Only in September do Columbia students visit a certain website more often than Facebook, the New York Times, or BuzzFeed. This distinction is held by CULPA, the undergraduate, student-run professor review site. Aside from those few unfortunate times that you are signed up for a course with a professor who is either new or has never been reviewed before, CULPA offers wonderfully useful information on the quality, style, difficulty, and workload of any given professor in the Columbia community.
At the same time, CULPA receives its fair share of complaints. The most common is that the reviews are polarized, split between those ecstatic after receiving an A and those vengeful after receiving a less-than-decent grade. Whether or not this is true (and I’m sure the claim is hard to prove), CULPA has a more notorious shortcoming. By reducing the evaluation of a course to a number of comments on the toughness and teaching style of the professor, CULPA precludes students from analyzing the worthiness of a course on the basis of the material that is to be taught. Would it be worth weathering a lugubrious lecturer for the gems in a unique reading list?
This problem is recognizable in CULPA’s very mission statement: “Before CULPA, there was really no efficient way to find out about your potential classes for the next semester,” the site explains. “You could ask friends in your major who had taken other courses—in which case you could get opinions on at most one professor per class. You could ask professors for their opinions on their colleagues’ teaching styles—but the help you could get there would be, as you can probably figure, questionably reliable at best,” the site continues. But is this really the only way to “find out about your potential class”? Should the decision of what to take solely be based on the teaching style of the instructor?
Any given course, arguably, is comprised of both the professor and the course’s content. While the two are often intimately related, they are two separate things, and so deserve two disparate litmus tests. CULPA, though, offers only one, and it does so at the risk of encouraging Columbia students to rate a course irrespective of its content. While students choosing between sections of a Core class require no more information, students using CULPA for any other class would benefit from information on the course’s curriculum. Take, for example, the Barnard course Reacting to the Past, with Professor Mark Carnes.
Pioneering an innovative pedagogical style, Reacting uniquely places its students in an elaborate conference setting in the midst of one of history’s great events. Each student makes historical arguments out of a number of key texts, prepares speeches and written material, and forms coalitions in an effort to achieve his or her goal. CULPA, though, does not encourage its reviewers to offer any of this information to curious students.
One review, a complaint, reads, “He gave extremely vague instructions which he would refuse to elaborate on to leave us some creative liberty, which would be fine if we knew what we were supposed to do in the first place,” without giving the reader any idea of what the idiosyncratic nature of the material is. “Mark Carnes is a genius and will first teach you the material in an exciting way, and then will let you act out the material for yourself” praises Carnes’ abilities, but, again, fails to fully explain the teaching method or comment on the potential virtues of the course.
Columbia already offers very little information about the courses it offers, rarely providing students with enough information to make astute selections. Up until a year ago, aside from the name of the professor and of the course, all that was available was a two- or three- sentence synopsis. Now, one can access certain syllabi for a limited period of time during registration. But other universities list the reading list, course requirements, and other information on the very directory, offering their students a lot more information with which to make their choices.
With Columbia doing less than its best in providing students with this information, CULPA could help assuage the problem by providing students with inklings of what a student may learn at the semester’s end. CULPA does Columbia a great service, but it risks doing a great disservice as well. A review site that judges professors almost entirely on their strictness, grading policy, and amount of work is in danger of prompting students to cease analyzing courses based on the readings of the syllabus, the type of mental exercises that the course will require, or the relevance of a particular course to the greater major or field of knowledge.
Unavoidably, much of the semester will be spent agonizing over the technicalities of the course: the teacher’s expectations and the amount of hours spent on writing and studying. But the few days in September dedicated to course selection have the opportunity to be about something more—to be about discovering education for the sake of education and romanticizing about what a given course might hold. It would behoove CULPA to help students grasp this lofty yet reachable goal.
Joshua Fattal is a Columbia College junior majoring in history. Fattal Attraction runs alternate Mondays.
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