(From the desk of Pete Brooks)
Back when I was in the cube farm of academic technology, we tried an experiment within our then-new course management system: we had a large class (hundreds upon hundreds of students) pilot a mid-semester evaluation. The instructor emphasized the importance of the evaluation and reminded students to take it, but our return rate was still only 8 percent. It pretty much soured me on online evaluations, as such a low return rate renders the evals useless. (At UC Davis at the time, veterinary students did get an invitation to chat with the dean personally if they didn’t fill out their course evals. Otherwise, there wasn’t any institutional effort to “incentivize”* students–that is, the registrar wouldn’t withhold a student’s grades until she had filled out her course evals.)
Fast forward to today. Boise State is offering online course evaluations, but recently the university announced that whether or not a course participates is not up to the instructor; each department either has to stick with in-class, paper-based evaluations or go all in with the online evals. In the department meeting where we discussed the issue, we were leaning toward paper, and then one colleague said he had piloted online evals and was getting response rates of 90 percent. I’d like to see the evidence of that, but whatever. . . it was persuasive enough that the sense of the meeting shifted toward a semester trial of online evaluations.
We’ve been told we should “incentivize” student participation in online evaluations, for example by offering perks (e.g. students could bring a 3″ x 5″ note card with them to the final exam or we’d drop the lowest quiz grade) if the class return rate reached, say, 80 percent. And yes–those are the actual suggestions from the administration. Never mind that I don’t give quizzes, and my students already can bring essay outlines on notecards to the final–I’m not going to reward students for doing something that I see as part of fulfilling the social and intellectual contract for the course.
So instead of offering to bribe my survey students, I spent an entire class talking (as I often do, but this time more frankly and comprehensively) about why I’ve taught History 111–U.S. history to 1877–the way I have.
Topics covered, and student reactions to each one:
Our conversation lasted 45 minutes, and at the end I made another pitch for them to fill out course evaluations, saying that their feedback is not only valuable to me individually, but it also allows instructors to make a case to deans and provosts and beyond that
customers students do think about learning in ways that should matter to us. I then reiterated to them that I really do make changes in my course structure and teaching style based on student feedback, and that since I may have 30 more years (!!!!) in the classroom, they have the opportunity to make a big impact on future students’ learning experiences. I encouraged them to take ten minutes or so to fill out the evaluation as soon as possible.
This class’s online response rate thus far, more than halfway through the response window? Twenty-one percent. Anyone care to guess how little that number will rise, even with repeated urgings, by the time the survey closes on Friday evening? Leave your bets in the comments.
* Worst word ever? Possibly.
** Remember when we used to say “knowledge” instead of “content”?
*** For the record, I used Major Problems in American History, Volume I by Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman et. al.; Abraham in Arms by Ann Little; Mongrel Nation by Clarence Walker; and They Saw the Elephant by Joann Levy. Each book takes a very different approach to history, with Little’s being the most traditional (yet also very readable!), Walker’s serving as a witty and searing examination of why different American demographic groups view the Jefferson-Hemings liaison in divergent ways, Levy’s book offering thematic chapters but not footnotes or endnotes, and Major Problems bringing together eight to ten primary sources in each chapter with two essays usually excerpted from books by academic historians. My students found Little’s book challenging at first but conceded they enjoyed each chapter more than the previous ones. Walker’s book was puzzling but made for the best class discussion because it was the most explicitly provocative. Levy’s book was the most accessible, and my Idaho students seemed to appreciate its focus on western women’s history, as their exposure to regional women’s history (or, actually, any women’s history) previously was via pioneer wives and Sacajawea. I suspect most students stopped reading the essays in Major Problems as early as a third of the way into the semester, and many students needed a great deal of guidance in interpreting primary sources.
I had an awesome birthday (#36, for those keeping track) on Thursday. Fang wrote me a very sweet blog post. Lots of thoughtful gifts came my way. A colleague was kind enough to bring me flowers and a fancy cake:
I received my first evaluation as a faculty member here. The chair was very kind in his review, and he (very thoughtfully!) took the time to point out that although I’ll likely meet the traditional requirements for tenure, the work I’ll do will look quite different from that of other department members, and that I shouldn’t be adversely affected by that difference in future reviews. After five years of job-market beat-downs, I’m glad to see I’m fitting in, even though it means there has to be a recognition that I’m on a slightly different path from my (exceptionally supportive) colleagues.
