Community consensus needed on factrak

The creation of factrak (factrak.williams.edu), a website which allows students to anonymously comment and evaluate their teachers, has brought two diametrically opposed views to light. On one side of the argument is a faculty concerned that the publication of potentially hurtful comments on the site will be detrimental to their teaching abilities. However, at the same time, factrak provides an invaluable resource for students faced with the task of finding the best possible courses to fill their time at Williams. Both sides have valid arguments either supporting, or demanding the removal of, factrak. But the best interests of both students and the College lie in finding a compromise that adequately satisfies students’ desires to have more information about their professors while at the same time protecting the integrity of the College’s faculty. While factrak is a useful and necessary tool for students, the outrage of many faculty members over the service should not fall on deaf ears. At the same time, the faculty’s unyielding criticism of the service is equally unreasonable.

Factrak is not providing any information that is not already available; it merely makes the information easier to find. Students can, and do, already gather much of this information informally by asking their friends’ opinions about courses and professors; factrak simply broadens the audience receiving that information. The problem with the site’s current version is that whatever information is given on factrak is on many levels unreliable: students do not know who wrote a given review, how many times the student posted a criticism of a given professor or even if the writer took a class with the professor. These are problems that factrak’s creators must address as they fine-tune the website and also that students must take into account while reading posts on the site. Comments on factrak should never be taken as gospel, but the website does offer a number of opinions on professors – opinions that may not be readily available via word of mouth, or written on factrak if anonymity is abandoned.

Obviously factrak has the ability to be seriously damaging to professors – especially those still developing their teaching styles in the classroom. There are any number of examples of faculty members who, after initially struggling in the classroom, have become enormously popular and effective teachers. It concerns many members of the faculty that what could be a constructive learning process may be impeded by personal attacks over factrak. Further, subjecting faculty members to public ridicule in a small community seems harsh, especially if the ridicule is coming from sources that could be completely false or malicious. While a site that centralizes student criticism might serve a student interest, it is disconcerting that this service comes at the cost of unnecessarily embarrassing faculty members to their colleagues.

There are, however, a number of simple improvements that could be made to the factrak platform to mitigate some of these harms. Most importantly, students should be required to log in to factrak. After logging in, students would still be able to post anonymously. This minor improvement allows for the system to be set up so that students can only comment on professors whose classes they have taken, thus eliminating the chance harsh reviews could be posted by someone who has had no personal experience with the professor. Moreover, students could be prevented from posting multiple opinions about one professor – eliminating the possibility that the three glowing opinions on a professor were written by the same student. Also, only allowing students access to the site will prevent many of the faculty morale issues that have been raised.

A solution to the lack of context for comments could be achieved by allowing rankings of other students’ submissions much like the comment system employed by amazon.com. This could provide more information about the majority opinion of the professor and prevent inane comments from being taken seriously. Most importantly, the log-in function would allow the site’s operators to maintain the site’s integrity by blocking students who repeatedly abuse the system by posting remarks with no bearing on a professor’s teaching ability.

Despite its failings, the concept behind factrak is of vital importance to the student body. The need for information on particular faculty members is very important to students who have certain expectations of their professors. The course catalog does not divulge whether a professor works well with students or whether he or she is a good lecturer. The only measure of quality a student can glean from information provided by the registrar is whether or not a faculty member is tenured, and tenure certainly does not imply an intellectually-stimulating lecture or an approachable professor. A student’s desire for information on professors is not new or specific to our college. Both Harvard and Brown publish rankings of professors on levels similar to those measured on the bubble sheets here at Williams. The College has not been blind to this issue either. The senior advisor system is the college-provided resource for underclassmen to obtain information on professors and classes. However, the emergence of factrak is a testament to the fundamental failing of this student support program.

The senior advisor system needs to adjust to students’ desire for multiple, easily accessible opinions. As a concept, the conversations and personal context provided by senior advisors are significantly more valuable than a number of seemingly random and potentially inaccurate comments on factrak. Thus, the senior advisor system must be improved and more effectively advise the student body.

Most importantly, the College should look at factrak not as something that must be fought, but as a starting point towards a better system. To make the necessary improvements to factrak, the program’s creators will need greater cooperation from the College. The need for information about professors will never subside and the College should find a system which fulfills that demand while also avoiding the pitfalls of a system such as factrak.

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