworn didn’t care very much for my teaching of B last year at all, and they could have easily avoided having me again by taking course A this semester, with another teacher. Yet here they are, willing to subject themselves to another semester of my teaching, seemingly on purpose.

It’s not uncommon that I have students who take 2, even 3 courses with me; usually those are the students who meet me in a lower-level class, do well, and then try to take electives when I offer them; this is a point of pride.  There are definitely a few kids who I know enjoyed course B, so I am not surprised by them taking A. There are also a few students who did very poorly in B, but with whom I had good rapport nonetheless; I thought they might avoid me, because I am tough, but they are back. There are a few with whom I didn’t have a lot of interaction so I couldn’t tell one way or another if they particularly liked it or not; maybe they were indeed ambivalent, but it’s better the devil you know, and they do know me.

But there are a few who I could have sworn hated my guts with the burning passion of a thousand suns, and now they are back for a second helping? One student, who received only half a grade lower than the maximum, was quite displeased by it and sent me a lengthy email about how that’s the most unfair thing that had ever happened and how what I required in class was unreasonable and inhuman; you guessed, that student is back. My husband, always ready to  mess with me, hypothesized that the student was there just to psych me out through the intervening months, and will drop out as soon as the semester starts.

The point is: I suppose we may not have a very good idea how we are perceived by students. We do on average, but not necessarily on an individual level. It’s entirely possible to be genuinely disliked by the people who act very sweet and interested in the material, but who are just kissing up; I am in fact quite sensitive to that. In contrast, it has happened more than once that the people whom I had no idea I had positively influenced, who seemed quiet or even glum in class, actually turned out quite appreciative of the experience.

Never a dull moment in academic land…

Question from Reader: Managing the First 1-2 Years As an Assistant Professor

A New Assistant Professor (NAP) has a question:

I have worked at an industrial research lab for five years and have finally received an offer from a well-known US public research school as an assistant professor in engineering.

I am so excited but at the same time I am a bit anxious about setting up a new research lab, recruiting graduate students, getting grants, and teaching.

Would you please give me some advice about how I can successfully manage the first one or two years as assistant professor? What would be my
priority in the first two years; writing papers or writing proposals, or teaching, or mentoring graduate students? Probably, all of them….

I would appreciate any of your advice in advance.

First of all, congratulations to NAP on landing a tenure-track position at a major research university! It will be quite a ride.

I responded briefly to NAP via email, and will expand on that a little bit. (All my advice is for a physical science field at a major research university in the US, so if you are reading and your field or institution type or country is different, obviously some or even all of the advice will not hold.)

1) Teaching: Try to make sure you teach grad courses in your specialty (rather than large enrollment undergrad courses) in the first 2-3 years. Teaching well takes a lot of time, especially initially. Teach the same 2 courses a few times during your fist few years, until you get your research program going. Ideally, you will have senior faculty mentors (often formally) who should be there to advise you and to also be your advocates when it comes to shielding you from some of the unnecessary burdens. Many universities have formal mentoring programs, make sure you take advantage of that.

2) Startup: You probably received a startup package that covers equipment, stipend and tuition for a couple of research assistants (RAs) for 2-3 years, and some travel and summer salary money.

2a) Summer salary: In the US it is common for physical-science faculty to have 9-month contracts, i.e., they are not paid over the summer, unless you teach the summer courses or more commonly have money from grants to cover summer salary. Indeed, at research universities it is expected that the salary will be eventually brought in from grants. However, it is typical that a startup will include funds to cover a couple of months of summer salary for a couple of years, until you land your first grant (or five).

2b) Personnel: Try to recruit 1-2 grad students who will start during your first year, or bring in a postdoc whose quality you trust, to help you build up your lab. You need people right away, but you don’t have to bring everyone you think you will ever need right away. There is a learning curve when it comes to recruiting people, so your first few may be awesome but they may be duds too. Fingers crossed.

2c) Equipment and building a lab: Lots of money, lots of time. Start shopping right away. However long you think it will take, it will be even longer.

3) Funding: Since you are in the College of Engineering, the requirements to bring money will be high for tenure. At least some of your grants should be peer reviewed (NSF or DOE or NIH, depending on what you do), others can be DoD (AFOSR, DARPA, ONR) or industry. Getting funding is probably the highest priority at the start. For DoD you need to make personal connections with program managers so you will have to travel to DC to meet them and see where their interests lie.
Map out all the early career/young investigator awards you are eligible for (some have limitation of years post PhD), see how many tries you have for each one, and what you need for each. Hit as many of them as you can, potentially staggering them, but generally hit them hard. A few are due in the summer so you have a full year of practicing with regular NSF proposals and collaborative proposals etc. before the first wave of young investigator awards.

