Be Popular or Be Gone

Whether students like you may matter more than how much they learn.
By Athena Rayne Anderson

No matter how effective you are, or how passionate or innovative, popularity is the key. Educators on short-term contracts hear this message every semester when student evaluations come in (or fall on your head, which is how it always felt to me) and when they find out about informal student complaints during the semester. This common, though unofficial, directive to “be popular” is an increasing problem as money-making research in higher education has become more valuable than education itself. Contract educators have the heaviest instructional loads, but little effort goes into the fair evaluation of our teaching abilities at most institutions. Collectively we are like Atlas holding up the world, carry the weight of educating hundreds of thousands of students each year but find ourselves trapped on the edges of the academic community, with few opportunities for advancement and little job security.

My situation provides an example with which many will relate. I finished my PhD in 2012 and started my first full-time contract position the following January at a major university in Texas. Eager to flex my pedagogical muscles, I planned lab courses with a custom-designed manual, a student-centered approach, low- and high-stakes writing assignments, peer evaluations, clear guidelines, and thoughtful rubrics. My supervisor would be blown away by the learning I facilitated!

This didn’t happen.

Instead, my first semester was a kerfuffle of student complaints, plagiarism issues, and frequent conversations with my supervisor about “cutting off heads” when I should “only be slapping wrists.” I’ve often wondered if I would have been reprimanded if I were a man. Based on what I know now about sexism in student evaluations and promotion decisions, I doubt it. While all faculty on contingent appointments are at risk of suffering adverse consequences from student feedback, women who don’t fit the stereotype of the nurturing maternal figure are especially vulnerable.

My students thought nothing of emailing the provost to complain that I hadn’t allowed them to turn in their homework late, even though the syllabus permitted no late submissions. Every time I graded writing assignments, there were students who failed them because of plagiarism. One of the students tried to argue with me that her copying of text, verbatim, from a website was not actually plagiarism. The executioner analogy seemed inappropriate because my syllabus clearly outlined the course rules. I consider learning to follow instructions and taking responsibility for one’s actions to be crucial aspects of becoming an adult. If students haven’t learned to do either by the time they get to college—and many haven’t—I feel that it’s my duty to help them out. In this spirit, I’ve always spelled out my expectations in my syllabi and stuck to them.

I had asked my supervisor to look at my syllabus before I started teaching at this Texas university, explaining that I wanted to make sure my policies were similar to those of my colleagues. Apparently when he said, “This is fine,” he really meant, “I don’t care.” I taught there a total of three semesters before my job was eliminated in favor of creating a new tenure-track position. I only found out that I was losing my job in passing, three months before my last semester was over. “Oh, by the way, you’re homeless in three months. You didn’t get the memo?” My role at the university wasn’t important enough to warrant official notification with a reasonable amount of time to find a new job. Try finding in the spring a decent teaching position that starts in August. And you have to find one for that August, because you haven’t been making enough money to save for potential unemployment—if you’ve been making enough money to have a savings account at all.

Fortunately (at least for the sake of not being homeless), I did manage to secure a contract teaching position for that August, at a four-year university in Georgia. It was a one-year position that could potentially become permanent, teaching introductory biology lectures and a nutrition course. I really pulled out all the stops in my teaching because I wanted to be reappointed after my contract ended. I tried the flipped classroom approach, which I’d been eager to use, in my class of about 120 students. I talked about note-taking strategies for a few minutes every week to help students learn this important skill (I refused their demands for my lecture slides). We did “think-pair-share” exercises, discussed clearest and muddiest points, and designed test questions during class. I gave them group problem-solving assignments  to work on while I wandered around answering questions. Also during class, I used a free collaborative online concept-mapping site that I’d learned about at a conference to show them how to connect material throughout the semester.

This approach was innovative, wasn’t it? It sounds like fun, right? I wish my physics classes in college had been like this. The result was complaints from students that I wasn’t teaching them because I wasn’t lecturing. It didn’t matter that I had explained, on the first day of class, why I was doing it that way, and that they would learn more than they would from lectures. It didn’t matter that I had the doctoral degree and the special teaching training. Students didn’t see me as an authority, because the department and the university weren’t supporting me when students complained to them about my class. I was being undermined behind the scenes, in spite of the energy I had put into the course. My supervisor wasn’t interested in observing my class, so I asked one of my colleagues to sit in and give me feedback. She thought the session was great. The same thing happened at the university in Texas where  my supervisor wouldn’t give me feedback based on direct observation, but a colleague did and praised my methods. Unfortunately, not having a supportive recommendation letter from a supervisor makes it difficult to get a teaching position.

I started as a contract lecturer in biology at an Indiana research university in August 2015. I was responsible for teaching two large service courses with a total of about two thousand students each academic year. My initial contract was for ten months, annually renewable, and my chair informed me in December 2017 that my contract would not be renewed for the 2018–2019 academic year. This came as a complete shock to me, because I’d heard nothing about problems from my department during the semester. In fact, according to a senior colleague, my students had performed better on their midterm exams than students in the same course over the past decade. I was so sure things were going well that I bought my first home in October 2017. You know the worst part about that meeting was that my chair didn’t even have the nerve to tell me why my contract wasn’t being renewed. I had to beg for an explanation, which I received via email days later, as a list of things students had complained about during the semester.

