We recently had our year-end meeting of the college my department belong to, and with that, the various annual awards for "excellence" in one thing or another. Of the awards open to faculty, I'm often interested in the teaching award and what kind of person wins it. This is not because I have any remote possibility (or aspiration) of winning, but more because I am ever curious how one's teaching is evaluated.
Research excellence is fairly easy to define. We have metrics, we have concrete things that can be used as a measure of one's success, even by people less familiar with your field. Teaching evaluation, OTOH, is more nebulous. We have some subjective ways to assess teaching, but few of us employ rigorous evaluation methods of our teaching. In the particular case of this award, it is often the students who make the case for the award, which brings in a new set of problems.
It's traditional for the award presenter to read some snippets from the nomination letters and I listened carefully this year to what were the key things that set this particular professor (who I have never met) apart in the eyes of the students. "Enthusiasm", "commitment" and "depth of knowledge" were terms that certainly surfaced, but well over half of the student comments were along the lines of "This professor got to know us on a personal level", "the professor made a strong connection with their students", or some such statement implying that the students place a large value a professor's interest in them as more than students. Perhaps as friends?
Fair enough. I get how student engagement is key to getting their investment in a course and I'm not advocating for situation where the totality of student/professor interaction is with a podium in between. However, I have to admit that the level of "personal" interaction that the students seemed to revere left me a bit uncomfortable. I often joke with the students in my classes, make conversation with them while setting up before class and encourage the promising ones to get involved in research, but I don't see it as my role to go much beyond that.
I'm sure someone will pull out the trusty "students today just want to be spoon fed and coddled and get offa my lawn!" in the comments, but I doubt that has changed as much as many "remember". But sitting on this side of the desk, I wonder where the different expectations are in terms of getting "invloved"* with one's students and whether I should even care. I have no plans to be more aggressive about getting to know my students, but can I get them to respond to the class as well without going the extra (overly-personal) mile?
*In the non-creepy way.