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.

I also teach in Canada, although don't know much about actual labour law. DD's advice seems good (especially about reading your own contract), but I'll add one caveat - get in touch with your union rep again and have someone go through the relevant sections of the collective agreement with you. Your union probably also has someone who acts as an 'equity officer' and you might want to talk to them about it, too. But really, a one-off comment such as this, with no evidence, isn't really something to worry about unless higher-ups do start using it to evaluate or rank you. At that point you should go back to the union, where there should be a record of your original concern, and go from there.
Just a thought, perhaps the correspondent's comment about punishment for frivolous complaints is more likely in reference to his/her *own* complaint (possibly through the union) about the evaluation or the student? As DD points out, it would make little sense to try to punish the "anonymous" student, and it would be weird to have a policy related to punishing students for "complaints" unless this refers to a specific code on harassment etc.
This has occurred at my CC as well, where a confrontation between an instructor and student led the student to spuriously infer that the instructor was a racist. That feeling carried forward onto the written comments for out student survey system (we use Kansas State's IDEA form, which I would highly recommend). The instructor wanted the written comment expunged too. I told him to forget about it, that only a truly idiotic administrator would take any action on a single statement by a clearly disaffected student. I would say the same thing to your correspondent. The only way I would be concerned about such a comment is if it were repeated by several students, and with some supporting comments.

I wish I had a nickel for every time a student came into my office to call his/her instructor a racist/sexist/"---ist"!

We had a period when the Union contract bargainers insisted that there be no written comments on student surveys because our contract states that there will be no anonymous information in an employee's personnel file. Their argument was pretty much the same as your correspondent's: "What if a student writes that she knows that the instructor is a rapist? You would be obligated to investigate that wouldn't you? On the strength of a single anonymous comment." Thankfully, we are now past that period, but it was ridiculous while it lasted.
As an instructor, I think life is way too short to take action regarding every false comment that gets written on an evaluation, and I'm in agreement that the "racist" accusation is no different from any other false accusation in this situation.

(Note: while I've never been called racist on an evaluation, I was directly called a racist by a student who was attempting to bully me into passing hir in the course. The student didn't write this on an evaluation because the student missed 6 weeks of class, so wasn't there that day. Because this person told me directly that ze would go to my dept. chair, I sent my department chair a letter about the situation and forwarded all correspondence from the student in order to head the complaint off at the pass. This doesn't really seem to be your situation, though. A student who writes "racist" on an anonymous eval is unlikely to make a formal complaint about an instructor.)

Anyway, if it will ease your mind, you might discuss it with your supervisor, and ask if something can be placed in your personnel file addressing the comment. That said, in doing so you'll be drawing attention to the comment, so there is a chance that you're hurting yourself more than helping yourself in doing that.

One final thought: do you have any senior colleagues that you can talk about this stuff with? It seems to me that if your evaluations are about normal for the department, then you really are working yourself up over something that is not the best use of your time. But strangers on the internet can't really tell you that, because we don't know your institution or your precise situation.
I saw this:


recently in the Washington Post; it deals with customer satisfaction evaluations, and the conclusion is that women and minorities are consistently rated as providing less satisfactory customer service than do white males.

What (little) research I've seen on CTEs dealing with this point suggests that it might also be true for CTEs--that is, that women and minority faculty might be lower rated than white men. I posted about the discrimination issue on a teaching listserv, and one of the others on the list wrote "I’ve often wondered if/when student evaluations would come under the same scrutiny. If a college uses student evaluations for promotion and tenure decisions and if a similar bias can be shown to exist in student evaluations, then could the college be found guilty of gender discrimination?"

So (a) there's a real issue here and (b) there's a research opportunity here as well.
I would definitely do CYA with the union rep and your supervisor (just to get it on the record that you're flabbergasted), then let it drop. The whole idea is to get the comment treated like what it is, a ridiculous assertion which should not be taken seriously, but which you view as a nasty accusation.
I'd point out that the student comment does not even distinguish between "racist" because the instructor "favors white over black", "favors black over white", "favors Inuit over Real Canadians", "favors those with a French accent", etc etc.

I second or third the suggestion that the instructor get the contract explained in detail. You are probably within your rights to insert a statement pointing out that this disgruntled student didn't even give enough information to say what sort of discrimination you were guilty of - but only do this if others (e.g union rep as well as a senior faculty mentor) tell you it would be good to do so.

It could be better to let sleeping dogs lie.

At my (non union) college, evaluations are to be "discussed" with the instructor but are NOT part of the evaluation itself. I am told that the discussion of evaluations can focus on areas that might need attention by the instructor. (All I ever get is "keep up the good work".) The evaluations themselves are based on peer or admin observation, or both. More than one observation might be in order if there are student complaints.
Incidents such as the one in this post give me further relief that I'm no longer in academia.

However, if I were able to run an entire university, here is how I would handle student evaluations: students would have a choice of whether or not to sign their comments. Only signed comments would count for evaluation of teaching by administrators; only the faculty member in question would ever see unsigned comments. That way, if a student does say something that is truly libelous with the potential of destroying a reputation (e.g. "you're a racist"), then the faculty member has some recourse in the matter. At the very least, such a faculty member would have the opportunity to face his/her accuser, and, if necessary, the faculty member could possibly sue the student for libel and/or defamation of character.
A student once wrote on an evaluation of me, "She is an alien from another planet."

Luckily no one took the comment seriously.
As a graduate student I taught many classes (as the sole instructor). For some reason, there was a (state?) policy prohibiting the placement of anonymous evaluations in our file. Therefore each written evaluation by student were either (i) signed, or (ii) not placed in our file. (We did not receive the evaluations until after grades were due to prevent conflicts of interest.) This policy seems to be a good one and no doubt encourages more meaningful feedback.

@doc: The evidence is pretty clear that female mathematics faculty generally get more critical evaluations. The dean at my current institution has made it clear that he understands this and takes it into consideration.
As a (non-Canadian, non-Union teachers) supervisor, I might follow up "X is a racist" with "Any idea what might be going on with this comment?" My school uses the numeric ratings from student surveys as a factor as to whether or not we need to be looking more closely at an instructor or not, but the written comments aren't used for evaluation, just as feedback. We take anonymity really seriously.

I haven't had exactly this situation, but I've had some other comments that were unspupported by either specifics or other comments. The instructor either has no idea what's going on or they can identify the specific student who's been banging a specific issue all term long.
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