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‘Too ugly to teach’: universities ‘must end’ anonymous evaluation

Written by: Pola Lem
Published on: 24 Jan 2022

  Former AFL footballer Andrew Jarman is pelted with tomatoes by Carlton Football club supporters after losing a bet he had made in the pre season to illustrate ‘Too ugly to teach’: universities ‘must end’ anonymous evaluation

Source: Getty

Universities should overhaul the practice of allowing students to evaluate lecturers anonymously because it has led to widespread abuse, researchers behind an Australian study argue.

Richard Lakeman, the study’s lead author and an associate professor in the Faculty of Health at Southern Cross University, said a “radical” overhaul of evaluation processes was “overdue”.

He and his co-authors argue that anonymous surveys – which are common around the world and ubiquitous in Australian institutions – have become a platform to “harass, offend and, at times, menace” university instructors.

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“I don’t think anonymity serves the purpose it was intended to – to protect students from the wrath of potentially powerful academics,” Dr Lakeman said. “People should be accountable for what they say.”

He and his co-authors surveyed 791 Australian academics about their experiences with anonymous evaluations. The vast majority of respondents – more than 91 per cent – reported receiving non-constructive comments about their teaching, and “personally destructive, defamatory, abusive and hurtful comments” were common, according to the paper in Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education.

Comments spanned the gamut from general insults to targeted ones about instructors’ attire, their appearance and accent, claims against their character and threats.

They included remarks such as “too ugly to teach” and “I pity your wife and children”. Students called their lecturers names including “pathetic” and “senile”.

To add insult to injury, universities frequently recorded students’ numerical evaluations of instructors – which are used to gauge the quality of teaching and often shared with colleagues and supervisors – regardless of whether or not the scores were accompanied by abusive comments.

“The victim still needs to explain why they received a poor rating,” said Dr Lakeman.

While the team has yet to publish findings on the mental health impacts for lecturers, the feedback they have reviewed made it clear that these have been “very severe for some” teachers, said Dr Lakeman, who is also course coordinator of online postgraduate mental health programmes at SCU.

He acknowledged that there exist solutions to the issue that do not involve doing away with anonymous surveys altogether. For instance, institutions could use “technological fixes” to screen out responses with certain phrases. Some universities already redact offensive comments – but it is “unclear” whether they discount the numerical ratings tied to them, he said.

Nevertheless, Dr Lakeman was firm that universities should stop anonymous evaluations.

He urged the sector to come up with ways to “ensure that employees are safe and not exposed to hate speech, defamation and vilification in cycles of up to six times a year”.