End of Term Evaluations & Student Feedback – Part I

This is the first part of a two-part post. As an end of term treat, next week will feature a roundtable post with more evaluation hacks from instructors across the teaching spectrum!

Alongside stacks of unmarked essays and the promise of candy cane flavoured lattes, the final weeks of November mean the end of classes. And, the end of classes mean it’s every instructor’s favourite time of year: it’s course evaluation time.


As anyone in higher education knows, teaching evaluations have conventionally played a significant role in hiring, promotion, and tenure processes. Theoretically, they provide students the opportunity to report on their experiences with an instructor, giving institutions key information about what happens in courses across university campuses.

Practically, they are far murkier.

There is plenty of evidence (see: here, here, and here) that suggests that teaching evaluations are frequently inflected by biases and gender biases in particular. To boot, they are designed like standardized tests (often complete with institutional grey and blue colour schemes). And, frankly, the questions are usually, ahem, unhelpful in terms of actual pedagogical feedback.


I find all of this annoying.

I’m currently a postdoctoral researcher and contract instructor, so whether I like it or not, evaluations matter for my career. At the same time, I’m at a point in my teaching where I genuinely want feedback. And, I really want feedback about things that course evaluations aren’t designed to gather, like assignment creation and the success or failure of specific activities.

So, last year, I decided to solicit end of term feedback from students in addition to their course evaluations. This isn’t super radical. I, and many other teachers, do mid-term check-ins. Nevertheless, I thought I’d share the process and list of questions as a resource.

These questions were for a small, seminar-based performance studies class. The class was comprised of upper year students and took place once a week for three hours.

  1. What reading did you enjoy the most/get the most out of this semester? Why?
  2. What reading from BEFORE reading break (so, Kelsey selected) did you enjoy the least/get the least out of this semester. Why?
  3. What worked for you about the co-facilitation project?
  4. Was the co-facilitation assignment a better or worse experience for you than a traditional individual or group presentation? Why?
  5. Was there an element of the co-facilitation project that hindered your leaning?
  6. Did the reading responses support your learning? Why or why not?
  7. Was there an in-class activity that you vividly remember? Which one? Why?
  8. Is there anything else you’d like to share with me?

On the final day of class, I paired my usual speech about course evaluations (they matter) with my introduction to this set of questions.

Wanting to give my students the same freedom to respond to these questions as their course evaluations, I also arranged for one of my students to collect the informal evaluations, put them in a sealed envelope, and to hand them off to a colleague to keep until after grades were submitted.


When semester was over, I collected the envelope and was both pleased and surprised with the depth of feedback I received: the co-facilitation project was generally helpful for learning but also a bit complex on the ground; there was one too many historiography readings, and students took away unexpected nuggets from the class.

Most importantly, unlike my teaching evaluations, which are generally written about me, the feedback was written to me. This meant that it was phrased so that I could read it constructively, and in combination with my evaluations, the students’ insights offered a really helpful perspective for moving forward in my teaching practice.



On Teaching Student Athletes: In Conversation with Carrie Watts

This week, I was a speaker at a women, sport, and leadership event hosted by the University of British Columbia (where I played varsity women’s basketball for five years). In addition to (re)connecting with friends, it got me thinking about being, and now teaching, varsity student athletes.

Kelsey Shooting UBC 2

Kelsey, in her basketball playing prime. Photo by Richard Lam, Courtesy of Thunderbird Athletics

As an undergraduate, I was committed to both the “student” and the “athlete” part of my identity. I frequently showed up to my classes still sweating from practice with ice on various body parts. In retrospect, that was probably a little weird for my instructors. But, I was always there.

Correction: I was always there if I wasn’t travelling for a game or tournament.

That’s the thing about being a varsity athlete: it involves a unique set of commitments.


These commitments create a fraught knot of questions regarding funding, labour, privilege, resources, and power in post secondary institutions.

Rather than trying to untangle this knot, this post examines a reality I have experienced from both sides: in post secondary classrooms in Canada and the United States, there are varsity athletes, and this sub-grouping of students comes with a unique set of opportunities and challenges for instructors.

