Choosing classes is currently a shot in the dark. If there are no substantial CULPA reviews, we have few resources available to learn about professors. Yet a sea of information lies just beyond our grasp, in the form of course evaluations. Currently, course evaluations only factor into undergraduate life when we receive email reminders about them. If course evaluations are made open, as was proposed in the University Senate last week, we will have access to information that has the potential to radically change the way we choose classes. We do not expect open course evaluations to render CULPA immediately useless, but they can only add to the information that is available to students come course registration. Certain professors have expressed displeasure at the idea of open course evaluations, and we see merit in some of their arguments. They seem insignificant, however, as open course evaluations are the norm at a number of our peer institutions. It is not unreasonable for our professors to be subject to the same scrutiny that their colleagues face elsewhere. We must consider that the senate proposal—which is backed by most student representatives—does not seek to place undue or unbearable burdens on them. Even independent of what our peers do, the benefits of the open course evaluations proposal outweigh the costs. One concern for open course evaluations was of anonymity. In a University Senate hearing last Wednesday, anthropology professor Rosalind Morris said, "If you want to participate in this world as adults you must be willing to stand by what you say. There really is not transparency without accountability." We disagree. Anonymity is crucial to honesty and truthfulness in course evaluations. Students have a legitimate right to be protected by anonymity, as the student-professor relationship is asymmetrical—professors are in a position to assign students' grades, write recommendations, influence other members of the faculty, and sit on academic committees that directly affect undergraduate life. Another concern was voiced by School of the Arts professor Bette Gordon, who said, "Open course evaluations could create an atmosphere of pandering, surveillance, that could undermine responsible teaching." Open course evaluations will hold professors accountable without being detrimental to "responsible teaching." This is a concern that might be most relevant to newer, and especially untenured faculty. The senate proposal, however, seeks to address this problem by incorporating grace periods for new professors. More fundamentally, an atmosphere of pandering and surveillance will only exist if professors allow it to. We expect that our faculty will not succumb to such pressures. Another concern is that the extent of the information that will be made open to students is still unclear—the senate proposal suggests "responses to selected quantitative questions, and at least one general qualitative question such as Would you recommend this course to your peers, and why?'" We are encouraged that the senate proposal seeks to provide more than numbers. Quantitative statistics alone are overly simplistic and give rise to less nuanced evaluations that provide little useful information. Should this proposal pass through the senate, we hope that the qualitative portion of open course evaluations will exceed what has been required in the senate. Furthermore, we hope that the quantitative portion would include statistical analysis of the numbers—showing outliers, standard deviations, and other useful information. Detailed evaluations will provide thorough, informative reviews that benefit students. The University has no obligation to provide us with an ordinal ranking of professors by ability. That would be futile. It is up to the University to release the evaluations as a means of providing us with more information about classes. It is then up to us, the students, to ensure that we use them well. Given the tangible benefits that would result, students should have incentive to devote more time filling out course evaluations. But students should also be realistic about using them, recognizing the shortcomings of any survey and not relying on course evaluations as the sole resource for choosing classes and professors. This proposal for open course evaluations has enormous potential, and we applaud the student senators who introduce it.
Columbia Spectator Staff