Performance Evaluation

It’s funny — I had a long conversation yesterday with Jed about the difficulty of doing performance evaluations that accurately measure how people really do at their jobs. There’s a massive critique happening in academia regarding the racialized and gendered issues with student course evaluations, for example.

There’s also the ‘bad review’ problem — as everyone knows, the people mostly likely to leave reviews are the ones that are unhappy, and so the negative reviews end up taking on disproportionate weight compared to the positive ones; it can be really hard to keep that in mind when you’re trying to use reviews to help you make an informed decision. Try to buy a toaster on Amazon, and you’ll see what I mean.

(One could probably also make a similar analogy to vaccines, extremely rare negative outcomes, consequent public lack of confidence, etc. Humans are very easily swayed by negatives.)

Maybe more troubling, from my work on the library and school board, I’ve come to believe that a lot of the push for ‘metrics for evaluation’ are driven by a business-minded attitude towards financial return on investment that often maps poorly onto creative and service careers.

Ten teachers can teach the same freshman comp. class, and teach it differently in each case (and possibly every semester they teach it), and they can all do a great job — and they will probably all fail to reach one or two of the students out of a class of thirty. (Especially if you’re teaching a class that really ought to be a class of fifteen instead, but budget constraints have crammed your classroom.) Students are individuals, and designing a course that works for so many simultaneously is a very difficult problem.

Teaching is an art form, and I suspect service careers like nursing function similarly.

Which is not to say we shouldn’t require minimum standards for competence (yes!), and strive towards constantly learning how to do the job better, researching best practices, questioning old assumptions and habits. We absolutely should. But the mania for ‘measurement,’ especially in political terms, often seems to come out of a desire to propitiate the tax payers — “Look, we crunched the numbers, and we’re not wasting your money!”

Whereas in fact, the time and mental energy staff and admin spend on this kind of evaluation often takes away from time they could otherwise spend on becoming better teachers. Do I get more out of a 15-minute written evaluation, that ends up requiring 30 minutes of processing time for the paperwork, than I would get out of a 30 minute conversation with my supervisor (or my students)? Unfortunately, evaluation metrics that are number-crunchable in form can be exactly counter-productive to the desired results: better teachers, better serving their students.

Seven years ago, our professorial union pushed for annual evaluations for faculty from department heads. I understand why they did it — among other things, it means that adjuncts who had put in the time but often weren’t taken seriously in their careers would finally have some documentation they could point to when they asked for raises, etc. So evaluations are helping to address some serious inequities in the overall academic structure (inequities that I’m sure hit people from marginalized backgrounds harder as well, adding injury to injury).

And peer evaluations, while sometimes terrifying (especially the first time around, seriously, I almost had a panic attack before my first one), have also taught me significant things that improved my teaching, both in observing my colleagues and in being observed (and having a productive conversation afterwards). I’m not trying to throw out the whole concept of evaluations.

But I do think we should keep questioning them, and asking whether the *kind* of evaluation we’re doing is actually getting the results we want, and whether we could do better at that. Admin / government / taxpayers also need to learn and grow in how to do our job better.


All that said, after ranting for close to an hour at poor Jed about this, I came home to coincidentally get my own annual evaluation. Nervously, I opened it, and was pleased to see an ‘exceeds expectations.’ That’ll certainly help when I go up for promotion next year. And so it goes.

“The department is impressed by your consistent publication and presentation record. We are also impressed by your continued civic engagement and the ways you engage students with this work.”

That does help reinforce the worth of the 4 hour school board meeting I was at on Thursday. Nice to be seen and appreciated. 🙂

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