Factrak: harmful to community

That there are things like Factrak at other campuses is, of course, not news. And it is not surprising that, from time to time, Williams students think about establishing something of this sort here. After all, on the surface, it looks like a good idea. In pre-web days, however, it was not an idea so easily acted upon: producing a print version of Factrak would take much more work than does setting up a website. In part for that reason, perhaps, students in the past with Factrak-type inclinations talked about their plans before acting on them. And the ensuing conversations – in which, in one case, I was centrally involved – led them not to act on those plans, but to abandon them.

Why would students decide not to institute something like Factrak, given that it looks like a good idea? The answer is simple: because they concluded that the idea looks good only on the surface, and that this surface conceals all sorts of complications. Indeed, there are so many complications that it’s hard to decide which to touch on in a piece as short as this one. To get at a few, however, I’ll start from the idea.

The idea looks good because Factrak can appear to provide students with easy access to additional information about professors and courses. We’re all in favor of students being well-advised, right? Well, here’s more advice.

Or is it? Some who post on Factrak may intend to provide helpful advice, but there is no guarantee that all do. One student (or someone posing as a student) has already noted, in a WSO discussion thread, “I know someone who torched their prof with multiple fake submissions, just to get even.” The site itself currently announces that there have been “abuses,” warning that “information currently found on Factrak may not be accurate or may not be a student review intended for that professor.” The designers are “currently hard at work at fixing this problem.” I do hope they’re at work, but I don’t see why it would be hard: the only way to fix the problem is to demolish the site. Of course, if they’re at work distinguishing “real” from “fake” submissions, their task will be more than hard, it will be impossible.

So where does this leave the Williams student? Deprived of peer advice? That, of course, is up to the student. Do you want to know about the experiences of others with courses or instructors? Great – talk to them. You’ll then know something about the people you’re talking to, and by asking questions, you can find out more, both about those people and about the courses. Granted, you might not know anyone who has had experience with a given course or instructor. So what? You know they’re out there, and here at Williams, they can’t be far away: find them. Does this take some effort on your part? Yes, especially if you’re trying to do it fifteen minutes before the preregistration deadline. The solution?  Plan ahead. What if you talked, regularly, with all sorts of people you ran into, about courses they’d taken and/or planned to take, about choosing majors, and about specific instructors?

Perhaps you think that this process of getting peer advice is too important to be left to individual student initiatives – perhaps you think Williams needs somehow to institutionalize it. Once again, fine – but do it right. Don’t do it by giving yourselves one more activity easily engaged in anonymously, from your rooms, via your computer consoles. If you were at an enormous university, that might (although I doubt it) be your best option. But at Williams, it’s clearly not. If you want something institutionalized, institutionalize something that will further facilitate the kinds of conversations made possible by your proximity and already encouraged by our geographical isolation. Institutionalize something that will help you find, and get to know, kindred intellectual spirits.

I have been sketching some of my reasons for deeming Factrak a disservice to students. I started with those in part from concern that some might think that Factrak could be only a good thing for students, and that if faculty didn’t like it, that could only be because they feared being trashed. Well, I admit that I don’t want to be trashed, especially publicly, especially when I might be trashed by someone convinced that he deserved at least a B on his first paper because, although he’d missed the first two weeks of classes, he was a philosophy major, or because his mother was a trustee (cases like this are rare, in my experience, but I’ve had them, and my guess is that those students would have loved to have Factrak just a few keystrokes away).

I don’t relish the prospect of being publicly trashed, but I also think that students shouldn’t want me, and my colleagues, to be subject to public trashing, for reasons both ethical and pragmatic. To indicate (rather than explore) the ethical dimension, I raise a question one of my colleagues presented to a student, when asked about how the faculty might feel about Factrak: how would you feel if there were a public site with anonymous faculty comments about you as a student – comments intended to help professors decide about things like whom to accept for independent study courses, whom to include in seminars or tutorials, or even what kinds of grades to give? What if there were, in addition, no guarantee that the comments actually came from professors rather than from students? What if, moreover, there were enough entries to suggest that significant numbers of faculty members actually took this “information” seriously? And what if, finally, you had reason to fear that the “information” might be used in partial justification of your expulsion? (This last question is meant to suggest why Factrak, by its very presence, is particularly abusive to untenured faculty members.)

Pragmatically, I think that the better Williams functions as an educational community, the better students will fare. We are an educational community in that you want to learn, and we want to help you do that. Granted, moments of disruption intervene: I not only teach you, I judge you (I give you grades). This is not, in my view, optimal, but it’s also not, in my view, optional (given our circumstances). But neither is it unilateral; you give me grades, too, and they are collated, statistically analyzed and then exposed to me, to the chair of my department and to the dean of the faculty. Before I was tenured, my professional future depended heavily on your grading of me. And while being graded in this fashion is not always enjoyable, it at least can help us to improve. When it’s made public, however, it will lead to resentment – and even practically, as opposed to ethically, Williams students should not want their professors to be resentful.

Last Wednesday, when I first learned about Factrak, I began been e-mailing its designers, attempting to persuade them to destroy the site. I understand their hesitance to do so, but I continue to believe – for more reasons than I have presented here – that the site should be demolished. If you agree, I hope you will let the designers know that.