My story is just one example of the ridiculous situation in which contract instructors find themselves. I’ve summarized the situation here in a simple list:

  • Today’s students of traditional college age have unrealistic expectations about their roles and those of their instructors.
  • Supervisors aren’t taking the time to provide observational feedback for contract instructors, so student evaluations are the only official measure of success.
  • Student evaluations are popularity reports rather than accurate evaluations of teaching effectiveness, so contract educators have to worry about their popularity instead of being able to focus on educating.
  • Administrators encourage students’ unrealistic expectations by dismissing instructors who don’t meet them, thereby perpetuating and worsening the situation.

If you have taught traditional-age college students in the past decade, you may have noticed that they have become increasingly entitled, hypersensitive to criticism, and reluctant to accept responsibility. They expect female instructors to be mother figures and demand special treatment and accommodations for their lack of responsibility and time management. They ask for extra assignments if they don’t like the grade they earned during the semester. These students want their averages “bumped up,” in spite of their poor performance, because they “really need this class to graduate.” My students thought nothing of walking in front of me while I lectured but complained that I was rude and unprofessional when I stopped talking to tell them to sit down. If I refused to extend deadlines for them, they accused me of being inflexible. Not providing review sessions (in addition to the pre-exam Q&A and supplemental instruction I did provide) earned me the designation of “unhelpful.”

Everything I’ve done in my classroom and all my course policies are based on research-driven methods of facilitating learning and my desire to help people learn how to think, manage their time, be considerate of others, and take responsibility for their decisions. I earned a special teaching certificate while working on my PhD and published an article on a successful lab redesign that I completed and implemented during that time. I’ve attended multiple conferences, symposia, and training seminars on the most effective teaching practices. I know how to facilitate learning, yet I was told by my department chair in 2015 to change my teaching format because students didn’t like it. Instead of being able to refine the innovative methods for which I thought I was hired, I was forced into practicing the least effective teaching method in existence (the lecture) for fear of losing my job. Alas, apparently even that concession didn’t make me popular enough to keep that job. Maybe carrying pom-poms and handing out trophies would have given me some job security, but after a semester I would have gone insane and become indifferent. (Hey! Maybe not caring is the trick!)

What would have allowed me to keep my job? What constituted success for a lecturer at this Indiana university? I tried to figure this out but couldn’t. There was no formal evaluation process in my department. After numerous meetings with my supervisors, I concluded that the quality of my work would be judged by hearsay (from student complaints to their advisers) and end-of-semester student evaluations. Neither of my supervisors witnessed my teaching in the last four semesters I was at this university, and I was told at some point that teaching observations were not part of the reappointment decision. I requested the DFW (drop, fail, withdraw) rates for my courses several times in an attempt to have something other than student evaluations to show for my work, but never received them.

If the highest midterm exam grades in ten years weren’t enough evidence of my effectiveness as an instructor, I wish someone would have told me what would have constituted such evidence. In addition to those higher grades, I was the first lecturer in my department’s history to design a study-abroad course and win an exploratory grant for that course. It would have been the second ever offered through the department. I was the first person, tenure-track or not, to complete the design and implementation of an online-only biology course with the distance education department. I also started using a spiffy adaptive learning technology from McGraw-Hill that allowed me to identify my most at-risk students. Nudging the department into the twenty-first century didn’t warrant entry into that cozy world of job security, either.

Nonrenewal of an instructor’s contract is essentially a dismissal, and everyone knows this. Not only was I unaware of problems during my last semester, but learning that my department wasn’t going to support me, and that I was losing my job because of unpopularity, was infuriating and insulting. Nonrenewal based solely on the complaints of students with unrealistic expectations only perpetuates those expectations. When institutions do this, they tell students, “It’s totally acceptable for you to interrupt lectures, blame the instructor for your poor performance, demand special treatment for your poor time management, and complain to your adviser that the class isn’t fair because you can’t get your way.” Nothing says, “We don’t value your work” like a lack of support.

Today’s students are the leaders, doctors, politicians, and workers of the future; if things continue as they are, this prospect is horrifying. Imagine doctors who blame everyone but themselves when their incompetence kills patients or lawyers who are more concerned with avoiding “triggering” the jury than the law itself. The policy of “the customer is always right” is becoming embedded in higher education to the point that students lobby for the grades they think they should get. A generation’s inflated sense of self-worth flourishes while they crush intellectual curiosity beneath their feet. The last university I worked for touts its ability to make things that “move the world forward.” If something doesn’t change, what they (and other universities) make will be tomorrow’s immature, entitled, rude, hypersensitive, intellectually stunted narcissists. The easiest way to avoid this is to stand firm behind instructors with measurable teaching success. Instead of collapsing under the pressure of student complaints, colleges and universities should educate students about the importance of taking responsibility for their actions, becoming better global citizens, and appreciating the instructors who devote themselves to improving their futures.

Athena Rayne Anderson is an ecologist with specialized training in university teaching. She is currently pursuing a career transition into the field of instructional design.