Assessing Teachers with Student Evaluations

I’m writing today’s posting in response to a recent Inside Higher Education essay arguing against nontenured/tenure-track faculty being assessed based on student evaluations. You can find the original article here.

To summarize, Robert Samuels (Lecturer, UC Santa Barbara) argues that in this politically charged time, where anything but perceived neutrality can be seen as marginalizing the opposition, there is a need to move away from using student evaluations of a course to assess the faculty member teaching the course and to determine matters of promotion, renewal, and pay increases. He ties his argument mostly matters of freedom of speech, academic freedom, and job security. As a non-tenure track faculty member, I’m inclined to agree. What I disliked about this article, however, is how little of it focuses on real solutions, which is why articles like Chronicle Vitae‘s “Student Evaluations: Feared, Loathed, and Not Going Anywhere” keep cropping up from time to time.

Allow me to say that I do appreciate my students’ feedback. I often use it to make online and next-semester-oriented changes to the course to deliver better instructional experiences and to give the students what they feel that they need, as tempered by my understanding of learning as a researcher and educational expert. And, I am fine with them being a part of a triangulated approach to evaluating my work for consideration of promotion, reappointment, and annual pay increases. However, I feel that they need to be just one part of that review process and that they should be weighted in a way that acknowledges the students’ subject position and their relative position on the cline of higher education experience.  So, what does triangulated assessment for nontenure-track faculty look like? Here’s one possibility, and in some places, I’ll be expanding on Samuels most salient recommendation.

Item 1: Director Evaluations

Director evaluations should make up one item of the assessment that nontenure-track faculty should face. And, they should be weighted relatively strongly, but not so strongly that personal issues between the director and the faculty member can completely derail the faculty members chances for reappointment or promotion. They should be based on the director’s experiences of observing that person teach, at least twice, and their experiences with them as a departmental colleague. They should focus on how the faculty member aids in discharging the mission statement and goals of the program. And, it should also consider educational best practices as understood by the program and by the dominant discipline in which it is situated. Ideally, they should be written up in a way that can be shared with the faculty member, and that can lay the groundwork for guided reflection on the part of the faculty member. Finally, they should contribute to the development of plans that will focus on the continued professional and career development of the faculty member being evaluated.

Item 2: Peer Evaluations

Perhaps weighted less than the director’s evaluation, programmatic and disciplinary peer evaluations should also be part of the assessment of nontenure-track faculty members. Value around peer observations and formative feedback should be created in the program. Coming out of industry and into higher education, one of the things that have always shocked me is how anti-assessment we are when it comes to our work as professionals. Part of this, I feel, stems from our almost endemic imposter’s syndrome; and for some nontenure-track faculty, from a genuine worry that they can be replaced on a whim, especially if they are appointed to contingent faculty positions. However,by creating value around this experience for both members, we can begin to control for this possible worry. By setting up the peer evaluation as an opportunity for both faculty members to learn from each other—to provide constructive feedback that will help them develop in the longer-term—we can begin to assuage these assement fears. Also, by encouraging them to happen more than once and to allow the faculty member being evaluated to pick which peer-evaluations get included in their assessment docket, we can again control for some of these concerns, while still creating a positive assessment environment that encourages continued growth and development.

Item 3: Student Evaluations

Yes, I do believe that student evaluations should be considered in the overall assessment of all faculty. However, they should be weighted in such a manner that acknowledges that 1.) self-reporting is notoriously unreliable; 2.) that affective, racial, and gender-based interferences may skew an evaluation in a way that corrupts its efficacy as an objective assessment; 3.) that students are still in process and may not have a complete sense of educational endeavors until later in their academic careers—or even after they graduate. I know that some of the professors that I just chafed under during my undergraduate career gained a new respect after I graduated and could make better sense of their place in my educational processes and the disciplinarily situated ways in which they were teaching.

Item 4: The Reflective Teaching Portfolio

The final item in the assessment docket should be a reflective teaching portfolio where the faculty member being assessed critically reflects on their practice, how it meets and helps discharge programmatic goals, and how it reflects disciplinary best practices in their home discipline. This should be supported by samples of syllabi and student work, with the faculty member’s commentary about what worked and what didn’t work. To be truly valuable for the faculty member, I feel that it should be structured in a way that allows the faculty member to consider their own continued professional growth. This means that it should end with some discussion of what comes next. What revisions to materials or practice does the faculty member want to try next, and how can that be supported by the administration.

