Reviewing Dartmouth: The Controversy Over Course Evaluations

 

Course selection can be one of the most stressful processes that all Dartmouth students experience every term. Of the hundreds of classes offered by Dartmouth’s 61 departments, each student will only have the opportunity to experience an average of 36 courses before graduating. During the four years that students spend at Dartmouth, the average student will invest thousands of dollars and hours of his or her life ensuring that they receive the best education possible. It is because the opportunity cost of course selection is so great that it is critical that students have access to the best information possible about each course. Unfortunately, student course reviews for the past 5 years have been entirely incomprehensive and insufficient on the student-run Course Picker website and there are no signs of this changing.

Yet, the administration possesses the most comprehensive collection of course evaluations possible because they have the official course reviews that students complete every term. Each term, nearly 4,000 students take 3 classes apiece resulting in over 10,000 reviews produced every 3 months. In light of this,  the pragmatic solution to the lack of course reviews seems obvious. The administration ought to make the official course evaluations accessible to the student body.

            In an interview with The Dartmouth Review, Meredith Braz, registrar of Dartmouth College, confirmed that there have already been informal discussions among faculty and administrators about student access to Dartmouth’s official course evaluations. “I think many of our peer institutions have been moving towards sharing some of the information with students, but not all of it,” said Braz. Indeed, Yale, Princeton, Harvard, and the University of Pennsylvania make all of their official course evaluation data accessible to students. Furthermore, Cornell University releases all of the numerical data from its official course evaluations, but withholds the narrative data from the student body. Brown University does not reveal the results of its official course evaluations to students, however Brown has fully integrated the student-run Critical Review website, which is relied upon by students and faculty alike, into its course evaluation process.

When Dartmouth’s Online Course Assessment program (OCA) was piloted during the summer of 2006, the student-run Course Rank website was widely used by the student body and student reviews were plentiful for most if not all courses. According to the Office of the Registrar’s website, the OCA program was developed “to give [the Dartmouth faculty] more complete, accurate, and confidential information about the quality of the courses and instruction being offered at Dartmouth.” However, given the absence of comprehensive course reviews for the past 5 years on any of Dartmouth’s student-run course evaluation websites, it has grown increasingly important that Dartmouth’s official course reviews be released to students.

            According to Registrar Braz, while student accessibility to the official course evaluations “has been an ongoing informal discussion among administrators and department chairs,” formal discussion and debate among faculty and administrators would be a necessary first step before releasing the information. “There are definitely a variety of opinions on the matter among the faculty,” Braz said.

In an interview with The Dartmouth Review, Professor John Carey, chair of the Government Department, supported student accessibility to course reviews stating, “students ought to have the best information they can about classes. And, anytime you’re gauging public opinion, the response rate is critical.”

In contrast with Professor Carey, Professor Udi Greenberg, assistant professor of history, previously supported making the course evaluations public, however after exploring “the topic in more detail through both readings and long conversations with colleagues,” he has changed his opinion. “Initially, my support of [the reviews] being public was mostly for pragmatic reasons,” said Greenberg. “Knowing that there was Course Rank and the lists that frat houses and athletic teams sometimes keep, in which members of the organization write comments about the courses that they took, and those are so partial and so incomprehensive that I thought what Dartmouth has [should be] better…”

            In an interview with The Dartmouth Review, Greenberg provided a three-part argument for why the official course evaluations should not be made available to students, which is indicative of the sentiments shared by a portion of the Dartmouth faculty. “First-of-all, all of the research that has been done on this shows that there is tremendous bias in student reviews, especially towards women and minorities,” said Greenberg. “This is not necessarily conscious, but there’s a dramatic divergence between the grades that students give professors, especially young ones, and minority professors. For example, they feel very comfortable with minorities who teach classes about minorities and they get very high reviews, but if they teach about general topics the reviews get substantially lower.”

Secondly, Greenberg argued that by making the course evaluations available to students, Dartmouth, as an institution, is endorsing the importance of student satisfaction. “It’s sending a signal that the institution takes satisfaction as the highest priority even if satisfaction is only part of its priorities,” said Greenberg. “Student satisfaction is, however, not the most important part and not even necessarily an important part of how professors should be evaluated in the sense that they tend to benefit certain techniques of teaching and aspects of teaching but they are not necessarily the best at evaluating other techniques of teaching or how challenging a professor is.”

            Thirdly, Greenberg expressed concern that making course evaluations accessible to students would make faculty members vulnerable because students are protected by anonymity but professors are not. “It’s enough for one nasty or one sexist comment to be really discouraging and hurtful for professors,” said Greenberg. “And, the people who wrote those comments are protected by anonymity while the professors are not and it’s endorsed by the institution.” In this case, Greenberg suggested that it would be reasonable for professors to expect that students should no longer be protected by the systematic omission of their names.

            For these reasons, Greenberg concluded that the purpose of student evaluations is not for the students, but rather is for the benefit of professors and administrators. Moreover, he believes the onus is on the students and not the faculty or the institution to create and share information about courses. While affirming that student evaluations are important to an extent, Greenberg concluded that “the negative aspects of making course evaluations public may outweigh the benefit to students.”

            Given concerns like these, a compromise has been informally discussed among faculty and administrators that, as is currently the case at Cornell, Dartmouth ought to release the numerical data to students, but withhold the narrative portion of student evaluations. “The vast majority of the narrative material is thoughtful and constructive, but some of it isn’t, and the portion that isn’t would attract a disproportionate amount of attention,” said Carey. Thus, by withholding the narrative data, substantial course information could be released to students while also protecting professors from anonymous attacks. Greenberg, however, remained skeptical as to the efficacy of this compromise. “The problem is that the numbers present the information as though it is objective, but sometimes it hides substantial bias that cannot be measured by numbers,” said Greenberg.

At a certain point, however, The Dartmouth Review feels that the
Dartmouth faculty and administration ought to trust the student body to evaluate professors fairly and thoughtfully. Regardless of the outcome, a formal discourse among students, teachers and faculty about student accessibility to Dartmouth’s official course evaluations is long overdue. 

 

— John Hammel Strauss

 

**Please note that an early article incorrectly stated that Dartmouth undergraduates took a total of 34 courses before graduating. This error has subsequently been changed to reflect the fact that most students take 3 courses during each of the 12 terms that they are on campus for a total of 36.**