On Campus

Prof Evaluations PART 3 – The Ugly

Evaluations can bring out the least attractive aspects of human nature

Here’s the final installment in my three-part reflection on student evaluations. If you’d like to put this in proper context, you should probably read part one – “The Good” and part two – “The Bad” to help with that. Also, just to get everyone in the right mood, I’ll invite you to follow this link and read a classic post on RYS. This really gets at the gutcheck frustration that many professors feel with the student evaluation process. I don’t entirely agree with that perspective but I do understand where it comes from. And it isn’t just because there are flaws with the process and how it’s perceived. Those I covered in part two. Sometimes, student evaluations just bring out all the least attractive aspects of human nature. And there’s no way to pretend that it’s anything other than ugly.

For anyone who has ever read a campus Anti-Calendar, or browsed through RateMyProfessor.com, please don’t get the idea that what you see as student evaluations is the same thing your instructors see. Anti-Calendars are edited. I should know – I published three of them. Even RateMyProfessor is moderated. But what your instructors get back in the form of evaluations are the unedited comments of fifty or a hundred or several hundred students. And those comments can easily be enough to make any right-minded human being despair about the future of any society that invites students of this calibre into university. As I tell you about what I’ve seen, please bear in mind that as the editor of several Anti-Calendars I’ve also had the benefit of seeing these unedited comments – but only for those courses where an instructor has agreed to be published. This means that I probably haven’t seen the worst of what’s out there.

Truly depressing student feedback falls into two broad categories. The first is feedback that reveals how some students are simply unqualified and insufficiently equipped to function as students in university. The second is feedback that reveals how some students are unqualified and insufficiently equipped to function as human beings in society.

Here are some themes and comments I routinely encountered in student evaluations, but refused to publish:

  • I wish the professor would show more movies in class.
  • I wish my professor would tell more jokes.
  • We should have multiple-choice exams (when the course is an Arts subject).
  • This course isn’t fair because there aren’t enough marks for effort. Also, this class isn’t fair because I’m trying really hard and still can’t get an A.
  • I heard this class was easy and now the professor expects me to compete with students who actually study in this subject area! That’s so bullshit! (Note examples such as “Children’s Literature” and “Listening to Music.” I did routinely publish that students who thought these courses would be easy were “disappointed.”)
  • Class participation is unfair, because it penalizes students who don’t show up.

I could go on, but some comments need to be taken in context to be appreciated properly. For example, excessive workload in a course is a fair concern (and there’s an opportunity to put a numerical value on it too, in an expressly worded question) but when that comment is accompanied with the observation that “we have lives outside of school” it rather begs a question about students’ priorities. Full-time study is not, after all, simply a figure of speech. And there may be valid observations about an instructor who speaks in a relentlessly monotone voice, or has similarly bad lecture habits, but when students merely say “this professor is too boring” I tend to group that observation along with those who are looking for more jokes. And I simply can’t agree it’s a requirement in academia that a professor provide humour to keep students awake. It’s important to be reasonably engaging, yes, but professors are there to instruct and not to entertain.

So I’ve saved the worst for last. If you’re familiar with the Internet and with problems associated with anonymity, you only have to translate the problems of an anonymous message board to anonymous evaluations. I have seen blatant examples of:

  • The worst kinds of sexual harassment and objectification. This comes from both sides. There are deeply inappropriate comments about professors perceived to be attractive as well as inexcusable criticisms of instructors based on appearance alone. Both female and male instructors get it, but women definitely get the worst of it.
  • Racism and outright attacks based on ethnicity and immigrant status. These range from moderately reasonable concerns about an instructor’s accent all the way to “go back to your fucking country” and attacks based on some assumption that minority instructors must have been hired on an affirmative action basis.
  • Homophobia directed towards faculty who are known to be gay, suspected of being gay, or merely because “gay” is a convenient term for something that idiot students dislike.
  • Criminal accusations of harassment and professional misconduct. Now, the fact is that professors are human and may be guilty of harassment or professional misconduct. There are appropriate and protected channels to go through in order to report that. Throwing it on an anonymous evaluation is simply libelous, except to the extent that it can’t be traced. It can still start rumours and whisper campaigns, however, which is exactly why libel and slander are illegal.
  • Finally, there are any number of simply vulgar and pathetic attacks such as a foul-mouthed ten year-old might sling in the schoolyard. The odd one might come along with a drawing or diagram. One that I personally witnessed contained the suggestion that the instructor in question should go perform an unnatural act with a dog, and came along with a helpful illustration.

I don’t know what readers will think about all of that. I’m not sure what I think about it, sometimes. It’s definitely only a small fraction of students who write truly terribly things on their evaluations, and still a minority who offer the kind of feedback that makes me despair of their priorities, but knowing that it does happen I often wonder how fair and useful it is to subject instructors to this process. I know that as a student representative I always felt better about the students I represented before I read through a big stack of evaluations rather than afterwards. Assuming that instructors have a similar reaction, is it productive to continually depress them? Anonymity isn’t necessarily a virtue. Sometimes it only allows us to see all the ugliest things about the people around us.

Thus ends my three-part series.