Like most college professors, I have my students evaluate my classes at the end of each term. Students often assume we are required to do this for every class, but in fact, we have choice over how often we do it, and for which classes. I do it for most.
Generally, I’m proud of the responses I get. I’ve worked enormously hard at my teaching over the past twenty years, and it has paid off. Which is why the evals for one of my spring classes came as a surprise. While some of the 18 students gave the class rave reviews, others were lukewarm, and some disliked the class—a lot. This isn’t what I’m used to, and it’s not what I expect of myself.
Of course, student evaluations aren’t everything—I take many other things into consideration when I’m designing a class, not the least of which is my own experience. Besides, what students enjoy doing or think they should be learning isn’t always in their best interest. Still, student input is an important piece of the puzzle, and something I take seriously.
But this blog isn’t about teaching. It’s about criticism, and more specifically, it’s about discernment, which I believe is the most important tool we have in dealing with criticism, whether of our teaching, our writing, or any other work we do in the world.
Disapproval often feels like a single large block. Discernment breaks up that block, takes it apart, and considers each piece separately. To show what I mean, here is how I’m applying discernment to my students’ evaluations of my spring course. It centers around three questions:
1. What is valuable here? All criticism is not created equal. I don’t pay any attention to the rants or bizarre suggestions I get from time to time. I do pay attention to the thoughtful comments that point out things I could have done better. Those comments are invaluable. But they have to be separated out before their value becomes apparent.
2. What can I learn from this? This question goes beyond merely, “I shouldn’t have assigned such-and-such,” or “I need to give better feedback.” There are other, more important, lessons to be learned, such as:
I can’t assume that I’ve reached my peak as a professor (or writer or anything)—I can still improve even after all this time.
Sometimes I’m going to mess up, even when I think I’m doing well.
Even when I actually am doing well, not everyone is going to agree.
Teaching (like writing) never stops being hard.
3. How should I apply what I learn? I can’t—and shouldn’t—make every change students suggest. I won’t even make most of them. I’ll use the ones that make sense and that work for my teaching style, and shelve the rest.
Above all, I need to work inside the bounds of who I am as a professor and a person.All of these suggestions work for writing as well. In fact, discerning what is valuable and what is not in criticism can help us in any work we do that is subject to other people’s opinions, from cooking a meal to public speaking to trying to change the world.
Like this post? Read more at Writing as a Sacred Path.
Causes Jill Jepson Supports
Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, Interational Society for the Protection of Burros and Mustangs, National Wildlife Federation,...