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A Critical Mass of Criticism

New website for critiquing teaching and better CUE guide will improve academic life

By The CRIMSON Staff

This shopping period, the CUE guide will have company. There’s a new source in town for information about Harvard’s courses, a student-initiated website called “CriticalMass.” But the new website shouldn’t be seen as a competitor. It’s a good complement to the existing guidebook, clearly intended to fill a different role. If students take full advantage of “CriticalMass,” the new site has the potential to provide the candid personal student feedback that the CUE guide cannot. More importantly, this new site could help identify particularly awful teachers mid-course, much quicker than any CUE evaluation.

Aaron J. Greenspan ’05, the student responsible for launching the site, was also the driving force behind this fall’s lecturer-swap in Economics 1010a, “Microeconomic Theory.” Greenspan managed to amass a persuasive stack of complaints about Lecturer of Economics Robert H. Neugeborn ’81 after Economics Department Chair Oliver Hart told The Crimson, “If one person complains and no one else does, we’re probably not going to respond. There has to be some sort of critical mass.”

Therein lies the potential of Greenspan’s new website. By allowing students to post constructive complaints and suggestions about the quality of teaching in particular classes, “CriticalMass” provides students a much-needed forum for effecting immediate changes in the worst of their classes.

The new site promises to address academic issues in a different way on a different timetable, but by definition it caters to extremes; it cannot replace the CUE guide as a measure of overall student opinion about courses. Of course, the CUE guide could still benefit from several updates to its format. Part of the appeal of “CriticalMass” is that it provides students with feedback beyond statistics, and the Committee on Undergraduate Education ought to take note.

Personal comments made on CUE guide forms ought to be made available online for perusal by shopping students. To facilitate this change, the course evaluation forms ought to be filled out online, perhaps as a requirement for accessing online grade reports. This new format will increase response rates and make the CUE statistics more useful and accurate. Those students who would rather not fill out the form could still forego the procedure and simply wait a week for grades to be mailed home.

Doubting the usefulness of “CriticalMass,” Dean of Undergraduate Education Benedict H. Gross ’71 told The Crimson, “Usually bulletin boards of this nature generate more heat than light.” But some of Greenspan’s ideas would prove valuable to Gross’ curricular review effort. The CUE ought to create an online message board of its own so that students can offer their feedback on broad issues of curricular change. Gross has already asked students to e-mail their thoughts, but an interactive site would allow students not only to offer their ideas but to respond to the relative merits of their peer’s points.

This improvement for curricular review feedback, along with a more detailed online CUE guide and the new “CriticalMass” website, will provide more potent weaponry in the fight to make Harvard a better place to learn.

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