protecting students or enabling trolls? why faculty evaluations should not be totally anonymous

The following is a guest post by Robin Fowler.

I want to start by noting that I unequivocally appreciate the value of student feedback. In addition to the University-coordinated teaching evaluations, I regularly collect input from students regarding my pedagogical choices. Most of the feedback I get through both my own and the university’s evaluation systems is useful and gives me ideas for improving my courses and my teaching. Often, it is very constructive or even heartwarming.

However, the true anonymity of the student evaluations opens the door to trolling and other absolutely inappropriate communication to instructors; students say things via open-ended feedback that they would never say face-to-face or if they thought their comments could later be attributed to them (by anyone). There is a strong literature on communication medium, and total anonymity in particular, allowing for a total disregard of the impact of your words on your addressee. This leads to a few very inappropriate comments, which disproportionately affect under-represented groups but which are terrible for all of us. As our institutions work to create a more inclusive environment for students and faculty, it’s appropriate they consider the raced and gendered comments given a platform in this anonymous channel.   

Recognizing that some instructors perseverate on unhelpful trolling, a recent Chronicle article suggested we should each find a person we trust to read through our comments and then summarize them back to us in a constructive form. I can attest that figuring out a strategy is important: while the student comments from my midterm evaluation in a mid-level lab course gave me some good thoughts regarding changes I could make for the class, I almost lost sight of them, focusing on the “I used to love technical writing, but ROBIN FOWLER has ruined that for me.” This single comment– meant by someone to express their dissatisfaction in the course– has shaken my sense of purpose at my job. It affects my confidence that I can do this work, and it affects my job satisfaction.

I would love to see a new faculty evaluation system, one that removes total anonymity from the evaluation system and indicates to students that someone (perhaps the Chair of the Department or the Dean of the College) can see who wrote what (even if that person will rarely or never access this information). I absolutely respect that instructors should not know who said what; we might see these students again, and students should be able to provide critical feedback without worrying that those comments/ratings will affect letters of recommendation, their experience in later courses, or specific interactions with the faculty member in the future. I envision a model of faculty evaluation not unlike reviewing for academic publishing: while instructors don’t need to know what comments come from what reviewers, an “editor” knows who those reviewers are. In that space, while feedback could sometimes be framed more constructively (I’m talking to you, Reviewer #2!), it’s rarely or never intended as simple flaming. I do recognize the importance of a channel that does protect true student anonymity, but I see the Ombuds office as a better route for that.

Anyone who has been part of faculty groups via social media, or discussed feedback with colleagues, knows how inappropriate and destructive a small subset of student comments can be. For your personal enjoyment, and to illustrate this point, I offer these real statements received by me or by one of my friends. I’m sure many readers of this could provide similar examples.                

  • I used to love technical writing, but Robin Fowler has ruined it for me.
  • I used to love technical writing, but (other instructor) has ruined it for me.
  • I hope she pops that baby out soon, because she looks miserable and it makes me uncomfortable.
  • I am genuinely curious as to whether she has the credentials required to teach me.

Comments like these do not give me useful feedback for improving my teaching, but they can ruin my day. A system where student anonymity was not guaranteed would not eliminate unproductive negative feedback, but it might help to reduce it.

Robin Fowler is Lecturer IV in Technical Communications at the University of Michigan

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

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