Self-Critique and Kangaroo Courts

For the second time, I recently had to submit a formal response to the comments on my student survey evaluations, which I consider a theoretically useful but, in practice, simply a humiliating instrument of shame. The entire concept of student evaluations, as many people have noted, is pretty much a lousy idea, since the average college student a) does not thoroughly understand how and why their own work is being evaluated, b) resents grades lower than A, and c) is convinced that any sub-A grade is an unreasonable punishment inflicted by an incompetent or vengeful professor. Even at my last place of employment, which likes to brag about what a good school it is, students generally perceive having to work hard as a negative quality for a course, as if they were so naturally brilliant that anything more than half an hour of homework represents the prof’s shortcoming, rather than their own.

In a nutshell, really, that’s why students evaluations should not be used to evaluate a professor’s performance. Students tend to feel that their own subpar work is not their fault, but someone else’s. They are unable or unwilling to admit even to themselves that they could do better. Passing the blame is a natural if petty and unfortunate human tendency, but why on earth would a bunch of grown-ups take it seriously when a bunch of teenagers indulge in it?

But of course, tenure and promotion committees, as well as hiring committees, do.

I was working at a small liberal arts college that, because of its emphasis on teaching as the main charge of a college professor (good, reasonable) and its craven desire to be loved rather than respected by its own students and alumni (bad, stupid), takes student evaluations way too seriously. From what I’ve seen, the administration itself has come to think about the professors the same way the students do: it is the professor’s job to be lovable, and to give the students As, and if students don’t write evaluations praising the professor’s personal qualities while racking up high grades, the prof must answer for it. I’ll spare you the strange rumors I have occasionally heard about how such committees have used less than stellar evaluations to fire profs who deserved better. Just assume that those rumors circulate, and people are sensitive to the possibility of such judgment.

Imagine, then, how it feels to receive an email reminder from the administration that I need to write a formal response to my student evaluations, describing how I intend to make use of them to grow and improve as a professor. I will tell you that it feels very much as if I have just been accused, tried, and found guilty in a single sentence, and am being given merely the opportunity to repent publicly before being dragged away.

It was hard for me to get through the task without constantly thinking of the Soviet intelligentsia who were purged during the 1930s, convicted on no evidence of absurd criminal accusations always centering on their presumed disloyalty to the state and its leader. Stalin wanted to get rid of everyone in the government who was not directly loyal to him, and also to deflect some of the blame for unpopular or unsuccessful state initiatives. An entire generation of intellectuals working for the Soviet state was purged: arrested on false charges, interrogated and tortured to make them confess, and, after their conviction was formalized, either sent to the gulags or shot right there in prison. Such unfortunates – some of them deserved a nasty end on their own merits, but that’s beside the point here – were permitted to say very little in their show trials, which were lavish kangaroo courts, as a rule. The only things they usually got to say aloud were the scripted “self-critiques” given to them by the secret police who interrogated them: politically flavored declarations of criminal and moral guilt in which they confessed to both political crimes and underlying character flaws that prevented them from being good Soviet citizens. The character flaws were the more important part, since the self-critiques always led up to the way in which one’s moral failings paved the way for treasonous behavior.

Since my contract was ending, and I have little reason to expect further association with my newly former employer, I was deeply tempted to mouth off on paper to them about how contemptible I considered their campus culture, and what a relief it was to me that I need no longer comply with it. But – there’s always a but, right? – my self-critique had to be sent to both administration and my department chair. My chair is a natural reference for hiring committees to consult when considering my application, and, furthermore, the chair is in some sense answerable to the higher-ups for the behavior of the professors in the department. To express my full range of feelings about the whole endeavor would be to embarrass the chair deeply, which would of course make it unlikely to get a good letter of reference down the line.

Back on those Soviet purges: plenty of intellectuals hauled into jail had strong moral and political convictions, and were willing to die in the name of their cause. They knew they would be executed no matter what they said, so why not go down swinging, and at least force the occupants of the kangaroo court to hear a piece of their minds first? This is when the secret police, who were devilishly good at sensing what their prisoners were liable to do, would make it clear to the would-be protestors that, should they depart from the script or refuse to comply in any other way, their loved ones would also be taken and killed. There was no way to resist.

I admit that I’m glad that the stakes aren’t that high for me. I have been told that I have a fat mouth, after all.

Understand that this post isn’t a lamentation for myself; I’m fine. (Really!) I do feel bad, however, that the system at my former employer seems to replicate itself irrevocably, since it only permits the professors who kowtow to it to remain and take up the reins themselves. And the profs who are insistent on being good teachers – not beloved friends or fashion plates or bros who hand out As – are increasingly purged from the college as disloyal to the college or responsible for its continuing mediocrity.

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