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TCE issue remains under debate

Kevin Allen | Friday, November 21, 2003

The Student Government proposal to publish Teacher Course Evaluations is arousing mixed opinions among faculty members, who think TCE publication may merely serve as a way for students to find easy classes. Some faculty members also worry about professors giving higher grades in exchange for better evaluations and are concerned about the issue of confidentiality of the TCE, which factors into earning promotions and tenure.One common sentiment among both students and professors is that comprehensive information about professors should be available to students. The disagreement is over how to organize that information, and many professors feel the TCE in its current form is not the best way to do that.Biology professor Martin Tenniswood is in support of the proposal. “I don’t really understand why anyone would be concerned about it being secretive,” he said. Tenniswood said the main issue in the debate is how students and administration will use the published TCE results.The University of Ottawa, where Tenniswood previously taught, has published their equivalent of the TCE for over 50 years. He said the institution even went as far as to post the five highest and lowest evaluations in each department. Those professors posted in the lowest category never allowed themselves to show up there more than once, said Tenniswood.Clive Neal, associate professor in the Department of Civil Engineering and Geological Sciences, said published TCE’s would have two effects: “One, it allows students to avoid a hard class. On the other hand, it holds professors more accountable.”Ava Preacher, assistant dean for the College of Arts and Letters, sat on the Academic Council in the mid-1990s when a similar proposal was written by Student Government. “There is more predilection this time than there was [in the mid-90s] in trying to find a way to get information to students,” said Preacher.Preacher said that for the proposal to be successful, students will need to find a way to distill the TCE’s into a digestible format. “It’s going to mean a lot of work on the students’ part and on the faculty’s part,” she said. Preacher noted that publication of such reports at other schools, like Harvard, have been organized by students.”There is a reasonable hesitation in publishing the TCE’s in their present form,” she said. “The data in present form can be subjective.” Preacher added that the issue of confidentiality is at the heart of the debate because faculty jobs partially depend on the results of TCE’s. “This is a really difficult, complicated issue.”Currently, the TCE results are compiled by the University’s Office of Institutional Research and are then given to respective professors, deans, and department chairs. Since students are not allowed to see the compiled results of the TCE’s, they must turn to other media for information about professors. Traditional word of mouth is one useful method and another is surfing the Internet. Students can obtain a rudimentary evaluation of some professors through the student-run website NDtoday.com, but the site’s professor evaluations are not as comprehensive as the TCE and are not available for all professors.Jeremy Staley, chairperson of the Academic Committee in the Office of the Student Body President, and the person in charge of the proposal, sees the popularity of NDtoday.com as an indication of the need for students to know about a professor before jumping into a class. He also thinks the University could do better. “The University could provide something much more complete that could better serve students,” he said.In regard to faculty concerns about TCE publication, Staley believes they have greatly underestimated the quality of students and professors at Notre Dame.”The typical student attracted to this university seeks an education of a caliber and comprehensiveness far beyond what any grade-point-average could provide. Instructors who would resort to grade inflation in hopes of higher TCE evaluations would be easily identifiable by administrators,” said Staley in his proposal draft for TCE publication.If the proposal is approved, Student Government plans to publish the TCE results on Irishlink so they would only be available to members of the Notre Dame community. Staley said some schools, such as Brown and Northwestern, publish their teacher evaluations on the Internet for anyone to see.In addition to the numerical results of the regular TCE questions, the published results will include a space for professors to write any information about themselves that they feel students should know. This could include information about their teaching style, requirements for their courses, or possibly why their TCE’s were particularly good or bad and how they will respond to those evaluations. By allowing professors an opportunity to tell students about themselves, Staley hopes to reassure faculty that TCE publication is a means for producing good matches between students and professors, not GPA boosting. If some professors are still against the idea of TCE publication, Staley said they would be allowed to opt out of the process.If nothing else, Staley said he is satisfied with the dialogue motivated by the proposal. “It’s healthy for the University to have this discussion,” he said.