Hot lecturers and nasty ideologues

January 30, 2004

Stephen Phillips reports on sinister US student feedback websites

In November, ten University of Texas lecturers found themselves on a "Professor Watch List". Academic blacklists are not unheard of in the US, where Republicans frequently charge that campuses are in the grip of liberal ideologues bent on seditiously corrupting young, impressionable minds. But this one had a twist. It was compiled by students. Irked at what it saw as leftwing indoctrination in the lecture hall, the University of Texas chapter of the Young Conservatives of Texas (UTYCT), which counts former Republican House of Representatives leader Dick Armey among its advisers, circulated a list of those it considered the worst offenders.

One of the named and shamed "introduces the unsuspecting student to a crash course in socialism, white privilege, the 'truth' about the Persian Gulf war and the role of America as the world's prominent sponsor of terrorism", the report charges. Students "believ(ing) in the American Dream and that the US is a land of great opportunity" are counselled to shun the classes of another academic.

UTYCT president Austin Kinghorn says the watch list is a necessary corrective to "educators more interested in creating (political) disciples than educating students". He says the group is not engaged in McCarthyism and argues that the list enables prospective students to make informed decisions.

In doing so, UTYCT hopes to inject a little "competition and accountability" into the ivory tower, opening up tenure-bound academic cloisters to the same forces that in business "provide better products for customers".

David Edwards, a government professor at the University of Texas at Austin who, according to campus conservatives, "allows his hatred of conservatism and capitalism to permeate his entire curriculum", is not perhaps taking his listing in the spirit it was intended. Edwards makes no bones about his leftist leanings, but he says he strives not to foist his views on students. Moreover, feedback on the forms he distributes to students at the end of term has been overwhelmingly positive, he says, with some slight quibbles that he is too easy on the Bush administration.

There may be a good reason why Edwards is unfazed by his inclusion on the blacklist. He sponsored the university's first student-led faculty evaluation initiative in the 1960s, avows that "it's appropriate for students to critique courses and professors", and is pretty game, appearing on a conservative radio talk show recently to discuss the list. He is a grizzled 39-year faculty veteran who came up the ranks during the political ferment of Vietnam-era America, with a thick skin - and job security.

Edwards is less sanguine about the impact such lists may have on less experienced colleagues. "This can have a chilling effect, particularly on people who are not tenured - (or those) who are temperamentally less willing to express their views whatever the consequences." He laments that he wasn't asked to reply to his accusers.

Edwards could have had his say had he wound up on the website NoIndoctrination.org, though. The site, founded by a parent brassed off at perceived leftwing bias that her son encountered at university, rails against the same forces identified by the Texas conservatives. It proclaims: "Ideological fiefdoms are allowed to persist because those with academic responsibility fail to enforce their university's statements on academic freedom evenhandedly. Faculty rights are upheld; student rights are not. And the indoctrination continues. Out of frustration, we decided it was time for a new tactic: NoIndoctrination. org."

The site invites students to document instances of attempted indoctrination by faculty. Subjects of postings are served notice of the accusations levelled against them with an email inviting them to rebut the charges.

Some 113 student postings have been logged since the site went live in 2002.

NoIndoctrination bills itself as "a non-profit organization promoting open inquiry in academia". But this doesn't wash with Anita Levy, associate secretary of the American Association of University Professors' Department of Academic Freedom. "It's not for them to judge, that's for a body of their peers at the institutions to determine. (This) is like a kangaroo court," she says.

Away from all the political shenanigans, though, one thing is certain: student evaluation isn't what it used to be. Academics keen for the lowdown on how their latest course was received may consult a plethora of websites with names such as RateMyProfessors.com, TeacherReviews.com, WhoToTake.com and PickAProf.com dedicated to student comments about them.

RateMyProfessors counts more than 1.5 million postings spanning more than 310,000 professors at more than 3,700 institutions. Students rank faculty on a scale of one to five, with yellow smiley faces or blue sad faces against names denoting their popularity. There is space to enter comments, and student names are not divulged.

The founders of such sites bill them as forums for students to trade handy information on what they might let themselves in for by opting for so-and-so's class and give constructive criticism to staff.

Levy, however, is "troubled by the ease and anonymity of this sort of evaluating".

Indeed, under cover of anonymity, such websites are in danger of becoming the virtual equivalent of graffiti-strewn toilet cubicles where academics are vilified in shrill invective.

For example, on RateMyProfessors, some staff may evoke glowing praise - Professor T, for instance, "is totally cool. To keep us awake at 8am he tells us racy jokes". Others, however, are put down in the baldest terms.

One woman academic is described as "Devil woman! Her personality stinks - you can tell she was a lawyer."

Nevertheless, the sites' popularity hasn't escaped the attention of university managers. The universities of Texas and Houston and Arizona State have collaborated with PickAProf to set up in-house online student feedback systems.

Andy Knopp, student union president at the University of Kansas, helped push through a similar initiative there recently.

He says students swap notes on lecturers verbally anyway, tipping each other off on classes to avoid or jump at. "This is just a way of aggregating it for all students.

"Students are pretty excited about holding faculty accountable - this lets the good professors be recognised and singles out the bad ones."

Nevertheless, Levy is concerned at what she sees as the increasing importance of student feedback in tenure-track decisions.

"Decisions can be skewed by one or two disgruntled students - all sorts of things get into the evaluation process," she says.

Kansas is hoping that a critical mass of student feedback will put into perspective the extremely favourable or hostile comments that characterise many free online postings. But other biases may be harder to legislate for.

A recent University of Texas study found that attractive faculty fared far better than homelier colleagues in student evaluations. Beauty in the Classroom: Professors' Pulchritude and Putative Pedagogical Productivity , which looked at how 25,000 students rated 94 professors, concluded that the "effects of differences in beauty on the average course rating are not small".

This effect appears to be borne out by RateMyProfessors, where a disproportionate number of those sporting the red chilli pepper symbol denoting "hot-ness" command five-star ratings and gushing accolades.

More disconcertingly, non-native English speakers and women came out of student evaluation less well in the Texas study.

The ultimate driver of student evaluation, however, may be the consumer mentality pervading today's campuses. With Kansas students two years into a five-year doubling of tuition fees, Knopp says: "Credit hours are getting so expensive that we can't afford to waste a semester on a class that won't work out for us."

Levy is concerned that this customer mindset will corrode academic standards. "Sometimes the emphasis is on pleasing the consumer rather than learning quality." She fears students are using evaluations to plump for the easiest courses.

Knopp concedes that some do, but says others seek out more challenging classes. Ultimately, he adds, "it's useful to match teaching styles with learning styles".

As the debate about student feedback hots up in the UK, it seems that on both sides of the pond it is likely to become increasingly a part and parcel of academic life. The biggest issue may be building in enough controls to ensure that it's not a case of the inmates running the asylum.

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