Teaching and Course Evaluations

I teach a number of undergraduate courses; descriptions of my principal classes are provided below

Anthropology 124P (NOTE: Beginning Fall 2017, this course will be renumbered as Anthropology 124S) – The Evolution of Human Sexual Behavior  This is my flagship course; I typically offer it once per academic year.  Employing the principles of evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology, the class explores aspects of human sexuality and many related features of human behavior.  Topics covered include mate selection and attractiveness; sex differences in violence and aggression; jealousy; men’s proprietary attitudes toward women; dominance and prestige; the effects of childhood environment on development and adult behavior; sexual coercion; olfactory communication; sexual orientation and same-sex attraction; disease avoidance; and inbreeding avoidance and incest taboos.  Students typically describe this as a fairly demanding course: more than half of the readings are from the primary scientific literature, and the class moves quickly – those interested in an easy, titillating class on sex should look elsewhere.  Note on enrollment: some background in the basics of Darwinian evolution is required; Anthro 7 and Anthro 12 offer such background, but the introductory Life Sciences courses, or other similar classes, are acceptable alternatives.  If you have the requisite background, do not be discouraged by the Registrar’s notice that implies that Anthro 7 or Anthro 12 are required prerequisites – they are not.

Anthropology 194-1 – Lab Research Seminar  This is a two-hour seminar for research assistants in my lab (see FessLab page); I typically offer it every quarter.  Each week, we explore the background findings and theoretical premises from which hypotheses are derived, the process of generating empirical predictions, and the factors that contribute to the choice of methods for a particular project.  Students participate in the full scope of the research process as it unfolds, from initial design to publication.  This class is valuable both for students who are planning careers as research scientists, and for those who simply want to better understand how experimental social science findings are generated.  Participation in FessLab and enrollment in this course are by invitation only; students who display evidence of both high academic achievement in relevant fields and substantial drive, initiative, and responsibility are eligible.  If you feel that you qualify, contact me via email.

Anthropology 19-1 (numbering may vary from year to year) – Animals in Translation: Evolutionary Approach to Animal Thinking and Autism  This course is part of UCLA’s Fiat Lux series, courses that are intended as an informal introduction to a topic wherein freshmen and other interested students can learn from a professor in a small seminar format; I typically offer it twice per academic year.  Temple Grandin is a noted authority on humane practices in animal husbandry.  An autistic herself, Grandin offers many interesting observations and speculations regarding parallels between animal cognition and autistic cognition.  In this course we read Grandin’s popular book on these subjects, Animals in Translation, and use it as a starting point for discussions that introduce the paradigm of evolutionary psychology.

In addition to the above courses, I periodically offer graduate seminars, the principal topics being i) evolutionary medicine (the application of evolutionary anthropology, evolutionary biology, and evolutionary psychology to contemporary medical and public health problems), and ii) social and emotional influences on prosocial and antisocial behavior.  Exceptionally promising undergraduates can enroll with instructor permission; contact me if you feel that you qualify.

 

Course & Professor Evaluations

Students often make many sacrifices in order to attend UCLA, and they generally work very hard while here.  Students can only take a finite number of courses before graduation.  They should therefore choose wisely when selecting their courses.  The quality of a course, and the teaching skills of the professor, thus rightly figure prominently in students’ decisions when enrolling in classes.  At the end of each course, UCLA asks students to fill out an evaluation assessing the class and the professor.  However, when selecting their classes, students do not have access to the evaluations generated by their peers in previous years.  Rather, these evaluations are exclusively used by UCLA to privately assess professors, and are not made public.  As a consequence, when choosing their courses, students must rely on hearsay from friends – data that will often be inaccurate due to small sample sizes, and that will generally be unavailable to freshmen, transfer students, and others who do not have established social networks at UCLA.  Students also rely on websites such as Bruinwalk.com and RateMyProfessors.com, but here again the sample sizes are tiny, and, moreover, frequently bimodally distributed – only those who love or hate a course are motivated to post their thoughts on such websites, yielding a wholly unrepresentative sample.

