Miller: Censoring Course Reviews

by Jon Miller | 11/10/14 5:38pm

The recent faculty vote to open course evaluations ostensibly seems to be a move in the right direction. And in some regards it is — Dartmouth ought to have made course evaluations available to students long ago. The editorial board’s Nov. 7 Verbum Ultimum discussed some of the proposal’s flaws, but it did not highlight some of the most troubling ones. In addition to the “opt-in” clause, which enables faculty members to open course reviews at their discretion, there is also the more troubling ability for faculty members to cherry-pick responses. Faculty members will have a 10-day window to pore over student comments, pull out ones they arbitrarily deem objectionable and submit them to their dean. The professor, then, could decide to censor student comments. Where is the line between truthful negative comments and ones subjectively considered to be inappropriate?

Censorship is at odds with the idealistic approach Dartmouth purports to take in trusting students. Computer science professor Hany Farid had an excellent proposal during the pre-vote discussion of the course evaluations proposal. Many popular sites allow individual users to like or dislike other user comments. If a comment receives too many negative votes, it is automatically removed. In this way, the student body — the group benefiting from opening course evaluations — could police the comments. Farid suggested this method to control extremely offensive or inappropriate comments. It could also prevent the clear conflict of interest under the current proposal by giving professors and their associate dean the sole power to censor comments on a subjective definition of “objectionable.”

A proposal of censorship based on subjective definitions of “inappropriate” causes a plethora of problems. Thomas Kurtz, an emeritus math professor, expressed concern that students would “game the system.” When asked to elaborate, he said someone might write “I will never take a class with Professor Kurtz again because... ” In Kurtz’s mind, it may seem that such a comment is “objectionable” — and yet, if a student has such strong feelings about a course or instructor, those concerns may be legitimate.In addition to blatant censorship, the original proposal had three qualitative questions crafted by Student Assembly. These were changed to make them more neutral following concerns that they might lead to misinformation, according to dean of faculty Michael Mastanduno. The example questions he gave were about fair grading and what students would want to know about the course. The idea that questions like these would “misinform” is laughable. They would in fact lead to the opposite — helpful and accurate information for students. Instead, the faculty has decided to water down these questions to “How did this course influence your core academic experience at Dartmouth?” and “Comment on the methods of evaluation in the course.” These new questions, in their ambiguity and vagueness, will actually create confusion and “misinformation.”

Not only can faculty members opt-in to allowing the course evaluations — they also can cherry-pick what years of course evaluations are available. Originally, course evaluations back to 2006 would be made available. Now, professors decide which years to release, which leads to more censorship. If one year has too many negative comments, and the associate dean does not agree with the faculty member that they are “inappropriate,” a professor can choose to release evaluations only from after that year, effectively barring students from seeing negative evaluative comments — even if the associate dean considered the comments to be fair.

This proposal, as passed by the faculty, will not provide nearly as much useful information to students as it could have or as open course evaluations should. At a place that purports to value transparency, freedom and intellectual exchange of ideas, it is concerning that the faculty would work so hard to water down this proposal and enable biased censorship.