Introduction: Shock Waves
As I carefully unfold the delicate piece of crisp white paper, three rogue words wildly jump up off the page before sinking deeply into my skin: “Cold and condescending.” A charge of anger surges up my spine, as these words begin to now expand and affectively resonate: “I found the instructor to be cold and condescending.” Somehow, these words impact me both emotionally and physiologically (Brennan 3): my heart beats faster, my body temperature rises, my stomach aches. Yet, despite how awful I feel, I keep on reading, as if compelled by some inexplicable force. It is not long before I devour the entire evaluation—or perhaps it devours me?—reading every last jarring word over and over and over again. And pretty soon, before I can even think about it, I begin to come undone ...
How is it possible that an ordinary, everyday object can pull at us, unravel us even? And, how do such objects linger, register intensities, and contribute to our harm or good? In this paper, we draw upon our collective teaching experiences at college and high school level in order to explore how teacher evaluations actively work/ed to orient our bodies in molar and molecular ways (Deleuze and Guattari 3), thereby diminishing or enhancing our capacity to act. We argue that these textual objects are anything but dead and lifeless, and are vitally invested with “thing-power,” which is the “ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle” (Bennett 6).
Rather than producing a linear critique that refuses “affective associations” (Felski para. 6) and the “bodily entanglements of language” (MacLure, Qualitative 1000), we offer up a mobile conversation that pulls readers into an assemblage of (shape)shifting moments they can connect with (Rajchman 4) and question. While we attend to our own affective experiences with teacher evaluations, we wish to disrupt the idea that the self is both autonomous and affectively contained (Brennan 2). Instead, we imagine a self that extends into other bodies, spaces, and things, and highlight how teacher evaluations, as a particular thing, curiously animate (Chen 30) and affect our social worlds—altering our life course for a minute, a day, or perhaps, indefinitely (Stewart 12).
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“The autobiographical is not the personal. […] Publics presume intimacy” (Berlant, The Female vii). Following Berlant, we propose that our individual narratives are always tangled up in other social bodies and are, therefore, not quite our own. Although we do use the word “I” to recount our specific experiences of teacher evaluations, we by no means wish to suggest that we are self-contained subjects confessing some singular life history or detached truth. Rather, together we examine the tensions, commonalities, possibilities, and threats that encounters with teacher evaluations produce within and around collective bodies (Stewart). We consider the ways in which these material objects seep deeply into our skin, re/animate moving forces (e.g. neoliberalism, patriarchy), and even trigger us emotionally by transporting us back to different times and places (S. Jones 525). And, we write to experiment (Deleuze and Guattari 1; Stewart 1) with the kind of “unpredictable intimacy” that Berlant (Intimacy 281; Structures 191) speaks of. We resist (as best we can) telos-driven tales that do not account for messiness, disorientation, surprise, or wonder (MacLure, Classification 180), as we invite readers to move right along beside (Sedgwick 8) us in this journey to embrace the complexities and implications (Nelson 111; Talburt 93) of teacher evaluations as corporeal matters. The “self” is no match for such affective entanglements (Stewart 58).
“Cold and condescending.” I cannot help but get caught up in these words—no matter how hard I try. A million thoughts begin to bubble up: Am I a good teacher? A bad person? Uncaring? Arrogant? And, just like that, the ordinary turns on me (Stewart 106), triggering intense sensations that refuse to stay buried. What began as my reaction to a teacher evaluation soon becomes something else, somewhere else. Childhood wounds unexpectedly well up—leaking into the present, spreading uncontrollably, causing my body to get stuck in long ago and far away.
In a virtual flash (Deleuze and Guattari 94), I am somehow in my grandmother’s kitchen once more, which even now smells of avgolemono soup, warm bread rising, home. Something sparks, as distant memories come flooding back to change my course and set me straight (or so I think). When I was a little girl and could not let something go, my yiayia (grandmother) Vasiliki would tell me, quite simply, to get “unstuck” (ξεκολλά). The Greeks, it seems, know something about the stickiness of affective attachments. Even though it has been over twenty years since my grandmother’s passing, her words, still alive, affectively ring in my ear. Out of some kind of charged habit (Stewart 16), her words now escape my mouth: “ξεκολλά,” I command, “ξεκολλά!” I repeat this phrase so many times that it becomes a mantra, but its magic has sadly lost all effect. No matter what I say or what I do, my body, stuck in repetition, “closes in on itself, unable to transmit its intensities differently” (Grosz 171). In an act of desperation (or perhaps survival), I rip the evaluation to shreds and throw the tattered remains down the trash chute. Yet, my actions prove futile. The evaluation lives on in a kind of afterlife, with its haunting ability to affect where my thoughts will go and what my body can do. And so, my agency—my ability to act, think, become (Deleuze and Guattari 361)—is inextricably twisted up in this evaluation, with its affective capacity to connect many “bodies” at once (both material and semiotic, human and non-human, living and dead).
