Student Access to Student Feedback Forms vs. Faculty Privacy
By Shannon Miller, Professor of English
Over the last 15 years, I have shown what -- to me -- seems like extraordinary restraint: I have never looked at my student rankings or comments on Ratemyprofessors.com, and I do not want to know what is written there. It is not that easy to remain insulated from this information. My family continually wants to tell me what they say. When I tell my colleagues I have never looked at these ratings, they helpfully will start to summarize them. I cut off both family and colleagues, insisting that this isn't a format that I find a productive or reliable source for information. If I want to know what the students in my classes have to say about their experiences, I have -- or, I should say, I had -- much better data from the student evaluation forms that they filled out in class. While all student evaluations have limitations, there was a reliable and representative source through which I could assess students' views of the successes or shortcomings in my courses.
That was until we turned our evaluation system into a version of Ratemyprofessors.com. We have now institutionalized the randomness of student response rates; and, worse yet, the University is now making those unpredictable rankings available to thestudents. Heck, at least there are comments on Ratemyprofessors.com.
I hope that all faculty are aware that select information from the Electronic Student Feedback forms (e-SFFs) are now made available to students. The people I have spoken to outside of Temple University are appalled at this. Those outside Temple who have done union negotiations view it as a violation of the contract, specifically a non-negotiated change in working conditions. As the Temple website on the e-SFFs states, "Student feedback also helps instructors and administration make merit, tenure and promotion decisions, as well as other important decisions about how courses are taught at Temple" (my emphasis). One clearly stated purpose of these documents is to determine our promotions and our raises. These e-SFFs, then, are explicitly being used for personnel decisions. In addition to the publically stated use of e-SFFs for such "decisions," colleges list these e-SFFs as required documents for third year reviews, annual merit decisions, and tenure and promotion cases. To say that these are NOT personnel documents -- which is the position of Human Resources-- is beyond disingenuous.
The university's position seems to be that the students wanted to see our course evaluations. The students might also like to have video footage of us grading their work, but I think we would agree that this would be a significant violation of our privacy. The same issue seems at play here: faculty should not have student evaluations, designed -- in an ideal world -- to help us improve our teaching, but essentially used to reward or punish us, made public. That the students have a very limited snapshot of information from the e-SFFs seems a moot point. That the response rate on these is significantly lower than the forms the students filled out in class only points up the problematic information that we are now making available to students.
The Union has raised this issue with the administration, but the administration’s position has not changed. I think the faculty needs to enter into a vigorous debate about whether these flawed instruments -- with something like only 50% of the students responding (and that's a very generous number: many are in the 20-30% rate response) -- are appropriate for public consumption. I would say absolutely not. More importantly, the university should not be allowed to publicize our personnel documents.
I see a few options. If the university wants to continue to make these documents public, they must stop using e-SFFs for any merit, renewal, or promotion decisions. Evaluation of teaching would need to be conducted in another way. This would end the conflict that the administration has created between student wishes and faculty privacy issues. Alternately, these e-SFFs could continue to be used for merit, renewal, or promotion decisions, but a voluntary system of public student evaluations could be initiated through the Temple student government. This kind of system has worked well at other universities throughout the country for years, and most of these evaluation systems are much more robust: the reports produced have student comments and show answers to a much larger range of questions. The students would be able to get information from faculty willing to allow these to be administered, but Temple would not be violating faculty rights. A third possibility might be to allow faculty to opt in to the e-SFF system: if you have no problem with these records, used for personnel decisions, to be make available to the students, fine. But if you object to the exposure of these records to students, you could limit the use of your personnel records to personnel decisions.
I hope that faculty will make their views on this clear, either to the union or the administration, ideally to both. This will not address the significantly lower rate of response on the e-SFFs, but the faculty can do something about this as well. I would encourage every faculty member to assess the students themselves in some format, consistent with standards that governed the former, paper SFFs: students should be responding anonymously, and their responses should not be available to the faculty member until after grades are due. In all of my courses, I currently distribute the same form we used in the English Department before the CATE/SFF system was instituted. I would encourage departments to establish a form that faculty can distribute in their classes; this would establish some consistency across departments. Obviously mid-semester evaluations and peer reviews are excellent opportunities for students and colleagues to provide insight about what is happening in the classroom. The goal is to get as much useful student feedback for us to evaluate and improve our teaching. But we need to find ways of accomplishing this without violating faculty rights. •