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Dr. Sean Homer on Professor Evaluations and Teaching

Written on:April 21, 2012
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from Homer's personal archive

Dr. Sean Homer has been a member of the English department at AUBG for two academic years now. He teaches five different classes and has already been acknowledged by the student community as one of the “cool” professors at AUBG. The student evaluations of teaching in the SG website also give him the thumbs up. On these grounds the professor gave an interview, about the SG website evaluations, and about his work here, under the condition that none of the actual comments will be discussed.

The comments posted so far are favorable to him, but Homer is not a supporter of the SG evaluation page, at least in the form that it has now. “I am not opposed to evaluation per se. And what you have to keep in mind is that we are evaluated continuously,” he started off. Our professors, as he explained, are evaluated by students every semester, then by colleagues and by the university administration every two years or so, finally by their peers, based on the academic research they are doing. So there is probably no other profession that is evaluated quite as much, and this is something Homer said he finds useful. But the “rate-your-professor website” is not the right way to do this, there is little or no editorial control, and it is anonymous. It is possible that one or just a few students are posting multiple comments, so a momentum builds up which can harm a professor’s reputation. Another problem he pointed out is that we do not know whether the people posting are the ones, who have actually taken the course. In the official evaluations you get a questionnaire when you are close to completing a course, and have a good sense of what it is about. Writing mid-semester evaluations on the Internet might be very far from reflecting what a particular class gives you in the end: “Particularly in 300 we conceptualize the course as a whole. I am trying to explore a set of ideas, not simply to give you information. As the course progresses things start making sense with time. I don’t expect you to know what I am doing right at the beginning.”

Homer said he was not entirely sure why we need such a website, when we talk amongst ourselves about classes, but even if we do “Then maybe you can make the argument that the formal evaluations should be made available.” The student government line is that the website improves communication, but communication is a dialogical process, there is no dialogue here and therefore no meaningful communication. Such open pages Homer considers to be leaving professors unprotected, since once you post something it becomes a part of the public domain and circulates, regardless of its truthfulness. This whole situation can be harmful to the student-professor relationship as well: “I turn up here everyday because I want to teach you something. If you start to publically evaluate everything I say this will change the relationship dramatically. I will start to be much more careful about what I say,” For example, I often make a joke to break the ice but they do not always work and “I am not entirely guarded every time I try to make jokes, if I feel like you are going to monitor me all the time, there will be spontaneity.” Also Professors might feel discouraged from experimenting and trying out new things on their courses, not every experiment works and to make interesting courses you have to take risks.

”For instance, the avant-garde manifesto assignment on my Modernism course – this assignment can produce really wonderful work, it can also go sadly wrong. If the online evaluations become an accepted source of information, classes will turn into playing safe, and doing the bare minimum, in order to not get publically slandered.”

A word is going around for Dr. Homer to be a tough grader and still many people sign up for his 300 and 400 level courses. The reason in Homer’s opinion is:

“I believe still that you come here to learn something. There was this discussion about quality of students going down. This argument has been around in the UK since the 1960s and 1970s when higher education was expanded to more people. Every decade apparently the quality of students has gone down. If this is true we must be teaching complete illiterates by now. This is a ridiculous argument to have, and one I am not particularly interested in.”

Apparently good courses are not supposed to be easy. Some of the negative remarks Homer has gotten in his official evaluations say that he does not take students’ opinions into account. “I believe that you’re here to learn something and you don’t mind being challenged. But at the same time if I challenge you it will also make you uncomfortable because I am not simply reassuring you in the beliefs you hold but making you think about them,” he explained, “all advanced classes should be uncomfortable and unsettling.” Homer further elaborated that university is not simply about transferring knowledge, since this is what we do in high school. At university students should become “critically-thinking people,” so while professors have a certain knowledge in their respective fields, they are also trying to teach us how to put this knowledge to use, to work conceptually and how to defend our positions.

from Homer's personal archive

Among the courses he teaches Homer singled out his Contemporary Balkan Cinema as his “favorite in many ways.” He has had an interest in European cinema since being a teenager, and was especially curious about Eastern European cinema. Homer has a family in Greece now, and that is where he was introduced to the Balkans as a whole. The Balkan Cinema class has been developed over 5 years, and it also now includes Bulgarian movies in its AUBG form. One of the reasons for becoming a professor, in Homer’s words is that you are constantly a student and are always learning about new things. “I want to know something about where I am. If you want to know about a place you read its literature and you watch its films. It is one way I find out a great deal about the cultures of the countries where I am,” he said.

With the Balkan Cinema course, especially teaching it in Greece,Cyprus and Bulgaria, Homer enjoys seeing the recognition of a shared past and culture in his students. “One of the things is the idea of the Ottoman footprint. This shared identity that you have all across the region,” Homer explained. Taking the course often shakes students up from their insular nationalist beliefs, and it must be an interesting experience.

At the moment Dr. Homer is working on a couple of papers, he will focus on these during the summer, because as he put it, when we leave the really hard work starts.

We still have add/drop week to come, so think carefully about your sources of course feedback. The SG website, or maybe not?

 

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