The University Senate proposal authorizing individual units to prevent student comments from being seen by promotion and tenure and salary committees needs to be rejected. Its intent, I assume, is to prevent irrelevant insults and outright lies from becoming public. If so, it overreacts in the extreme by allowing units to prevent all student comments from becoming public.
There is no way to differentiate insults from criticisms. It is not possible to say that “Professor Smith should learn how to teach” is merely an insult, while “Professor Smith needs to take a course in pedagogical methods” amounts to constructive criticism.
The misjudged attempt to silence lies and insults will have the effect of silencing criticism and skewing evaluations toward the positive by insisting that individual complaints have no place on evaluations.
Making student dissatisfaction known constitutes one proper and desired end of student evaluations. The very purpose of anonymous comments is to protect students who want to blow the whistle. The proposed policy tries to take away the whistle.
Indeed, no other official avenues exist by which students can make their grievances known while enjoying appropriate protection. One hears arguments that faculty members should not be judged on the basis of anonymous and therefore unverifiable and unreliable comments.
Of course, it is the faculty members themselves who have insisted that evaluations be anonymous – rightly so, for one purpose of the anonymity is to ensure that evaluations be as reliable as possible.
We need to keep student comments public, moreover, because in them the students are not constrained by the parameters of the specific questions asked. For instance, evaluation forms include no question about whether teachers consistently came to class late or dismissed class frequently.
A great majority of the faculty members do not, of course, but a few do, and that fact should not be concealed from committees that review faculty members.The effect of the proposed policy is to remove power from students, silencing their individual voices and reducing each one to some fraction of a percentage in a bar graph.
What about the problem of “cherry picking,” that is, selecting one unrepresentative complaint against a faculty member and building a case on it?
This can indeed be a real problem, but the problem lies with those who exercise poor judgment in the process of evaluating faculty members, and the problem of poor judgment by decision-makers is not to be solved by imposing a gag order on students.
By and large, individual classrooms on this and every university campus are black boxes into which very little light is admitted – whatever light there is comes from students.
If use of questions whose answers are released to students can be, and usually is, prevented by unwilling teachers and if student comments on the general form go no farther than the teacher, then we effectively have pulled down a screen of complete darkness over professorial misconduct in the classroom.
We have ensured we are not accountable to the very students whom we as teachers exist to serve.
Joel Weinsheimer is a University professor. Please send comments to [email protected]