I took the boy to the local nature center today because he said he wanted to go to “that place with the dead animals.” He was way into the taxidermy today:
I’m (still) wondering how the boy managed to get ringworm on his butt.
The boy can sing most of Tom Jones’s “Did Trouble Me”:
(Clearly the video owes a huge debt to Johnny Cash’s video for Hurt.) This latest earworm is a big improvement over the boy’s perpetual singing of phrases from Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” and Queen’s “Radio Gaga.”
The boy has taken to drawing everyone–even his dear mother–with a penis.
Because it took until, oh, today for the weather to get nice, I’ve been getting my craft on during the evenings. This week has featured watercolor sketches and miniature landscape dioramas.
I’m having middle-of-the-night panic attacks over a grant deadline. I can only work on it for so many hours a day before the quality of my research and writing begins to decline. (The crafts are currently more a therapeutic outlet than a creative one.)
I sent off an article to a publication I really admire. Only once I sent it off did I realize I cited 75% of the authors appearing in the first issue of its relaunch. I’m hoping that means it’s a good venue for my work, and not that I’m a huge kiss-up.
Last weekend we went to see Shoshone Falls. They’re going full-force. The photos I took don’t really do them justice, but here’s one:
I found some lovely white nectarines at our local produce stand. Yes, they came here on a truck from California, but their sweetness was a much-needed reminder that summer should be here any minute. (We seemed to have skipped spring.)
I walked through a shadow cast by a tree yesterday and was startled and delighted, both because the trees have taken forever to leaf out and because it was sunny.
Many of the seeds I started committed suicide. Or, rather, that’s what I’m telling myself–it certainly wasn’t my fault. :\ I don’t think they had sufficient sunlight, which is certainly not something I could control this spring. Anyway, they grew all lanky and never put out true leaves, then they fell over from the weight and shriveled up. Grrrrrrrr.
What are you up to this summer?
I still remember watching the events at Columbine High on April 20, 1999 on the tiny TV in the tiny
storage loft newsroom where I worked at the time, and heading down the stairs to share birthday cake with the odd art director dude in the graphics department. I couldn’t believe he was 37–he seemed much younger.
Sweetie, were we ever really this young and skinny?
Today (April 20) Fang turns 49.
I’m so very lucky to have him in my life. He’s funny and smart and politically savvy and interested in topics adjacent to what I’m interested in. (He asked for Foner’s latest Lincoln book for his birthday, as well as for a once-a-year cholesterol splurge at the Cheesecake Factory. That’s my kind of guy.)
We always sort of draw into ourselves and cringe during Fang’s birthday week. After all, the Revolutionary War started on April 19, so all kinds of lovely people are drawn to take all kinds of lovely action on that anniversary. We’re talking Waco big. Oklahoma City federal building big. But we appear to have made it through April 19, in the States at least, without incident. Still, April 20 is not only Fang’s birthday; it’s Hitler’s birthday, too–which brings out wackos like the Columbine High School shooters. (See also.) Robert E. Lee went over to the Confederate side when he resigned from the U.S. Army on April 20–it’s the sesquicentennial of that one. The Ludlow Massacre took place on April 20. The Bay of Pigs Invasion failed on this day. More cheer: Billie Holiday recorded “Strange Fruit” on April 20. Plus, it’s an unlucky day. Last year we “celebrated” April 20 with a particularly sick kind of fireworks—the Deepwater Horizon explosion.
Things have been looking up for Fang lately. He’s been dealing with a lot of. . .well, let’s just say stuff, so it’s nice to see him start to flourish again in so many different ways.
Let’s hope, then, that today is a good one. Like the April 20 that saw the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1871. Or the day Pasteur and Bernard completed the first tests of pasteurization. Or the April 20 that Apollo 16 landed on the moon. Fang may not know that he shares a birthday with George Takei and John Paul Stevens, as well as a Fang favorite, Crispin Glover. You’re in good company, Sweetheart!
Fang’s celebrating not only with us, but with a marijuana legalization rally at the statehouse, because it is, after all, 4/20.
Here he is as I’d like to remember him on this day–wearing his worn “Black Expo” t-shirt, playing the guitar he first picked up a couple years ago:
Happy birthday, Fang! Here’s hoping your day is more Civil-Rights-Act-of-1871 and Apollo-16-landing than, well, the alternative. I’m so glad we found each other. (Kindly stick around for another 49, OK?)