Luckily, I know precisely the person to ask about teaching varsity athletes: my friend and former teammate, Carrie Watts — a former national team basketball player and the assistant coach of UBC women’s basketball.

So, I managed to snag her for a short conversation at the subject last night!


Carrie Watts

Carrie Watts, Assistant Coach UBC Women’s Basketball

KB: You’ve been coaching at UBC for how long now?

CW: I started in 2007 so twelve years at UBC … I know!

KB: Has there been a shift in students and student athletes in the time you’ve been coaching. If so, what is it?

CW: I think there has been a shift. I think one of the areas has been the resilience. That plays out in terms of maintaining confidence in challenging situations, and the other is handling the stress. And, I think that’s across the board – not just isolated to student athletes. In general, there is maybe more stress, or it’s handled differently now and kids are a lot more serious about some of the stressors.

KB: What do you want post secondary teachers to know about student athletes in the classroom?

CW: I think they’re incredibly focused and they have so many demands on their time and they manage it incredibly well. When you think of all the things that they’re juggling that non-athletes are not also managing, they handle things so well. They’re meeting and excelling in their academic demands, and they’re also committing 25 hours a week to their sport. There are similar demands and expectations for excellence in their sport as there are of them academically. Plus, they’re travelling, plus they’re trying to negotiate roles in their sport, and confidence, and they’re just dealing with a lot more than people might understand if they haven’t been an athlete in their past.

KB: What are the opportunities and challenges for student athletes as learners?

CW: I think there are a lot of skills that they [bring] in terms of time commitment, in terms of work ethic, in terms of teamwork, of being able to take feedback … they can recognize a little bit more just to see how great they are, and I think the challenges [for them] are just being able to maintain confidence and see challenge as an area of growth … it’s hard in a university environment because they’re being told “growth mindset; failure is a good thing” but at the same time, there [are] so many expectations on them academically even to get into school. So there’s not really, especially on the academic side, that room for failure [for student athletes], because they need to be at a certain standard to give themselves the opportunities academically.


Chatting with Carrie prompted me to think a bit about what I, as a university instructor now, would want to know about varsity athletes in order to best support them in my classroom.

Five Things to Know About Varsity Student Athletes in Canada 

  1. Varsity athletes are often expected to commit 25+ hours a week to training and competition. They are also expected to commit to their studies, and there are league and institution specific rules that determine the minimum scholastic requirements for varsity sport eligibility.

Crucially, these commitments (both training and scholastic) are frequently institutionally formalized, meaning they often sign contracts and their ability to fulfill (or inability to fulfill commitments) can have concrete, and often financial, implications.

2. Varsity athletes do not set their own schedules. 

Their schedules are set by coaches, trainers, and leagues. Generally speaking, missing a scheduled event — particularly games — is not an option.

I understand that some instructors don’t want to give athletes special privileges in regards to missed classes or exams. In many respects, that’s fair.  If you have unyielding policies, however, it may mean that varsity athletes won’t be able take your classes.

In my undergrad, I not only dropped several classes because of such policies; I also majored in film studies rather than theatre studies because I didn’t set my own schedule and couldn’t predict (see point 5) when I’d be able to complete the 100 hours of service required for the degree.

3. The competition schedules of varsity sports differ.

Some sports, such as soccer and field hockey, run in late summer and early fall; some sports, such as basketball, swimming, and volleyball, run from late summer to spring; some sports, such as baseball and softball, run in the spring only.

Pro tip: a varsity athlete who plays a fall sport should have little to no varsity sport conflict in spring semester classes.

4. Canadian and American varsity sports involve very different funding structures

(Fun fact: some Canadian universities play in American leagues and fall under the purview of American funding rules).

The short and overly simply version of this difference is that Canadian varsity athletes receive significantly less scholarship money and resources than American varsity athletes. In Canada, this also means that there can be huge funding differences between sports.

In short, in Canada, just because a student is a varsity athlete doesn’t necessarily mean they’re receiving significant financial support through varsity athletics.

