Merry Christmas to everyone! I traveled over the past week to visit my parents in New York, so I haven’t been in the office much since my last posting. That’s pretty normal anyway; we professors enjoy Christmas break just as much as students do. The difference this year is that I don’t have to worry much about spring semester coming up. I am on sabbatical and won’t be teaching.
There were two emails I received since my last post that caused some anxiety as I looked at the senders’ addresses. The first email was a notification that my student evaluation scores were available for viewing. This notification happens at the end of every semester, a week or more after I have submitted the students’ final grades to the registrar. Students fill out an anonymous survey for each course they take, answering questions about the quality of the course and of the professor. I can’t speak for other faculty, but for me, this email causes my heart to flutter. Did the students feel that my course was worth something? Did they feel intellectually challenged and personally supported through the learning process? Did they forgive me for presenting a boring lecture now and then, or taking a long time to hand back their graded papers?
How did I measure up (see photo)?
I taught four courses in Fall 2014: General Biology 1, General Biology 1 Laboratory, Conservation Biology, and Conservation Biology Laboratory. In all four cases my evaluations were excellent, with the numerical scores on 21 different questions almost always above the college average.
I take a deep breath now. A sigh of relief
The students also write comments on the survey forms. These are the most informative, pointing to things I can improve for next year. I take the students’ constructive criticisms to heart. I want them to be happy, I want them to learn, and I look for ways for both to be true at the same time.
This past semester, and for all the semesters in the recent past, my evaluations have been good and reading the student comments has given me a sense of accomplishment and contentment. However, when I was a new professor I didn’t get very good scores and I still cringe when I see the email announcement that my scores are ready. In fact, I never open that email right away. I take some time to get ready for the criticism that might lurk within.
The second email was from a journal editor. Last summer I worked with Dakota Hutchinson, C’14, on a manuscript based on his senior thesis. Dakota is currently enrolled in vet school at The Ohio State University. His research with me turned out really well and I thought we might get it published in a small scientific journal. Dakota and I worked through June and July (via email) to convert his thesis into manuscript form, and on August 8, we sent it to a journal editor. At that point, the manuscript entered peer review, a process by which the work is sent to two or more experts in the field for evaluation. The experts make anonymous comments on the scientific merits of the paper, they point out problems with the logic of the experiment’s design or interpretation, and they may point out grammatical errors, too. The editor then takes these independent assessments and makes a decision about whether the paper is acceptable for publication. This process is universal to all the sciences. Peer review ensures the research was done to the highest standard of quality.
It thus gives me pause when I see in my inbox that the peer reviews have come in. When I submit a manuscript, I have taken months to polish it. It is the best I can do. And rarely is that good enough to get it published on the first try. Intellectually, I know I am not perfect, and my work is not without error. My heart, though... My heart knows I did my best and it wants to be told that what I did was good.
So what did the editor say about our manuscript? A minor revision is needed to address the reviewers’ comments. We have until February to return the revised manuscript. The phrasing of the letter seems to suggest our paper will get published at that point, but there is just a little more work to be done. I estimate it will take about 6 hours for us to make the changes recommended by the reviewers.
I take a deep breath now. Another sigh of relief
We are close! Just a little more, and all our hard work will be rewarded.
Oh, these emails were tough, and a bit ironic. Much of my job as a professor is to constructively criticize others (usually students) in an effort to improve their work. I give out grades based on the quality of work done. Most students are not content unless they get an ‘A’ grade; yet such a grade is not guaranteed, even after great effort. It takes a week like this for me to remember what my students go through all the time. They want their work to be perfect, but it is not. I want a perfect 6 out of 6 on my student evaluation scores! I want our manuscript to be accepted as-is, without any further revisions! But these are juvenile, emotional desires. The systems I have described here (student evaluations, peer review) are meant to make my work even better than it is. I have the great fortune to have a sabbatical to work toward that goal.