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I’m a sociology PhD student in the EU. Back in September, I started teaching a recitation class. My MSc is from another institution (which is also in another country – I moved from Finland to France...) and so I taught the recitation more or less how I was used to from my previous institution (with permission from the professor in charge – I didn’t do anything without consulting her first).

The problem began when I gave the students some bonus questions which could earn some extra points. As the semester ended I discovered how not only most students did not solve the bonus, but that they also expected me to give the extra points regardless (to which I refused).

To keep a long story short, they complained to everyone in our department about it, tarnishing me whenever they could – it even got to the head of department, who rebuffed them. Only that it didn’t end there. In the following semester I worked as a grader in a course with the same students, and they constantly appealed my grades – the reason, as I later learnt, is because a group of them decided to do whatever it takes to get me fired (their words, not mine). These bad teaching reviews and student complaints already cost me a job next semester. Also, most of these students are likely to still be undergrads in two-years’ time, so I can’t just wait it out until they graduate.

I have several questions:

  1. Is there anything you suggest I can do to get better teaching reviews? At the moment, I have no idea how to do it (and I doubt it’s even possible).

  2. Theoretically, I can take a semester off with no teaching. Personally, I wouldn’t mind skipping it altogether for the rest of my PhD – but I was told that if I’m to continue for a postdoc (let alone a permanent position), positive teaching reviews are a must have. Is it true?

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    From my experience applying for postdocs in Europe, they don't ask for teaching letters or teaching evaluations. But they do in the U.S.
    – Mehta
    Jul 26 '21 at 20:41
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    Interesting question; I suggested some minor edits for clarity. With respect to question #1: is your question how to teach generally, or how to rebuild your relationship with the students who hate you? Is there no possibility to teach different students (i.e., in a different year?). For question #2: what is your field (generally speaking)? And finally, I have a hard time believing that their hatred is based only on the extra credit incident; is it possible there were other issues (i.e., recitations they did not find helpful)?
    – cag51
    Jul 26 '21 at 20:43
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    Do you have any insight on how the positions got so entrenched? How did it escalate from a dispute in grading bonus questions to trying to get you fired?
    – pbaer
    Jul 26 '21 at 20:44
  • I assume you are asking about a post-doc at the same institution and a possible long term position there. If not, please clarify.
    – Buffy
    Jul 26 '21 at 20:45
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    Was the recitation section teaching your first time teaching one? Also, did you give students anything, in writing or via web site, indicating your expectations for them and you?
    – Ed V
    Jul 26 '21 at 20:46
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  1. You create a document with all grading and assessment requirements, deadlines, all tasks (including potential bonus points) before the semester starts.

  2. You discuss said document in class and upload/share the document to the course webpage, Facebook group, etc.

  3. You stick to it.


Note that there will always be groups that dislike you. You cannot do much about it except treat them fairly and avoid them as much as possible (in later semesters).

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Is there anything you suggest I can do to get better teaching reviews? At the moment, I have no idea how to do it (and I doubt it’s even possible).

You have already stated that you know what went wrong initially, and you have described the problem in detail, so obviously yes, there is something you can do to get better reviews in future. Take the thing you described that went wrong in the first instance and reflect on how to make it better; either decide it is already okay and the student complaints were baseless, or change it so that it works better, or remove it from the assessment.

Regarding the follow-up actions of these students to tarnish you and get you fired, assuming your description is accurate, that is an incredibly immature and nasty reaction to a disagreement over assessment, and any halfway decent department would not take their childish tantrum seriously. If your description of the matter is accurate, the fact that you lost a teaching job over it is poor form, and you should consider whether you want to continue in a department that is that craven. (And of course, if your description is incomplete then you should also reflect here; why did a disagreement over assessment grading escalate into a campaign to get you fired? Is there anything you did wrong that you are not including?)

My advice here would be to stay calm, self-reflect objectively on your own teaching work and the problems that arose, and make any required changes. If you are having ongoing trouble with a particular group of students then you should seek teaching work in courses that are not at their year level (e.g., keep teaching the same year level courses after they have moved on to higher level courses).

Theoretically, I can take a semester off with no teaching. Personally, I wouldn’t mind skipping it altogether for the rest of my PhD – but I was told that if I’m to continue for a postdoc (let alone a permanent position), positive teaching reviews are a must have. Is it true?

Teaching experience is useful for any academic position that has a teaching component, but the expectations on fledgling academics are usually not high. Admissions committee members differ in the weight they give to teaching, and the expectations they have in terms of quality, trajectory, etc., so any advice here will be speculative. It is important who told you about the necessity for positive teaching reviews and what basis they have for the claim --- was it some random student who has no idea what they are talking about, or was it the Head of Department telling you the admission requirements (or something in between)?

In regard to your title question, ceteris paribus, bad teaching reviews are worse than good teaching reviews, and if you only have bad reviews then that could negatively affect an application for any position with a teaching component, since it shows that you have never had a successful teaching experience. As general advice, I recommend you get back on the horse if you can. Try to get some teaching work in a course that does not include the problematic students, and have another go at refining your teaching. Treat it like you would with any academic skill --- instead of avoidance, get back in the saddle and practice. Many academics will not expect you to get good teaching reviews early in your training, but they will expect you to confront problems and work on improving weaknesses.

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For the topline question, yes, it can effect the chances for some, but not all, postdocs. It depends on whether the postdoc is exclusively research focused or broader. For many postdocs, there is no teaching expectation. Moreover, it would be expected that almost all candidates are novices when it comes to teaching.

But, it is very (extremely?) unlikely that your student teaching reviews would be shared with any potential employer. Your teaching might be mentioned in a letter of recommendation if the job had a strong teaching focus. But you have some influence over that.

If you are "hated" by a group of students, but the head is aware of the issue and is supportive of you, then you probably have no issues, though I don't understand why you "lost" a teaching slot.

As to the broader question of getting better reviews, I'd rather suggest that you do a couple of things to improve your teaching. One is to visit the courses/sections of one or more other students or (preferably) experienced faculty and focus on how those courses are run and the interactions with students.

Another is to ask a skilled instructor to visit your class occasionally and give you some informal feedback afterwards. In some places this is actually a formal requirement. But they might notice things that you don't. If you do well in their eyes they might be convinced to write a supportive note to the head.

One last thought is that you discuss the issue (and that group of students) with others in your same circumstances. Perhaps their experience is similar and perhaps they might have some advice.

I was once in a vaguely similar situation, but earned the support of the dean who supported my efforts to improve student learning. The students in question had become a bit lazy through lack of challenge. The dean looked over my shoulder for a bit before giving full support, as is natural.

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