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When Students are Petty

This is an old post, but worth sharing. As an academic, you must develop thick skin. We are constantly critiquing one another and praise is not common. However, I try to rectify this with sending note cards via campus mail and positive emails to colleagues and people who work with and for me. Overall, at times people can be petty. This post speaks more so to some of my experiences with students.

Once again, I’m in the process of reviewing my annual Faculty Activity Report. For those of you not familiar with this process, once a year you meet with the department Chair and review your productivity. The array of information includes publications, service, and teaching. I just reviewed the teaching portion with my evaluation scores that the department is most concerned with for my review. My numbers have always been pretty good as a part-time worker and now as a full-time employee. However, I did notice a blip, if you will in one course from the Fall 2009. I had to think back and I recall two industrious people who were so kind to remind me, “We don’t care if you were in a car accident, keep your personal life out of the classroom.” Now, this isn’t a direct quote, but rather a paraphrase from two of the written evaluations. These same two lovely people also scored me with all 0’s. This was the first time ever in my academic career that I was scored with the lowest score.

In July of 2009, I was in a car accident and consequently to this day am still recovering from injuries sustained in the accident. This particular class was in the afternoon and afternoons in the Fall 2009 were hard for me. During the first week of classes, I explained to the class that I was going to stand at the podium more than usual. Usually I work the room–I walk around the room and am very animated. That term–not so much. The truth was that there were some days that I held on to the podium for fear that my left knee might just give out and I might collapse. On one other occasion, I was walking into the class and my knee did give out. I heard a few students gasp.  I was quite embarrassed and explained that this was part of my health issues and end of story. I never belabored my accident more than this.

I was frustrated when I read these two written comments. And, the 0’s factored into my overall score did influence the numbers for that particular course. What is really interesting for me is that per the university guidelines, I have to work with students and their learning disabilities, illnesses, and other registered issues. Students can register with the Resource Centre for Students with a Disability. Their learning plan might include more time with exams or more flexibility with due dates. But apparently for some students–I am not allowed to be human. I cannot mention twice that I am not as mobile around the classroom. I certainly hope that those two people look back at the class and think fondly of those two minutes when they chose to write a cruel comment and circle a series of 0’s.

The good news is that my evaluations were still at or above the department mean so this didn’t mean that I wasn’t eligible for a raise. However, I don’t think that some students realize how they can be cruel. I was more troubled with the statements than the 0’s. The 0’s are really an outlier for the statistical scores. I know that I take the written comments more seriously.

Updating that in 2012 when my partner had a serious illness the vast majority of my students were patient; however, a few were clear that my turnaround for graded work in 10-14 days was unacceptable. I wish them good luck in their lives. I am usually a super star and get graded work returned in 3-7 days. But, alas, my partner was in the hospital and I dropped the ball. <Note sarcasm>. Did I see a drop in my numbers for one class–yes I did. Were the qualitative comments interesting? Yes, the first year students applauded my availability knowing that I had a family crisis, while some of my students in an upper-division course complained about the turn around time for graded work. I had to smile. I cannot please them all and surprisingly the first year students were the most patient.

5 thoughts on “When Students are Petty

  1. When I read the car accident quote I didn’t think it related to an actual event and was rather just some idiotic comment made by a couple of students. For it to be referring to an actual event is disgusting. I’m sorry to hear such heartless losers brought down your score. You are one of the most well liked profs in the Poli Sci department. Rate My Prof confirms this.

    • Dear Mark: Thanks for your comment. It was a tough term for me physically and no doubt the afternoon class did not have peppy me. But, as you read, I was really surprised with the mean-spirited comments about my health. I know that I didn’t belabor my recovery. Water under the bridge. Hope you are well!

  2. This highlights a bigger issue that could be taken up by those formulating the policy for reviewing performance and awarding raises.

    Those zeros are statistical outliers.

    If the average scores have an effect on your pay and promotion, then instituting a process where outliers are omitted before averaging should be instituted. It’s not hard to identify statistical outliers. You don’t even need to see the comments. And it could be done with high end outliers, too. After all, if only 2 students think you are a 5 (or whatever the top score is) across the board why should your average be higher?

    Talk to your union. This should be an easy thing to fix before a cruel and petty student really does prevent someone from getting a promotion or well deserved raise. And it’d be easier to do this now than for the union to fight a grievance later. The fact that you don’t have a grievance but just an observation with clear potential for problematic outcomes should be positive.

  3. Hi Jo: You make some really good points. My department is actually (IMO) using the CES in a way that our Learning and Teaching Centre suggests that departments not do. And, this is a matter that we will discuss next month. I did calculate the score without the 0’s and it’s higher. The good news is that my numbers that term, while lower, are not a problem. I’m still at or above the mean.

    On a related matter, evaluations, I did speak with one of the Human Rights Officers. I wanted to make sure that my interests were protected. As full-time regular faculty at my campus, I am not part of the union but the Faculty Association. So, the Human Rights Officer seemed like the right person to consult.

    I was thinking back to that term and I was tired and in so much pain in the afternoon. When I read those two comments, my heart sank. I still feel (almost two years later) that the comments were dehumanizing. Another student joked about how s/he likes the way that I work the room, since it kept him/her awake and that he hopes that I feel better next term. For me the big takeaway was that sometimes students can be petty.

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