A View from Nowhere?
At both college and school-level, formal teacher evaluations promise anonymity. Why is it, though, that students get to be voices without bodies: a voice that does not emerge from a complex, contradictory, and messy body, but rather “from above, from nowhere” (Haraway 589)? Once disembodied, students become god-like (Haraway 589), able to “objectively” dissect, judge, and even criticise teachers, while they themselves receive “panoptic immunity” (MacLure, Classification 168).
This immunity has its consequences. Within formal and informal evaluations, students write of and about bodies in ways that often feel violating. Teachers’ bodies become spectacle, and anything goes:
“Professor is kinda hot—not bad to look at!”
“She dresses like a bag lady. [...] Her hair and clothing need an update.”
“There's absolutely nothing redeeming about her as a person [...] but she has nice shoes.”
Amid these affective violations, voices without bodies re/assemble into “voices without organs” (Mazzei 732)—a voice that emanates from an assemblage of bodies, not a singular subject. In this process, patriarchal discourses, as bodies of thought, dangerously spring up and swirl about. The voyeuristic gaze of patriarchy (see de Beauvoir; Mulvey) becomes habitual, shaping our stories, encounters, and sense of self.
Female teachers, in particular, cannot deny its pull. The potential to create and/or transmit knowledge turns us into “risky subjects” in need of constant surveillance (Falter 29). Teacher evaluations do their part. As a metaphoric panopticon (see Foucault), they transform female teachers into passive spectacles—objects of the gaze—and students into active spectators who have “all the power to determine our teaching success” (Falter 30). The effects linger, do real damage (Stewart), and cause our pedagogical performances to fail every now and then. After all, a “good” female teacher is also a “good female subject” who is called upon to impart knowledge in ways that do not betray her otherwise feminine or motherly “nature” (Falter 28). This pressure to be both knowledgeable and nurturing, while displaying a “visible fragility [...] a kind of conventional feminine vulnerability” (McRobbie 79), pervades the social and is intense. Although it is not easy to navigate, the fact that unrecognisable bodies are subject to punishment (Butler, Performative 528) helps keep power dynamics firmly in place.
These forces permeate my body, as well, making me “cold” and “unfair” in one evaluation and “kind” and “sweet” in another—but rarely smart or intelligent. Like clockwork, this bodily visibility and regulation brings with it never-ending self-critique and self-discipline (Harris 9). Absorbing these swarming intensities, I begin to question my capacity to effectively teach and form relationships with my students. Days later, weeks later, years later, I continue to wonder: if even one student leaves my class feeling “bad,” do I have any business being a teacher? Ugh, the docile, good girl (Harris 19) rears her ugly (or is it pretty?) head once again.
Even though the summer sun invites me in, I spend the whole day at home, in bed, unable to move. At one point, a friend arrives, forcing me to get up and get out. We grab a bite to eat, and it is not long before I confess my deepest fear: that my students are right about me, that these evaluations somehow mark me as a horrible teacher and person. She seems surprised that I would let a few comments defeat me and asks me what this is really all about. I shrug my shoulders, unwilling to go there.
Later that night, I find myself re-reading my spring evaluations online. The positive ones electrify the screen, filling me with joy, as the constructive ones get me brainstorming about ways I might do things differently. And while I treasure these comments, I do not focus too much on them. Instead, I spend most of the evening replaying a series of negative tapes over and over in my head. Somewhat defeated, I slip slowly back into my bed and find that it surprisingly offers me a kind of comfort that my friend does not. I wonder, “What body am I now in the arms of” (Chen 202)? The bed and I become “interporous” (Chen 203), intimate even. There is much solace in the darkness of those lively, billowy blue covers: a peculiar solace made possible by these evaluations—a thing which compels me to find comfort somewhere, anywhere, beyond the human body.