I’m fortunate to work for an institution that uses a review process similar to the one outlined above. Some tweaks will occur to it. But, it is my hope that the core of it—this focus on continued professional growth and development—will remain in place for as long as I am with the institution. I acknowledge that some faculty members at other institutions are evaluated almost solely on how their director feels about them and student evaluations. In this era of contingent faculty labor, this leads to understandable trepidation. For that reason, I believe that any assessment of faculty members needs to be multipronged. What’s listed above is just one way to go about this. And, as I continue through my career in higher education—for however long that might be—I’ll likely revisit the matter of faculty assessment and how it can be more than a 5-star Yelp review and be a tool that supports programmatic and professional growth and development for the good of the students.

The Importance of Reading in Teaching L2 Learners

Reading is a commonly offered course in many second and foreign language curriculums…yet it is not a skill easily acquired by students. -Nuttall, 1996

Despite actually having taught a course called Reading and Writing in intensive English programs, and despite understanding that my own writing is only ever as good as the reading I’m putting it, I’ve never found much research on the teaching of reading. This isn’t to say that the body of literature doesn’t exist, though it may be small. Just to say that I had trouble finding it, in part because it isn’t as sizable as the body of literature on writing in a second language. Perhaps this is because receptive skills get less attention than productive ones and because the primacy of speech in L2 studies means that reading—the receptive skill often connected to writing—gets almost entirely forgotten. Or, maybe it’s because we often forget that this literate skill that we take for granted—because we’re such adroit users of it in our daily lives—doesn’t come easy for students working in an L2, as the quote from Nuttall above shows.

This is why I was so excited to see an entry dedicated to teaching reading in Renandya and Widodo’s English Language Teaching Today. Now, I’ve come to have some personal issues with the quality of the material in the book. But, Lawrence Jun Zhang’s chapter on reading still provides some useful gems that are worth considering if you’re at all engaged in L2 literacy education.

The Affectors of Meaning Making

The most significant takeaway was when Zhang (2016) outlined the major influencers of meaning making while reading. They are: 1) textual characteristics (e.g., modality); 2) reader characteristics (e.g., metacognitive strategies and schema); 3) social context for reading (p. 128). As more and more colleges and universities seek to control costs for students—often in the name of affordability or at least lip service to it—textual characteristics will become even more important. For Zhang (2016), textual features include the various properties of the text such as mode of delivery (scanned print-off, professionally produced paper copy, e-reader texts, hypertexts, enhanced text, etc.). At my school, both because of affordability and import regulations, our students most often use digital texts, while I use the paper copies that I purchase while I’m in the States each summer and winter. Our reading experiences are vastly different. Personally, I feel that it’s much easier for me to stay focused on the text’s content and argument in a paper text than in a digital one, where the temptation to be distracted by other APPs is just too high. A pushback to this is that students can always use an e-reader. But, so many of our students don’t buy dedicated e-readers. They buy tablets that they can use for other purposes. Then, it’s just a double-click of the home button to a whole world of distractions, from email to games to videos.

This may, however, have more to do with the various reader characteristics that Zhang discusses as opposed to textual properites. Perhaps we just need to develop effective pedagogical interventions to train students to have the features of a good modern reader. This should, perhaps, not just include how to read critically—considering the where, why, who, what, and how of a text’s production—but also how to be mindful consumers and to avoid distraction while reading. Perhaps part of this means training students to take the time to enjoy reading and to read widely. As a graduate student, I did a lot of reading. It was exhausting, in part because I was reading the same kind of thing over and over again—reports of empirical research. Perhaps one reader characteristic that we need to instill in our students is an appreciation for a variety of text types and to read for fun. For example, I know that my own curiosity about language and linguistic variation is only increased through reading translated fiction and contact literatures. Likewise, my own understanding of my discipline is enhanced when I read outside of my field.

