I came across this bit of satire from The Onion archives just in time for looking over my own student course evaluations for the semester. The unsigned fake-news report “Professor Deeply Hurt by Student’s Evaluation” (April 2, 1996) pokes fun at the tradition of student course evaluations.
The gist of the joke is that a distinguished and tenured professor with substantial publications, international acclaim, and “knowledge of 21 modern and ancient languages” comes to rethink his whole approach to his profession because a pot-smoking first-year student with a 2.3 GPA complains about being bored by the professor’s lectures in an English class with more than 300 students.
Like much that The Onion puts out, the article is pretty funny . . . and it may sting a bit for those of us on the receiving end.
The report quotes the fictitious professor explaining why he feels so upset about the low rating: “The needs of my first-year students come well before [my publications and prestige]. After all, I have dedicated my life to the pursuit of knowledge, and to imparting it to those who are coming after me. I know that’s why these students are here, so I owe it to them.”
What this satire implies, of course, is that the opposite is so obviously true—that students are really not at college to learn and professors not there to teach—that pretending to contradict it is humorous. Ouch, I say.
As with all good social satire, the piece also raises significant questions. What are we here for in higher education? What about student course evaluations? What about class size? How do teachers and students feel about each other and about teaching and learning? What stereotypes does the public hold about higher education? And so on.
The question that stands out to me most is, How do teachers get better at teaching? The piece jokes that in response to receiving the poor student evaluation, the professor plans to cancel his upcoming sabbatical and “take a rudimentary public speaking course . . .”
While the point is that professors wouldn’t really cancel a sabbatical to work on their teaching, what interests me most here is the choice of a “public speaking course” as the way in which professors would not do that.
While I imagine that a public speaking course wouldn’t hurt many of us, why would The Onion mock that as the go-to option for pedagogical development? Why wouldn’t they instead mock, say, taking a class on college teaching, reading the scholarship on teaching and learning, or meeting with colleagues to discuss teaching?
I might be reading too much into a simple bit of humor. But I think that the piece nicely illustrates the common misunderstanding of “teaching as telling” (PDF) and the widespread corresponding lack of awareness about how teachers can actually improve their teaching.
The satire means to be funny by imagining the humorously unthinkable, a professor taking a public speaking class in response to poor teaching outcomes. But in doing so, does it suggest that a professor, say, taking a college teaching class is literally unthinkable? Is that why more substantial pedagogical development practices didn’t end up in the joke?
Now I’m definitely reading too much into it. But wouldn’t it be great if we could turn the joke around, if we could make the idea of professors not working on becoming better teachers the thing that is humorously unthinkable?