“Boycott Course Evaluations”
Law Street Journal Article (December 3, 1990)
By Randol Schoenberg
Thanks to the single-handed volunteer efforts of Phil Albert, second and third year students could register for courses last week with at least a slight idea of what they were getting themselves into. Although the Course Guide suffered from an extremely low response rate, it was able to provide at least some of the information which we all find essential. What type of a class is this? Does the professor call on students? Was the final fair? Were the students’ comments favorable?
Phil went to a lot of trouble putting together the guide, but he shouldn’t have had to. Every semester we students fill out long course evaluations before taking our finals. We are asked to measure our professors and their courses on an inane numerical scale which is weighted toward positive responses, and if we really feel like it, we are encouraged to add our own comments. What happens to these course evaluations?
Last month Dean Bice came to speak to the SBA in response to their request that student course evaluation results be made available for course selection purposes. Bice denied the request without discussion, as he has in the past, but felt compelled to explain in person why he will not release the statistics.
For over fifteen years the faculty has handed out the Scantron course evaluations and used them for performance review. The results are tabulated and shown to each professor individually. Professors also get a list of unidentified scores for all courses so they can see where they sand in relation to others.
The Dean says that he uses the evaluation statistics for judging part-time faculty, determining merit salary increases, promotion and tenure decisions. He also emphasized the impact of the comments on young faculty members, most of whom come to USC with little teaching experience and suffer from poor evaluations early in their careers. The Dean says that he reviews the comments and may make suggestions to new professors on how to improve their teaching style.
All that is well and good, but so far there is no reason not to disclose the results to students. But Bice feels—apparently very strongly—that publication of the evaluation results would embarrass some faculty members. For that reason alone he opposes any disclosure of the student course evaluations. He also expressed disapproval of the student Course Guides from last year. “I cringed when I saw it last year,” he said, “I really felt badly about some of the comments.”
Bice would rather protect the hurt feelings of bad teachers than let students have reliable information on which to base their course selection decisions. There is no doubt that students want evaluation materials. No one likes to pick a course blindly, and word of mouth often isn’t enough. Bice told the SBA that he felt the course descriptions in the student handbook were enough, but that he would be glad to provide more information so long as it wasn’t “an evaluation.” What is wrong with evaluations?
Bice compared the evaluations to grades. Students would not want their grades publicly disclosed, why should teachers? But students do have to disclose their grades in order to get a job. Sure, if we had the power we could band together and all refuse to disclose our grades to employers, but we don’t have that power. Bice and the faculty think they have the power to withhold the information we want.
The problem is that Bice needs students to complete the evaluations. He uses those evaluations. He wants them. If we refuse to fill them out, he is stuck. We have the right to course evaluation statistics. After all, we are the ones who provide all the information. If we want the results, we should have them. And if we aren’t given the results, we should refuse to contribute the evaluations.
Because of Dean Bice’s adamant refusal to allow the disclosure of the information we provide, the Law Street Journal is calling for a school-wide boycott of course evaluations for this finals period. Unless Bice consents to release the evaluation statistics, he should not have any statistics. Unless he changes his mind, all students should refuse to fill out the course evaluation forms.
Many students already neglect to fill out the forms before taking their final. It shouldn’t be too hard to leave the sheet empty. But this semester, in order to counteract this boycott, proctors will insist that everyone completes a form. If it becomes impossible to boycott, I urge students to sabotage the forms, either by giving only the lowest number or by filling in more than one oval for each question.
I also fervently hope that first years will join this boycott. Although no one has a choice of first year professors, next year you will have choices. If you boycott now, you will be more likely to have the information next year when you will really need it.
This boycott will succeed. The faculty will not give up course evaluations. If they have to, they will disclose the results in order to keep them. Bice says he uses the evaluations for so many things. Does he really want to do without them?
Here again are the arguments for a full disclosure:
- Students want and need course evaluation materials. Not just course descriptions. We want to know if the professor can teach!
- The best time to get course evaluations is during finals period, since more people will complete the evaluation at that time. After final grades are posted is too late, since after spring semester all the third year’s are gone. Also, it is harder to get people to fill out surveys put in their box.
- It is redundant for the SBA to conduct its own course survey. Some have suggested we attach our own survey to the administrations’ survey. What good would that do? Why go to all the trouble to get people to answer the same questions twice?
- It is difficult for the SBA to organize and produce an independent course guide. Witness the shortcomings of this semester’s guide.
- Students will publish a Course Guide anyway, so there will be no added embarrassment if we get to use the course evaluation statistics. Bice doesn’t want to be associated with a public “grading” of faculty. He is just going to have to get over it. Most Universities make their course evaluations at least partially available for use in student course guides.
- Evaluations are important information. Bice considers the evaluation statistics too dangerous to expose to “minor” students. What he is really afraid of is that we might actually use the information and—God forbid—avoid courses which are taught by lousy professors. Bice would rather have an entire class suffer through a semester with a bad professor than risk embarrassing that professor. He is also worried that we might find out that he continues to rehire part-time faculty in spite of their atrocious averages.
- In response to the argument that young professors may get unjustly deserved reputations, I would counter that publishing course evaluations would reward professors whom the students like and might actually give an incentive for better teaching. (Rather Posnerian, don’t you think?)
- I don’t think there should be any compromise on this. Either they give us all the information, evaluations and comments too, or we don’t fill them out. I don’t think there are any questions on the evaluation form that are too sensitive. In fact, the more sensitive, the more useful it will probably be to students.
The problem with disclosure boils down to this: If you are concerned about the hurt feelings of bad teachers, you support Dean Bice and oppose any student Course Guide. If you think that students have a right to know information which they provide, and if you think that it is more important that students be able to make informed choices then you support the boycott. Don’t be intimidated! Boycott course evaluations!