Against Anonymity.

16 Jun

In spring of 2010, a freshman comp student wrote on a course evaluation that I wear ugly shoes. Another called me a waste of flesh and air.

This isn’t a complaint about meanness on course evaluations. A few semesters before that, someone felt compelled to tell my superiors, in writing, that I have a nice ass. Thanks for the compliment, you little perv. What the fuck does it have–does any of it have–to do with English 103 or 104?

Newspaper web sites are learning, slowly, that anonymous commenting opportunities open up bottomless wells of trouble. The racist, sexist, violent comments readers leave when they’re able to do so without logging in one way or another leave a big, black smudge on the entire endeavor of online information delivery. Newspaper web sites cease to be news delivery devices and instead become forums for hate speech and argument; as a result, they’ve begun to require some kind of traceable login, to eliminate that anonymous button from the comment box. (This is only marginally helpful. Most idiots still hide behind online identities they think are secret to write inflammatory shit.) Even at their best we know that anonymous comments are ordinarily uninformed, hastily written screeds with no accountability. Anonymous web comments are hardly a learning tool, unless your field of study is ignorance and/or illiteracy.

Why, then, do we continue to use anonymous evaluation methods to determine important elements of hiring, retention, and compensation for university faculty? We work in freshman comp classrooms to help students express their ideas clearly and effectively and to help them understand that language plays an important role in society. We should also be teaching them to stand by their words, to take responsibility for the ideas they express and the quality of their expression. In fact, the entire notion of grading should be an argument for this last point. Then the semester ends and we give them 20 or so minutes to write whatever they’d like about us on a sheet of paper the secrecy of which is so closely guarded that we are barred from the very room where they write. Were a student to explicitly threaten my physical well-being on that sheet of paper–and a few have come close in the past–there would be no means of holding that student accountable whatsoever, nor of protecting myself in any meaningful way.

Certainly, students should have an outlet where they feel safe to lodge complaints against a professor without expecting their complaints to negatively impact their course grades. They do, in fact, have that outlet: My boss has an office. The door closes real tight. If a complaint is serious enough to warrant the kind of language I see commonly on course evaluations, it should come with a head and a body attached.

Anonymous course evaluations probably served an important purpose at some point. A few generations back, universities were deeply patriarchal institutions. As everywhere else, rich white men held every shred of power; students, particularly women and minority students, had little to no voice in the classroom or the campus culture. Anonymous course evaluations in such institutions must have at least provided the illusion of empowerment to those students whose voices would not otherwise be heard.

And they served a relatively useful purpose as recently as my college days, fifteen or so years ago, when only the most obnoxious students would be troubled to write hateful, irrelevant rants on a document submitted to their university. Sure, we complained about hard grading, or boring textbooks, but those of you who are over, say, 30: Can you fucking imagine critiquing your professors’ physiques and wardrobes on paper inside the classroom?

For those who’ve been exposed to the internet for the entirety of their lives, “anonymous” means something very different than it meant to us before. “Anonymous” is who you are on Rate My Professor.com, where I understand you can be awarded some kind of chile pepper if you’re “hot” (I haven’t yet and will never, ever look) and the now defunct and notoriously vicious gossip site Juicy Campus. It’s the realm where Lori Drew impersonates a boy on MySpace and Megan Meier’s feelings get so deeply hurt that she kills herself, in its worst incarnation. It does not simply mean no name will be attached to the information; it means that you take off the hat you wear when you say things for which you will be held accountable and take up the challenge of being as mean, risqué, and provocative as possible. You take off your name and enter the asshole competition. The winner of the asshole competition is, besides being the biggest asshole, the person who provokes the most shocked response. There is no anonymous forum built for constructive suggestions at this point in our culture. Those days are gone.

My university is shifting this fall to require that all course evaluations be completed online, as a cost saving measure. I missed the workshop where they explained how this will function, exactly, but assume that student identities will somehow be tied to student commentary to ensure that there’s no evaluation equivalent of stuffing the ballot box. I hear from instructors at other institutions that the shift to online course evaluations resulted in a steep decline in evaluation participation, which could, in fact, be worse: Only the totally apoplectic will bother filling out the forms. At present, they’re the only ones who write much, but at least their forms are situated within a batch of apathetic answers to bland questions. At least they’re cushioned.

For every course evaluation that scares or insults me, I get at least 10-15 that don’t and 2-4 that contain something along the lines of “best professor ever” or “I used to hate to write until her class.” I learned quickly to remove my emotional responses from either kind of commentary–to ignore both extremes–and look at the questions that force students to deal with the substance of the course. I’m not concerned about our feelings so much as our integrity. We are required to stand behind the things we say in the classroom. Our students should be, too.

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3 Responses to “Against Anonymity.”

  1. Hailey June 17, 2010 at 1:52 am #

    Amen to all of this!

  2. Jim McGarrah June 17, 2010 at 9:10 am #

    A very thoughtful response to an insidious problem in our whole society – a lack of accountability for our actions. I agree with your post. Although, my opinion may be somewhat irrelevant since I also agree with the little perv you quoted.

    I see the whole paradigm for education shifting from an environment where intellectual growth is encouraged for students to a place where customer satisfiction is required from employees. Look where that attitude has gotten us already as a society.

    • Victoria June 17, 2010 at 11:02 am #

      Well, you’re a dirty old man, Jim.

      I’ve been thinking a lot about the consumer attitude. Those of us who teach, especially with a 4/4 load, which is overwhelming, are going to have to figure out a way to deal with it, because it’s not going away. I keep reading about people eliminating or crowd-sourcing grading, or trying other radical approaches, but as a contract faculty member I don’t have those liberties.

      What I can do is try to find a way to change what they think they’re buying, and deliver on it. They’re not buying a grade, and they’re sure as hell not buying me (they couldn’t afford my time if it was for sale). If I can shape their perception of what they pay for, though, maybe I can make this work to my advantage, too. In my estimation, they’re paying for the opportunity to learn something. But that’s probably not tangible enough for them. I’m still working on it, but I’ll let you all know here if I figure it out.

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