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If a professor is very famous for his research and belongs to the most prestigious academies of science for his lifetime work, I find it unusual that the math department would ask us to evaluate him. We did so anyway and submitted the evaluations to the director of academic affairs.

Is this typically done at most American universities, irrespective of a professor's age, status or fame? I would think that after a certain point in a professor's career, student evaluations aren't necessary.

Is it sort of a sanity check? He was 85 years old. Is it done to try and find reasons to force retirement of professors?

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    Maybe they want to evaluate something other than his fame. – clueless Aug 23 '16 at 10:19
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    In every university I've known in the US, students submit evaluations of their professors and courses every semester, irrespective the course level or the professor's rank. Now, whether anyone pays attention to said evaluations may indeed depend heavily on those factors. – user0721090601 Aug 23 '16 at 11:34
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    A more charitable formulation of "...to try and find reasons to force retirement..." is "...so that we notice when, due to old age, someone is no longer able to teach effectively and should not be asked to do so anymore..." – zwol Aug 23 '16 at 15:43
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    In the US it would be more unusual not to do the normal course evaluations. Why do you think that this professor should be given a special accommodation? – Ukko Aug 23 '16 at 19:13
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    Once you start with "he is exempt from evaluation because he is famous", five more people will step up and ask "Am I not famous enough to be exempt, too?". It is much, much easier to have a blanket rule "everyone should be evaluated, no matter what". – Federico Poloni Aug 24 '16 at 12:16
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I'm in Australia, and from my experience, almost every unit is evaluated every semester that it runs in pretty much all Australian universities. There might be a few exceptions, but this is just standard practice. The standard survey consists of a bunch of closed ended questions and then some open ended questions for more qualitative feedback.

From this perspective, there's nothing special about whether the instructor is a famous professor or a relatively unknown academic. Student evaluations are just a standard component of university life. It would be strange to make an exception, just because the professor is famous.

More generally, student evaluations serve a wide range of purposes and the relevance of most would not change whether or not the instructor is a famous professor. Such evaluations give the instructor feedback about how the unit was received by students. It can highlight areas for improvement. From a university perspective, it creates some accountability and some metrics that can be monitored.

Of course, there are also plenty of issues with student evaluations. And there is the potential if they are used inappropriately that they can create perverse incentives for instructors: e.g., simplifying education, grade inflation, and so on in order to have "happier students". But that's another issue.

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Being a good teacher and being a good researcher are distinct skills. If someone has a job that requires both skills, they should be being evaluated on both.

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    Teachers also get lazy over the years. Evaluations do their job of keeping a minimum level of professionality in classes. – image Aug 23 '16 at 10:15
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    This addresses why a famous researcher gets some evaluations, at least in the beginning, but not why it happens every semester forever. The answer to that is in part "blanket university policies" addressed in other answers, but I also think in part because universities want to give all students equal opportunities to provide feedback on their experiences. – Kimball Aug 23 '16 at 10:40
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    When I was in school I had a brilliant mathematician as a prof. Undergrad calculus was like childs play to him and I think he really enjoyed teaching the class. Unfortunately, his students didn't enjoy his teaching because he was one of those people who lacked the skills necessary to be a good teacher. Many a sleepless night I spent contemplating my future on the assembly line. Next quarter I took the "calculus for dummies" track, got the assistant dean of the math department, and learned everything I should have learned earlier. This guy could teach! – Bob Jarvis - Reinstate Monica Aug 23 '16 at 23:11
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    @Kimball I think you should read the answer as describing evaluation of someone's current teaching skills, on the courses they're currently teaching. To get that information, you have to keep evaluating forever. – Cascabel Aug 24 '16 at 0:22
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    @KonradRudolph my impression is that it has more to do with not having to decide who needs evaluation and who does not, and to avoid hurting sensibilities or being accused of discrimination or whatnot. The truth is a top researcher can probably have disastrous student evaluations and that would have 0 consequence to her or him. – Cape Code Aug 24 '16 at 15:24
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Is this typically done at most American universities, irrespective of a professor's age, status or fame?

Yes. It's likely a required process of the administration, as negotiated in the faculty contract. It's probably not something your department has any say over; and in a case such as you describe, the resulting product is likely to be mostly ignored.

It's probably not worth anyone's time to hammer out every imaginable exceptional case to such procedures (the faculty contract and handbook, outlining procedures, is usually already mind-bendingly long). This is what work is like in a large institution; rules apply to all, and have many stakeholders, and not everyone gets their every whim or convenience satisfied.

  • I was about to say that it's very rare for tenure stream faculty to be in unions in the US, but I clicked through to your profile and see you're at one of the three universities with faculty unions that came to mind. Of course, your main point holds true regardless. – Noah Snyder Aug 24 '16 at 13:44
  • @NoahSnyder: Thanks, although this article at Times Higher Education says 28% of all faculty were unionized in 2011, so I'm not sure that counts as "very rare". I conjecture that if we only counted tenured faculty it would be higher? -- timeshighereducation.com/news/… – Daniel R. Collins Aug 24 '16 at 14:18
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    I thought adjunct unions were much more common than tt unions, though I admit I could be wrong. Also I know very little about community colleges, which are going to make a huge difference in the raw numbers, but not be relevant to the question. – Noah Snyder Aug 24 '16 at 19:05
  • @NoahSnyder: Anyway, I edited out the "union" modifier. It was news to me that's a minority of faculty; thank you for that observation. – Daniel R. Collins Aug 24 '16 at 19:52
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That "Regular Full-time Tenured Faculty ... Shall be evaluated at least once in every three academic years" is part of my institution's faculty contract (collective bargaining agreement). I doubt this is an unusual provision. If they are public, check out the terms under which your professors work!

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I have known professors who with good justification were extremely famous for brilliant research done in the past, but (a) they were hopeless lecturers, and/or (b) they were clearly in decline and not keeping up with the latest developments in the field: in some cases even teaching ideas that were now superseded.

  • Not completely relevant, as evaluations written by undergraduate students are unlikely to be able to assess whether superseded material is being taught. – Ben Voigt Aug 25 '16 at 18:45
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When newer faculty members come up for tenure, their teaching evaluations are compared against the department average. So, it makes sense to administer the same questionnaire to everyone to obtain the full population sample as a baseline.

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Let's follow that thought for a bit:

Your goal is to only evaluate the bad teachers, but not the good ones.

How do you tell the bad teachers from the good ones? I suggest you use evaluations. Any other suggestions are welcome.

Because some people who run universities think that way, student evaluations are often somewhat standardized and required for all teachers.