The “Overheard at Yale” Facebook group was abuzz following the posting of a particularly scathing course evaluation. The self-described “rant” was posted on the same day that faculty received our own course evaluations from the previous semester. So it is perhaps with that too-close-to-home lens that I read the post, and the accompanying comments, with dismay.
When I first started teaching, senior faculty advised me to ignore the student evaluations of teaching (SETs). Colleagues confided that they had stopped reading evaluations of their courses, citing that SETs are demoralizing. Initially, I doubted that course evaluations could be that bad. After all, Yale faculty are established experts. They have published and spoken extensively; as part of the hiring process, they give multiple lectures. Moreover, Yale students are highly conscientious, socially responsible people who genuinely want to make a positive impact on the world. So how could Yale course evaluations be so awful that excellent teachers are demoralized to the point that they will not read their own reviews?
One theory is that anonymity has reduced some students to the level of online trolls. We know that anonymous online forums can evoke depravity in discourse. Some media outlets have shut off comment threads, citing that combative comments only serve to polarize opinion. Simply put: anonymous comments corrupt the process.
The post on “Overheard” (and the chorus of likes that followed for the cruel review) suggest that perhaps students are not aware of the purpose of course evaluations. The goals of SETs are straightforward.
First, faculty read their evaluations, and use the feedback to improve their teaching. Critical feedback can be used to improve courses and is extremely important (even if it stings). But when faculty become so deflated by personal attacks that they stop reading their SETs, the exercise is futile.
Second, administrators use course evaluations to determine who teaches which courses. SETs are considered in hiring and promotion decisions, and become part of the instructor’s permanent dossier. If the goal is to damage the career of these professors, a better way to do so would be to provide a thorough critique with specific examples of impropriety. When a student “rants” and lobs personal insults, the administration is likely to dismiss the student’s words.
And lastly, teaching evaluations are read by students to inform course selections. If the point of the SET is to caution other students against taking a particular course, one need not resort to inflammatory hyperbole.
It is important to distinguish between a critical course evaluation and a negative, personal attack. When I receive critical feedback about something tangible that I can change, I appreciate it. This is the academic review process, after all: academic publishing involves rigorous critique by multiple reviewers. Most academics have a thick skin when it comes to criticism of our work. But when I receive a negative personal attack, I am crestfallen.
To be clear, a personal attack is not about course content or even teaching ability, but instead focuses on the professor’s personality or appearance. For example, I have been criticized for my voice, my personality, the fact that I am a mother, that I once caught a cold and (my personal favorite) because I am “too humorous.”
Faculty are advised not to take the comments personally — yet when the focus is the person themselves, it is difficult to achieve objective distance. Most troubling is that some students seem to exert much effort — through brilliantly crafted prose — in an apparent attempt to inflict harm on professional and personal levels. That such talent is channeled with malicious intent makes me sad. It makes me sad because psychological studies of internet trolls show that they attack others because they enjoy the idea of other people suffering. Trolls are high in narcissism and psychopathy, and demonstrate a willingness to manipulate and deceive.
I sincerely hope that students who write these spiteful personal evaluations are not actual trolls. Mean reviews could be a function of something much more benign — for example, that displeased students use SETs to exact revenge for having earned a bad grade earlier in the semester. Unfortunately, the content of these nasty reviews often reveals that students simply found the professor to be boring, or unfair for requiring class attendance. It is hard to reconcile these soft complaints with the vitriol evident in some evaluations. So my final hypothesis is that students must not intend to hurt anyone — but anonymity prohibits students from understanding that the primary readers of SETs are the professors themselves.
I am not advocating for non-anonymous course evaluations. Social science research shows that anonymity enhances candor, and it is important that students can submit honest evaluations without fear of academic repercussions. But I encourage students — especially those who are most disgruntled — to be more humane when writing evaluations. Of course not all professors are excellent teachers, and some courses likely should be retired. Glowing evaluations for all are not the goal. But personal attacks undermine the course evaluation process. If the aim is to enhance the quality of courses and teaching at Yale, the best way to do that is to give us something we can work with.
I implore Yale students to seriously consider the objective before submitting SETs. Perhaps imagine sending the review directly to the professor. A critical review, devoid of personal insults yet incorporating constructive suggestions, will go a long way in improving courses.
MARNEY WHITE SPH ’09 is an associate professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences and of Psychiatry. In 2014, she was the Yale School of Public Health Teacher of the Year. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .