To the Editor:
In response to Professor Charles Bailyn’s guest column yesterday, (“Turning around our dismal course evaluation system,” 11/5), the phenomenon of online evaluations seems inevitable and mostly salubrious, but I am troubled by several aspects of the new proposal.
Professor Bailyn makes no mention in his column of a radical change contained in the proposal of the Teaching and Learning Committee. Evaluations have been until now entirely the responsibility of each academic department at Yale, handled by the department and used only within the department, particularly as it reports to the administration and committees at times of renewal and promotion. Now this proposal offers a system in which “officials and committees of Yale College” would have complete (and presumably immediate) access to all class evaluations. This represents an enormous change in the practices of the college — change that the proposal fails to acknowledge or justify in any way.
With this new system, I think it is easy to see that a change in the culture of the college would ensue. Students will be coerced into evaluating every course they take — if they want to see their grade online. For professors, evaluations will be infinitely more important than they have been; after all, Big Brother will be watching, electronically. Instructors, particularly untenured ones, may feel obliged to teach with an ever-more vigilant eye on their students’ satisfaction quotient. This might be a good thing in some cases, but it can also work to the detriment of rigorous pedagogy. Further grade inflation could result.
The proposal is unacceptably vague about access to and use of information in the evaluations. Vaguely-described “officials and committees” (Which officials? Which committees?) would have access. For what purposes? To what end? What safeguards would be put in place to prevent the abuse of this information and its circulation beyond proper boundaries?
Among other things, the proposal seems to represent a great expansion in the role that could be played by the very committee that has made the proposal, the Teaching and Learning Committee. It is unclear what the new system will do to improve either.
Christopher L. Miller
November 5, 2002
The writer is the Frederick Clifford Ford Professor of African American Studies and French