Art by Gabby DiGiovanni
At Pepperdine, professors regularly receive constructive criticism concerning their teaching abilities, whether it’s from peers, superiors, students or themselves. At a time when classes are taught exclusively online, professors still seek the input of students and peers to achieve learning outcomes.
Seaver College assesses professors based on their teaching abilities, service to the University and the community, their scholarly achievements and research, and how well they uphold the Christian values and mission at the center of Pepperdine, according to the Office of the Provost. Recently, however, some Pepperdine professors faced heightened criticism from the Instagram account @BlackAtPepperdine, which raises the question: How are faculty reviewed by Seaver College?
“Just about everybody at Pepperdine, including the president, gets reviewed,” Jay Brewster, divisional dean of Natural Science, said. “It really does matter that we’re doing a good job as teachers, and evaluating that carefully is, frankly, quite hard. It’s not an easy thing to measure success and failure without some really good data — it’s students, the materials and the professor‘s own critique of him or herself.”
To make sure professors are held to a high standard, they are continuously subject to many different types of reviews, Provost Rick Marrs said. Depending on their rank and how long they have worked at Pepperdine, professors may be subject to peer reviews, an overview of their course materials and examinations of any research they are working on or have completed. All professors are subject to student course evaluations.
“You have to demonstrate not only the quality of your teaching and how you’re assessing students, but you also have to demonstrate how you have improved in your career as a teacher,” Marrs said.
Course evaluations and feedback from students are especially important in 2020. The task of teaching remote courses presents a unique challenge to professors that may prove to be more difficult for some than others. Additionally, criticism shared via course evaluations or @BlackAtPepperdine or by approaching administration directly sheds light on racist or insensitive practices.
How Pepperdine Evaluates Professors
Every year, professors join their divisional dean for an annual review. During these meetings, professors have a chance to discuss themes that have come up in their course evaluations, and deans can point them toward resources to improve their teaching abilities, such as teaching conferences, faculty mentors and the Center for Teaching Excellence.
“It’s an opportunity for the divisional dean [to] have a really open and thorough conversation with the professor about how things are going in their class, things that are developing, things they’re working on, new pedagogical tools they’re using in the classroom,” Brewster said. “If something is clearly problematic, it’s a chance for the professor and the divisional dean to talk about a remedy and ways to get better.”
After three years at Pepperdine, a professor will go through a pre-tenure review, which involves other professors, the divisional dean and the Rank, Tenure and Promotion (RTP) committee. After a comprehensive review of a professor’s abilities, contributions and accomplishments, that professor will know if there is anything that may impede their chances of being awarded tenure, Brewster said.
“The three-year review is important because it tells the professor what the high points are in their progress to date and what the challenges are in their progress,” Brewster said. “At the pre-tenure review, [administration] can choose not to renew your position at Pepperdine.”
After six years, professors receive their tenure review, and they will then know whether they are being awarded tenure. During this time, professors provide sample syllabuses and exams from their classes, as well as anonymous writing samples from students so evaluators can see how that professor is providing constructive and thorough feedback, Marrs said. Evaluators also consider both qualitative and quantitative data from course evaluations.
“Review committees pay a lot of attention to student evaluations,” Marrs said. “If a professor scores low — if they do not get good course evaluations — getting promoted and certainly getting tenure is going to be incredibly difficult.”
Once professors are tenured, the RTP committee, administration and their peers may decide to evaluate them again. This assessment could result in a professor’s promotion from associate professor to university professor. University professors are subject to reviews every five years.
“Once you’re a full professor and you’ve made it through those early stages, there’s still an interest that you’re staying in touch with your discipline, doing a good job in the classroom, listening to [students’] feedback, that you’re teaching the class in a way that makes sense and is defensible,” Brewster said.
How Students Evaluate Professors
Pepperdine students use formal and informal channels to evaluate a professor’s performance. In addition to submitting course evaluations at the end of every semester, some students may also use the popular website Rate My Professors, where they can write anonymous reviews of professors and the courses they teach. Rate My Professors allows reviewers to rate professors on a five-point scale, with five being the best and one being the worst.
Senior Brighton Barnes said while she often looks for advice from older friends who have taken the same courses she needs to complete, she also utilizes Rate My Professors.
“It’s useful for figuring out which professor would help you the best and help you with your needs,” Barnes said. “That’s what I use it for — not who is the easiest. I like to see who’s going to help me the most and where I will learn the most.”