(A bit of parenthetical info: People in the physical sciences tend to be in the College of Letters and Science or the College of Engineering (computer science and materials science, for instance, could be in either, depending on whether they are standalone or associated with an engineering department). The funding requirements in the College of Engineering are generally different as a whole than in the Letters and Science. There are fewer TA-ship available in Eng because the departments do not teach service courses, and everyone is expected to bring in lots of grants. Among the departments in the L&S, there are differences. For instance, chemistry and biochemistry will typically have high requirements on grants, similar to chemical engineering, but with often larger groups because of the supply of TAs. People in statistics and computer science and some branches of engineering and applied math have very similar requirements as to how much money should be raised and the publication pace. In the physics departments, condensed matter experimentalists will raise money and publish at a pace similar to chemists or chemical engineers or materials scientists, while theorists in general and the people in particle physics or astrophysics may not be facing very high grant raising requirements, and grants may not be an important part of the tenure review in those fields. In my math department, it is specified at tenure time that they do not expect grants or evaluate grants as a component of excellence. In general, departments that teach large service courses will have lots of TAs, and I know people in physics and chemistry who have had multiple students on TAs throughout their PhDs.

In general, in the College of Engineering, grants will be a significant component based on which you are evaluated. In you are in College of Letters and Science, depending on the field, they may or may not be considered as a metric of accomplishment.)

4) Papers: If you have data from your industry position or previous postdoc or some collaborative work that you can write up for publication, write those up during the first year. Alternatively, write a review paper or two. Backlogged, collaborative, or review papers are a good way to bridge the gap between starting a new position and having papers out from your own lab (which realistically won’t happen right away). Depending on what you do, you could have single author papers (I did during the first few years on the TT, while my first students were being trained).

5) Service: Keep institutional service minimal, and professional service in the capacity that will enhance your exposure, visibility, and/or potential for getting funds. Travel to see program managers, travel to give invited talks and lectures. Do not organize a major conference as early assistant professor, but do participate on the program committee if invited. Definitely volunteer to sit on review panels and generally review proposals for relevant agencies, it will drastically help improve your grant writing abilities.

6) The first few years are crazy, but it does get less so by the end of year 3. Try to be nice, but avoid unnecessary obligations in terms of teaching and service. Your primary duty is to get your research program up and running — which means grants and papers — and anyone who is is not helping you focus and is trying to divert your time is not your friend early on the tenure track. Once you have gotten your first couple of grants, you have papers coming out, and you have several students staggered in seniority, it’s OK to diversify your teaching (show you can teach undergrads, try novel techniques) and service (ideally something you care about, like curriculum or facilities or new faculty recruitment).

Good luck!

What say you, blogosphere? What did I miss as critical advice during the first 1-2 years on the tenure track? 

Sexist Logorrhea

Apparently, a septuagenarian Nobel laureate thinks women are a distraction in the lab and cry a lot; calls for gender-segregated labs. The Internet erupts.

Whatever. I am actually relieved every time something like this happens. I am relieved that occasionally someone is actually stupid enough to say out loud what many think and act according to anyway.

Over the past several years, I have been a witness of pretty serious discrimination of other women by people considerably younger than Hunt. These men would fight you to the death if you even hinted that they were sexist because of course they don’t think they are; yet, their actions speak differently.

