Faculty Forum Papers
"May 1978 - Fighting The Holy War"
April 26, 1978
Recently my department chairperson made an annual review of the faculty
in the English Department. Part of his report on me reads: "Service to
Students: 2-Ineffective (in view of the absence of student evaluations)."
Since a number of faculty seem concerned about student evaluations and the
way they are obtained and used, I think my response appropriate for a Faculty Forum Paper.
Dear Mr. Chairperson:
First, a couple of details for the record and to
refresh your memory.
1. I have always invited students to evaluate my classes, even though I will not use the computer evaluation
cards, or evaluation forms which are punched into computer cards. At the end of the term I
tell my student (a) to whom to write; (b) to write after they receive their grades since the
grade for them is an important measure of my fairness or lack of it; and (c) to sign or not
sign their letters as they choose. (Unfortunately, legal opinions have complicated the use
of unsigned letters, even though an instructor agrees to their use.)
2. I have not always refused a standard form. When, in the fall of 1976, the department
developed a form requiring written responses, I used it. However, the Dean of Faculty told
you not to read them because they were not signed. I called the Dean. If I signed a statement
releasing you and all other administrators from any legal liability, would he permit use of them.
You should remember the answer - No!
I offer these examples to argue that, although I have refused to submit to punched holes, I have
tried to obtain written evaluations, signed or unsigned.
Why, you may ask, am I so uncooperative.
Well, think about those holey computer cards. That rectangular hole becomes the substance and
for of a student's thought, judgement, and articulation. A hole! Can it be anything but an
insult? Computers do not even feed upon the cards; they feed upon the holes
in the cards-upon
emptiness, vacancy, nothingness. Buried somewhere beneath the more recent layers of your
administrative crust there surely lies at least a thin layer of an earlier literacy touchstone.
Through it don't see the symbolic meaning of an evaluation that originates in nothingness?
If you and other administrators do not see it, I'm convinced students do. No wonder, as one
committee chairman on evaluations reported, students punched out holes to create interesting designs.
For English teaches to as students to reduce ideas and judgement to empty rectangulars is to
undermine everything we try to teach about writing - denotation and connotation, sentence structure,
concrete examples, organization, tone, style - all of those subtle, but significant elements which
combine to produce a unique expression of thought and feeling.
Even as administrators insist that holes are thoughts, they appoint inter-university committees
and intra-university committees, apply for state grants and federal grants, hold conferences and
short courses, establish competency tests and remedial workshops in an attempt to cope with why
Jane and John can't write. The absurdity of it. Ah, Beckett! Ah, Barth!
Still, you may insist, what's so great about written student evaluations, which some poor
administrator or personnel committee must read?
Sorry, examples again instead of holes.
There is in my file a letter from a student who is highly critical of me. In fact she calls
me a "fucking asshole." I do not question the genuineness of her feeling, but I do think an
insightful reader would see that her remark arises in part from my refusal to giver her a final
exam ahead of, and separate from, the rest of the class.
Also in the file, and from the same year, is a long, highly complimentary letter from another
student. But again a sensitive reader should be able to see that it is undoubtedly too laudatory.
My point? Just that these letters illustrate that a written statement tells a reader something
about the student evaluator as well as about the teacher being evaluated. That's an important
something. Holes are nothing.
So I must continue to prefer not to value nothingness, and you will continue to prize it.
Rather than a hundred computer printouts with 3.763, give me one gusty letter calling me
a "fucking asshole." At least I know there is mind, feeling, and commitment behind that
letter. In her curses she believes me to be alive and human. She believes herself to be
alive and human. And unlike the unknown citizen of Auden's poem, she refuses to bow down,
shrivel up, and disappear into a hole.