Factrak’s debut raises concerns from faculty

The “factrak” website (factrak.williams.edu) debuted last week, attracting a flood of student submissions and sparking a debate amongst students, faculty and administrators. Factrak is a website designed to serve as a forum where students can anonymously post their evaluations of professors and courses at the College.

The site, designed by Jonathan Lovett ’04, Samir Thaker ’04 and Spencer Wong ’04, received more than 400 postings the first day and currently holds more than 700 faculty reviews. However, the anonymity of the postings allowed for a few initial site abuses, most notably on Friday, April 26, when more than 150 duplicate posts flooded the site. As a response, the site designers posted a disclaimer on the homepage and have made a few permanent changes, including making factrak only accessible through the Williams network.

The trio emphasized that, despite the few glitches, most posts have been, in the words of Thaker, “helpful, responsible comments.”

“Students are supposed to be intelligent when they use the site, and the vast majority [have] been,” said Lovett. Regardless, the site creators still read every comment and have removed the few they deemed extremely offensive or factually inaccurate. However, though they estimated that two-thirds of the reviews are positive, they have no problem posting harsh criticism.

Lovett, Thaker and Wong emphasized that the student body has been particularly receptive to the site. “Student response is almost universally positive,” Wong said. “A lot of people are saying that this is one of the best things that’s happened to Williams in a long time.”

The majority of the faculty, however, holds the opposing view. “The core of what makes Williams work is a kind of mutual respect and trust between students and teachers,” said Thomas Kohut, professor of history and dean of the faculty. “This violates that trust. . .I don’t know of a single faculty member who likes this.”

Kohut further elaborated on the specific problems with the site. “I think it’s really unfortunate,” he said. “It’s a particularly problematic website because it’s anonymous and it’s decontextualized.”

“My guess is that the students that write this and put it together don’t guess how much it hurts,” Kohut explained. “My hope is that this will get removed and students will understand how hurtful it is.”

The anonymity of the website is one major source of conflict. However, the site designers maintain that anonymity is a crucial part of how factrak works, and should be maintained despite the potential for abusive or irresponsible postings. “The posts being anonymous is very important for students to be comfortable posting what they actually think,” explained Lovett. Wong emphasized that “there’s never going to be a situation when professors can see who writes what.”

Many professors and administrators, however, see the anonymity becoming problematic, as students are not held accountable for their words. Another concern is that the comments could be placed out of context, with only students with disproportionately strong feelings posting. “This is a potentially a very dangerous system,” said James McAllister, professor of political science. “Students have no idea who is posting the comments. . . [and] never know if they should be taken seriously.”

McAllister also explained that there is “too much room for malicious gossip and totally uninformed opinions.” He concluded that “students should rely on the opinions of those they know. . . not on anonymous postings.”

Another of the faculty and administrators’ concerns is the potential for hurtful for cruel comments. “Students forget that, just as they are, their professors are people with vulnerabilities. . .for whom criticism is painful,” Kohut said.

“It’s hard enough to read an anonymous student’s comments on the blue sheets that you’re a boring prof; it’s a lot worse when that judgment becomes a public pronouncement,” said David Edwards, professor of anthropology. “So one big worry would be that a developing faculty member would get savaged and find it even more difficult to learn the basics of being a good teacher.”

Many of the faculty’s concerns came true on April 26, when users posted over 150 fake posts. Users copied and pasted postings, flooding departments such as math, political science and psychology with duplicated reviews.

Professor McAllister responded to the false postings in the political science department by writing his own message.

“I thank the above students for the kind words they have written,” he wrote. “Now I want you to forget them because this system is ridiculous and unfair to many of my colleagues.

“As I write this on Friday afternoon, someone else is simply copying posts written about other professors and putting them out all over the system. . . If you want to learn about professors, talk to students whom you respect. Do not make critical choices based on these postings, regardless of whether they are positive or negative.”

The problems this week and the corresponding feedback from students and faculty prompted the site designers to make a few changes in the website. Immediately after the false postings, Lovett, Thaker and Wong removed the identical reviews and put a warning on the homepage. Previously, comments were posted directly online, whereas they now are first emailed to the three site designers for approval.

Also, factrak is now also only available from the Williams web without the use of a proxy server. This change was in response to the complaints that non-Williams students could post comments on the site.

Lovett, Thaker and Wong also decided to only allow students to comment on professors who are still teaching. Students no longer have the option of rating professors who will be leaving next semester. The designers are removing comments on visiting professors as they are made aware of their status.

Another possible change is making factrak available only to students. “If professors feel that this site is creating tensions between the [members of] departments, we’re willing to make it for students only,” explained Wong.

However, Lovett was quick to clarify that “Our original intention was that we didn’t want anything to be a secret.”

A similar controversy occurred in 1993 when Benjamin Okun ’95 and Joe Copeland ’95 started the “Purple Cow Guide.” The “Purple Cow Guide” served many of the same purposes as factrak in that it gave students a medium to review professors and rate classes. To start up the guide, Copeland and Okun surveyed students, analyzed the data and then published the booklet and sold it by mail to the next year’s freshman class.

“Copeland and I found it frustrating that the evaluations that students filled out at the end of a semester were not made available to the students who were paying to take the class,” Okun said. “And we thought it was unfortunate that some decisions on whether or not to take a class were bas
ed on word of mouth.”

However, the guide garnered unfavorable reviews from the administration, who, according to Okun, said that “since Williamstown was a small community, commentary on professors could be very disruptive and wasn’t appropriate.” Copeland was also placed on probation for starting a business without College approval.

While the factrak designers await word from administration, the site continues to garner reviews and repeat visits in the face of course registration. “I hope the deans would appreciate that we’re doing this with the best intentions,” said Lovett.

Thaker also emphasized that they are still looking to improve factrak and the range of opinions presented on the site. “We still want students to submit as much as possible,” said Thaker. “Even if you agree, still write in, still submit.”

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