Faculty Passes Q Reforms

Changes include mandatory evaluations, earlier grades, extended assessment period

Professors at yesterday’s meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) could easily have been forgiven for thinking that they were in a time warp: same issue, same players, same dispute—but this time, different results.

Bringing the issue of mandatory course assessments to the floor for the third time in two years, the FAS professoriate finally voted yesterday to require professors to offer Q evaluations for all courses with enrollments of five or more students.

Yesterday’s legislation, presented by Music Professor Thomas F. Kelly on behalf of the Committee for Pedagogical Improvement, was an updated proposal that makes the evaluation period run through final exams and ensures that students who submit their evaluations receive their final grades early.

“I’m certainly pleased with this passage,” said Professor of Jewish Studies Jay M. Harris after the meeting. “It’s time for this, and now we can move on and make it work better.”

After presenting the legislation, Kelly appeared to attempt to forestall a repeat of the conflict that has divided professors in the past, when members have called the overall quality and reliability of the evaluations into question during Faculty meetings.

“We are not judging whether [the Q Evaluation] is a good thing; we are not judging whether people would prefer to use something else,” Kelly said, presenting the motion at yesterday’s meeting, “We are simply trying to make things as fair as possible. Given that graduate students are required to be evaluated when they serve as teaching fellows, it seems not reasonable for us not to evaluate ourselves.”

But Kelly’s anticipatory remarks did little to quell the debate.

German Professor Peter J. Burgard rose to read the sentiments of Physics Professor Eric Mazur (“mandatory Q evaluation is just going to serve as another excuse to postpone doing anything of substance and further cement our current approach to teaching”). Burgard said that he believed the Q is an unreliable metric of teacher performance.

Among the issues Burgard said remained to be addressed were inconsistencies between the current online evaluations and previous paper reviews, as well as the effect that students’ performance in a course has on their assessment of its quality.

After several Faculty members spoke in favor of the reforms, government professor Harvey C. Mansfield ’53 drew a link between the course evaluation process and grade inflation.

“Studies have shown, I say solemnly, that the young faculty, particularly, who are subjected to course evaluations, tend to raise the grades of their courses to avoid untoward comment,” Mansfield said.

Recalling one of his objections from a May 2006 meeting, when he also joined Burgard in denouncing the proposed modifications, Mansfield added that he thought the evaluations “subjected the wise to the judgment and scrutiny of the unwise.”

German Literature Professor Judith L. Ryan, the last to speak before the issue went to a vote, addressed Mansfield’s objection, arguing that students are qualified to constructively assess their teachers.

“I think it would be a sad day when I or anyone else considers me wise, because I as a professor am here to learn...and so I don’t see such a dramatic difference between me and the students who are learning,” Ryan said, adding that she had changed courses in the past in response to suggestions offered in the evaluations.

For his part, Mansfield stuck by his statement after the meeting.

“I do think that the professors are wiser than the students,” he said. “Or else the students would be on the Faculty.”

—Staff writer Maxwell L. Child can be reached at mchild@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Christian B. Flow can be reached at cflow@fas.harvard.edu.