I think I’ve mentioned the phenomenon of student evaluations before on this blog. Sometimes, as I’ve explained in the earlier post, I’ve received some very amusing ones. Most have been pretty positive although I have received some critical evaluations. Never anything really soul destroying…yet. Other times, the positive ones balance the negative ones exactly (eg, I get 5 saying “Where were the Powerpoint slides?” and 5 saying “Thank God there were no Powerpoint slides!”) I tend to mentally file those responses under “well, you can’t please ’em all”.
Lately I’ve come across a couple of interesting legal issues regarding student evaluations. Of course, both cases come from the US, the fount of much interesting litigation.
First, there’s the case of a student who, when asked to complete a student evaluation form, wrote offensive comments about a professor’s sexuality and expressed the desire that the professor die of AIDs. Read more about it here at Concurring Opinons and here at Volokh Conspiracy.
The evaluation was said to be confidential. However, the professor in question was very upset by the comments, and went through exam papers to identify the handwriting of the person who had made the comments. The particular student was identified, and officially reprimanded. The student has been asked to write a 1,200-word essay on how his remarks affect the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, to write a letter of apology to the professor (including constructive criticisms of his teaching style), and to discuss with the university training or other programs deemed appropriate.
Hmm. I have to say that I found the student’s comments offensive, and for this reason I decided not to reproduce them on my page. I’m sure that if someone directed racist, sexist or other abuse at me, I would be very, very upset. Particularly if it was something about which I was already sensitive or about which I had already had to face abuse from others previously. I also think the punishment was appropriate, although I do wonder whether it will really change the student’s underlying prejudices.
On the other hand, if it were me, I don’t know that I’d go through all the exam papers and work out who said it. To my mind, the surveys are confidential, and even when people say stupid and offensive things, that is a promise that needs to be kept, except in extreme cases where, for example, a death threat is made. The confidentiality allows students freedom of speech to say whatever they want, even if it is ridiculous or highly critical.
The student did say that he hoped the professor in question would die, but to my mind, it was not a death threat – it was more of a unpleasant and juvenile sneer of the kind that 13 year olds make. The statement made by the student indicates (a) that he is extremely immature and (b) that his opinion is not worth much anyway. I’d probably decide to brush it off as an opinion not even worth worrying about, and hope that as he progressed through university he came to a more open-minded point of view. I might also suspect that he had sexuality issues of his own (as is often the case with young homophobic males)…
However, I’d welcome comments from anyone who feels differently. I suspect some readers who are members of the gay and lesbian community might feel very strongly about this one.
The second case concerns a professor who altered student evaluations to make them more favourable towards him. The professor happened to teach law, and the Supreme Court of Iowa has suspended him from legal practice, with the possibility of reinstatement on conditions. (Hat tip to Stephen Warne for alerting me to this one).
The misconduct occurred as follows. The professor remained in the room when the student surveys were taken, and he and his research assistant also completed surveys which were handed in (favourable, I’m sure). It seems that they amended some of the results.
The professor also gave a speech to the students stressing the importance of good reviews, and said that his problems with the law school had arisen because others were jealous of him. I must say that I have never had the hide to give a speech to students about how important student evaluations are to academic careers. I’d rather people judge me honestly, without having to beg them to be kind.
The professor was suffering from bipolar disorder, and at the time of the offences, he had not taken his medication, which makes his conduct rather more explicable. Ironically, his speciality was mental health law. Still, despite the bipolar disorder, he must have known that what he was doing was wrong.
The consequences have been quite devastating for his career, I am sure – what a silly fellow! – he would have been better to leave the questionnaires untouched and leave his career in one piece.