This situation is simply indefensible.  Students have a right to know what their peers think of a course and of a professor.  The requisite information is already being collected by UCLA.  Yet, students are not given access to this information.  The solution is simple: course and professor evaluations should be public.  I therefore post my own evaluations as a first step toward this goal.  Students can find my evaluations, organized by course and by year, at the bottom of this page.  (In 2011 UCLA transitioned to an online evaluation system, hence evaluations after that date are compact files; in contrast, older evaluations are large files of scanned paper-and-pencil forms. I have done my best to make the latter complete and legible; given the laborious nature of this process, I have only posted evaluations dating back to Fall 2010).

I have endeavored to persuade my colleagues to post their own evaluations.  In response, they have raised a number of concerns.  While these concerns are legitimate, I believe that they can be addressed such that they need not preclude making evaluations public.  Below I detail these concerns and my responses to each.

1. As evidenced by postings on Bruinwalk.com and similar websites, making evaluations public will lead to a decline in their quality.  Instead of providing an honest assessment that is useful for evaluating the course and the professor, students will begin commenting on irrelevant trivia such as a professor’s physical attractiveness.  Likewise, instead of generating useful evaluations, students will devote the space to coaching their peers on how to get a good grade in the course.

My reply: The rapidity with which Internet fora degenerate into drivel is well known, hence the above concern is a very real one.  However, the solution is simple: Inform students in advance that evaluations that stray from the stated goals of the assessment process will be redacted.  To prevent self-interested professors from redacting legitimate negative evaluations, departments should keep complete unredacted versions of the evaluations on file, and any student who wishes to do so should be able to view these by visiting the department in person and presenting a student I.D. card.  In keeping with the above, I will therefore black out any portions of an evaluation that can reasonably be construed to be inappropriate (i.e., comments on features of my person orthogonal to pedagogy; efforts to coach other students; etc.).  I have asked the UCLA Department of Anthropology to make my unredacted evaluations available to students per the above protocol.

2. Course evaluations can be influenced by students’ prejudices, hence publicizing evaluations can enhance discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, and so on.

My reply: Prejudice has no place in a modern democratic society, and is doubly unacceptable at a great university, where the free exchange of ideas is paramount.  Expressions of prejudice are therefore rightly removed from the public record, as they are inappropriate to the goal of evaluating courses and professors.  The redaction technique described above should therefore be employed whenever overt expressions of prejudice are evident.  This will not preclude covert discrimination, but we must trust that most students at UCLA are decent people of good will.

Several notes to students: First, keep in mind that one of the things that makes UCLA a great university is its ability to attract world-class scholars from around the globe.  English is a difficult language to learn as an adult, and accents are hard to eliminate.  If you have the good fortune to study from professors who have come here from abroad, cut them some slack when it comes to accent, etc.  However, if you feel that the professor’s language limitations notably impair your ability to learn, then it is legitimate to constructively remark on this in your evaluation (thereby hopefully motivating the professor to seek to address the problem, e.g., by using more slides in lecture, etc.).  Note, though, that this one feature should not color other aspects of your assessment.  Second, keep in mind that humans’ evaluative psychology is such that we tend to positively assess those who propound positions with which we agree, and negatively assess those who do the opposite.  Recognize this propensity in yourself, and strive to remove it from the evaluation process – try your best to be objective about the strengths and weaknesses of a course, and of a professor, independent of the degree to which you agree with the ideas put forth by your instructor.

3. The public will likely be upset that some highly-regarded (and highly-paid) professors receive poor teaching evaluations, and vice versa.

My reply: Whenever I meet people outside of academia and mention that I’m a professor at UCLA, the first question they usually ask is “What do you teach?”  No academic would ever ask this question, for the simple reason that it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of teaching at a major research university.  While undergraduate education is important at UCLA, it is not the principal area in which faculty are evaluated – nor should it be.  Research universities are engines of scholarship and innovation.  They benefit society not only by educating students, but, more fundamentally, by generating new knowledge.  Accordingly, research is paramount at such institutions – education is valued, but it is secondary to research.  Students attend research universities in order to learn from scholars who are at the cutting edge of their respective fields; those who wish only to learn from individuals who excel at pedagogy independent of their contributions to knowledge should attend a teaching college, not a major research university.  Because many of the skills involved in research are very different from the skills involved in teaching, it is possible to be a superb researcher but a poor teacher.  Accordingly, while it is appropriate to expect faculty at UCLA to take teaching seriously, and to do right by the students who take their classes, it is not appropriate to expect that a professor’s stature at UCLA will be a direct reflection of that individual’s teaching evaluations.

