No Chili Peppers

shotsfiredThere’s a bit of a controversy brewing in social media over a new review essay published in the our field’s main peer review periodical, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, on the book, On Teaching Religion, edited by Chris Lehrich and containing some of the writings on pedagogy by Jonathan Z. Smith.

The reviewer, a onetime student of Smith’s, reflects on her own experience in his classes, as an undergrad at the University of Chicago in the late-1990s, in order to identify the gaps (i.e., inconsistencies or maybe even contradictions) she now finds, looking back, between the teacher and the writer.

While I’ve expressed my views on problems that I find with the essay directly to the author and also to the journal’s editor, and while I’ve posted a thing or two in response to social media discussions about it, for the purposes of our Department’s blog (which is obviously read by quite a variety of people, from current and past students to people from who knows where who somehow stumble across it online), I’d like to offer up an assessment not of someone else’s professional skills in service of my argument but my own skills — at least as others assess them — as a way into the problem of what one does, as a scholar, with experiential disclosures (in this case, of former students).

For professors all get teaching evaluations each semester, presumably — but what do you do with them, whether they’re written by a 19 year old Business major who took your course to gain a general education credit or someone thinking back on those classes 15 years later?

Of course you can easily find me online among those professors who, at a variety of web sites, have been rated by former students. What’s more, it is very easy to find complaints among them reviews — this one (which gets the course number wrong, by the way) is currently the one at the top of the list (click to enlarge):

teachingeval2But dig a bit, through the ones that, on the contrary, tell you my tests were far too easy or that recommend going to my classes (sage advice), along with the one that reveals that I’m a bullshitter who loves the sound of my own voice, and you will find this:

teachingeval1So, I’ll repeat my question: what does one do with all this? Or, better put, what does one make of other people’s claims of experience? Does all this tell you something about me and my competencies or, with a nod to reader response theory, is it all about the student, the reviewer, and his/her competencies? And what do I make of the gap — not the one that might exist between what I may practice or preach (for I’m likely terribly inconsistent on who knows how many scores) but, instead, the one between competing, even contradictory experiences of me as teacher?

Looking through those teaching evaluations that we are each given at the end of every semester — you know, the ones that can range from detailed comments (whether positive or negative) to remarks on how we dress (in my experience as a Chair, male profs get those pretty infrequently) or even complete blanks when it comes to the qualitative comments — what does one do with the comments, the reports of experience, the gaps in perception and, dare I say, the varying levels of customer satisfaction…? Given the number of academic friends on Facebook who annually seem to share the following utterly sarcastic article from The Onion

onion— I may have my answer…

But let me press on nonetheless: are we offended, pleased, or (as with those posting that 1996 Onion article) apparently indifferent — because we know it’s not about us — if we fail to earn a chili pepper because we’re not judged “hot”?

hotAnswering that question may help me to figure out what to do when, as a scholar reading a peer reviewed journal in my field, I come across an essay reviewing a book — a classification made by the journal, I’ve learned, not the review’s author — based on a memory of undergraduate experiences of a teacher who also writes on teaching.

4 thoughts on “No Chili Peppers

  1. As the author of the piece to which Russ refers, I thought I’d write with one or two thoughts in response to this helpful post. What I mean by helpful is that I think Russ gets at the heart of our disagreement (his and mine) over the content of my essay. Russell worries that my experience as a student — singular, contextual, subjective — is a poor piece of evidence to consider the work of a teacher. Here, the work of the particular teacher in question is two different but interrelated things: Smith’s work as a scholar who has also published periodically about teaching itself (these writings comprise the volume, edited by C. Lehrich, that were my point of reflective departure); and Smith’s work in the actual classroom as a teacher. I explain in my article that I, too, worry about contributing to a Rate My Professors world of one-off appraisals. But I endeavor to write a piece that imagined what a truly valuable student evaluation would be like. Why did I endeavor to do something that was so fraught? I think the classroom is a critical public space; I think humanities faculty have a role-specific obligation to be as thoughtful as possible about this space; I think teaching is our final good as intellectuals. And (amid all this idealism) I should say: I think most evaluations written by students about that space are not equal to its complexity. This does not mean, however, that I think student evaluations are themselves useless.

    And I worry that Russ does this student evaluations are useless — or, perhaps more accurately, that he thinks they can only ever be acts of self-regard. On that point, he and I profoundly disagree. I think student evaluations — like all genre of writing — can offer phenomenal spaces of hermeneutic work. I think I offered such an act of interpretation about my time with Jonathan Smith. But I welcome counter-claims regarding the given data. I welcome other students of Smith to do the work I did to write this evaluation: review every available document pertaining to the relevant courses; ask for classmates to share their notes and reflections; read interviews with the teacher about their work, their teaching, and their writing; ask your teacher what they think teaching does, and who they think the student is relative to that work; and review contemporaneous literature about teaching to understand its political, institutional, and sociological contexts.