Senior Cammy Lowenfield has used Rate My Professors since her first year at Pepperdine and said she uses the website to find professors who seem to want to form a relationship with students.
“I always look for professors [whose reviews say] they really care about their students,” Lowenfield said. “Anyone who cares, even if their class is super hard, you will still like them as a person.”
Rate My Professors can be helpful, but it is not always the most accurate way to measure a professor’s teaching abilities, Barnes said.
“It is really opinionated,” Barnes said. “You could have a bad experience with a professor, and you can have a good experience with the same professor. And some of these are written four-plus years ago, and their teaching styles could have changed.”
Rate My Professors, as well as word of mouth, can provide an extreme range of reviews, making it difficult to determine a professor’s true capabilities, Lowenfield said.
“I have loved the majority of my professors, and I feel like at Pepperdine, it’s pretty skewed one way or the other: Either you love or hate,” Lowenfield said.
Lowenfield said she finds the course evaluations she fills out to be more reliable than Rate My Professors reviews. Lowenfield said she takes the time to write them for every professor she has and usually takes a more holistic look at each course.
“If I feel like if I have learned something and they were really trying to teach me, and maybe I just didn’t put in enough work, I still really appreciate them, I’ll still give them a good review,” Lowenfield said. “If I get a bad grade but feel like the professor cared about me, then I’m fine.”
Barnes said she tries to make sure her reviews on Rate My Professors are less anecdotal by ensuring other students in her class have had similar experiences.
“If I’m the only person facing problems, then I’m probably less likely to write one,” Barnes said. “But if a few other people and I are like, ‘Wow, this [professor] needs to change this,’ then I’m more likely to write one about them and tell people this is not the best decision.”
How Professors Evaluate Themselves
Receiving feedback from students is one of the best ways to judge his performance in the classroom, Brewster said.
Brewster said in addition to course evaluations at the end of the semester, he tries to give students a chance to evaluate him at least once a week during the course. This way, Brewster said he can be more proactive about making changes to help students.
“Weekly or biweekly, I just ask a couple of simple questions: ‘What’s working in this class? What’s a problem for you?’” Brewster said. “Probably the most important question is, ‘What can I do, as the professor, to help you succeed in this class?’ You get some really constructive and helpful comments, and that can be a real positive rather than waiting until the course is over.”
Communication Professor Jon Pfeiffer said he always incentivizes his students to complete course evaluations so he can get the highest participation rate possible. As an adjunct professor, Pfeiffer said he is not subject to the same kind of review system as other professors, so he relies heavily on student responses.
“It is really the only honest feedback you’re going to get because it’s anonymous,” Pfeiffer said.
Pfeiffer said he is aware of Rate My Professors and occasionally looks at it for a laugh, but it does not play a serious role in how he teaches. Pfeiffer said Rate My Professors is not dependable because anyone can write anything and there is no context to the reviews.
“This is Yelp for college,” Pfeiffer said. “The change I would make to Rate My Professors is not necessarily that the professor can respond but that the professor could put a paragraph up just explaining the class to put it in context.”
Students may not realize many Pepperdine professors constantly self-critique, Brewster said.
“When I work with senior faculty members who have been around a while, they’re their biggest critics,” Brewster said. “It’s really humbling to talk to them and realize how deeply they care about their classes. Even after a number of years, they still care about every criticism that students offer on their form and work really hard to get better at how they teach the class.”
Course Evaluations and COVID-19
Kendra Killpatrick, senior associate dean of Seaver College, said the course evaluations from the past spring — when classes transitioned online — were not included in the metrics collected for tenure and promotion, but they are still available for divisional deans to review to help professors improve this fall.
“Our faculty were not hired with the expectation they would be teaching online,” Killpatrick said. “We’re definitely using the spring [evaluations] to make sure that this fall is a really positive experience, but we’re not using them in the tenure and promotion procedure.”
Like normal semesters, students’ course evaluations from this fall will be used for assessing professors’ abilities and to help determine whether a professor will be promoted.
Lowenfield said she hopes students continue to be patient with professors because online learning is still an experience to which they are adjusting.
“It’s probably so hard because we didn’t sign up for this, but neither did they,” Lowenfield said. “Something to pay attention to on Rate My Professors is when someone took that class because if it’s during this time, maybe add some grace points.”
Follow the Graphic on Twitter: @PeppGraphic
Email Grace Wood: firstname.lastname@example.org