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  • Student Evaluation of Teaching as a Disciplinary Mechanism:A Foucauldian Analysis
  • Ya-Wen Hou (bio), Che-Wei Lee (bio), and Michael G. Gunzenhauser (bio)

Since the 1960s, student evaluation of teaching (or SET) has been prevalent in higher education and frequently controversial (Benton & Cashin, 2014; [End Page 325] Pounder, 2007; Valsan & Sproule, 2008). Although it originated in the Anglo-American context, SET is now used worldwide (Kulik, 2001; Spooren, Mortelmans, & Thijssen, 2012).1 A wealth of research has shown that SET can be used for (a) assessing instructors’ teaching-skill improvement, (b) mapping the overall quality of higher-education teaching, (c) aiding administrative decision-making about resource allocation and faculty members’ tenure and promotion, and (d) stressing the student body’s voice as a means of improving instruction (Kulik, 2001; Rantanen, 2013; Smith & Welicker-Pollak, 2008; Spencer & Schmelkin, 2002; Valsan & Sproule, 2008). However, scholars have called into question numerous features and purported effects of SET, including the integrity with which its results are interpreted and applied, the damage that it may do to the mutuality of the student-teacher relationship, the cruelty of student feedback and other negative student and faculty behaviors, and the unfairness of variation in SET-based performance expectations for faculty in different departments or sub-organizations (Centra, 1993; Clayson, 2009; Crumbley, Henry, & Kratchman, 2001; d’Apollonia & Abrami, 1997; Koh & Tan, 1997; Lindahl & Unger, 2010; Marsh & Roche, 1997; McKeachie, 1997; Peterson & Kauchak, 1982; Pounder, 2007; Rovai, Ponton, Derrick, & David, 2006; Schneider, 2013; Theall, 2010). Additionally, some studies have discovered that individuals’ gender and racial/ethnic identities influence the results of SET (e.g., Andersen & Miller, 1997; Basow & Silberg, 1987; Kierstead, D’Agostino, & Dill, 1988; Ludwig & Meacham, 1997; Moore & Trahan, 1997; Smith & Anderson, 2005). Baker and Copp (1997), for instance, provide evidence that SET scores tend to be less positive if female instructors seldom interact with students and their performance is inconsistent with students’ expectation of feminine gender identity (e.g., supportive and friendly). Taken together, these studies indicate that SET involves various factors and complex relations among students, instructors, and administrators.

Most researchers tend to approach the issues of SET at the methodological level and from a post-positivist perspective, following an experimental logic and “technical rationality” (Marcuse, 1941, 1964, 1978/1982)—which is one of the research tools accepted by the traditional pyschologist as scientifically valid. However, this line of exploring SET may readily lead to a “fatal deficiency: the students cannot be neutral observers of the classroom process as long as the teacher’s own evaluation of their academic performance is brought to bear” (Valsan & Sproule, 2008, p. 953). Despite this fatal deficiency, as long [End Page 326] as SET is understood within a logic of technical rationality, it fits with the logic of accountability, a technology and embodiment of governmentality (Foucault, 2007) in modern society based on the premise of managerialism, whereby university faculty’s performance can be calculated and objectified, and faculty become categorized and accountable cases (Baez, 2014). Such a traditional approach limits the possiblity of the production of critical self-reflection. We instead need to treat the actors of SET as individuals (subjects) capable of critical self-reflection within productive relations of power. Such a view means rethinking SET at the ontological level, shifting from a reality based on the rules and assumptions of technical rationality and more toward a relational reality, through a poststructural lens regarding its governable nature in Foucault’s sense. The participants of SET are better regarded as the agents of SET who have the right, power, and ability to transform their seemingly fixed positions. We argue that it is this position that allows any possibility, dynamic, and flexiblity of reframing power relations within SET.

SET is an activity of value judgment that often involves its participants’ moral sensitivity and the operation of ethical agency and behavior. For example, Lindahl and Unger (2010) found that students generally complete SET surveys by concealing their moral intuitions behind a veil of social clichés (e.g., the instructor is nice or the course is helpful; Gregory, 2013). A variety of studies, furthermore, have pointed to the marketization of higher education, with the pressure for accountability to manage university pedagogical...


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