The Unfairly Judged Professor

An All Too Familiar Tale

She takes her teaching responsibilities seriously; she is committed to making a difference in her students' lives. She prepares her syllabus meticulously, with class-by-class activities and assignments, the most relevant and up to date readings, illustrative cases, experiential activities. She prepares thoroughly for each class, working hard to draw out her students, engaging them, encouraging them, challenging them.

Some days are better than others, but all in all she is feeling good about the work she is doing and about her vocation as a professor. And then it hits! The student evaluations. The thing about these evaluations is that for the most part they are positive, some very positive. 5's on a 5-point scale with notations written in the margins -- "best course so far," "appreciated your command of the material," and so forth. But then there are the others, the 2's and 3's, along with the comments -- "too shallow," "too many hours wasted in class discussion," "not enough substance from the professor," "I was expecting more." The professor draws little solace from the positive evaluations, the 3.9 overall rating, the glowing comments from several students. What keeps her up at night and continues to trouble her during the day are those 2's and 3's, the negative comments, the criticisms and complaints, and worst of all, the fact that she was blindsided since none of this came to the surface during the life of the course.

So here we have an all too familiar classroom tale: The Righteously Screwed Student ("I paid my money, I came to class, I was entitled to a solid education, and you, Professor, didn't deliver.") And on the other side, we have The Unfairly Judged Professor ("I worked my tail off, I did my research, I put together the best course I could, I gave it my all, and never did I hear a word of complaint. And this is the response I get! Unfair!")

The Independence Bias. In the university classroom, no less than in all our other social systems, we exist in relationship with one another (see Seeing Systems, Act II), yet when it comes to evaluations our focus tends to be on the individuals and not on the relationship; the professor evaluates (grades) the student, and then it is the student's chance to evaluate the professor. In all of this, the relationship goes unnoticed.

Professor and student exist in a Provider/Customer relationship in which the professor has designated responsibility for providing an educational service and the student is the designated recipient of that service. (I think it is fair to say that in higher education the teacher/student relationship is one of Provider/Customer, but that this is less clearly the case in lower forms of education where many of the students may feel more like inmates than customers. I maintain, although it is an arguable point, that students in lower education are the willing and unwilling products of educational systems and that the customers lie elsewhere: universities, organizations, communities, parents.)

Once our eyes shift from the individuals to the relationship, then we begin to focus not only on the attributes of the parties, but also on the qualities of the relationship. And one quality that is particularly relevant is partnership: that is, is the relationship characterized by a joint commitment to the success of whatever venture the members are engaged in? In the case of the professor/student relationship, is that relationship characterized by a joint commitment to the success of the educational venture?

The Responsibility Dance. It may seem eminently reasonable for professor and student to be in partnership with one another, to be jointly committed to the success of their educational venture; yet, that is not how it often goes in the professor/student relationship or in most other Provider/Customer relationships. A more familiar pattern is the responsibility dance in which responsibility for success resides primarily, if not exclusively, with Provider (in this case, the professor) and minimally, if at all, with the Customer (here the student). Provider is responsible, Customer not responsible.

When this responsibility dance occurs, the relationship becomes one of non-partnership; yet the absence of partnership in and of itself may not be a problem. The Provider professor may take up all responsibility for the course and discharge it brilliantly; and the Customer students who have felt no responsibility for the course still emerge delighted customers. No problem. (One could rightfully argue that this is only true in the short term, but that there is a gradual and mutual disabling process that goes on the longer that non-partnership form continues.)

But now let us observe what happens in this non-partnership pattern when delivery is less than satisfactory. Our non-responsible student becomes The Righteously Screwed Customer ("You, Professor, were responsible; I was entitled; and you let me down.") And our responsible professor becomes the Unfairly Judged Provider ("I gave it my best; I taught a good course; your reaction is unfair.")

The student can, with impunity, blame the professor for the failure of the course, but the professor cannot blame the student, for if the responsibility dance is on, it is clear that the professor alone is responsible. (The grade the professor gives the student is an evaluation of the degree of mastery of the course content not of the student's contribution to partnership.)

We Are Stuck With Relationship, but Do We Want Partnership? Democracy is not a requirement in the classroom. There have been many great professors who have taught many great courses in which there have undoubtedly been many disgruntled students, yet no one would have thought it necessary, much less appropriate, to have the students evaluate the professors. The teacher taught and the student coped as best one could. But once we choose democracy in the classroom, then the game shifts and partnership becomes relevant. Now we are in this together and, under these conditions, it is as valid for the professor to evaluate the student's contribution to partnership as it is for the student to evaluate the professor's.

The professor's evaluation of the student's contribution to partnership might comprise such statements as:

* You were a failure as a customer.

* Where were your complaints during the course, when we still might have had the opportunity to deal with them?

* Did you ask me to clarify points you didn't understand?

* Did you speak up when you thought student conversations were dragging on too long?

* Did you suggest topic areas that you expected to be covered and which were not?

* And so on.

Professor/student is a relationship. Our choice is whether or not to create it as a partnership relationship. As a professor I may not want that partnership; like many providers, I may not welcome the intrusion of the customer into what I consider my business. And as a student, I may not welcome the opportunity of partnership; like many customers, I may be firmly rooted in my entitlement and not feel that it is my business to help the provider deliver the service I expect. What can drive us toward partnership would be our common interest in creating the best possible product, service, learning experience. And if our choice is not to work on building partnership into the relationship, then we can expect occasional if not frequent bouts of "unfairly judged" and "righteously screwed."

Many of us work on creating partnership in our classrooms by having an initial contracting session with our students, clarifying in that process what each of us expects from the other. Yet we also know that relationship is an ongoing process and if our focus is on partnership, then we need to come back regularly to examine that relationship. Is the Provider professor opening him/herself to evaluations, suggestions, and reactions from the students; and is the Customer student making it clear to the professor what is and is not working in that process? Are we jointly committed to the success of this educational venture?

Barry Oshry
Chief Theoretical Officer
Power + Systems Inc.
There is nothing more practical than solid human systems theory.

home | site map
© 2005