The Evaluation Game

GUEST COMMENTARY

It's CUE Guide time again, when Harvard students have their chance to speak candidly, and with devastating anonymity, about their courses, professors and, most especially, their teaching fellows. TFs who score 4.5 or above will be awarded a "Certificate of Excellence," redeemable, I'm told, for a plain croissant and a medium lemonade at the Kendall Square Au Bon Pain.

Those who manage to score 1.5 or below will be prohibited from teaching for a term and forced to do time with the slightly dilapidated folk at the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning. There they will learn about such subtleties as not marking papers with red pen (too intimidating), not criticizing students for bad grammar (ditto), and feigning a respectful attitude toward whatever last-minute drek a student might contrive to present. Mostly, however, they will learn not to engage in egregious misbehavior. In practical terms this boils down to being a nicer person and giving out higher grades.

In many ways the CUE Guide is Harvard's answer to Mardi Gras. It is a reckless bacchanal, a time when values are inverted and hierarchies smashed. The mute speak; the evaluated evaluate. The "Justice" TF who gave you the B-? Nail 'er! And why not add something about her appearance while you're at it? Also the chemistry TF who humiliated you in section that one time--don't forget to mention that he taught an entire class with fly down, displaying to all the world his purple bikini underwear.

You'll never are these chumps again, and if you do, they won't know that you used the word "simian" to describe them--or so you might think. In actual fact, this is the wrong way to approach the evaluation process. At the risk of dampening some of the fun, I'll explain why.

1. Your instructors will see everything you write. Everybody is familiar with the sanitized, official jargon used by the nice people who publish the CUE Guide. If 90 percent of the students in a course complain that a professor didn't understand his material, this will be reported as "a significant percentage of students had some difficulty following the lectures," "Professor Quigley's last original thought came in the 1950's" becomes "while students applaud Professor Quigley's mastery of the history of his field, they long for the inclusion of more contemporary perspectives." And so on. But though the world at large will see only the most banal digest of student opinion, the professors and TFs will see everything raw and unexpurgated: each receives copies of the forms exactly as they have been filled out.

Social psychologists say that in face-to-face conversations, people tend to moderate themselves, much as those in University Hall moderate students' evaluations. We are each of us our own CUF Guide editors. You should reflect, then, about what it means for a TF--a human being (in most cases) just like you, who may or may not be as smart and talented as you are, who may even have gone to a second-rate college such as Yale or Princeton--to confront 30 absolutely candid evaluations of his or her character.

Like reading somebody else's diary, or looking directly into your subconscious, it's the sort of unmediated honesty that most people can do without. (Of course, it can be tempting, not to say cathartic, to take a good whack at the guy responsible for the 12 most boring and/or humiliating hours of your semester. In extreme cases you can always call the CUE office and request that they suppress your most vitriolic remarks.)

2. CUE Guide Evaluations are not anonymous. It is true that your name never appears on the evaluation form. But your TF probably has a pretty good idea who you are. You may well be the only sophomore, female, East Asian studies concentrator who writes in green pen and dots her i's with little circles. Furthermore, your TF, having wracked his or her brain trying to read your midterm and final, will probably be pretty familiar with the idiosyncrasies of your handwriting. You don't have to go to FBI training camp to figure this stuff out, especially if you only have 20 or 30 students to choose from. So it's a good rule of thumb not to count too heavily on your own anonymity: don't say anything you wouldn't feel comfortable saying, if not to your TF's face, then in a reasonably public setting.

Most likely, you will see your TFs again. You can count on running into them at periodic intervals, throughout your Harvard career--in the gym, at the Greenhouse, in the Science Center Computer Labs. Your TFs live and work in the same place you do. Invariably, this contact will be proportional to the shellacking you gave them on their evaluation forms.

The guy I described as "the most disorganized bundle of neurons ever to declare itself a brain?" Seven years later and I'm still bumping into him. The woman who described me as "sort of surly and condescending (but a good teacher)"? We visit the MAC at the same time, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. This invariably makes for strained conversation, since the TF, however wounded, has an obligation to uphold the fiction of anonymity.

3. It's boring to complain about grades. Another fiction is that the evaluation process has nothing to do with grades. Students, it is said, fill out their evaluations before they take their finals, which gives them a more balanced view of the course they're taking. But this is hopelessly naive. By the time CUE evaluations are filled out, students have a pretty good idea what they're going to get in their courses; they've taken midterms, handed in papers and so on. There is often a direct correlation between the grades they've been given and the evaluations they in turn dish out. For example, consider the evaluation which I received last year:

Had a good understanding of subject matter (5=strongly agree): 5

Gave clear, well-structured presentations: 4

Was an effective discussion leader: 4

Answered questions well: 4

Encouraged participation by all students: 4

Was available to answer question outside class: 4

Used the blackboards, visual aids, handouts well: 4

Was an effective leader overall: 2

Comment: "Graded and formatted our midterm too harshly." (This from a student who received a B in a course where the average grade was an A-.)

This same thing happens at the other end of the spectrum, too: A certain number of that elite crew of TF's who regularly win the coveted Teaching Certificate, the high-flying Blue Angels of the Harvard instructional community, do so by shamelessly handing out A's to whoever wants them. (The Bok Center, it should be noted, gives out no awards for fighting the good fight against grade inflation.)

This aspect of the evaluation process could perhaps stand to be reformed. If students were required to include their ID numbers along with their evaluations, it would be possible to match their comments to the grades they received, thus indicating what proportion of the popular courses, professors and TFs are also the easiest ones.

So, with that said, let the games begin. Take out your No. 2 pencils and grade the graders--on their looks, their jokes, their susceptibility to bullshit, their purple underwear, whatever. Do what you have to. It's your day, after all. Just remember that beneath the impassive marble exterior of your T.F., there is a fragile and delicate little creature who wants to be loved, and who has a desperate craving for that plain croissant. We hope, each and every one of us, to bump into you at the Kendall Square Au Bon Pain. And if not, remember: We know who you are.

Dmitri Tymoczko is a teaching fellow in the Arts Department.