  • We have enough women,” said in earnest by a colleague in a faculty meeting discussing hiring. Women make <20% of faculty.
  • L is not a real candidate,” said by a colleague about a female candidate. The colleague and I were on the recruitment  committee together, I know we ranked all candidates, top 20 were all stellar, L was ranked 3, and we interviewed 5. She is not a diversity candidate, she’s a highly qualified candidate who also happens to be female.
  • A few years back, some colleagues and I went through serious diversity training in preparation for serving on the faculty recruitment committee. I remember finding the training illuminating. That’s where I first found out about how women are expected to act communal and men agentic, and how women are penalized if they act insufficiently communal. I saw the examples of recommendation letters and the difference in the language people use for men and women, how letters for women always veer towards too personal, with comparatively less focus on achievement, excellence, competence, and with different adjectives used for women and men. The male colleagues went through the motions and, when it was all done, said it was all pointless bullshit and a waste of time. We all saw examples of those letters of recommendation; they completely shook my world, but apparently did nothing for my male colleagues. You truly can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.
  • At the university level, we reviewed three candidates from the same general field (different subfields) coming up for tenure. If you just looked at the number of publications and quality of journals where they appeared, the number of  citations, the number of grants, the woman was the best of the lot. But if you looked at external evaluation letters, you’d be appalled by the language. According to the letters, the two men were superstars in the making (not made yet, with writers bending over backwards to attribute lack of citations to the fact that the candidate is a visionary), while the woman’s achievement were downplayed, with statements to the effect that she must have come up with some of her most heavily cited findings by accident! It was disgusting. I read about these instances happening, but it was blatant and real and clear as day. These letters then led to the committee dissecting the woman’s record with a scalpel and a fair bit of skepticism; everything worthwhile she did had to be qualified, while the men were fine just on potential and the letters.  (You bet I was vocal about it.)
  • Being a member of the program committee for a conference in my field, it routinely happens that there are no women suggested for invited talks unless I suggest some. It’s amazing how I can think of 3-4 women easily, and the other 15 dudes together cannot think of single one.

That is not to say that there aren’t men who really and truly are the champions of women. They exist (thank you, guys!), but are definitely a minority. For instance, I have the good fortune that some of my department colleagues, including the chair, are really genuinely supportive of women,  really put their money where their mouth is: they advise female students and actively support female colleagues. However, I would say that less than 20% of men in my department are true diversity champions, who believe a diverse workplace is a better place for everyone. The rest, a vast majority, make allowances for exceptional specific women (“Of course, you are awesome! You are much better than other women!”) but do not see why there is a need for diversity; science is fine just the way it is! They consider all our “hysteria” about women in science to be tiresome political bullshit that has to be catered to when writing about broader impacts in NSF proposals. They will often say things such as “We hire the best candidate, not an affirmative action candidate!” To everyone who ever said that I want to say the following: it sounds like you have no freakin’ clue how it is to objectively evaluate candidates for anything very competitive. There are always MANY highly qualified candidates, any one of them would be a good choice. Now the question is how to pick 1 or some other small number from among these uniformly excellent men and women. I am disgusted to see that people think all of these few spots belong (!) to “real candidates,” i.e., men. The fact a woman is just as good as any of them still does not make her a real candidate in the eyes of some, even fairly junior colleagues with professional wives and daughters.

So I don’t understand the outrage that another sexist a$$hole suffers from the foot-in-mouth disease. Because, really, it’s not a big surprise. It’s just how things are.

In my experience, many men in the physical sciences, even among those who think very highly of their own enlightenment, don’t really think that science needs more diversity, but rather that’s it’s simply something women want and are very loud and annoying about and should be accommodated on occasion to stop the whining (or to snatch the rarely seen unicorn-female-superstar-real-candidate).  They consider all efforts to promote women as a nuisance that gets in the way of doing science as they are used to. My European colleagues can be a special brand of offender here, as they often see (and speak of) the quest for promotion of women as an American problem and not something relevant to where they live and work (this from a colleague who works on a large team of about 50, with a single woman, a student). It is very hard to change people’s minds when they think they are blind to sexism and that all they see is merit. Trying to convince them that much of the merit is really in the eye of the beholder would be positively quixotic.

Summer Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked Profs

This weekend I finally gave myself a permission to not work, as I had worked nearly non-stop through last weekend because of a deadline and ended up quite exhausted.

Last weekend, Middle Boy had his best friend over. We love the little boy and his family, and I know the mom pretty well. She is very cool, well traveled and educated, and overall open-minded and progressive; she works for the school district. I talked with her many times about what my academic job at our big university entails, how research never stops, the quest for grants, service, all that stuff. She always said she understood, and that she also had a sibling who was a social science professor.

When she came to pick up her boy last weekend, she asked what I was doing, as I had my laptop out amidst mountains of paper associated with the large centers proposals I was reviewing for a federal agency. I told her what my weekend had been and she was really shocked by me working over the weekend during the summer (not sure if it was the weekend, the summer, or both that was surprising).

As Cage the Elephant say, “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked”

doubtless talking about university professors who don’t receive pay from the university over the summer, but work their butt off anyway. Professors might draw summer salary from grants, if they have managed to receive any given the ~10% funding rates. (By the way, CTE do a good job live, I heard them last year as the opening act to the Black Keys. They are touring, catch them if you can.)

