Judgment in the Fullness of Time

A few weeks ago we blogged about a Stanley Fish column in which he wrote about his boyhood classical education. Earlier this week, Fish wrote a follow-up column on how students evaluate their professors. Here is a taste:

A number of responses to my column about the education I received at Classical High (a public school in Providence, RI) rehearsed a story of late-flowering gratitude after an earlier period of frustration and resentment. “I had a high school (or a college) experience like yours,” the poster typically said, “and I hated it and complained all the time about the homework, the demands and the discipline; but now I am so pleased that I stayed the course and acquired skills that have served me well throughout my entire life.”

Now suppose those who wrote in to me had been asked when they were young if they were satisfied with the instruction they were receiving? Were they getting their money’s worth? Would they recommend the renewal of their teachers’ contracts? I suspect the answers would have been “no,” “no” and “no,” and if their answers had been taken seriously and the curriculum they felt oppressed by had been altered accordingly, they would not have had the rich intellectual lives they now happily report, or acquired some of the skills that have stood them in good stead all these years.

The relationship between present action and the judgment of value is different in other contexts. If a waiter asks me, “Was everything to your taste, sir?”, I am in a position to answer him authoritatively (if I choose to). When I pick up my shirt from the dry cleaner, I immediately know whether the offending spot has been removed. But when, as a student, I exit from a class or even from an entire course, it may be years before I know whether I got my money’s worth, and that goes both ways. A course I absolutely loved may turn out be worthless because the instructor substituted wit and showmanship for an explanation of basic concepts. And a course that left me feeling confused and convinced I had learned very little might turn out to have planted seeds that later grew into mighty trees of understanding.

“Deferred judgment” or “judgment in the fullness of time” seems to be appropriate to the evaluation of teaching.

Fish’s point reminded me of a chance meeting I had with a former student a few years ago. My primary recollection of this student was his/her constant complaining about the amount of reading in my course. I always assumed that he/she was dissatisfied with the history education he/she was getting. But now, about five years after graduation and with a masters degree in hand, this student could not stop speaking favorably about the education he/she got at Messiah College. He/she sung the praises of the academic rigor of the very classes that he/she once complained about. Was this the same person?

What if this student wrote his/her evaluation of the course five years after taking it?

One thought on “Judgment in the Fullness of Time

  1. So glad you posted this. I taught a soph/junior seminar a couple years ago that landed me rather devastating reviews. I now look back with some smugness as 4 of the students went on to nationally competitive fellowships and 2 more secured graduate berths in top ranked programs – roughly 1/3 the class. SO wish they could re-write those evaluations! 😉

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