Max Lewontin

Reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education

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For Adjuncts, a Lot Is Riding on Student Evaluations

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Image: Figure-skating judges in 1948. (Corbis)

In February 2012, Miranda Merklein received the email that many adjunct professors dread.

“I am sorry to inform you that we cannot extend an employment offer to you at this time,” wrote the chair of the department of liberal arts at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design, where Merklein had been teaching English and writing courses as an adjunct. “A review of your course evaluations, coupled with concerns filed by students and other contributing faculty, resulted in the decision to remove your application from the liberal arts adjunct pool.”

At first, Merklein recalled, she was shocked. “I’m not a terribly hard teacher,” she said. “Most students say that I’m cool, fun. I get really positive feedback.”

Then she got angry. A former journalist and literary-magazine editor with a Ph.D. in English, she had been teaching regularly for four years as an adjunct. She came to feel that her crime at Santa Fe was expecting students to regularly attend and participate in her classes.

In the email, the department chair offered to provide copies of the student course evaluations, but Merklein says she was never able to obtain them. She still has no idea what specific complaints resulted in her dismissal. An administrative assistant in the college’s liberal-arts department declined to comment on whether Merklein had ever received the complaints from the department, referring a reporter to the university’s human-resources office.

The experience left Merklein feeling that, as long as she was an adjunct, she was only a couple of dissatisfied students away from losing her job. Among adjuncts, that feeling is not uncommon.

For most tenure-track and tenured professors, course evaluations are used as guidance or feedback, a way to tweak their courses based on student concerns. At their worst, the evaluations are an annoyance, as students vent their frustrations or lament a poor grade.

But for adjuncts, student evaluations often carry much more weight. In a way, that makes sense: Most adjuncts are, after all, hired to teach. But in the absence of other metrics or methods, many colleges use evaluations as a key means—or the only means—of determining whether to renew a contingent professor’s contract.

The evaluations, of course, can be deeply flawed. And while poor course evaluations can result in losing a teaching position, several adjuncts say, positive evaluations carry no benefit at all: They don’t lead to pay raises, office space, or equipment.

All of which has left adjuncts and observers wondering: Is there a better way to assess how well lecturers are doing their jobs?

Evaluating the Evaluators

Mary G. Gainer, who teaches writing at several colleges near Pittsburgh, has seen her evaluations vary widely. At Point Park University, the evaluation process involved classroom observation by a department administrator—a much more useful approach than the generic “bubble sheet” student evaluations used by a community college where she previously taught.

But even at Point Park, the process was far from perfect, she said, partly because the administrator saw only a tiny slice of Gainer’s classroom teaching.

“I don’t mind them,” Gainer said of the evaluations, “but I don’t think they’re an effective means of measuring performance for any professor.”

There are plenty of reasons why.

First and foremost, there’s the people doing the evaluating. Students aren’t experts in course subject matter or in pedagogical approach, said Robert C. Baum, a former adjunct professor at several colleges in New Hampshire and southern Vermont who became the dean of Lebanon College in April. (The college announced in August that because of declining enrollment and financial pressures it was canceling its classes for the fall and preparing to close.) With course evaluations, “content is not respected, expertise is not respected,” said Baum, who taught courses in philosophy, history and media studies.

Then there’s the fact that the evaluations are anonymous, inviting students to make sometimes inappropriate comments about a professor’s teaching style, demeanor, or even personal appearance.

“‘I like your boots,’ that’s a really nice compliment—but it doesn’t belong on an evaluation,” said one adjunct, who asked to remain unnamed because she is still teaching at several colleges in Illinois and Wisconsin.

In online courses, she says, the additional anonymity afforded by never being in a classroom leads some students to take out their frustrations with the institution on individual professors, primarily through course evaluations.

“Just this past term, I had a student that was incredibly irate because he had received a poor grade,” she said.

