Salutary Subjectivity


CHOOSING COURSES is something akin to choosing mates: everyone seems to have some advice--some good, some bad, some thoughtful, some absurd--but no one has to live with the results besides yourself. For undergraduates, and particularly for freshmen, selection can be hazardous indeed but is made somwhat easier by the publication of the University CUE Guide. This year the Committee on Undergraduate Education that funds the Guide should avoid making changes that will damn it into statistically suffocating platitudes in the name of objectivity.

The CUE Guide has gained its support among the Faculty only over time. Originally the Faculty Council conceived of the book as an alternative to the Crimson's Confidential Guide; it was described as a "responsible guide." Many professors, however, nonetheless feared the Guide could have objected to the entire concept of student evaluation of their courses. The Faculty Council allowed the Guide staff to solicit information on grade medians from faculty members, but then forbid the Guide to publish them.

Last week Professor Dowling criticized the Guide for what he perceived as a trend toward increased subjectivity. Science courses, he felt, should not evaluated with the same forms as humanities and social science courses. The Guide already uses separate forms for language and non-language courses, but it is hard to see how separate forms for science courses would address the fundamental problem facing Core science classes: quite simply, many humanities and social science students take such courses out of compulsion alone and are unlikely to heap praise on what often is a subject area they would just have soon abandoned after high school.

The second objection, voiced by one student member of the Committee on Undergraduate Education, over what he would fashion an increase in subjectivity in the Guide, is not well taken. The trend, over a number of years, to include more open questions and decrease the number of "rate the reading teacher labs from 1 to 7" represents an attempt to frame statistics in their proper context. To simply include more statistics, as Dowling suggests, would rip ratings from their mornings.

In fact, it would be wrong for newly appointed Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education Stephen Ozment to assume that most or even many professors share Professor Dowling's desire for increated "objectivity."

"I think there should be more room for wide-open comments," says Professor William H. Bossert. "They're the most helpful. They imply things the statistics can't show, how well informed the student is. If the question simply says rate from 1 to 10, you don't know how, informed they were, whether came to lecture only once." Every year, Bossert says, he has changed something in his courses because of something written by students.

The CUE Guide will still never replace the Confidential Guide. For one thing, it's not funny. But as one source of information on courses, it has been useful. It can remain so only as long as it does not degenerate into statistical pedantry and become as laughably useless as some of the courses it must annually evaluate.