Faithful BloggEd readers (both of you) may recall that a few weeks back I embarked on a series of posts on what I don’t like about my job. I wrote two of them (about department meetings and correcting papers) and embarked on the third. The more I wrote, the more it seemed like a proper essay, rather than a blog post. So when I was done, I submitted it to the Review section at Chronicle of Higher Education. My editor said she liked it. But some of her colleagues, she reported, thought “it seemed more like a blog post than an essay.”
That allowed me to respond with an expression I had always wanted to use, but never had the opportunity: “It is what it is.”
Ultimately, they accepted it, and it appears in the current issue, under the title “Why I Hate Annual Evaluations.” You need a subscription to read it, and for those who don’t have one, I reprint it below. But first let me respond to a couple of the Comments received by the Chronicle. Some readers took my slam of annual evaluations to be a slam at unions, specifically the American Association of University Professors, of which I am a member. Nothing could be farther from my mind. Second, a couple of comments took the line, who am I to complain, given the the fact that I have a teaching job, and UD professors got a 4 percent raise last year, and we have pretty substantial minimum salaries. No argument here—and I credit the AAUP for the last three.
WHY I HATE ANNUAL EVALUATIONS
“There are three things I don’t like about my job. Two of them are pretty obvious and completely unoriginal: correcting papers and attending department meetings. The third thing is somewhat obvious as well, but I hesitate to name it, for fear that it will make me look whiny.
“However, that battle has probably already been lost, so here goes: I hate my annual evaluation.
“To the extent that this evaluation is necessary, it is because of the collective-bargaining agreement between the University of Delaware and our campus chapter of the American Association of University Professors. As long as I’ve been here—going on 18 years—the agreement has divided our annual pay raises into two parts. The first part is across the board. This year our raise was 4 percent, of which 1.5 percent was across the board, meaning, for example, that a full professor making the minimum salary of about $85,000 got a raise of about $1,275.
“The other part of the raise is based on “merit,” and it works as follows. The average faculty salary is calculated. Say it is $100,000. Every unit gets a pot of cash equivalent to 2.5 percent, or $2,500, multiplied by the number of faculty members in the unit. In my unit, the English department, that would be roughly 50 bodies. The chairman of the department evaluates each professor’s performance. The professor who is precisely in the middle gets a $2,500 merit raise. Those rated higher will get more, those rated lower will get less, but the average merit raise has to be $2,500.
“In other words, no department can be a Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average.
“On paper, this all seems reasonable, and I freely admit that part of my outsized resentment of the process stems from my own quirks. It requires a lot of paperwork and rewards good record keeping. I despise paperwork and am truly terrible at record keeping. (It is a cruel twist of fate in my world that evaluation time and tax time arrive together.) My early experience in the working world taught me that I also deeply and irrationally resent being judged by a boss, which is probably the main reason why, before becoming an academic, I was a freelance writer and thus my own boss. Now here I am being evaluated by the department chair, who isn’t really my boss, but at this point the difference seems negligible.
“But I maintain that some of my gripes have objective merit. American colleges and universities, including the University of Delaware, still view faculty members as a group of scholars and teachers devoted to and bound by self-instilled standards of excellence. Tenure, as long as it continues to exist, must and does require evaluation. But—crucially—at Delaware and elsewhere, that evaluation and judgment are performed not by the chair but by one’s peers (ultimately ratified or not, to be sure, by provosts, presidents, and other higher-ups).
“For faculty members who will eventually go up for tenure, it definitely makes sense to get input from as many sources as possible, so I’ll grant that for them an annual evaluation by the chair makes sense. But for tenured faculty members? No—at least not the way we do it at my university.
“Every year around this time, we submit our materials—publications, syllabi, evidence of service, and so forth—and fill out a Web form. The chair, who has meanwhile received copies of students’ evaluations of our teaching, rates all of us on a scale of 1 (the worst) to 9 (the best) in scholarship, service, and teaching. Different percentages are accorded to each area based on an elaborate formula, but generally speaking, for tenured and tenure-track professors, scholarship counts for roughly 50 percent, teaching 40 percent, and service 10 percent.
“The whole thing is undignified and unseemly. What, exactly, is the difference between a 5 and 7 in service? Number of committees served on? Hours spent? Scholarship is even more thorny, because as everyone knows, an article does not equal an article. Do two short articles in PMLA equal a New York Review of Books mega-essay, or do I have to throw in a draft choice and a player to be named later? Number of words produced and place of publication are important, to be sure, but quality trumps them both. And how can our chair be expected to judge the quality of the work of every faculty member, some of whom work in fields very different from his? The answer is he can’t.
“Evaluating teaching has its own well-documented set of problems. We honor faculty autonomy to the extent that evaluators are not welcome in another professor’s classroom, and we are still a good distance away from giving students No Child Left Behind tests that would “assess” the extent to which a certain course has achieved its “goals.” That’s well and good, but it doesn’t leave much as a basis for judgment. There are syllabi and the narrative Teaching Statements we provide each year, and sometimes the evidence of a new course devised and designed, but the main thing used to assess teaching are student evaluations. Those have some value, but they are most assuredly not the whole story when it comes to the quality of one’s teaching. If they were, we might as well outsource the whole process to RateMyProfessors.com.
“The unseemliness multiplies when my colleagues (as they often do) complain loudly and frequently about the marks they have gotten. I would be embarrassed to tell you how many laments I have listened to along the lines of, “I published a book, and he only gave me a 7!” I would bet our students don’t kvetch as much about their grades.
“And what are the consequences of our evaluations? In the 50-40-10 scholarship-teaching-service ratio, the difference between a 7 and a 9 rating in scholarship is about $540 a year. After taxes, that comes out to maybe $400 a year, or $8 a week. Not only is that not much, but for almost everyone, it gets evened out over time; some years, you can expect to get maybe a little lower rating than you “really” deserve, some years a little higher. For this my colleagues gnash their teeth and lose sleep?
“Several years ago, I came up with another way to evaluate faculty performance, based on the understanding that we all expect excellent work from ourselves and one another. Take the average merit raise and give almost everyone in the department a raise slightly lower than that; in the example I’ve been working with, that could be $2,300. That way, a handful of colleagues who publish major books or get major awards or stellar teaching evaluations can receive a slightly higher raise. And if a couple of people are blatantly not carrying their weight, they can get a little less.
“I proposed my idea at a department meeting, and it was summarily shot down. My explanation for this is Freud’s notion of the narcissism of small differences—our need to exaggerate the minimal distinctions between ourselves and people very much like ourselves.
“Even as I write, we are negotiating our next collective-bargaining agreement. Word on the street is that salaries will be frozen for next year. If that happens, I will be secretly glad, and you know why: It could very possibly mean no annual evaluation!”