What College Freshmen Taught Me About My Teaching

Relative to other institutions, the teaching load at my university is heavy. I embrace this because, quite simply, I love teaching. The two external indicators I have of my teaching quality (i.e., student evaluations via a scantron sheet and observations by colleagues/department chair) have been favorable, with one exception: the students’ evaluations of my freshmen seminar.

My freshmen seminar was a course about contemporary art required for freshmen art or art education majors. I knew going in to the semester that the primary thing my students would learn (often through repeated failure) was not about contemporary art, but about how to be responsible in a university environment that grants them more autonomy than they’ve ever had as a learner. This class was difficult for the students who were not used to open-ended assignments, reflecting on their learning, and managing their time outside of class. They sometimes felt I was being unfair and responded with indignation.
Yet, I felt like I taught this class more effectively than all others this past semester. I spent sleepless nights wondering how to most effectively engage them. I pushed them to reconcile their freedom with responsibility, and gave them challenging assignments. We had conversations in class about gender, sexuality, culture, and other potentially uncomfortable topics as they related to the contemporary art with which we engaged. There were moments of intense aggravation in which students were actively redefining their world views in light of other people’s perspectives. When I think about all of these things, I care less that they gave me the worst evaluations I have ever received because I believe the experience that I gave them was one of significant learning and of value. This is a risk critical educators take, and my freshmen taught me how strongly I feel the risk is worth taking.
So, in this new year, I feel at peace with the idea that my standards for good teaching may not be shared with my students, or always reflected in my evaluations. I vow to teach for learning (of content and otherwise) rather than for evaluations. However, in this time of increased accountability experienced by K-12 and higher educators alike, I will have to find ways to negotiate my own internal ideas about effectiveness with the external indicators if I want to keep my job. This will be my true test – whether my strong conviction that learning includes provocation and disruption can somehow still result in positive teaching evaluations, and in continued employment.