Profs: Release your evaluations

Ah, spring is in the air. The Twins are back at work, something like 10 percent of those eligible actually voted in student elections, classroom attendance is plummeting as the thermometer rises and there is, of course, the dreadful return of the squirrels.

Another perennial rite of passage is the registration process. Much like little squirrels, we scurry around the maze of class schedules and descriptions, hoping to find that perfect class: not too early a start time (read: not before noon), definitely not on Monday or Friday and hopefully, it knocks off as many of those liberal education requirements as possible. Unfortunately for us students, however, the resources provided by the University in assisting students with course selection are few and far between.

First, let’s talk about course descriptions – you know, those little blurbs that summarize everything you could ever want to know about classes. I’ll pick on my own major department, political science. For fall 2004, there are approximately 40 classes being offered at the undergraduate level. After perusing the Web site, I found blurbs for only 26 of them, or about 65 percent. Not too good.

But what can a blurb actually tell you? All the blurbs sound at least somewhat interesting and informative (Who would actually write, “this class sucks, do not take it?”), but students are left to speculate as to whether there is truth in advertising. What we need is some sort of revolutionary rating system (similar to that allows students to evaluate the teachers at the University! Such an effort might require billions of dollars and the invasion of another country in the Middle East, but it’s worth it!

But wait, you say, don’t we have those silly little blue bubble forms that we have to fill out at the end of each semester? Ah yes, those forms. In University-lingo, the “student evaluations of teaching” are meant to provide this sort of information, but not to students (that would be much too simple). Instead, these evaluations become part of faculty’s portfolios that are used to evaluate performance. According to the Minnesota Data Practices Act, such information cannot be made public unless a faculty member consents to it.

Surely the benevolent members of the University faculty would be more than eager to help us make wise decisions in course selection, right? Much to my surprise (OK, that’s a lie, I knew this), there are relatively few evaluations available on the

Internet. In political science, there are zero. A July 7 Minnesota Daily article, “Plan would make course evaluations public,” investigated some of these concerns. Leading the charge against releasing these documents was Kenneth Heller of the physics department, who argued it would turn the process into a ratings game and promote grade inflation.

Both of these fears are misguided and wrong. Intelligent course selection decreases the number of times you need to withdraw from a class, which results in fewer “Ws” marring your transcript and less wasted time. It also lessens the pressure on faculty members for getting good ratings. I would much rather be rated by a group of students who were informed before they took the class than a hostile group that had little information ahead of time.

For those who warn of grade inflation, more public information would probably confirm what many already suspect: Grade inflation is rampant at college campuses across the country – a problem that has led Harvard University and other Ivy League schools to limit the number of As given during any semester. The two problems are unrelated, and one (grade inflation) should certainly not limit the desire of faculty to address the other (more information for students).

What can students do? Contact faculty you’ve taken classes from and ask them to release their evaluations. Then contact the department chair and ask why he or she doesn’t encourage more faculty to release ratings. Finally, head to the top – contact the dean of your college and ask why students can’t have access to this or similar data.

We are consumers at this University and it is time we start asking for better and more complete information to help us make decisions.

Ryan Black is a political science senior. He welcomes comments at [email protected]