I’ve been reflecting on my student evaluations from last fall. My aim in doing so is to plan this fall’s courses and I always find student experience to be, for the most part, the best gauge of what worked or didn’t. As per the nature of a perfectionist, I focus on the negative comments – those are the ones that will help me improve. As a writer, constructive criticism is something I crave – near the end of my Master’s program when asked by the Dean what I wanted more from the program, my answer was constructive criticism. Telling me my work is good is very nice but not very helpful.
And so with teaching, the critical comments are the ones that are most useful. But it is a dangerous balance because there is always at least one student who simply did not not like the class and did not like me as an instructor. I’m always leery of discounting negative comments on my evaluation. Sometimes I avoid such comments simply because I don’t like what the student said. But there is also the danger of focusing too sharply on one student’s words while discounting others.
One of the surprising comments to me was from one of the students in my business communications course last fall. This student complained that I had no background in business so I was not qualified to teach a business writing course. And in that comment the difference between a professional program and an academic one was highlighted for me.
The irony is that I do have business experience but I’ve been trained to discount it in academia. I removed all my business experience from my CV – anyone perusing my current curriculum vitae would think I’d done nothing for employment before the year 2002, when I was, in fact, 33 years old and started my Master’s program. And despite all the interviews I’ve been through in the last two years, not one person has asked me what I did before returning to school.
The student’s comment highlighted for me the fact that I had erased my own prior experiences from the classroom. The student simply assumed that I had been an academic my entire life. And why shouldn’t she? I gave her no reason to think otherwise.
Now I’m reflecting on those positions I held after completing my BA. I worked in the second largest law firm in Canada in a variety of different roles, learning the process of climbing up the administrative ladder. I worked in a small bank on the North Shore of Vancouver. I ran my own company for a brief period. And I worked for SFU Harbour Centre in an administrative role. Yet in my academic life I so discounted those experiences that when teaching business communications at least one student thought I had no experiences in the “real world.” And this business student clearly valued experience over book smarts and academic research in the field.
So as I sit down to begin lesson planning for the fall term, I realize that instead of burying those past experiences, I should draw on them. I have close friends who are still in business who call on me on a regular basis for advice about their own business communications. I look over correspondence and listen to anecdotes of verbal exchanges with clients and colleagues and give advice. The odd thought of merging these two worlds, the academic and the lived experience, may be the route to offering a more meaningful experiences for my students this fall.