Monday, November 20, 2006

A crazy, or at least not serious, analogy between evaluations made by college freshmen and impression from a first date

Come on! Teaching evaluations made by freshmen and impression on a first date? How can they be related?

At my first job, I mean the real job as an Assistant Professor at a relatively new university of small scale, I was told by not-so-few students that faculty members teaching upper level courses or even doctoral level courses often got very good teaching evaluations because that students knew what they will be getting should they give those professors bad evaluations. Well, perfect foresight should be honored. So, even freshmen were young, restless, and charming in personality, many professors tend to shy away from teaching freshmen, particularly those classes in big size. When I was younger, I went with the trend and tried my best in avoiding teaching freshmen. For a number of years, thank to the large size of the department I was employed in, I had no need to teach freshmen classes. What a relief I must have. Recently I did not get such luck. Indeed, sometime in the middle of the lectures, I would let my mind drift away and imagine what they will get and what they will think when those kids turn to juniors or seniors. More interestingly, how will they think of us when they are in the job market? Will the accumlation of knowledge and built-up self-confidence make them better judge their professors' performance? When a man goes on the first date, it is unexpected that the woman he is dating will return with a kiss on the lips after their three-hour dinner served in full course. Does it mean that there will be no second date? Of course not. She might think: "Well, he is doing ok. I need more time to check him out." Should there be a written evaluation, she might have a hard time to fill it out. On the scale from 1 to 5 with 5 being the highest mark, will she give him a 4.3 or even 5.0? I doubt. Many women, particularly happily married women, would recall that their Mr. Right never gave them a very good first impression. Love, understanding, communication, chemistry, sparking, and even comparison on the side line do change a lot of things, eventually briinging them together and ever. So, if we really want them to put on the evalutation form, questions must be strictly stict to basic issues such as "Did he show up on time? Did he have good table manner? Was he patient with ordering food? Was he polite to waitress or waiter?" Cannot have deep questions such as "Was this date make me a better person? Was he a good lover or husband or even a father? Was I wasting my time in my search for Mr. Right? Was this date a good investment?" If the woman dates a lot, after seeing a dozen of guys, she might finally feel confident in "grading" them. Of course, some men might be unavailable then. Search does cost, and practicing makes them wiser and more considerate. Well, we do not need economics to learn all of these. Sex and the City can help! Popular magazines we need while waiting for the dentists or having hair cut help too.

Teaching juniors or seniors is quite different. In a way, it reminds me of the scenario of talking to a woman who had bad luck with men in the past. Any gentle gesture and smile will warm her heart in a few minutes. There are lots of things she might share with you and appreciate your knowledge, trust your intuition, and leave room for any good things to develop in the near future. A casual acquaintance and also a coworker of mine in one editorial board is now the president of some well known university dares to evaluate the performance of faculty members by counting the number of students they taught, not by the evaluation scores they got from end-of-the-term evaluation, at which, as I was told many times, many students indeed marked the answer sheets before they got the questionaires! What a brilliant president he is!

People here just love numbers and ranking. Many schools proudly claim that their average score in evaluations is higher than 4.0. So, why not just use those numbers to rank all schools? Where are well-trained statisticians when we need them most?

I always think that signaling is the key. We signal when we date, when we go to a job interview, when we sell. But do university administrators understand what the word signaling means? If one checks out the web site of top 100 programs in US, one will see publication record, research agenda and interest, other scholarly activities play a prominant role. Do we see any evaluation statistics? I do not recall. Actually I even saw a department in a good university in south literally posted teaching evaluations with names of professors and courses on web! Why? The answer is obvious. It is no big deal. Full information disclosure helps people see the both sides of the coin. And all noise vanish accordingly. But what do we see here? Sometimes, some professors argue that their CV are their personal information and should not be made public. I even knew quite a number of professors treating email address as personal information, not to mention ID photos to be put on the dept web page. Professors publish papers to get promoted but refuse to let others see what they wrote or what outstanding work they produced so as to get some research rewards. It also comes with no surprise that people would accept any critism in day light. Classroom peer-review is simply unimplementable. Some papers presenters told conference organizers that they wanted to designate discussants. The list can go on forever.

Love at the first sight. How sweet it is! I am crazy about it. While many told me that they totally disagree with me, I must admit that I know that most people do not get very good impression during the first encounter where they are and whatever they are involved in.

This piece is dedicated to my professor at college who almost failed me in economics course but I sat in his class at my senior year. At that time I learned what I should have learned in freshman year. Of course, I learned a lot but without receiving any grade. The fun in learning led me to receiving his favorable recommendation, thru which I started my journey on this long and winding road in 1982. And I thank him wholeheartedly for not giving me a better grade when I was 18. If I can travel in time, I do not think that I can do better in my freshman year.