5. The travel schedule and emotional dynamics of a varsity athlete tends to becomes less predictable and more intense near the end of their season. 

In sports with a playoff structure, a student athlete could travel out of town or out of province every week for multiple weeks in a row. The kicker? They will likely not know where or when they’re travelling until the beginning of each week AND the geographic scope of travel could extend across the country.

Playoffs also mean mounting emotional stakes for student athletes. In particular, athletes in their final years of eligibility may be playing in games that could mark the end of their athletic careers. Which can be a ginormous life milestone.

This unpredictability will, undoubtedly, affect their presence (physical and emotional) in a classroom.

Each instructor will have their own opinions about varsity sports and how to interact with varsity athletes in their classrooms. And, I should say, not all my experiences teaching varsity athletes have been positive. Varsity athletes are first and foremost humans, and humans are complex organisms.

Still, I find it helpful to understand — or, at the very least, have a sense of — the different kinds of intersections and commitments my students are managing outside of the classroom. 

Mentorship at mid-career

I’ve had mentorship on the brain lately. Last week, I was at the annual ASTR (American Society for Theatre Research) conference in Washington, D.C.; during the event I took part in not one but two mentoring events. The first was for graduate students, and I participated as a faculty mentor. The second was for mid-career scholars, and I was invited by my colleague (and, in fact, mentor) Tracy C. Davis to sit on the panel that would anchor the event.

I admit I had to blink and read twice when Tracy’s email asking me to take part on the panel came through; I don’t automatically think of myself as senior enough to mentor anyone who identifies as “mid-career”. I think of MYSELF as mid-career! And that’s part of the point, I suspect: at this stage in the game, those of us lucky enough to have won the tenure-job lottery need to take care of one another.


For the mid-career mentorship panel, Tracy asked me to speak briefly about my experience going up for promotion to full professor, something that happened just three years ago. At the time that I was putting my application together I took a sidelong glance at the process here on the blog, in a post about the value of scholarly editing, but it was only in preparing comments for the panel that I really stopped to take stock of what I’d learned going through the promotion process. As a young-ish woman (I was 42 when I earned full) who did not have the slam-dunk, two-monograph, so-called “gold standard” promotion portfolio, I had a slightly tricky time of it, but I persevered.

Why I did, and how I got through it, provided me with valuable lessons in mentorship and support, scholarly responsibility, and self-care that I realized were more than worth sharing.

So I’ll share them again here.


I googled “getting promoted” and clicked on “images”. I’ve picked a few that I found most inspiring.

First, some quick context. When I returned to Canada from the UK in August 2014 I had written one scholarly monograph (the book that earned me tenure, which I wish every day I could write again, and better!). I’d co-edited four volumes of essays, all of them award winners. I had another edited volume, solo this time, in the pipeline, and I was just completing a short monograph for students, Theatre & Feminism. I’d written many articles and book chapters – what I’d call a solid number for my discipline – and edited two journal issues. I had great teaching notices. And I’d just contributed to the design and founding of my school’s new Theatre Studies program.

Sounds like a lot, right? Except in my department (English Studies) at my school, something was missing: the second full-length scholarly monograph, that chestnut of a “gold standard”. Never mind that my collaborative work had been at once scholarly and pedagogical, not to mention prize-worthy and with extensive reach. And never mind that my lowly book for students would shortly go on to sell more copies than all my other volumes combined. (I even got an advance for it.)

I knew I might be a “risky” case, but I also knew there was enormous value in my scholarly portfolio and in the ways it crosses over into teaching. I also knew that it would be immeasurably valuable to help set a precedent in my department for alternate routes to full, especially for women and minoritized scholars. I was nervous – nobody likes to be told they aren’t good enough, or “not ready yet”, which is what I feared – but I decided to go for it anyway. The years in the UK had been bruising for a long list of reasons, and I was ready for a good shot in the arm, however hard it might be to achieve.

I sat down with my chair at the time, Bryce Traister; Bryce and I had a good chat about the situation, and he offered me unwavering support. He was realistic about possible negative outcomes but never said anything less than: go for it, and I’m behind you.

And that makes lesson #1: find the folks in your corner, both at your university and outside it, in your wider discipline. Locate mentors, locate champions, especially those who currently outrank you. Listen to their advice, and hold fast to their support of you, especially when you doubt yourself.

Round one did not go my way; my department committee felt I needed a contract in hand for the book I was about to write (Theory for Theatre Studies: Space), another mini-monograph for students, in a series I co-edit at Bloomsbury. Heeding Bryce’s advice, I agreed to wait, and then I began to plot.

I sought out another mentor, my longtime friend and colleague Susan Bennett. She helped me map the landscape, and together we brainstormed excellent names for potential external examiners. (At my school, the candidate for promotion offers a list of names to the Dean, who vets and selects final readers.) Because I’d worked with so many of my colleagues on edited books and journal issues over the years, lots of great potential readers had to be ruled out as conflicts of interest; having Susan’s senior, expert eye across the field helped me light on potential examiners I would never have thought of myself.


Susan was terrific not only in this administrative name-gathering exercise, but also as another supporter, champion, and thoughtful interlocutor about the business of promotion. She reminded me of the value of the work I’d done, but also, more importantly, of the need for and value of women with capacity seeking access to the top academic rank, precisely in order to create precedent and make space for those talented young scholars without traditional academic privilege rising after us.

Every new woman Professor in our field shows another woman they can do it; every woman Professor in our field means another female academic available to review tenure and promotion files elsewhere, to sit on major prize committees, to do crucial senior administrative labour that often impacts the lives of graduate students, contract and junior faculty. Of course that’s not to say all women, or only women, support and champion other women, or that men don’t – not at all. But perspectives matter, lived experience matters; for someone like me to have the influence of a top-ranked academic in a major research university means more people who grew up like me might yet get there, because of the example I can now set, and the heft I can place behind it.

Susan and I both come from non-traditional backgrounds (for example, I was the first person in my family, on either side, to go to college), and as a result her advice to me has always touched on mentorship as a lineage and a responsibility. A lot of her advice over the years I’ve banked and paid forward: from offering holistic, work-life balanced advice and support to graduate students, to making the time to write truly detailed and excellent letters of reference for students and junior colleagues, to bearing in mind the immeasurable value of using my profile to bring others into the spotlight whenever I can.

And thus, lesson #2: don’t think your promotion is only about you. Take up this space now, so you can actively help make space for others.

I got my promotion on that second push forward, and after I got the good news I was invited to review the external letters of recommendation in my file. While one was a touch grumpy about the missing “gold standard”, the other two reflected back to me what I had hoped would emerge from my research statement: that I have chosen – actively and consciously – to edit A LOT, to collaborate often with peers, to work hard at my teaching practice and also to write for students, precisely because those paths are scholastically valuable. They are, and should be counted as, no less “scholarly” than choosing to write exclusively, or primarily, traditional monographs for academic audiences.

(One reviewer made a point of singling out my collaborative ethos as crucial to the next generation of theatre scholars in my community; to be honest, that, more than the promotion itself, was the shot in the arm I needed.)


What happened after I got promoted? A funny thing. I began to recognize the freedom it brought me: to focus in my research only on projects I truly care about; to continue to advance my skills in collaborating; to spend more time on service to my university; and (maybe above all) to spend more time living the life I’d put on hold for so long.

I have been for as long as I can remember so focused on keeping the “imposter” gremlins at bay that I think I forgot how much of our careers in academia can, at bottom, be about proving ourselves to ourselves. This isn’t inherently a bad thing – it’s a quite human thing, I suspect – but it’s amplified by the hothouse of a walled meritocracy. We’re always scraping and scrapping – or I was, anyway. Going up for full was an important means for me to prove to myself that I was, indeed, worthy of this place, but once I had the achievement in hand, I was surprised at how humbling it turned out to be. It was time for me to refocus, recalibrate; it was time for me to ask myself what I’m actually doing here, not just in my work, but on this earth.

And that’s lesson the last: the path to promotion may be hard work and stressful in the way that all “tests” are, but for that very reason it can be remarkably enlightening – even revelatory.