Although she offered the student an opportunity to revise the assignment, “I received three email diatribes that were incredibly long, and referred to me by all kinds of names and referred to himself as a customer in all caps, and me as a vendor, and said he wasn’t getting what he paid for,” she recalled.

“There’s no way I won’t get that on my official eval.”

‘Heads Turned the Other Way’

For many adjuncts, fear of angry evaluations can quickly turn into fear of honest grading, said Natalie M. Dorfeld, a former adjunct who landed a full-time position after teaching for several years at four different institutions.

As a newly-minted assistant professor of English at an institution in northwestern Pennsylvania, she was put in charge of evaluating adjunct professors, including some former colleagues.

Because of their contingent status, Ms. Dorfeld said, some adjuncts felt increasing pressure to lower their academic standards so they would not receive large numbers of negative student evaluations.

“No one wanted to be the ‘bitch’ of the group,” she said. “That is to say, hard and fast rules usually meant poorer grades.”

“So papers were accepted late,” she said. “Heads turned the other way with plagiarism cases. Some D’s were bumped to C’s and B’s. Behavior that should have never been tolerated was considered old hat because it meant work next semester.”

The end of the semester, said Merklein, the professor in New Mexico, is “a time of fear on campus, fear of retaliation mostly, and you’ll see that adjuncts will bring in cookies or candy that day, because you’ll see that students will respond better to that. If you’re tenured, you have academic freedom and you have freedom to not inflate your grades. It’s a totally different game.”

‘Real, Sincere Evals’

“I suspect many departments don’t read adjuncts’ evaluations closely unless there’s a serious accusation or pattern of negative assessment,” said Joseph A. Fruscione, who taught English for 15 years before leaving academia to work as a freelance writer and editor this past spring.

But both he and Baum expressed concerns that evaluations will get read thoroughly by department chairs who may be looking for reasons not to extend a contingent professor’s contract. Adjuncts can end up being judged by a handful of negative comments, Baum said, after several years of teaching with nearly unanimous positive responses from students.

Some institutions try to ward against that circumstance.

At the University of Maryland’s University College, which enrolls a large number of part-time and nontraditional students in online courses, Matthew Prineas, the college’s dean, says the most important step in evaluating adjuncts is a classroom visit made by a program chair each semester. Prineas said that since many courses are online, the chair will often notify the faculty member of an upcoming visit and then log on to the course software to observe a class session unbeknownst to students.

Because many of the faculty members at UMUC are adjuncts, Prineas said the college has developed a standard system of evaluating adjuncts in which the classroom visit—whether virtual or on-campus—is followed by a meeting between the department chair and the instructor to discuss the course.

The college does use student evaluations, but they are only one of several ways the adjuncts’ teaching is measured. The evaluations have never been used as a means to not renew an adjunct’s contract, he said.

“At most a student evaluation would prompt a class visit; we would want to inquire further if there seemed to be a pattern of student concerns,” Prineas said, adding that the evaluations are mostly used as feedback on changes on class curriculum or design, not the faculty member teaching.

Several adjuncts said institutions would benefit from weighing peer-review programs, even if those took more of administrators’ time.

“I think what really works is if you have a peer of some kind who’s coming in, and they’re not just giving you pats on the back but they’re also not on a witch hunt, and can give you a real, sincere eval,” said Gainer, the professor in Pittsburgh. “We need to hear the student’s voice in an authentic way, but we need peer feedback as well, because sometimes you don’t see yourself” while teaching.

But that’s easier said than done. In Pennsylvania, Dorfeld has discovered that while receiving student evaluations is often disheartening, evaluating adjuncts can be just as difficult.

With her experience as both an adjunct and a full-time professor tasked with evaluating some of her former colleagues, Dorfeld was skeptical of how institutions tend to judge their teachers.

“I think we set up all adjuncts to fail,” she said. “They are the backbone of many departments, and yet they are expected to not rock the boat. Smile. Nod. Give Johnny a C, so he can play football.”

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