To the Editor:

All credit to the Teaching and Learning Committee for seeking to improve course evaluations. Changes in method, however, sometimes insert new problems into spaces vacated by old. Since the committee’s report doesn’t always specify which “instructors” or “faculty” will have access to online evaluations, African American Studies and French professor Christopher Miller (“Big Brother looms large in plan to improve course evaluations,” 11/6) is surely right to wonder about inappropriate snooping, as well as the temptation of especially non-tenured faculty to weight their courses too far toward student “voters.”

The Committee is understandably skeptical of evaluations filled out hurriedly in the last class of a semester, when everyone is looking forward rather than back. The current practice may seem like an imposition and a waste of vanishing class time. But it’s not as coercive as the carrot-and-stick proposal for online evaluations.

The most useful evaluations are generally voluntary. In seminars (not lectures) I’ve sometimes invited students to mail in their evaluations (anonymously) in their own time, even supplying stamped addressed envelopes. The returns are fewer, though not I think unrepresentative, and the students who respond are those with something to say and wanting to say it.

A member of the committee is quoted in the News (“Faculty vote for online feedback,” 11/8) as foreseeing, with online evaluations, “a cultural change,” a “change [in] how every course at Yale is taught and every course at Yale is chosen.” These changes, presumably for the better, hardly sound trivial. The news may not sit so well with our admissions team around the country, which has been persuading thousands of high school seniors every year (so successfully that one of our rivals has done its own share of snooping) that not every course at Yale, or every Yale teacher, is in need of such drastic repair.

Murray Biggs

November 10, 2002

The writer is a professor in the English and Theater Studies departments.