Terrifying relativity

Last night, I dreamed that my graduate advisor and other eminent professors from my graduate program showed up at my current position and declared that I was an absolutely awful teacher. That, in fact, they HATED my teaching.

I woke up thinking for a moment that this had actually happened, and I was terrified – terrified that I was a failure, a fraud, and that Former College had indeed been correct in their assessment of me.

One of the things that I’ve found most confusing about my experience at Former College is how exactly assessments of one’s teaching can vary so radically from place to place. At Rural Utopia, my teaching was successful according to a number of measures: I got good student evaluations, my classes filled, and my colleagues believed I was a good teacher, based on, well, evaluations, but also syllabi, the dreaded "philosophy of teaching" statement, formal and informal observations – where "informal" = having an office across from my classroom and thus forced to hear what happened in class everyday! – and co-teaching.

At Former College, not so much. There, the measures were student evaluations, syllabi, surveys of randomly selected students, and observations. My syllabi, it must be noted, garned high praise. My student evaluations, however, were often mediocre. The random student surveys were mixed – though I will point out to anyone who cares that "mixed" by its nature includes some praise, and that there were comments in these surveys of which I was quite proud. The results of my observations were equally mixed – some praise, some criticism.

What’s baffling is the disparity between these two institutions, and especially, between the observations. I can understand that the student bodies and cultures at these two schools were significantly different, and that therefore students would react differently to my teaching. What’s been much harder to understand is how colleagues at one institution could praise my teaching specifically for doing things that colleagues at the second criticized me for not doing.

I suppose the key here is a distinction between what I was doing and what I was accomplishing. Doing the same things at Former College as at Rural Utopia was not accomplishing the same things, and when colleagues at Former College pointed out what my teaching wasn’t accomplishing, they were gauging this not necessarily by what I was doing, but by how the students responded. Since the response wasn’t working, then what I was doing didn’t work,
even if had worked elsewhere, and on paper it looked perfectly lovely. An anecdote that I think is somehow related to this phenomenon: after observation of one of my classes, my chair issued
high praise and talked about how well the class had gone.  She complimented my lecture, the discussion that ensued, the structure of the class meeting and the level of participation. The evaluations for that course, however, were lukewarm, and I’m quite sure that those scores caused my chair to reassess her evaluation of the class. 

I think I also underestimated how much the culture that shaped students’ expectations also shaped the faculty’s.

I have to say, this was hard to grasp, viscerally. You learn about teaching, through training and through experience, you learn what works in different circumstances, and feel like you know what the important principles of good teaching are. And you feel like you’re acting according to those principles in a way that will work anywhere, since the principles are universal. Obviously moving from a lecture hall of 300 to a seminar table of 12 will change the techniques that you use, but you feel like if you’re moving from one seminar to another, the same general techniques that worked in one place will work in the other.

And then they don’t.

I’m still not sure why my usual approaches didn’t work at Former College (or didn’t work consistently, I should say). I can identify some possibly significant differences between the Former College student body and the other student populations I’ve worked with, but it’s hard to articulate how they played out in the classroom without sounding defensive ("it’s all the students’ fault! they didn’t get me!" is one of my least favorite responses to poor evaluations). It would be one thing if what Former College wanted in a teacher wasn’t the way I taught – if, for instance, Former College was unhappy with me because they wanted me to lecture and I wanted to run discussion. I could understand being a square peg in a round hole. (I would feel much less stupid if this were the case.) It’s another thing to try to understand why colleagues criticized me for not doing things that I wanted to do and was convinced that I was doing. I suppose the only way I can explain this is that if the students didn’t understand the things I was doing, then I wasn’t really doing them, even if I thought I was.

In any case, Former College is water under the bridge at this point. Its legacy, however, is one of self-doubt. My teaching was effective in a variety of contexts prior to arriving at Former College – but then it wasn’t. I like to think that I’m a flexible teacher and that I can shape what we do in class according to student needs – but at Former College that didn’t seem to hold true. On the one hand, I can point to a successful track record at other institutions, and dismiss Former College as a fluke; on the other hand, who’s to say that my inability to read and adapt to the students and educational culture at Former College won’t recur at another institution? How can you effectively predict the way your teaching will be received? An interview clearly doesn’t help you. Discussion of student bodies and teaching expectations, before you actually start to teach, doesn’t help you. It’s enough to make you swear off teaching for good.