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Course evaluation at Harvard College originated in 1925, when The Crimson solicited student responses to some of the largest courses offered on campus, in a compilation called the “Confidential Guide of College Courses,” according to the Office of the Registrar’s website.
With the consolidation of the Committee on Undergraduate Education (CUE) in 1973, the process of course evaluations became formalized. The CUE published their first guide in 1975—popularly known as the CUE Guide.
Within the next decade, the content of the CUE guide became largely administered by students who contacted professors and requested to conduct surveys evaluating their performance throughout the duration of a course.
“We took the results and had them computerized,” said Barbara S. Okun ’86, former editor-in-chief of the CUE Guide. “We also had a staff of writers and editors who read through all of the surveys to make a write-up of each course.”
Although Okun emphasized that the editors were committed to accurately reflecting student opinions in their write-ups, Harvard administrators demanded changes to the contents of the 1985 CUE Guide that would ultimately alter the administration of course evaluations and the interactions of faculty and students within the larger University community.
During the final weeks of production for the CUE Guide in July 1960, Director of the Office of Instructional Research and Evaluation Dean K. Whitla approached staff members regarding the harsh tone of several write-ups that he reviewed to predict Core course enrollments.
Okun said that his objections to the write-ups arose in light of a technical question pertaining to how the Guide would be printed and distributed, leading Whitla to examine its contents.
“We took great care in the accuracy of our surveys, and we only included the words that students wrote in their questionnaires,” she said. “There were instances where students complained about professors being ‘arrogant’ and ‘condescending,’ among other negative comments, and we were pressured to remove these statements.”
In a 1960 interview with The Crimson, Okun added that Whitla threatened to fire the staff members and cancel the 1985 CUE Guide unless the changes—which he referred to as “suggestions”—were implemented.
These alterations to the CUE Guide would have deleted or tempered criticisms included in 17 out of the roughly 250 write-ups contained in the Guide in descriptions of Professors Bernard Bailyn, Stephen J. Gould, Brendan Maher, and Lewis H. Lockwood.
The staff members responded to these demands in a note to readers without official administrative review responding that the altered write-ups “fail to convey the intensity of the criticism” and “sometimes misrepresent the nature” of the anonymous student course evaluations that the CUE Guide is composed of.
When The Crimson asked Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education Steven E. Ozment about whether the changes constituted censorship in 1960, he responded, “If it walks like a duck and acts like a duck, I guess it’s a duck.”
Then-Dean of the Faculty A. Michael Spence said that he and other Harvard administrators were incorrect in requesting that write-ups in the CUE Guide be modified or omitted. While the University funded the Guide and administrators retained final authority over the editorial content, staff members countered that they were under the impression that the book was to be produced and edited solely by students.
Spence acknowledged that “there was a lack of explanation on the part of the administration on exactly what the policy was” regarding editing the guide. As no documents existed delegating final say over the Guide’s content, Spence requested a full review of the CUE Guide to address numerous overarching concerns.
Among the unresolved questions to be addressed by the CUE Guide review was who should use its contents and what purposes it should be allowed to serve.
Administrators routinely used the CUE ratings to single out teaching fellows for official commendation or closer scrutiny of their teaching abilities, and concern was expressed that poor ratings could carry consequences for junior professors and teaching assistants.
In a 1960 article, The Crimson reported that Ozment sent letters to department chairs stating that a total of 66 section leaders were evaluated and ranked 3.5 or lower on the CUE Guide’s 7.0 scale.
“The Guide is certainly not an infallible measure. However, when taken in conjunction with other measures, a low ranking in the CUE Guide does seem to suggest that a teaching fellow might profit from some assistance, both for his sake and for the sake of the students that he teachers,” Ozment wrote in his letters.
Additional concerns were raised in noting that Ozment recommended a variety of possible remedies, which included removal from teaching positions, for deficient instructors and assistants.
Although Harvard administrators and professors had regulated the CUE Guide extensively since its 1973 inception, the belief that student staff members retained full authority over the content of the CUE Guide and its editorial materials was extensively widespread.
“What is and what is not printed on these pages is determined solely by the student editors and not by an administrative agency,” the editor-in-chief wrote in a preface to the 1977 edition of the Guide.
The Guide was routinely reviewed by officials and often involved collaboration between students and professors. A Faculty Council discussion in 1976 determined firm precedent for its regulation.
“That course evaluations should concentrate on average responses and interpretations and not include the direct quotation of individual opinions because they are often capricious and unrepresentative,” wrote Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Phyllis Keller.
According to the last restriction, this supported instructions that editors strike the terms from the descriptions of professors in the current edition.
“All of the editors were taken aback because we felt that this was a limitation on our freedom of expression, but we were pressured to comply because the Guide was ultimately funded by the University,” Okun said.
The Faculty of Arts and Sciences 18-member Committee on Undergraduate Education convened in mid-October 1985 to determine a clear editorial policy for student-run publications. After a month of deliberation, the CUE recommended that student staff members be granted substantial autonomy in determining the composition of the Guide.
The CUE also emphasized that the Guide was provided to aid students in selecting courses and not to evaluate the performance of junior professors and teaching assistants. The committee also voted to allow the associate dean for undergraduate education to play a role in the selection of the CUE Guide’s editor-in-chief.
In 2007, it was renamed as The Q Guide because it is no longer administered by the Committee on Undergraduate Education.
According to the FAS website, the Q system is used today to evaluate nearly 1,000 courses and more than 2,000 faculty and section leaders each term.
—Staff writer Barbara DePena can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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