The social context for reading is the exciting new contribution that Zhang (2016) makes. This is done through an appeal to sociocultural theory and setting up the classroom as a place where students better come to understand how to realize and take advantage of their zone of proximal development (ZPD). That is, by helping students to understand where they are currently at in regards to reading proficiency, we can help them better select texts for extensive and/or personal reading that are at the outer edge of their ZPDs. This act can allow students to use reading to take greater agency over their language and literacy education. This, to me, is perhaps one of the most promising contributions of the entire piece. The major question that still remains for me is how to do this. One way is to model the kinds of reading that we expect our students to do and to scaffold their reading with materials that are just beyond their comfort zone. There’s also an important role here for libraries in helping sponsor their information literacy so that they can locate worthwhile readings on their own.

SOURCE MATERIAL

Nuttall, C. (1996). Teaching reading skills in a foreign language. Oxford: MacMillian Heinemann.

Zhang, L.J. (2016). Teaching reading and viewing to L2 learners. In W.A. Renandya and H.P. Widodo (eds). English Language Teaching Today: Linking Theory and Practice (pp. 127-142). New York: Springer.

The Place of Culture in Language Teaching

Recently, I’ve been reading through a copy of English Language Teaching Today. I had found it lying around our program’s library and decided to thumb through it. There’s been some interesting chapters on topics ranging from vocational English—not something I’ve encountered a lot about—to teaching reading—something I need to know more about because it goes hand in hand with good academic writing. However, there’s been one chapter that I keep coming back to as I think about my teaching writing and my learning Chinese as a second language (CSL). The chapter that I keep returning to was written by Jonathan Newton on the place of culture in teaching English for intercultural communication.

In it, Newton (2016) argues that we cannot divorce language and culture. To meaningfully teach one, we must teach the other. Now, the place of culture in ELT is something that has seen some debate in the field, Atkinson and Sohn (2013) provide a pretty good review of the conversation that’s occurred in recent years. Proponents, such as Newton and Atkinson and Sohn maintain that culture provides valuable contextualizing information for language use. It can prime particular registers and therefore lexical and syntactic choices. It can even lead to the favoring of particular connotative meanings as opposed to denotative ones. That is, cultural context can determine if “Would you like to come up for coffee?” is a legitimate inquiry about desiring to drink a caffeinated beverage, or if it’s a romantic advance. Those that think we should not teach culture typically tie it to the “stickiness” of the topic. They argue that teaching culture is so problematic because it can’t be done in a respectful way that isn’t essentializing or that doesn’t force students to become cultural informants.

While I don’t agree with how Newton (2016) presented his argument—there’s a major tone issue with the piece that sounds more at home on a sales floor than in the pages of a serious scholarly text—I do agree with his message. Culture plays a critical role in communication, and must, therefore, be part of language teaching. Just because it’s messy doesn’t mean that we should avoid it. The messiness of culture and of language mean that we must be flexible communicators. Teaching culture in the language classrooms allows us to equip students with an appreciation for ambiguity and with the skills to respectfully navigate difference.

On a much baser level, there’s so much of daily life and communication in everyday living that is culturally steeped. To help students better fit into regular conversation on topics of importance to them, it’s necessary to teach culture and how it influences language and linguistic choice.

Take getting angry as an example. It’s hard to express how upset we are by bad situations without falling back on culturally-steeped idiomatic expressions. If I order food from e le me (饿了么), a food delivery APP in China and the driver calls to tell me he’s going to be an hour late, the most that I can say is, “That’s not ok.” I can’t express what an idiotic proposition this is, as it would require cultural understanding and idiomatic expressions that are beyond my abilities. Love and romance provide another avenue where culture because important. When I talk to my spouse in Chinese and try to be romantic, they often wrinkle their nose, smack me in the arm, and tell me never to do that again because I sound weird. This is because beyond the standard wo ai ni (我爱你), I lack the cultural script to express myself romantically in my L2.