    Finally — and perhaps most importantly — think about yourself as a student (singular, contextual, subjective) and your teacher as your teacher (singular, contextual, subjective). Figure out what role you played in the construction of pedagogy under question. Ask yourself what the best intention of the course was, what the best intention of your teacher was, and think about what your contribution was to the fulfillment of those syllabi principles and pedagogical spaces.

    I think a difference between Russ and I is that (a) I think any document resulting from such work by a student is well worth reading, and respecting, no matter the evaluative conclusions; (b) I think, if written carefully and thoughtfully about a leading figure in the field (in clear relation to the work they do in their field), it is worth reading by more than just the teacher in question. If for no other reason than to prod all of us to ask: Who am I in that classroom? Why do I do what I do? What is my concept about the relationship between myself and the other people in that room? How is this concept connected to my concepts of religion, power, gender, modernity, knowledge, race, and economics? To think about answers to these questions is not to make a final verdict about anyone’s teaching. Rather, it is to continue the process in which I hope we are all engaged, namely to become better servants to the communities of learning to which we belong, and with which we hopefully, also, always evolve.

    • Nice to see you on our Department blog.

      You’ll notice that I make no claim as to the value of the reports of experience that we call student evaluations (did I say I don’t read them…? Did I say I don’t do anything with the gap…?) — instead, I provided two provocatively juxtaposed e.g.s as to my own skills, not those of another, and then inferred what others may think of this gap, if they were to be honest, by the vicarious effect I see accomplished by that Onion article that keeps popping up on my Facebook newsfeed at the end of every semester (posted by faculty friends at various schools). But you’ll be hard pressed to find any re-posting of it that I’ve done…. So I think you may be over-reading my piece a little, since, from where I sit, I’ve led readers to an sharp edge and then posed a question for *them* to answer for themselves; so I think you jumped the gap yourself and provided an answer for me which I don’t recognize as my own.

      But now that I see your comment, I’m unsure what to make of your reference to “the actual classroom,” for Smith has taught me much more than almost anyone else, but almost exclusively through reading (the other part is through chit chat or correspondence, not through a class). That is, in your original piece and now here I see an interesting distinction between the teacher and the writer, understood not as a mutually self-informing binary but where the former is the authoritative reference point by which to judge the latter. “The actual classroom”… Maybe we ought to be celebrating the heights to which an author can rise, and thereby influence others’ classes well beyond the reach of his/her own classroom’s walls, instead of either documenting or lamenting the shortcomings or contradictions of the teacher — that is, I think the difference between us is not that you read and respect student evaluations and I do not (your final paragraph opens by more than implying this difference) but, instead, that I find selves to be rather more complicated (making that gap of my blog post a real challenge to deal with), teaching to pervade everything that we do (like writing a blog post on teaching evaluations which I have no doubt my own students will read), and that I take/celebrate inspiration where I can find it, recognizing that we’re all pretty flawed but fascinating nonetheless.

  2. Russ, I’m a big fan (as were many of my Tarheel chums) of your Studying Religion site (, so this blog just extends my own admiration for the UA religious studies conversation.

    As to your particular point: I could not agree more that authors and their texts supply a genre of teaching. I think it is clear from your and my published writings that we are both students in this way of Smith’s. In addition to this kind of teaching, there is also still the teaching of the classroom as a space authorized, allocated, and regulated by institutions. Smith has had a lot to say about that as a particular place in intellectual life, as do I. I know that you do, too, and I look forward to what you do see on the other side of that sharp edge, for yourself and your communities of teaching. I know Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin keep a blog about teaching to which you contribute, and I look forward to your posts there (for those who don’t know it: With best wishes for a summer of doubtlessly multiple sites of pedagogy — KL

    • The particularly nice thing about that site is that, so far at least, its contributors quite obviously all drip with Jonathan’s influence.

      Maybe the testament to his work is that no one seems to be judging anyone else’s consistency between author and teacher coz no one else never wrote anything much about undergraduate teaching, all instead aspiring to work with the coin of the realm, grad students, in order to make their mark on the field, and so we never developed any expectations that we wanted them to live up to. We just took what we got and happily moved on, hoping they’d at least write us one generic reference letter to live in our dossier and never be updated since they’re so busy and important.

      Disappointment, then, is the mark of being inspired….

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