Student Evaluations Pose Negative Side Effects

    Dear Editor,

    The system of student evaluations is obviously a useful institution
    that needs to be preserved. It gives students power that they would not
    otherwise have, and that goes some way toward counterbalancing the
    institutional power professors and other instructors have over them. While most
    professors and instructors aim at being as fair, balanced and objective as
    possible in their grading and in their general attitude toward students, some
    do not. Without student evaluations, students might be at the mercy of the
    arbitrary behavior of these professors, as is sometimes the case in other
    countries.

    However, the institution of student evaluations also has
    serious drawbacks that deserve more consideration than they are usually given.
    These evaluations do not constitute or even claim to be rational, objective and
    unbiased assessments based on truth and supported by facts, but are merely
    subjective expressions of arbitrary personal preferences, whims or resentments.
    In addition, their anonymity precludes any sense of accountability on the part
    of the students filling them out. Since no other form of feedback is requested
    from them, students are led to believe that the proper way to express one’s
    judgment and exercise one’s power is through anonymous means that leave one
    unaccountable and exclude the possibility of rational public debate open to
    contradiction.

    In other words, student evaluations amount to customer
    satisfaction surveys, and their existence both expresses and contributes to
    creating the prevailing situation in contemporary American universities where,
    just like anywhere else, citizens have been turned into customers; providers of
    knowledge or services into salespersons; things and humans into commodities;
    and truth value into market value.

    In the past I have heard some of my non-tenured colleagues
    state (in private) that the aim of their teaching was not for students to learn
    or understand anything but for students to be satisfied so that they would
    write positive evaluations, thus ensuring the instructor’s continued
    employment. While this degree of cynicism is not shared by most instructors,
    the system of student evaluations forces all non-tenured instructors — and to
    some extent even tenured professors — to view their students as customers,
    their teaching as a commodity and themselves as salespersons.

    I am not advocating the elimination of student evaluations.
    This advocacy would be as ridiculous, because its implementation would be
    detrimental. What I am suggesting is that a public debate be conducted on the
    system of student evaluations. Ultimately, this system involves some of the
    most crucial questions we have to face as members of an educational community:
    What is the aim of teaching? What is the purpose of a public educational
    institution in a market-driven world? What are the goals and reasons for being
    part of the larger community to which we belong?

    — Jean-Louis Morhange

    Literature Professor

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