This may seem beyond the goals of language learning, but I would argue that it’s not. By only providing our students with culturally divorced tools, we are leaving them ill-equipped for their communicative encounters. With the two examples above, anger and love, we see that we are also equipping them to sound foreign—and perpetuating the notion of the polite foreigner. It’s not that I’m necessarily a polite American. It’s just that I can’t express how angry I am when you think it’s ok to deliver my reganmian (热干面) an hour late—after it’s congealed into a mess of starch. I can only imagine the frustration our ESL students must feel when they can’t express their genuine worry over class assignments, or their outrage with predatory landlords.

Source Materials

Atkinson, D., & Sohn, J. (2013). Culture from the bottom up. TESOL Quarterly, 47(4), 669-693.

Newton, J. (2016). Teaching English for intercultural communication. In W.A. Renandya and H.P. Widodo (eds). English Language Teaching Today: Linking Theory and Practice (pp. 161-170). New York: Springer

Getting Comfortable with not Knowing

I can distinctly remember being in Japanese classes and feeling like I had to know every single word, grammar point, and idiom—that if a single jot of meaning slipped past me, it would fundamentally and totally compromise my ability to make meaning and to understand. There are some issues with this misguided belief, one that I no longer hold as I muddle through gaining proficiency in Chinese. One of the biggest issues is all the wasted time revisit chapters in my textbook that I, for the most part, knew. The second biggest waste was the all of the communicative opportunities that I let slip by me because I was too afraid to engage, “What if they say something that I don’t fully understand.” I’m of the mind that there’s the need, as language learners, to get comfortable with not knowing.

Gricean Maxims

There are, to my mind, three aspects of language, communication, and learning, that make not knowing valuable. The first issue deals with Gricean Maxims. Gricean Maxims are part of the cooperative principle posited by British philosopher of language H. Paul Grice. Taken together, his maxims are about contributions to a conversation, show us that people are, for the most part, willing to work with their interlocutors to negotiate meaning and to craft their utterances and repairs to utterances in such a way as to facilitate meaning-making and communication.

That is, since most communication is guided by principles designed to help individuals align to the communicative act, this means that your interlocutors can contribute to extending your cognitive and linguistic resources. Simply put, it’s ok not to know everything because the people that you’re talking to, all things being equal, will be willing to help make up for gaps in your own linguistic knowledge. Think of the last time a word was on the tip of your tongue. Did your friend just leave you spitting and sputtering? Most likely they came to help unless you two enjoy a rather playful relationship.

Strategic Competence

The second item deals with a particular component of communicative competence—strategic competence. Strategic competence is what allows us to come up with strategies for repairing conversation that runs off track and for making up for gaps in our linguistic abilities. It also allows for online modifications to our contributions to, again facilitate meaning-making.

So, if we always know exactly what to say and how to say, it can be very challenging to gain proficiency in strategic competence. This is because strategic competence is about by working through communicative gaffs. It can’t be studied for, it can’t be learned from a book. It has to be won over by challenging experiences in communicating in an L2. It has to come about from interactions with other human agents. So, here, not knowing is key to gaining strategic competence.

i+1

Finally, there’s the matter of pushing beyond our boundaries. That is of exposing ourselves, as language learners, to input that is slightly beyond our current abilities to parse, or i+1. It is through this act of exposing ourselves to new words, new syntactic patterns, new idiomatic expressions and, perhaps even more importantly, how they’re used, that we gain in both linguistic and communicative proficiency. And, it will provide the opportunity for i+1 style input may never come up if you don’t allow yourself as a learner to be exposed to things that you simply dont know.

So, as language teachers, we must come up with ways to help our students become comfortable with not knowing. Part of this involves showing them, explicitly, the value in not knowing and the doors that this can open in regards to language learning and acquisition. Second, it involves creating value around not knowing, a difficult thing to do when we must teach to a test that penalizes not knowing. It’s a tricky area, but there’s already some literature out there around this idea. What we need now is to make that literature even more accessible and applicable to practitioners and learners.

Source Material

Canale, M. (1983). From communicative competence to communicative language pedagogy. In Richards, J. C., & Schmidt, R. W. (Eds.), Language and Communication, 2-27. London: Longman.

Canale, M., & Swain, M. (1980). Theoretical bases of communicative approaches to second language teaching and testing. Applied Linguistics,1, 1-47.

