Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Ask the Administrator: Cheap Shots in Student Course Evaluations

A Canadian correspondent writes:

The CC has dramatically different standards and practices from the other schools [at which I've taught], but the one that concerns me at this time this. An anonymous student made a libelous comment about me on their evaluation. It is a serious one.This person wrote that I 'am a racist'.  I want this remark removed from the evaluations. (It is not true, of course, and there were no racial incidents in my class at all.) Even though we have a union which told me that the evaluations may not be used by our supervisors to determine our status, my supervisor has in fact quoted a previous student comment in a review session. I have not heard anything from her about this one, which was forwarded to me late last week. I don't think she has viewed it.
Since the statement was gratuitous, mentioned no incident, and was only posted by one student, would it be better to let it blow over and say nothing, or is it necessary for me to ensure that it is removed from my file? ( I have no idea whether there are letters from other students in the same file. ) The college's standards and practices have very specific penalties for frivolous and irrelevant complaints, including taking action against the complainer. The culture of this country is different from what I am used to; students who told me they liked and loved the class wrote nothing at all in the evaluation. Only the complainers wrote anything. My evaluation percentages are nearly equal with those of the other professors in the department in all but one category, though a little lower than last semester's (which were higher than the departmental average.) It was my first year here and this was to be expected.

Some caveats, then a few thoughts.

First, I don't know how Canadian labor law differs from American, so I can only take this case as illustrative in this context. Whatever translation needs to occur needs to occur.

Second, different collective bargaining agreements stipulate different rules for how student course evaluations should be handled. I've literally never heard of one that actually banned their use in evaluation altogether, since that would seem to defeat their utility, but anything's possible. Rather than taking a union rep's word for it (or a dean's word, for that matter), get a hold of the contract and look up the relevant language yourself. I wouldn't be surprised to discover that what's being presented as a blanket policy is actually more circumscribed.

Now that those are out of the way...

If student course evaluations there are anything like they are in every context I've ever seen, they're anonymous. By itself, that would seem to rule out “taking action against the complainer.” Besides, the student grapevine is fast and skeptical; if word leaked out that 'anonymous' course evaluations are, in fact, not anonymous, I'd expect to see serious hellfire and brimstone. As with the occasional anonymous troll on a blog, some people will use anonymity to spew bile for reasons of their own. It comes with the territory.

In your shoes, I'd alert your union rep that a student made the comment, and that you're concerned that your supervisor will take it at face value. If your supervisor brings it up, express mystification, and ask for substantiation. You may not be able to bring action against the accuser, but you're certainly well within your rights to ask for anything resembling evidence. If none is forthcoming, then a supervisor with half a brain will write it off to the usual student kvetching.

If the comment cited an actual incident, things would be very different. We're obligated to follow up on specific allegations of biased actions against members of protected classes. The key word there is 'action.' If a student mentions that, say, the professor singled out members of a given group for harsher scrutiny, that would automatically trigger an investigation. (We don't have the discretion, legally, to blow it off, even if it seems patently absurd.) But there's a difference between an actual incident and a blanket allegation of bias. In the absence of a specified incident, there's nothing to investigate, and therefore no cause of action. If the student's comment was limited to “he's a racist,” and offered literally no examples of the alleged racism in action, then it's of no more value than “he's a jerk” or “I don't like him.” (It's the difference between “he's a thief” and “he stole this car on this day.” The latter triggers an investigation; the former doesn't.)

Now it's always possible that a given supervisor could be looking for an excuse to fire you, or could have a hair trigger generally, or could just be paranoid beyond belief. People aren't always reasonable. But if that's true, then that would surface eventually anyway. Putting your union rep on alert early could help insulate you, since the union would know to jump on anything abrupt.

From my side of the desk, an isolated comment like that without even a hint of specificity would fall under the same category as “he's mean” or “he assigns too much homework.” In other words, by itself, it's just surface noise. If it were part of a pattern, I'd be curious, but a single comment is just that.

What I absolutely would not recommend is trying to figure out who the student was, and going after him. This is where you get to be the grownup.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, how have you seen issues like these handled? How do you think they should be handled?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.