Anyway, I was surprised and disappointed by the woman’s reaction. It’s not like I haven’t spent a lot of time already talking with her about my job, this should not have been a surprise at all. This incident leads me to believe that one of the following is true: a) I did a horrible job explaining, b) I explained just fine, but she didn’t understand, c) I explained just fine and she understood, but she didn’t believe me because of pre-existing notions as to what professors do, probably affected by whatever she perceives her sibling does.

This bothers me greatly, especially in the light of some recent conservative legislation. This woman has access to information from the horse’s mouth and she still does not understand what this job actually is. I am not saying it’s her fault, it could be my inability to convey what I do; still, she must know more than most people. If she is incredulous about me working weekends or summers  (by the way, her husband works weekends all the time), what chance do we have of people who don’t know any academics actually understanding what it is that we do? What people see are publicly available salaries, think that all we do is teach one course per semester and figure that’s 4-5 hours per week tops, and we even have tenure! That certainly sounds outrageous. Most people employed by companies work  long hours at lower salaries and with no job security. If I thought someone were getting away with a high salary, minimal work, and perfect job security, I might be livid, too. Moreover, people seem to believe their taxpayer money pays these outsize salaries of these lazy professors, whereas in reality only a small and ever-shrinking contribution comes from the state (presently 10-15% of the whole university budget is typical for state universities).

If Middle Boy’s friend’s mom doesn’t know what professors do, what chance do we have with the general populace? How are we supposed to convince people that professors are not lazy layabouts, that being a professor at a university doesn’t mean being an overpaid and largely idle version of a K-12 teacher? (No disrespect to K-12 teachers intended.) How can we get it into the heads of the public that we are not the enemy, that yes, our jobs involve teaching their kids, but on top that we conduct research, which in the sciences has many elements of running a small businesses: competing for funds, paying personnel, managing them, distributing the products (papers), but first giving between 1/3 and 1/2 of all the funds raised to the university in terms of overhead?

Americans are very hard-working people and have a great work ethic, which are some of the things that I really like about the society. But they hate intellectuals, much more than I could say for any country in Europe or Asia that I have familiarity with (I don’t have enough experience with Latin America, Africa, or Australia/Oceania). For instance, even in the rural areas in my home country, people would tell you that being a university professor is a distinguished vocation, alongside doctors and lawyers. Here in the US, doctors and lawyers are fine, as are corporate executives, but not professors. While I am sure few people actually know what it is that CEOs really do, they don’t seem to begrudge CEO salaries. But those shifty university professors? They are certainly overpaid, never mind the recent data on salaries at very-high research activity schools, or the breakdown of public versus private 4-year schools. It’s amazing that people don’t mind the outsize compensation and bonuses of certain individuals or people in certain careers, because those are somehow perceived well deserved or earned, but as soon as the public thinks it’s paying you through their taxes (no matter how small a percentage in reality), you are never considered to work enough to justify the investment. The distrust of intellectuals and of the government appear to go hand in hand, as the country gets ever more conservative.

I don’t know what it is that we can do to convince the public that we do an important job, that most of us would make considerably more in industry and that tenure is a way to attract talent, and that research at the US universities is an important economic engine [because we can’t speak of broadening people’s horizons (bad! blasphemy!) or instilling critical thinking skills]. We can’t say “Whatever, let people believe what they want,” because this public opinion is a base for squashing research funding. So we can’t stop trying to get through to the people around us about what we do and why it’s important. I just don’t know how to do it in a way that actually matters.

Grouchy Musings on Teaching, Part 2

I have issues with some of the advanced teaching strategies as I see them implemented in my department. (Flipped classroom, I am looking at you, and all other eggcellent paradigms.)

My main complaint is that the responsibility to sit down and understand the material and work until proficiency is achieved is being taken away from students and moved entirely to instructors. Instead of the students taking ownership for their own learning, we the instructors are supposed to devise lectures to be tutoring sessions (the flipped classroom model), so the students don’t have to think about the material alone at home… But working alone is the only way you really learn! Instead, we hold their hands while they work through problem sets, smoothing out the kinks as they go along, misleading the students into believing that the road to problem solving is easier than it really is. I have seen some pathetic products of flipped classroom instruction, as the students come to my class with an A in a prerequisite that was taught in a flipped format, and they can’t tell their a$$ from their face (because the class is all about a$$ vs face recognition, of course); they don’t understand anything, and they certainly can’t do any relevant problems that they hadn’t specifically seen before. We try to remove the natural and necessary discomfort that comes from learning, being challenged, being required to stretch beyond where we are. And this incessant insistence on everything being with other people, like flipped classrooms and group projects, is an introvert’s nightmare. Can’t we let people think in peace?

