Tanks & Convertibles

Small Justices

A close friend recently received one of THOSE evaluations. You know the kind: the sort that makes you want to spit nails, then nosedive into a deep hole and pull in the dirt over you. It put me to thinking once again about evaluations: about how we need them and how I generally hate them. I’ve gotten the awful kind: “I cannot muster significant passion for your work to represent it to publishers” (ouch!) And “this is perfect, don’t dare change a thing” (gag).

We’ve all gotten evaluated: by a teacher, by a boss, by those we served. And how often did those evaluations empower and encourage us? Not often enough. So let’s consider what ails most forms of evaluation, and then envision healthier possibilities.

Imagine one of those faux tanks with darkened windows motoring down the roadway, muscling your smaller vehicle aside. You yield—who wouldn’t with potential destruction filling the rearview mirror? As you shift lanes and restart your heart you wonder, Who’s behind the wheel of that monster?

Now imagine on the same stretch of road a convertible, top down, cruising, the driver hailing you. S/he gives a thumbs-up for your excellent lane change and, when needed, hollers, “You’re straddling my lane: over to the left, please.” Which vehicle and driver has the best potential for producing long-term positive effects on your driving?

The faux tank serves as a metaphor for our current evaluation modes and the convertible for our hoped-for evaluation vehicle. So just what ails that tank?

  • Misuse of Power: I am in a position of power over you; I can do to you as I wish. In tank-styled evaluation the evaluator dares the recipient to disagree. Want to keep your job? Get a referral? Pass my class? I have determined what is wrong with you. Accept it. Move aside.
  • Misuse of Anonymity: Driving around in a giant, insulated tin car encourages arrogant (size does matter) and aggressive (take that!) behavior. Aggressive impulses inherent in our human condition take the wheel behind those tinted windows. In the same way, anonymous evaluations that exclude the give and take of egalitarian relationships bring out the harpy in evaluators. “Had it been me, I would have known to do X, but he did Y and made a mess of it.” The evaluated is denied the opportunity to express his/her truth or even to request clarification.
  • Misuse of Guidelines: Those white lines on the highway serve a purpose, but they also limit direction. That’s needed when we’re driving, but black and white thinking undermines out-of-the-box thought and action. Evaluation forms laid out in yes/no, either/or, poor/fair/good, effective/ineffective formats inhibit an evaluator’s experience of the evaluated. Postmodernists have shown us the limitations of black and white thinking, but our evaluation methodology has yet to catch up. Let’s make room for the creative ATVs to maneuver.
  • Misuse of Perspective: We now add a commanding and impatient passenger to our faux tank: “Get me there now.” The faux tank driver barrels down the highway, assessing your vehicle as s/he blows by. How can you get a thoughtful or thorough evaluation? In the same way, evaluators are handed forms at the end of a seminar, the close of a class, or when the webinar wraps. There’s good reason for the practice—few participants respond to evaluations provided later. But urging folks to evaluate when their minds are already heading toward the parking lot replaces accuracy with expediency. Recall a teacher or a boss who impacted your life for good. How long did it take to appreciate that person’s work?

More vehicular thoughts next time! What are your thoughts so far?

Justice is a certain rectitude of mind whereby a man does what he ought to do in circumstances confronting him. ~ St. Thomas Aquinas


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