Once a month I represent the classics department at a meeting of the university’s Faculty Senate Council. This duty was handed over to me six years ago by my department chairman, who described the Council (charitably, in retrospect) as akin to “a junior high civics club, but with less clout.”
After six years, I’m still not certain about the Council’s purpose. With thirty-some members representing the university’s various departments and schools, the Council appears to be advisory in nature, at its best a kind of braking mechanism for ill-considered administrative policy proposals. Mostly, though, the Council is a gas-outlet for busybodies, a device to deflect the energies of potential campus nuisances into the nebulous region of “faculty governance” while the Administration goes unhampered about the real business of running the school.
Now and then, the Council takes a break from budget reports and joint declarations and salary complaints to hear concerns voiced by students. Serious political concerns, that is — not the usual spoilsport rants about inflated tuition, unlivable dorms, and ghastly cafeteria food.
A student delegation (deftly palmed off on the Faculty Senate Council by the Administration) recently came to our Council meeting with concerns about gay and lesbian rights, American atrocities in Afghanistan, U.S. designs on Iraq, and other stuff. But their main concern was about the university’s “Free Speech Zone” — a section of campus, prominently abutting the student union, to which public protests are restricted; a kind of campus Hyde Park Corner, wherein all manner of student cranks and malcontents may ascend to their orange crates and hold forth without hassle from the campus police, but also without annoyance to students and teachers of less enlightened dispositions.
The Free Speech Zone, according to the student delegation to the Faculty Senate Council, is bad — maybe even illegal, but they have to do more research on the appropriate California civil statutes to make certain — but for sure the Zone is bad. Concerned students should have free access to the entire campus to exercise their First Amendment rights, and stuff like that.
With a fading background of polite demurrals on the part of some Council members (chiefly regarding the prospect of noisy halls and classroom disruptions), I found myself drifting yet again into one of my Faculty Senate Council reveries. These students, I thought, look different from the shaggy sixties radicals of my own college days. The designated student spokesperson was tall and thin, with neatly trimmed blond hair and wire-rimmed glasses that would catch the overhead fluorescent light whenever he looked up from his notes: an image out of Orwell, I mused, or a casting director’s idea of an SS lieutenant.
He was flanked by a girl (I think) sporting a purple necktie and a turquoise-dyed mohawk. Among student radicals, the new look is rigid and brittle: either in-your-face freakiness or icy primness. Alas, with no military draft to galvanize a broader base, there is little traditional shagginess amongst the disgruntled.
Yet the language and the general demeanor haven’t changed: self-righteous clichés delivered with the perfect sangfroid of privileged youth unencumbered by a sense of limits or a capacity for shame. And while the Council members continued to compliment the students on their principled stance and to offer constructive criticism, I drifted further off, recollecting my own brief experience as a protester.
IT HAPPENED 17 YEARS AGO, WHEN I was an earnest kid of 40 and only ten years into my teaching career. In the last week of the fall quarter, I had just left a classroom ten minutes early, allowing my students time to complete the quarter-end ritual of filling out Scantron evaluation cards, which a student volunteer would collect and turn over to the department.
The cards contain a dozen formulaic statements about the teacher’s performance (mainly on whether the teacher appears to know what he/she is talking about and whether the teacher is nice to his/her students), with number-two pencil bubble-in scores ranging from 5 (terrific) down to 1 (rotten).
The practice of anonymous student evaluations began in the early seventies under pressure from sixties campus radicals — the old-fashioned shaggy kind, many of whom now run the colleges and universities. By the time I started teaching, the practice was firmly in place, a policy routine protected by bureaucratic habit. For ten years I had given the practice scant thought, until that fall quarter, when one of my students followed me out of the classroom.
She was my best student that year, the star performer in a fairly difficult Latin class of 15 students. When I cracked a lame joke about her evaluations being faster even than her translations, she shrugged and told me she doesn’t do evaluations. I asked why. In less than a minute, she ticked away her objections to the practice, politely declined to be manipulated by the school, thanked me for a good course, and left me staring into the middle distance.
It was neither the first nor the last time that a serious student would set me straight on a topic I was muddled about. The objections now seem obvious. First, the Scantron statement-questions are implicitly accusatory, and therefore leading; second, the cards are indiscriminate, giving the conscientious student and the sullen slacker equal say about the teacher’s performance; and third (my favorite), the anonymous character of the evaluations violates the teacher’s Sixth Amendment protection against false accusation.
With my consciousness thus inadvertently raised, I began taking these objections to meetings of the English department, where I had a joint appointment and where the students (unlike those in classics) are of a dangerously varied quality. The responses lurched from the cynical (“Your evaluations are among the highest in the department, so what difference does it make to you?”) to the stupid (“We evaluate the students — why shouldn’t they evaluate us?”) to the craven (“We need to be challenged constantly by the students to improve our performance”) to the oblique (“I always try to be my best during the last week of class”). No one ever responded directly to the objections. After a year or so, I gave up.
Thus did I grow sad in my Faculty Senate Council reverie. My first efforts at protest had been for naught; my moral witness had pooped out. The only achievement of my heroic protestations was a bit of crank status and new meaning for the old expression “shoveling sand against the tide.” End of argument, end of protest. The practice of anonymous student evaluations is time-honored among the toniest institutions, eagerly sought after by faculty, intermittently convenient to administrators, fully endorsed by accrediting agencies.
Yes — and another shaggy bouquet handed down with love from the radicals of the sixties, I thought darkly, waking from my reverie as the student delegation trooped out of the Faculty Senate Council meeting, with scattered applause from the Council members.
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