It’s that time of year again, when we are reminded of how our primitive forebears felt frost in the air, looked anxiously at the diminished sun and the shortening days, and thought, “It’s time for my annual self-evaluation!”
After the last couple of years, and the burdens placed on institutions through the pandemic, it’s tempting to lead those evaluations with what feels like our real achievement—“We made it!”
But obviously there’s more to it. This instrument of professional growth takes on different shapes in different institutions across the United States, but it generally has two parts: 1) a record of what the individual faculty member has done this year and 2) a speculative stab at goals for the coming year. At my university—and in previous institutions—this was a three-part document reflecting on teaching, service to the institution and within your discipline, and scholarship. Here, we recently changed it to add a separate professional development section and will soon change again to incorporate some measure of student success (at least as part of posttenure review).
The general efficacy of the self-assessment practice is open to debate, but what’s not is the fact that it’s a piece of writing that many faculty members put off till the last minute. They then resentfully pull the file of their previous year’s submission and look, with varying degrees of relief, or perhaps horror and late glimmers of memory stirred, at their predicted goals from last year.
It is sometimes a desperate affair.
As a former faculty evaluator, I always enjoyed reading annual evaluations, and I was often struck by the enormous talent and energy of my faculty. Equally, I was often surprised by the amount of fluster and panic I saw in this annual document, as well as honestly baffled by the occasionally peculiar strategies of otherwise very gifted communicators.
One of the most unfortunate statements I ever read in someone’s annual self-evaluation was a glib institutional service goal announcement: “I’m going to do less next year.” In my follow-up with the faculty member, I applauded the idea—they did need to slow down or they would burn out from all the things they were doing—but they didn’t need to frame it in those potentially professionally damaging terms. I suggested using words like “refocus” and “prioritize.” It allowed them to trim back (do less) but made it sound none the less industrious.
Another faculty member turned somersaults in their scholarship section, trying to obscure the fact that they hadn’t published and had been unsuccessful in getting a conference paper accepted at a premier event. The problem with that was the goal setting established the previous year. “I will publish an article in Big Literature Journal and present at a Big Composition Conference” doesn’t leave you very much wiggle room when neither of those things happens.
The problem here has three parts that can provide some lessons for all of us around self-evaluation time.
First, the faculty member pinned themselves into a place where they overpromised and underperformed, and it’s always better to do this the other way around. George Herbert, the metaphysical poet, famously argued, “…….