As a high school teacher, I was accustomed to being reviewed. Some reviews were posted onto the website ratemyteacher.com, a platform of anonymously submitted reviews of kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers on easiness, helpfulness, clarity, knowledge, textbook use, and exam difficulty. Others were less official; irate commentary posted on social media platforms or baldly concise characterisations of our teaching styles that circulated among students and bounded back to us as hearsay and whispered asides. In these reviews, our teacher-selves were constructed: One became the easy teacher, the mean teacher, the fun teacher, or the hard-but-good teacher. The teacher who could not control her class; the teacher who controlled her class excessively.
Sometimes, we googled ourselves because it was tempting to do so (and near-impossible not to). One day, I searched various forms of my name followed by the name of the school. One of my students, a girl with hot pink streaks in her hair and pointy studs shooting out of her belt and necklaces, had written a complaint on Facebook about a submission of a final writing portfolio. The student wrote on the publicly visible wall of another student in my class, noting how much she still had left to do on the assignment. Dotting the observation with expletives, she bemoaned the portfolio as requiring too much work. Then, she observed that I had an oily complexion and wrote that I was a “dyke.” After I read the comment, I closed my laptop and an icy wave passed through me. That night, I went to dinner with friends. I ruminated aloud over the comments: How could this student—with whom I had thought I had a good relationship—write about me in such a derisive manner? And what, in particular, about my appearance conveyed that I was lesbian? My friends laughed; they found the student’s comments funny and indicative of the blunt astuteness of teenagers. As I thought about the comments, I realised the pain lay in the comments’ specificity. They demonstrated the ability of the student to perceive and observe a bodily attribute about which I was particularly insecure. It made me wonder about the countless other eyes and glances directed at me each day, taking in, noticing, and dissecting my bodily self (McRobbie 63).
The next morning, before school, I stared at myself in the bathroom mirror and dabbed toner on my skin. Today, I thought, today will be a day in which both my skin texture and my lesson plans will be in good order. After this day, I could no longer bring myself to look this student directly in the eye. I was officious in our interactions. I read her poetry and essays with guarded ambivalence. I decided that I would no longer google myself. I would no longer click on links that were pointedly reviews of me as a teacher.
The reviewed-self is a ghost-self. It is a shadow, an underbelly. The comments—perhaps posted in a moment of anger or frustration—linger. Years later, though I have left full-time classroom teaching, I still think about them. I have not recovered from the comments though I should, apparently, have already recuperated from their sharp effects. I wonder if the reviews will ceaselessly follow me, if they will shape the impressions of those who google me, if my reviewed-self will become the first and most formidable impression of those who might come to know me, if my reviewed-self will be the lasting and most formidable way I see myself.
In 2014, a teacher at a California public high school posts a comment on Twitter about wishing to pour coffee on her students. Some of her students this year, she writes, make her “trigger finger itchy” (see Oakley). She already “wants to stab” them a mere two weeks into the school year. “Is that bad?” she asks. One of her colleagues screen-captures her tweets and sends them to the school principal and to a local newspaper. They go viral, resulting in widespread condemnation on the Internet. She is named the “worst teacher ever” by one online media outlet (Parker). The media swarm the school. The reporters interview parents in minivans who are picking up their children from school. One parent, from behind the steering wheel, expresses her disapproval of the teacher. She says, “As a teacher, I think she should be held to a higher accountability than other people” (Louie). In the comments section of an article, a commenter declares that the “mutant should be fired” (Oakley). Others are more forgiving. They cite their boyfriends and sisters who are teachers and who also air grievances, though somewhat less violently and in the privacy of their homes (A. Jones). All teachers have these thoughts, some of the commenters argue, they just are not stupid enough to tweet them.
In her own defence, the teacher tells a local paper that she “never expected anyone would take me seriously” (Oakley). As a teacher, she is often “forced to cultivate a ‘third-person consciousness,’ to be an ‘objectified subject’” (Chen 33) on display, so can we really blame her? If she had thought people would take her seriously, “you'd better believe I would have been much more careful with what I've said” (Oakley). The students are the least offended party because, as their teacher had hoped, they do not take her tweets seriously. In fact, they are “laughing it off,” according to a local news channel (Newark Teacher). In a news interview, one female student says she finds the teacher’s tweets humorous. They are fond of this teacher and believe she cares about her students. Seemingly, they do not mind that their teacher—jokingly, of course—harbours homicidal thoughts about them or that she wishes to splash hot coffee in their faces.
