In the coming week, students in every academic class will be asked to complete the Student Course Survey (SCS) before they leave to begin studying for finals. It’s tempting to blow the entire process off, to take an early lunch and let others do the dirty work of praising or criticizing their professors. Both the administrators of the SCS and your professors would tell you to resist that temptation. The SCS plays a critical role in deciding the future of junior professors, and, as a student, it is one of the most effective ways to ensure your voice is heard in faculty decisions.
The current SCS system, featuring a bubble sheet for rating the professor’s academic prowess and a blue sheet for additional comments, was last modified in the early 1990s. The man in charge of the SCS is Tom Kohut, dean of faculty, but primary administrative duties fall to Myers. Myers has responsibility for the administration of the surveys, analysis of the data collected, and reporting of results to the senior members of academic departments.
Once the results of the SCS bubble sheets have been tabulated, individual scores are sent to all professors. Chairs of academic departments receive the scores of all members in their department. The blue sheets, meanwhile, are the sole property of the individual professors to which they are addressed. While the primary purpose of the blue sheets is to give private suggestions and comments, professors may opt to share these sheets with the senior members of the department. Both sheets, therefore, can have important consequences in tenure decisions.
In making decisions about granting tenure to junior members of the department, senior members meet in committees and discuss the achievements of those up for tenure. While quality of research plays a role in the evaluation, teaching ability is seen as paramount at a small college like Williams. The assessment of teaching is achieved through a number of means, including interviews with current students, “exit interviews” with senior majors, and observation of classes by senior members of the department. The SCS, however, still exerts the most influence in the decision process.
SCS scores seem to be heavily used. This is no surprise, as they give us ’Numbers,’ which in turn give us the illusion of objective reality,” said Thomas Garrity, chair of the Mathematics department.
The SCS plays a huge role in determining the future of junior professors at the College, so it is fated to be the source of some controversy. While it could be predicted that disillusioned students might give erroneous responses on their own surveys and thereby tamper with results, Provost Myers believes that this is not the case.
“We do not receive many partially completed forms or forms where students have obviously just filled in a line of bubbles down the page. From our analysis, we have no reason to believe that students are ?blowing off’ the SCS,” said Myers.
While the results of the survey are basically valid, many take issue with the very nature of using a survey to quantify something so intangible as teaching ability.
The SCS scores do not actually reflect what students think about a course but only what they think about the course a week or two before the final. A truly great teacher will alter how the students think about the world; a measure of this is how students use this new thinking for the rest of their lives. I see no way of measuring this type of teaching. Thus while I am nervous about SCS scores, I think we are stuck with them,” said Garrity.
Many other members of the faculty show the same sort of ambivalence towards the SCS. While many are uncomfortable with the concept of trying to objectify a given professor’s ability in the classroom, they can think of no way to assess a professor that is more effective than the current system of SCS and interviews. Students may also feel this way; the SCS is a valuable tool to get their voices heard, but is not without its flaws.
“Eight times out of 10, I have faith the student body likes professors who are good teachers, engage their students with interesting ideas, and do thoughtful research. I do get scared, however, that some unpopular professors are unpopular because they are hard – they assign a lot of reading, they’re hard graders, they don’t give extensions,” said Morgan Barth ’02 of the CEP.
There seems to be only one real consensus over the SCS – the effectiveness of the SCS system lies with the students. If students make an honest and open-minded effort to rate their professors, then the system will succeed in letting their voices be heard.