Devlin's Angle

July 1997

Performance Evaluation

Dear Professor G,

It is my duty as your dean to inform you of the results of the recent review of your performance as a member of the faculty.

I shall begin with your performance as a teacher. Here the student responses are mixed. While the majority of your students acknowledge that you seem to know the material, and some go as far as to say they find you inspiring, many complain that your expectations are far too high. The Review Committee notes that, although your courses have only ten basic requirements, most students fail your tests.

[As an aside, let me ask if you have considered lowering your standards so that more can pass? This has been shown in the past to lead to far higher student evaluations. Parents love it, and the institution as a whole goes up in the rankings for improved teaching effectiveness.]

There was considerable concern that you seem to have a belief in absolute truth, and have on occasion marked a student's answer as "wrong". This is a very outdated view of learning. As you are aware, it is our philosophy that all views expressed in the classroom are equally valid. Consensus should be our aim. In future, you should avoid giving the impression that you are in any way more knowledgeable than the students. Remember, truth is relative.

In addition, you rarely come to class, and your performance in responding to questions is not good. The few students whose approaches to you have met with a direct response, say that your replies are often very obscure and difficult to interpret.

It seems that, for the most part, you expect the students to learn for themselves, using your book as a source. Students find this particularly difficult due to the book's thickness (which they find daunting), the dull cover of the present edition (Have you thought of finding a different publisher?), the lack of highlighted paragraphs to make learning for tests easier, the absence of flow charts to help solve problems, the complete absence of color illustrations, and your failure to provide exercises with answers in the back.

We note that all the other members of your department moved over to the reform method of instruction last year. The comment you make in your self-assessment, that your methods have worked well for several thousands of years, strikes the Committee as weak. Just because something has worked for thousands of years does not mean it will continue to work. Moreover, by adopting the reform approach, we become eligible to apply for large amounts of NSF funding, which will enable us to buy the expensive computers we need to teach using the reform method -- had you ever thought of that?

As a first step toward changing your teaching methods, the Committee suggests that you consider making use of the computer and various visual aids in at least some of your classes. Evidence indicates that our students respond particularly well to video presentations. Moreover, by setting the volume on high, you will ensure that your colleagues teaching in neighboring classrooms will realize you are making use of modern teaching methods, and will start to regard you in a whole new light.

Many students complain that your office hours are infrequent. They are particularly upset by your habit of arranging them on Sundays and other days off.

Turning to your record in research, I regret to inform you that here the Committee has significant reservations. First, you appear to have just one major publication. Though many speak highly of it, praising the original thought it shows, others voice specific complaints: It is written in Hebrew, whereas English is now the accepted language for serious academic discourse; it contains no detailed references to your sources; and it was not published in a refereed journal. Furthermore, there is some suggestion that many sections of the book were written by others, though perhaps under your guidance.

Some members of the Committee observed that, while it may be true that you created the world, that was some years ago, and they wonder what you have done since then.

Others remark that the scientific community has been unable to replicate many of your results.

It is particularly worrying that you did not seek NSF support for your work. As you are aware, the Finance Officer depends on the overheads from research grants in order to balance the budget, and the President likes to include a long list of grants in her annual report to the regents.

On a technical matter, it appears that you did not apply to the ethics board regarding the use of human subjects.

Finally, in terms of service, our expectations in this area are, as you know, fairly minimal for someone such as yourself, at an early stage in your career. The only comment the Committee has asked me to pass on to you is that you seem to prefer to work alone. This goes against our desire to see far more collaborative work.

After much deliberation, the Committee has recommended, by a narrow margin, that your contract be renewed for a further year. However, we strongly urge you to address the specific points raised in this letter.

Wishing you the very best for the coming year, I remain,


Note: The above letter was culled from several sources, and many parts have been circulating around the Internet -- and before that on scraps of paper posted on bulletin boards -- for years. Given that this is the season when such letters are sent out at colleges and universities all across the nation, I should add the familiar movie disclaimer that this is a work of fiction, much of it plagerized from unknown authors, and it should in no way be taken to refer to any real faculty member, either living or dead.

For those readers who seek to infer my own views from the above passage, I should point out that the linguistic coding scheme I am using is not the familiar one of the English language. Rather, the initial symbol-string "Dear Professor G," denotes Andrew Wiles' proof of Fermat's Last Theorem, and the remaining (rather long) string is simply an end-of-file marker. In other words, what you have just read is Wiles' proof.

- Keith Devlin

Devlin's Angle is updated at the beginning of each month.

Keith Devlin ( is the editor of FOCUS, the news magazine of the MAA.

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