This is completely opposite to my own teaching philosophy. I, as the instructor, need to be there to help when help is needed, but the student has to think and grapple with the material alone FIRST; this is absolutely key. Ideally, this is the sequence: come to class, read the book (or the other way around); start on the homework early and on your own, do as much as you can on your own; then ask friend/come to discussion/come to office hours AFTER you have thought about the problems on your own really hard, because by then you will be sensitized to what you are missing and what you don’t know, and therefore much better at remembering explanations and clarifications. Instead, I see many students work in packs, with a pack leader who’s a strong student and the rest contributing little, but still feeling very good about their command of the material; studying in packs works well for their grades, as long as homework and projects carry a lot of weight. But in the setting such as the one I have for a core undergraduate course, it is all exam heavy and it shows how much each individual student knows, and the students can get surprised by how little that is. Yet, this class is important and I need them ALL to not only sort-of understand the material, but to actually know the material really well and to be able to calculate things.

{A related aspect that peeves me is students complaining that we somehow need to test their understanding only. I say that we test both understanding and proficiency. No, you don’t get to be just a concept thinker until you have demonstrated that you can actually do some basic problems, start to finish. [You should see the grumbling because I expect everyone to be able to, at all times, calculate the horribly complicated integrals of x^a (a\neq -1), sin x, cos x, 1/x, exp(a*x)].}

Another aspect that I am very tired of is students constantly asking that we only teach them the practical stuff that will get them a job and none of the useless abstract crap, presumably because at the tender age of 19 or 20 they know exactly what it is that they will or won’t ever use. Employers want what they want, and most don’t want to pay for it; they want a new graduate to come trained in all the minutiae that the employer (any employer!) could possibly want. The employers have no qualms about wanting the universities to act as trade schools, but they are not and they shouldn’t be.

Sure, we should provide training in the latest and greatest tools and techniques, because I agree that our students should be employable upon graduation. However, what peeves me is how joyously these kids rush towards becoming corporate cogs today, without stopping to think what will keep them employed 20-30 years from now. Why? Because the jobs that exist today didn’t exist 30 years ago. The only way you remain competitive for jobs over the long term is if you have a good, solid base in many basic sciences (for the physical sciences, that’s first and foremost math, then physics, chemistry, computer science, statistics…) as well as in writing and speaking. The stronger and wider your base, the better able you will be to change careers if needed.

I do my part, but I wish we collectively a did better job of communicating to our students that our job as educators is not to just ensure they get their first job out of college, but to give them the knowledge base and the self-study skills that will keep them nimble, growing, learning, and ultimately employable throughout their lives.

Grouchy Musings on Teaching, Part 1

The spring semester is over! After months of heavy teaching and service, with a large helping of grant writing, I am now happily heading into 3.5 months of summer, which means a) frantically writing up and sending off several papers for publication, which had been sitting on my desk for longer than I care to admit; b) spending as much time as needed with some stuck graduate students, so they’d get unstuck and be able to move on with their projects; c) several complicated trips to conferences (no, it’s actually not glamorous or exciting), each with a jam-packed schedule of giving 2-3 talks at different meetings over the course of a week in order to maximize exposure per travel dollar.

This past spring, taught a large undergraduate class (of order 1 hecto-student) that is required for two majors; the people in one major appreciate it more than those in the other (who often consider it to be a cruel and unusual punishment). I hadn’t taught the course before, as the faculty who do research in a different area usually teach it, but I am perfectly competent to teach it and I found it fun and enjoyable for the most part. However, I had essentially no TA support, so I taught both the lecture and the discussion, and I graded all the exams myself, not to mention created all the course materials (including extensive solutions to weekly homework assignments).

This semester I also did an experiment. Since this is a core course, it is important to make sure everyone who passes it actually has not just sort-of an understanding of the material, but actual working knowledge that they would take into follow-on courses. I decided to teach and grade how I felt this course should be taught and graded, in order to actually teach them the material so that the vast majority of them are actually competent at the end.

This (bean-devouring leprechaun) means that many of the students, perhaps for the first time since starting college, got exposed the fact that they may not be quite as awesome as they always thought they were. People do not like being faced with this realization (which is, in fact, an inherent part of growing up).