There is a certain wisdom in the teacher’s observational, if foolhardy, tweeting. In a tweet tagged #secretlyhateyou, the teacher explains that while students may have their own negative feelings towards their teachers, teachers also have such feelings for their students. But, she tweets, “We are just not allowed to show it” (Oakley). At parties and social gatherings, we perform the cheerful educator by leaving our bodies at the door and giving into “the politics of emotion, the unwritten rules that feelings are to be ‘privatised’ and ‘pathologised’ rather than aired” (Thiel 39). At times, we are allowed a certain level of dissatisfaction, an eye roll or shrug of the shoulders, a whimsical, breathy sigh: “Oh you know! Kids today! Instagram! Sexting!” But we cannot express dislike for our own students.
One evening, I was on the train with a friend who does not work as a teacher. We observed a pack of teenagers, screaming and grabbing at each other’s cell phones. The friend said, “Aren’t they so fascinating, teenagers?” Grumpily, I disagreed. On that day, no, I was not fascinated by teenagers. My friend responded, shocked, “But don’t you work as a teacher…?” It is an unspoken requirement of the job. We maintain relentless expressions of joy, an earnest wonderment towards those whom we teach. And we are, too, appalled by those who do not exhibit a constant stream of cheerfulness. The teachers’ lunchroom is the repository for “bad” feelings about students, a site of negative feelings that can somehow stick (Ahmed, Happy 29) to those who choose to eat their lunch within this space. Only the most jaded battle-axes would opt to eat in the lunchroom. Good teachers—happy and caring ones—would never choose to eat lunch in this room. Instead, they eat lunch in their classrooms, alone, prepare dutifully for the afternoon’s classes, and try to contain all of their murderous inclinations. But (as the media love to remind us), whether intended or not, our corporeal bodies with all their “unwanted affects” (Brennan 3, 11) have a funny way of “surfacing” (Ahmed, Communities 14).
Conclusion: Surging Bodies
Affects surge within everyday conversations of teacher evaluations. In fact, it is almost impossible to talk about evaluations without sparking some sort of heated response. Recent New York Times articles echo the more popular sentiments: from the idea that evaluations are gendered and raced (Pratt), to the prevailing notion that students are informed consumers entitled to “the best return out of their educational investments” (Stankiewicz). Evidently, education is big business. So, we take our cues from neoliberal ideologies, as we struggle to make sense of all the fissures and leaks. Teachers’ bodies now become commodified objects within a market model that promises customer satisfaction—and the customer is always right.
“Develop a thicker skin,” they say, as if a thicker skin could contain my affects or prevent other affects from seeping in; “my body is and is not mine” (Butler, Precarious 26). Leaky bodies, with their permeable borders (Renold and Mellor 33), affectively flow into all kinds of “things.” Likewise, teacher evaluations, as objects, extend into human bodies, sending eruptive charges that both register within the body and transmit outward into the environment. These charges emerge as upset, judgment, wonder, sadness, confusion, annoyance, pleasure, and everything in between. They embody an intensity that animates our social worlds, working to enhance energies and/or diminish them. Affects, then, do not just come from, and stay within, bodies (Brennan 10). A body, as an assemblage (Deleuze and Guattari 4), is neither self-contained nor disconnected from other bodies, spaces, and things.
As a collection of sticky, “material, physiological things” (Brennan 6), teacher evaluations are very much alive: vibrantly shifting and transforming teachers’ affective capacities and life trajectories. Attending to them as such offers a way in which to push back against our own bodily erasure or “the screaming absence in [American] education of any attention to the inner life of teachers” (Taubman 3). While affect itself has become a recent hot-topic across American university campuses (e.g. see “trigger warnings” debates, Halberstam), conversations tend to exclude teachers’ bodies. So, for example, we can talk of creating “safe [classroom] spaces” in order to safeguard students’ feelings. We can even warn learners if material might offend, as well as watch what we say and do in an effort to protect students from any potential trauma. But we cannot, it would seem, matter, too. Instead, we must (if good and caring) be on affective autopilot, where we can only have “good” thoughts about students. We are not really allowed to feel what we feel, express raw emotion, have a body—unless, of course, that body transmits feel-good intensities.
And, feeling bad about teacher evaluations ... well, for the most part, that needs to remain a dirty little secret, because, how can you possibly let yourself get so hot and bothered over a thing—a mere object? Yet, teacher evaluations can and do impact our lives, often in ways that are harmful: by inflicting pain, triggering trauma, encouraging sexism and objectification. But maybe, just maybe, they even offer up some good. After all, if teacher evaluations teach us anything, it is this: you are not simply a body, but rather, an “array of bodies” (Bennett 112, emphasis added)—and your body, my body, our bodies “must be heard” (Cixous 880).
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