Unfortunately, not every Robin Williams is hired under equal circumstances, and the failures of an institution that promotes inequality will sometimes look like the failures of Robin Williams. Some are well paid, able to live and retire comfortably, a class of individuals closely portrayed by the Robin Williams of Good Will Hunting, insulated from the student body but able to take a keen interest in a promising Matt Damon through one-on-one instruction, this Robin Williams wrapped in the personhood of the mythical college professor. Meanwhile the majority of Robin Williamses work at reduced or even subsistence wages, hired on short-term contracts. This Robin Williams is Dead Poets Society Robin Williams. He has no job security, he’s easy to say goodbye to, forever the new guy. Except we should keep in mind this Robin Williams teaches four or five classes, so that he’s doing the work of more than one Robin Williams. There’s no time for gallivanting outdoors. There won’t be any standing on desks. He’ll come and go in a whir and those who run the place will be sure to let him know he doesn’t fit in.
At the end of the semester, college students are asked to evaluate Robin Williams, and to compare Robin Williamses across all experiences. Who among all Robin Williamses will have an unspoken but obvious advantage? Which Robin Williams took longer to get the assignments back? And remember, Dead Poets Society Robin Williams teaches four or five required classes brimming with first-year and sophomore college students. Meanwhile, Good Will Hunting Robin Williams teaches two or three small upper-level courses for majors and/or grad students. Which students are more invested in their assignments? Which Robin Williams is more likely to be rewarded by student evaluations, and which is likely to be punished? Also remember: Dead Poets Society Robin Williams can’t have anyone ripping pages out of any textbooks, because students need to be able to sell books back. This Robin Williams is just a guy and he doesn’t wear sweaters with elbow patches. His glasses are ordinary and out of fashion. He’s a poor substitute of a Robin Williams.
It is extremely unlikely that students will be able to communicate constructive criticism via evaluations, which has always been the most optimistic assumed function of these assessments. The more pessimistic purpose of student evaluations is that the masters of the corporate-wannabe entities we call universities use student evaluations as a way to try to take the pulse of the real work of the university, which they almost never experience, which is teaching, which occurs through actual human relationships, which also exists hereafter as a file, and this file exists as an outgrowth of student evaluations, where these primary assessments turn up in other assessments that simply multiply the original student evaluations into a paper snowball. The same institutional constraints that limit the performance of a Robin Williams — lots of large required introductory classes — also limits Robin Williams’s immediate supervisors. If Robin Williams is observed by a supervisor at all (like the department chair), the observer would likely visit one class, once per year, though the observation probably won’t be done by the immediate supervisor but by another Robin Williams who volunteered, most likely a junior Robin Williams on the tenure-track who feels the need to do some favors in order to inch closer to becoming a Good Will Hunting Robin Williams, someone possibly younger and less experienced than the Robin Williams being observed, though the tenure-track Robin Williams, no matter how experienced, is seen as having seniority since the two Robin Williamses were hired in on different tracks, so that the supervisor’s idea of what happened in that one class, once per year, often isn’t based on personal observation at all but comes from an observation report.
It goes without saying that student evaluations are by no means objective assessments of Robin Williams or his classes, because unofficial and wildly informal assessments of Robin Williams have been posted online at RateMyProfessor, which most students look at before signing up, and it only takes one or two disgruntled customers to scare away the Matt Damon-caliber students for years, so that those who do sign up do so for no reason other than the convenience of class meeting time, and these students will base their own formal end-of-the-year university-sanctioned evaluations entirely on whether or not they agree with what they read about Robin Williams at RateMyProfessor, as much as they can, given that their judgment has to be communicated via the bubble sheets that will be scanned and turned into numbers and ratios.
To recap: too many students forced to take overcrowded classes in areas outside their majors, who have come into Robin Williams’s class warned against whatever grudge a previous student may have held and posted online, are given bubble sheets at the end of the semester, as they have seen the class size dwindle as a necessary portion of them has dropped Robin Williams’s class for whatever reasons, as they are asked to assess Robin Williams who has been assessing them since they first met that awkward day in August or January when they reviewed the course syllabus together and did not rip up any books or stand on any desks. Student evaluations are then duplicated as they become the primary source of evaluations from supervisors, and overburdened Robin Williamses with limited resources are asked to respond to any particular failing, as perceived by the only people to actually experience the class, the students, many of whom would never have chosen to take the class, and if Robin Williams is able to overcome institutional deficiencies and somehow give the students something of value, then positive evaluations appear to be reinforced by the supervisor’s evaluations, except that there’s no possibility of promotion, and when the contract runs out, and if Robin Williams is given the opportunity to reapply, then these evaluations that were deemed so important all along will have little bearing on the decisions made by a coterie of Good Will Hunting Robin Williamses in closed-door hiring committees, where personal preference reigns and bringing in a new Robin Williams always seems like a good idea.
So… in these corporate-wannabe-entities we call universities, there is a second function to evaluations. You see, not every division of a corporation makes money. The parts of the company that don’t — and we’ll draw a parallel here to the humanities — will at least be expected to keep the company from losing money, and those divisions will forever be expected to justify their existence, for as long as they exist. The decision-makers can and do cut classics and philosophy. They can and do cut theoretical physics. English and history have the benefit of being seen as core disciplines, so even if English and History don’t bring in grants or produce newsworthy research, and even if the Robin Williamses in English and history rarely contribute cultural gems (like The World According to Garp Robin Williams), from a corporate perspective, a Robin Williams who dabbles in the humanities is forever in a bind of explaining what he does to those who don’t really value what he does, and he must also try to do what he does in an increasingly less expensive way.
It’s not like we’ll be getting rid of administrators or supervisors or student evaluations any time soon, but Robin Williams knows when he’s good at teaching, and it tends to be when Robin Williams is allowed to be a person first, a writer or scholar second, and a measurable vehicle of or transmitter of knowledge last, if at all. Being a teacher-person, then, requires transparency with respect to transience. Any embarrassment about his discounted position shouldn’t prevent Robin Williams from being honest and vulnerable. While acting like there’s equality among Robin Williamses might occasionally lend him the authority of Good Will Hunting Robin Williams, who is immune to the negative effects of evaluations, such a charade is ultimately damaging to his possible future employment and the students’ true understanding of what they’re paying for. Managers and supervisors depend upon a willingness to submit to a system that cannot reward Robin Williams, and Robin Williams should take the opportunity, at every turn, to expose the swindle rather than cooperate in his own devaluation.