A Note on Transparency

My principal objective in posting my evaluations is to initiate a university-wide change in practice so as to allow students to more effectively select their courses, thus maximizing the benefits of their UCLA education.  A secondary goal, one compatible with my primary objective, is to increase transparency at the university.  UCLA is a public institution.  The people of the State of California have a right to know more about the activities of UC professors, and to have greater access to their work.  Toward that end, I post all of my published research here, I maintain a Google Scholar page that tracks the impact of my research, and I often work with the media to inform the public about my research.  I have encouraged, and continue to encourage, my colleagues to make their research similarly accessible.  Posting course evaluations provides another window in this regard, hence this is yet another reason that I hope other faculty will do it.  One caveat: when examining research output, research impact, and course evaluations, the public should keep in mind that professors play many roles at a major research university, including training graduate students and, importantly, running the university itself (although UCLA employs a large professional administrative staff, many of the organizational and governance functions are performed by faculty).  Similarly, faculty play key roles in extramural professional processes, including editing and reviewing the venues in which scholarly work is published, evaluating proposals for government and private funding organizations, advising policy makers, organizing community activities, and so on.  These functions will be difficult for the public to gauge, hence readers should keep in mind that faculty vary as to the extent to which they contribute to the university, and to society, via avenues other than research and teaching.

 

Anthropology 124P (Evolution of Human Sexual Behavior)

Winter 2017 Click here to download evaluations

Winter 2016 Click here to download evaluations

Fall 2014 Click here to download evaluations

Spring 2014 Click here to download evaluations

Winter 2013 Click here to download evaluations

Fall 2011 Click here to download evaluations

Fall 2010 Click here to download evaluations

Anthropology 194-1 (Research Seminar — Fessler Lab)

Spring 2017 Click here to download evaluations

Winter 2017 Click here to download evaluations

Fall 2016 Click here to download evaluations

Spring 2016 Click here to download evaluations

Winter 2016 Click here to download evaluations

Fall 2015 Click here to download evaluations

Spring 2015 Click here to download evaluations

Winter 2015 Click here to download evaluations

Fall 2014 Click here to download evaluations

Spring 2014 Click here to download evaluations

Winter 2014 Click here to download evaluations

Fall 2013 Click here to download evaluations

Spring 2013 Click here to download evaluations

Winter 2013 Click here to download evaluations

Fall 2012 Click here to download evaluations

Spring 2012 Click here to download evaluations

Winter 2012 Click here to download evaluations

Fall 2011 Click here to download evaluations

Spring 2011 Click here to download evaluations

Winter 2011 Click here to download evaluations

Fall 2010 Click here to download evaluations

Anthropology 19-1 (Animals in Translation)

Spring 2017 Click here to download evaluations

Winter 2017 Click here to download evaluations

Spring 2016 Click here to download evaluations

Fall 2015 Click here to download evaluations

Spring 2015 Click here to download evaluations

Winter 2015 Click here to download evaluations

Fall 2013 Click here to download evaluations

Fall 2012 Click here to download evaluations

Fall 2011 Click here to download evaluations

Fall 2010 Click here to download evaluations

Other courses

Spring 2017 Anthro 297-5 (Graduate seminar in experimental biological anthropology) Click here to download evaluations

Winter 2017 Anthro 297-5 (Graduate seminar in experimental biological anthropology) Click here to download evaluations

Fall 2016 Anthro 297-5 (Graduate seminar in experimental biological anthropology) Click here to download evaluations

Winter 2016 Anthro 220-1 (Graduate seminar in Evolutionary Medicine) Click here to download evaluations

Winter 2014 Anthro 220-1 (Graduate seminar in Evolutionary Medicine) Click here to download evaluations

Winter 2013 Anthro 220-1 (Graduate seminar in prosocial & antisocial behavior) Click here to download evaluations

Spring 2012 Anthro 297-5 (Graduate seminar in experimental biological anthropology) Click here to download evaluations

Fall 2011 Anthro 202 (Graduate seminar in biological anthropology) Click here to download evaluations

Fall 2011 Anthro 297-5 (Graduate seminar in experimental biological anthropology) Click here to download evaluations