Of course, teaching evaluations aren't the only way we are evaluated as teachers: class average, the ease at which your courses "make," and peer observations are often also used to gage a professor's effectiveness in the classroom. I remember when I was just starting off as a PhD student, I was given a stern talking-to by my department chair for having too-high a class average. My husband, on the other hand, has been taken to task for not being able to attract a higher number of students to register for his classes. In both cases, one wonders if it is the teaching or other factors that influence the criteria being used.
Which brings us back to the teaching evaluations we give to our students, asking them to judge how well we've performed over the semester. In a way, it's fair, especially at the university level. One hopes that students in universities have a more active interest in their learning and thus will accurately and fairly judge their professors on whether or not they have learned anything. But unfortunately, much of the time, the teaching evaluations come down to a) how high the class average is and thus, b) how much they student "liked" the professor.
I also wonder how accurately students can answer some of the questions asked on the evaluations form. Was the instructor readily available outside of class? Considering I can count on one hand how many students actually came to see my during my office hours, how will the majority of my students answer? How can they answer, seeing as how they never sought my help outside of the classroom? Did they find what I taught in the class valuable? Seeing as how I teach a course whose curriculum is, in part, imposed on me, how is that a fair evaluation of my teaching? And do students even have the perspective to know if what I am teaching is valuable? It might seem irrelevant today, but what about in the "real world?"
But I keep coming back to the likability factor. I have never once had all positive teaching evaluations. There are always one or two students who seem to intensely dislike me, how I teach, and what I teach. I'll often come across their comments immediately after reading a very positive comment about the exact same aspect of my class. The instructor was very clear and took her time to make sure we understood all of the materials; followed by, the instructor was overly repetitive and went over the same thing over and over like we were stupid. I'm clear and I'm too loud. I'm friendly and open and I reveal too much about myself. I am at once too tough and too easy on my students. I am both fair and unfair in my grading practices. How am I all of these contradictory things at once?
When I posted on the teachers who have influenced me, someone I went to elementary school with raked me over the coals for my description of my beloved 3rd and 5th grade teacher; for him, the same teacher and class was an absolute nightmare. And when I recounted my (negative) experience in 10th grade English, a fellow classmate and friend had the exact opposite reaction to the same treatment (and let me know about it). My students, when asked to reflect on their best teachers in high school, chose those teachers who pushed them and had high expectations of them. While in high school, they admitted that they hated those teachers and much preferred those teachers who didn't demand so much. So I am all too aware of the variances in personal experience with the exact same teacher. And if that is true, can we rely on student evaluations to give us an accurate picture of how "good" a teacher is?
Putting aside the idea as well that student evaluations have turned into a costumer satisfaction survey, and if the customer (student) wasn't right, they let the professor have it, the evaluations don't really help the professor become a better teacher. When faced with conflicting comments, what is a professor supposed to do to increase "customer satisfaction"? Major corporations have the size and resources to at least appear to be all things to all people, but I am alone in front of 30+ students for a limited amount of time, and all of the students have a different idea of how and what I should be teaching.
Which brings up the uncomfortable notion that universities are just going through the motions of evaluating teaching. We pass out forms, they get fed into the computer, the scores come back, high and low scores are duly noted, but at the end of the day, it won't be teaching that denies or gains a faculty member tenure. In the same way, stellar teaching evaluations in no way protect contingent faculty members from being summarily dismissed for budgetary, personal, or political reasons. There is little incentive for faculty members both on and off the tenure-track to innovate, experiment, and re-imagine their courses and teaching methods. It is seen as either taking too much time away from research and service (tenure-track) or over-stepping the accepted boundaries (contingent).
I know that there are lots of universities that truly value teaching, and thus also value meaningfully evaluating the teacher. But for so many of us, those schools exist as some sort of academic legend, existing on the fringes of reality. We hear about them, and we know someone who knows someone who works there, but it remains unknowable, a place that only exists in our fantasies. The reality is that I have to try to get my students to like me (so maybe I'll just give them all A's) to do well on my evaluations.
And then, it won't matter anyway.