If anyone thinks there is no grade inflation in K-12, I invite them to teach any large enrollment required course at a reasonably-to-highly selective institution. The GPAs required for enrollment are getting higher and higher (as are the GPAs required for the majors related to this particular course). Therefore, based on the GPA alone these are all spectacular students, smart and with great study habits. In reality, while I do believe that most of them are smart enough, many have exaggerated views of their abilities, and the vast majority are inadequately prepared in math (like algebra or pre-calculus) and actually have atrocious study habits, because high school was too easy. They were coddled and never properly challenged pre-college. Now, when faced with a really challenging class, they are bewildered, and in some cases (especially when a woman with a funny accent they can’t quite place shells out the challenge) they can become downright hostile. There was a kid this semester who spent the whole semester in seething rage, looking at me with flaming-hot hatred from somewhere in the back of the classroom; one really starts to worry about the ease with which people get access to guns.

No, people don’t like it when you show them that they are perhaps not as awesome as they always thought they were.

While all the exams had averages 70-80% and I had a nice distribution of grades, many felt the exams were too hard. Why? Because they all expect to get 90+% (being that they all had high grades in high school) and it’s my fault that the tests are not tailored to their individual level of preparation, rather than assuming responsibility for their own performance and pushing themselves to meet the requirements. The tests are designed precisely as they should be, and the fact that the students are not getting the grades they envision (because they all envision A’s without much sweat) means they do not actually have the understanding and proficiency that is required for that score, and they need to work more and come to office hours and discussion.

After the first test, many did get a wake-up call and started studying much more methodically, starting early on their assignments on their own, and attending office hours and discussions. They quickly realized that it’s certainly not impossible to get a good grade in my class, but you have to study and be smart about it. I am very proud of them and have told them as much; the material was hard, but they rose to the challenge.

The evaluations are back (a few years ago we went electronic) and while they are still plenty high (well above the department average and well above 4/5), there are a handful of kids who hate my guts. People say it can’t be avoided, bu it always bothers me a lot.

You know, when most kids say you are in the top 20% or next 20% of all teachers they’ve ever had, and one kid says you are in the bottom 20%.
Or when most kids “agree” or “strongly agree” that you are well prepared for class or that you are knowledgeable about the material, and then one kid “strongly disagrees”.
I wonder what the heck is wrong with these young haters. Do they grow up to expect the world to accommodate them and their preferences, and therefore spend the whole life disgruntled when that doesn’t happen?

I know I am supposed to focus on all the students whom I helped (there were many very good evaluations, and people saying they were inspired, and some wanting to specialize in this field, and students recognizing I cared about their success). However, as bad is apparently always stronger than good, what stays in my mind, at least short term, are the bad and especially nasty comments. If the student’s goal is to spoil my day, they are successful.

Why do I read the evaluations anyway? It’s not like I don’t have tenure, and plenty of faculty stop reading them sooner or later. I read them because I like reading the positive comments, I like to read the thoughtful and useful specific remarks about something that may be done differently; however, I so dislike reading the negative comments or seeing even an outlier negative vote, that perhaps I really should not read them at all.

More than anything, reading negative evaluations makes me wish I hadn’t spent quite as much time and effort on this course, trying to be available to as many and as often as I could. Many of my colleagues avoid teaching large-enrollment courses, have the bare minimum of exams (1 midterm, which I really think is not enough for undergrads), hold very few office hours, and generally attempt to get by with minimal effort. Instead, they focus their time and energy on research. And I feel stupid for basically sacrificing much of my semester to this very demanding class and then have some nastiness come out in the evaluations. Why the hell do I bother, I think?

I wish there were a way to extract how much of the negative is something I cannot fix — they dislike the fact that I am a woman and/or a foreigner, or whatever it is that I have that irritates some people as soon as I start speaking (being uppity for a woman/foreigner, perhaps). Although I am not sure that would make me feel better anyway.

But if this comment at nicoleandmaggie’s is any indication, my guess is that they mostly they don’t like being faced with their own inability to follow the class, their own poor preparation, and tough requirements, and they take it out on me.

Still. Knowing where the negativity comes from makes the evaluations no less infuriating in the short term, no matter how glowing the positive ones are.
(It probably doesn’t help that academic research, the other major part of my job, comes with a constant stream of criticism and rejection.)

What say you, blogosphere? How do you feel about teaching evaluations?