Over the past three years, the debate over open course evaluations has jumped from the University Senate's Student Affairs Committee, to the University Senate as a whole, to the student body, and now to Columbia University Information Technology. There's no doubt that opening course evaluations is a complex decision for which the interests of all involved parties—tenured faculty, nontenured faculty, instructors, teaching assistants, administrators, and students—must be weighed carefully. But enough is enough. The widespread desire is to open these course evaluations, and it is time for departments, particularly those in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, to adopt a plan of action.
Almost exactly two years ago, the University Senate issued a report and passed a much-anticipated recommendation to open course evaluations after widespread demand from students and the realization that Columbia differs from its peer institutions in this regard. The resolution, as well as a 62-page report on the topic, was the result of over a year's work by student representatives on the Student Affairs Committee. Seventy-five percent of its members approved the recommendation calling upon all of Columbia's schools to reexamine the possibility of making course evaluations public and to move toward making open evaluations the norm.
While some schools have taken action, the FAS has fallen woefully behind. Students in Columbia College, the School of General Studies, the School of the Arts, the School of Continuing Education, and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences remain in the dark when they are picking their classes, unable to benefit from the experiences of others who have taken these courses before.
There seems to be little rationale for this refusal to act—the senate's resolution thoroughly addresses concerns that departments in these schools might have. Some worry that graduate students and new faculty members, who are still perfecting their teaching styles, could have their future jobs or tenure opportunities impacted by a few negative evaluations. The senate's recommendation suggests making their evaluations open only if the instructors so choose. Additionally, the resolution suggests a rollout period during which only tenured faculty would be evaluated, enabling the departments to become accustomed to open evaluations and allowing the faculty to respond to any major backlash. Moreover, it calls for the release of only limited information from the evaluations, such that not all specific data are made public.
During this hectic season of registration, even small amounts of additional information about courses and instructors can be very useful. Open course evaluations allow students to make more educated decisions in course selection without relying on a third-party site like CULPA. Though very useful, the site doesn't cover all classes, while the faculty's own course evaluations would. As suggested by the 2012 resolution, the course evaluations should be integrated with the directory of classes, and the deadline for responses should be extended to a few days after finals end so that students can evaluate the final exam and spend time thoughtfully completing the evaluations after the most stressful period of the semester is behind them.
The most recent announcement that CUIT is developing a new course evaluations platform is a good sign, but it's not enough. Without the full support of deans and the FAS and the mobilization of students, the call for departments to release public course evaluations can easily be left unanswered, as it has been for the past two years.
If we want to make the most of our education, it's high time we had the ability to make smart, well-informed decisions about our classes at Columbia.
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