Writing a Student Evaluation Can Be Like Trolling the Internet

How a long-despised university tradition can be a chance to teach civility
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The end of the semester is nigh. Undergraduates linger in libraries, studying for exams and writing papers. Professors prepare their red pens, gearing up for grading. But one end-of-year activity will inevitably arouse mild dread and scorn from instructors and students alike: course evaluations.

Besides being a hassle, evaluations aren’t always useful. It’s rather flattering to earn a chili pepper for “hotness” on ratemyprofessors.com, albeit unenlightening about teaching ability. But what do I do with a comment describing me as “da bomb”? Or another calling a colleague a “gangsta”? Occasionally, students write hurtful or prejudiced comments, and there’s evidence that students cannot distinguish good teaching from charismatic presentation of materials. Clearly, some students don’t take these assessments seriously, which is particularly problematic for non-tenure track faculty—teaching evaluations have become the singular metric for hiring adjuncts. Predictably, this has encouraged these educators to pander to students and acquiesce to grade grubbers.

But these issues aren’t unique to student evaluations. Course assessments look a lot like public discourse on the Internet, from product evaluations to discussion boards to comments sections on news sites. For some—the comment champions—this shift of power toward everyday users is emancipatory, offering spaces to share thoughts and shape how other people think and view products. For others—the comment curmudgeons—the often-derisive culture of online commenting eliminates chances for civil debate and intellectual integrity.

The rise of the Internet has meant that people are no longer passive readers—as the journalism professor, Jay Rosen, put it, they are the “people formerly known as the audience.” They are active participants in the creation and dissemination of the information they consume.

And in the best courses, too, students are not passive receptacles to be filled with information, but active participants in the creation of knowledge. They may not know the same facts or possess the same skills as their professors, but like those who champion comments on the Internet, many value having their voices heard.

For those who are more curmudgeonly, though, this proliferation of voices seems to have more drawbacks than benefits. Last fall, PopularScience.com disabled the comment function for its new articles, declaring that “comments can be bad for science.” The site found that trolls and spambots had hijacked the comments section, derailing conversations on topics like climate change and evolution.

Some authors have also joined the fight against anonymous comments. A recent petition called upon Amazon to remove anonymity for reviewers and to require identity verification. The signatories included Anne Rice, the author of Interview with the Vampire, who protested against what she called the “anti-author gangster bully culture” on the site.

Anonymous student evaluations mimic the online world’s mix of hyper-engaged commentators, nasty trolls, and semi-interested browsers. Anonymity can bring out the worst in a small minority of people, and student evaluations are no exception. The worst evaluations share many of the qualities of Internet trolling—as a recent psychology study put it, hints of narcissism, psychopathy, and sadism. Those who enjoy trolling account for roughly five percent of people online, the researchers estimated, and it seems plausible that this proportion is similar in classrooms. These may be small groups, but they have an outsize influence on perceptions about crowd-sourced comments.

But college course assessments have another drawback that makes them different from online commenting in an important way: Students and faculty have mismatched understandings of the function of evaluations. Evaluations play a crucial role in graduate students’ job applications and professors’ tenure decisions. Students write evaluations for other students; it’s their university version of Yelp. But instructors and administrators read evaluations as if students had written them for the benefit of the university. Both sides have their own ideas about the audience for this feedback, which suggests a need to rethink the purpose of collecting evaluations at all.

The solution isn’t to get rid of them. This generation of students is entering a world filled with anonymous comments, from Amazon ratings to opinions on online articles. Universities aim to prepare students for the rest of their professional and personal lives, and student evaluations are a part of that process. Perhaps course assessments should be used as an opportunity to teach students the mores of anonymous commenting and the skills of evaluating those comments; even eye-roll-inducing end-of-year exercises can be a useful learning experience.

A university education is clearly not the same as a purchase on Amazon, but that doesn’t mean students’ behavior in the classroom hasn’t been shaped by a world full of Amazon reviews. Done right, course evaluations are a small chance to teach long-term lessons about civility—Rate My Professor is not called Roast My Professor for a reason.

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Heidi Tworek is a lecturer and assistant director of undergraduate studies in the History Department at Harvard University.

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