Grice, H.P. (1975). “Logic and conversation”. In P. Cole and J. Morgan (eds). Syntax and semantics (pp. 41–58). New York: Academic Press.

Krashen, S.D. (1985) The Input Hypothesis: Issues and Implications. New York: Longman

 

Being a Language Learner-Teacher

One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages opens every door along the way. -Frank Smith

I’ve worked almost exclusively with L2 English students since I began teaching back in 2009. But, I’m just now coming to understand the benefits of being a particular kind of language learner while also being a language teacher; namely, the kind of language learner that has to make semi-regular use of their L2. It opens unexpected pedagogical doors and facilitates the human labor aspect of language teaching in new ways.

When I had started teaching, I had studied Japanese for four years. But, I never had a reason and opportunity to make regular use of it. It was really just a class that I went to that I performed rather well in. So, I had experience with language learning, but I didn’t see how it connected to my work as a language teacher—at least not beyond the reactionary, yeah this is hard, but we’ve all got to do it. 

Now that I live and work in China the majority of the year, now that I’m not just learning Chinese but being forced to use it to carve out some semblance of a life here in Shanghai, being a language learner has taken on new relevance to my practice as a teacher. First, let’s look at one of the pedagogical doors that it has opened for me.

Here, I’ll write with you…and I’ll do it in my L2.

At NYU Shanghai two-thirds of the classes that I teach are writing courses. And, since my training and research has centered on L2 writing. I typically teach large groups of Chinese L2 students. I find that in these classes, just like in my classes in the States, there’s a nervousness around writing in a second language. Often my students are afraid that they can’t do it well, or fluently, or accurately, or that they don’t have anything worth saying. Simply put, there’s a considerable affective barrier in place before they even set their fingers to their keyboards. They think that their English simply isn’t good enough to be able to say anything interesting.

As I’ve gained in Chinese proficiency over the years, I’ve been able to start using it as a pedagogical tool in the classroom. So, in those early weeks of the class, as we’re coming up on our first writing assignment, I’ll do an in-class writing with my students. And, I’ll tell them. Ok, I know you’re nervous about writing in English. I know you’re worried about your language skills. How about this. Let’s try something. You write this exercise in English; I’ll do it in Chinese. Then, we’ll compare. So, I’ll write with them in Chinese. Now, my Chinese is bad. If you want proof, just check out the post from Monday, April 10, 2017. Before they even share there work, I’ll show them my writing. There will be a few oohs and ahhs but after they start reading there are more groans and chuckles. Then, I ask them how much they wrote—it’s usually much more than I got done. Then, I ask them to consider my L2 writing. It took me the same amount of time to write less, and I did so in very, very simple language—and with the help of Baidu fanyi. Then, they share. As they share, I remind them that while their writing might have some linguistic errors—and the occasional rhetorical one—they wrote more than I did on a complex topic and while using more context appropriate lexical tokens. Simply put, they did way better. So, they have nothing to worry about. Besides, if their writing were perfect, I’d have no job.

Human Labor

I find that being a language learner-teacher also helps with some of the emotional/human labor that we as ESL teachers often carry out for our institutions. Working with language learners means working with a population that is not only under great cognitive strain as they adapt to the university, but also under great affective strain as they face challenges that their native-speaking peers might not be facing—and some of the affective strain comes from constantly negotiating meaning in a second language.

Being a language learner-teacher means that I remember, very vividly, these challenges; because I’m going through them along with my students. They’re struggling to perform an intelligent student identity in English; and, I’m struggling to perform a barely competent public identity when I go to the store and try to make small talk with the clerk as she rings me out at the grocery, or as I haggle with the tailor about the price of new shirts.

Also, being language learner-teacher reminds me that language learning is not linear—it’s not ever forward, ever better. There are false starts; there are regressions; there are silent periods. I share with them my struggles of readjusting to Chinese after I’ve been in the U.S. for a few weeks. I tell them about the days where I just can’t “Chinese” so I hide in my house and avoid interaction. I find that because I’m going through these things with my students in my own L2, it makes it easier to empathize and to be compassionate about their struggles.

Of course, this then hits up against my ingrained pragmatism. And, then, I remind them. Sometimes we just have to do it and see what happens.