A story that nearly got a Journalism Professor fired from a State University. However, I give credit to the Professor and the brave journalists who attempted to make positive change for next generation students. Read below.
The SUNY New Paltz campus’ Student Evaluation of Instruction (S.E.I.) has been planning to change since the early 90s. The S.E.I.s which started in the 1960s was originally scanned on carbon paper and then ripped apart until being placed on printer paper. It was a tool designed by a group of people, the Presidents and faculties of the Universities in order to give out tenure, merit raises, and evaluate the professors so they improve their teaching. According to Robert Freeman, the director of committee for New York State and co-author of the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), “there is no better way to judge faculty than the students.” At the end of every semester, the professor leaves the classroom and the students fill out a 22 question list on the effectiveness of the teacher with an optional comment on the back. However, as most students may not know, if they do not sign their name in the back then it does not get counted to be used in the professor’s promotion or drop out.
Many SUNY and CUNY schools throughout New York State are beginning to post their S.E.I.s online. “Teaching should be community property, teaching should not be a secret, should be public,” stated Richard Kelder the Co-Director for the Center for Teaching and Learning at SUNY New Paltz. Kelder openly admitted that the new provost of the college “is very eager in looking at new ways to evaluate teachers.” “We need multiple dimensions of assessing people,” Kelder spoke and continued to say that the college is trying to contextualize the S.E.I.s online and that the evaluation process should be more formative and simulative. According to the course evaluations online testing database, the pros for putting them online would have immediate results, have less errors for losing forms or scanning problems, be less time consuming, less costly, greener (no need for paper), more student comments, greater flexibility for questions, and students who take the time to do them can share an opinion. The minor cons are having low response rates, can only be done on students’ own time unless forced in class and there are concerns for anonymity.
The new Academic Provost to the college, Donald Christian, has a positive attitude towards the S.E.I.s. Christian is in support of Miraldi’s classroom of journalists request to make S.E.I.s online because he prefers that public universities have the obligation to share the measures on how well they do at their job. Christian who came from a similar college system knew that the faculty’s reactions to the classrooms request were predictable. The arguments that were brought up were whether they should be public information or confidential personnel documents. Christian was disappointed by this because teachers should be willing to be scrutinized by students, it’s “almost like a baseball player not wanting to have his or her batting average publicized.”
The five Deans of each school in SUNY New Paltz had both similar views on S.E.I.s and the way they evaluated the professors. The Dean of Liberal Arts, James Schiffer concluded that “S.E.I.s are useful, but they aren’t the only way in which we try to determine effective teaching.” Robert Michael, the Dean of Education and the Dean of Business, Hadi Salavitabar both agreed that they need peer and self evaluations to overlook the progress of a professor. Dean Schiffer studies the effectiveness of faculty by looking at patterns over the course of several years. When considering a teacher for tenure, Dean Robert Michael explains that they have to see if there were multiple problems in the classes they taught. Salavitabar adds, “Usually you have to look at the trend. If you look at the S.E.I. from one semester and one course, they are not a good indication if the faculty member is an effective or a less effective teacher.” Mary Hafeli, the Dean of Fine and Performing Arts states that, “if a teacher starts out with strong scores, she expects to keep them strong, and if they start out with weak scores, she expects to see a clear improvement.” The Dean of Science and Engineering, Daniel Jelski, believes that the S.E.I.s pinpoint teacher problems, but for not giving advice to the inexperienced ones, “I do not find the S.E.I.s particularly useful…I really have no good advice that I can give them.” A former Dean of Liberal Arts of two years, Benjamin Karl Edward, now the head of the Ulster County committee described that during his job as a Dean he would as described, “give the person the intervention, needs a correction” and if they had “no development, no attentiveness then they leave.” Edward would write a two paragraph evaluation of each professor’s improvement and consider tenure only if they continue with their success. “If the person does not teach well, they won’t receive tenure,” Edward stated.
