Should Student Evaluations Be Anonymous?

The Gainesville Sun broke a story on July 19 that has potentially significant implications for postsecondary instructors across the country. The story concerned a lawsuit brought by Darnell Rhea, an adjunct instructor at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Fla., who claimed that his contract was not renewed because a student filed a complaint against him. The e-mail “complains of Rhea’s classroom behavior, his humiliating remarks to students, and his unorthodox teaching methodologies.” Rhea simply argued in his lawsuit that he wanted an opportunity to defend himself, but couldn’t because he didn’t know the identity of his accuser, yet the circuit court dismissed his case.

The First District Court of Appeal, however, reversed the dismissal, ruling “that when a student submits a complaint against a postsecondary instructor, the student’s name is public record.” Santa Fe College’s response to all this is ambiguous to say the least. The college maintained that it did not dismiss Rhea on the basis of the complaint, but Patti Locascio, general counsel for Santa Fe, said, “the school’s main concern is for the students.”

“We go to the mat for our students,” she said. “We feel very strongly about protecting the privacy of our students.”

This case, which is not completely decided, as Santa Fe has requested a rehearing, foregrounds several troubling developments about the modern university: the almost fully adopted notion of the student as customer; the appallingly precarious job situation of adjunct teachers who now make up seventy-five percent of the post-secondary teaching workforce (one complaint, justified or not, can get them fired); and the growing influence of anonymous student evaluations, which affect not only adjuncts’ contracts but tenure cases as well.

Many have written eloquently about the plight of contingent labor—Marc Bousquet and Paul Lauter chief among them (and Lauter was calling our attention to this scandal in the ‘70s). The problem of anonymous student evaluations has been less widely publicized over the decades that it has come to be universal practice. But there has been considerable debate in journals of education, and the consensus, not surprisingly, is that there is a distinct correlation between high grades and positive student evaluations.

The practice of anonymous student evaluations has, as we all know, been commercialized and put on steroids by, a Web site that rates 1.7 million postsecondary instructors in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., and is (appropriately) owned by Viacom via MTV. Each instructor, as many of you know, I’m sure, receives an overall score which is broken down into three categories: “helpfulness,” “clarity,” and most disturbingly, “easiness.” The “easiness” category provides students with the perfect instrument for boosting their G.P.A. Simply choose the instructors with the highest “easiness’ ratings and your grades are bound to improve. In other words, Rhea’s situation is a microcosm of what goes on between disgruntled students and instructors every day in academia. If you “humiliate your students” (however humiliation might be construed, or if your teaching methods are “unorthodox,” then you’re not “easy.” But since when did easiness become a cornerstone of good teaching?

It’s far too optimistic to think that the appellate court’s decision will open the door to sunshine laws when it comes to student evaluations, but it might be an interesting start. In any case, a better way of assessing teaching is long overdue. I think we need to question the whole purpose of and necessity for anonymity. At my institution, discursive student evaluations are written up while I’m out of the room, and delivered to an administrator by a student volunteer from the class. I don’t get to see them until I’ve turned in grades for the course. So why do the evaluations have to be anonymous? I’ve gotten my share of critical evaluations, but so long as they were rational I never objected to them and often learned from them. But I’ve also, over the years, gotten defamatory evaluations, and been as infuriated by them as I have by any of the garbage I’ve read on ratemyprofessors. I doubt I would have gotten these had the students been required to sign them.

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