Based on the effectiveness of the S.E.I.s, a third of the SUNY New Paltz faculty had agreed to post them online. Professor Robert Miller, the Communication and Media adviser explained that posting the S.E.I.s online would make it faster and speed up the process. However, very few professors wanted it to be public. Professor of English, Laurence Carr blatantly expressed that the S.E.I. documents are “a private matter between the student and the teacher, the chair, the provost and other administrators. If it needs to be dealt with, it should not be in a public form.” An English Associate Professor sided with Carr by saying that the S.E.I.s are a matter of professional evaluation and development and should be left confidential. Most professors felt that the S.E.I. as a tool was ineffective. Howard Good believes that students do not evaluate the quality of the teacher and instead, “make their judgments based on subjective and selfish factors such as their grades.” Good ended his rant with “just because they sit in my class doesn’t mean they should judge my teaching.” Robert Miller suggested that the tool would work better “if you got it at a timely fashion.” Associate and Chairman Professor in Anthropology Victor De Munck had mixed feelings towards the tool by saying that it was great for determining the two extremes of a good and bad professor, but is difficult to distinguish how accurate the students are. There happened to be no consensus on the trust that faculty have for students. Larry Carr stated that students, “been in the room for 15 weeks, they know what they want from a class and know if they’ve been getting it.” Professor Victor De Munck explained that students usually do well on the basis of questions, but the student S.E.I. results are “not a matter of trust, it’s their right to evaluate us.” Robert Miller only wished that the students had more time to fill out the S.E.I.s and there is a “general impression is if they liked you.” It has been discovered that the faculty do the best on the question about the effectiveness of teaching throughout the semester. It’s merely due to the fact that “teaching is the most formative component of this school,” said Larry Carr.
Generally speaking, the overall ratings on the S.E.I.s at SUNY New Paltz are high and lenient because professors were hired to teach, not research. The grading system goes from 1 being the best to 4 being the worst. According to the Evaluations database accessed from 2002-2003, the ten best faculty who’ve been awarded are Isabelle (1.01), Matsubara (1.01), Palencsar (1.04), Delouise (1.05), Christiassen (1.06), Muffs (1.07), Hewett (1.08), Stern (1.10), Yanks (1.10) and Bray (1.10). The ten highest rated departments at SUNY New Paltz are Educational Administration, Women’s Studies, Sociology, German, Elementary Education, English, Journalism, Special Education, Music, and Theatre Arts.
The Students throughout campus have also shared their opinions about the S.E.I.s. Based on a total of hundred students, most did not know how S.E.I.s were used. A sophomore and Creative Writing major from New York City, Emily Sussell said that professors get them back and look at them but, “other than that I’m not sure.” However, many students took the S.E.I.s most seriously when they had either strong positive or negative feelings towards their professor. Adam Yellen, a junior with a Theater and Communication major from Buffalo, N.Y. explained that he usually grades moderately, but will give a teacher a bad grade if they lack the teaching skill to get their material across. Most students felt that the S.E.I.s should be made public. Joshua Jimenez, a painting/drawing major and senior from Bayport N.Y. agreed that posting the S.E.I.s would make it accessible for students to check out the scores before signing up for class. Alexander Ramirez a sophomore and Sociology major also agreed by adding that it would make stuff much easier and not interrupt class time. It was obvious that most students do the S.E.I.s on short notice. “I breeze through the multiple choice,” Yellen admitted, but will fill out the comment section if he liked the professor. Sussell usually does them from a minute to two minutes while Jimenez completes one in less than a minute. Overall, the majority of students are pleased with the faculty’s ability and quality of teaching. Carissa Coppola, a senior in her Biology major from Oakdale N.Y. says that she grades highly. Jimenez who has never had a problem with the S.E.I.s states that he usually puts “outstanding straight down the board.”
Regardless of how teachers may curve the argument of making their grades public, they cannot under the Federal Law Buckley Act ever reveal the grades of students in order to gain a sense of motive. In a probable sense, the S.E.I. process has been used throughout all college campuses around the globe in order to prepare students for the real world. Good teaching leads to better teaching which leads to experienced people in their degrees and smarter people for tomorrow. All around campus the Deans, the Provost, Kelder, most faculty and students have expressed their opinions that the S.E.I. process is in need of change, and if online is the way to go, then so be it.
If you enjoyed this and would like to read more from Anthony, check out his novel ‘Stay Awhile’ on Amazon amazon.com/Stay-Awhile.