Need for respect and accuracy

I appreciate the kind comments I have received on Factrak. However, I would like to explain why I think Factrak is a bad idea.

First, the ostensible purpose of Factrak is to provide students with information to be used in selecting courses. The information on Factrak, however, does not make for better decision making – it makes for biased decision making. The comments that you see on Factrak are not randomly sampled, so you may assume that they are not representative of students’ opinions. Ask yourself, who is most motivated to post these comments? The site will overrepresent vindictive and mean-spirited reviews. If a student gets a bad grade, this site offers an immediate forum for “payback.” A temporarily frustrated student may post an unreflective comment. Really mad students may even post repeatedly. The site may also overrepresent students who really like a prof and post in his or her defense. Thus, Factrak is likely to be biased towards extreme opinions, and, unfortunately, positive and negative extremes do not cancel out to give an accurate picture. Reading a lot of them doesn’t help either. One gets a range of extreme views, but no accurate sense of the average view. No doubt, some of the posts contain useful and accurate characterizations of a course, but a student reading all of the comments will not know which ones are on target and which are not. It is true that other schools, such as Harvard, publish student evaluations of faculty. However, for the Harvard CUE Guide, for example, written and numerical evaluations are solicited from all students at the end of the course (much like our SCS forms and “blue sheets”) and responses are compiled by a group of editors. Each student gets an equal say. The quality of the information is much higher than that on Factrak.

Second, one of the things that makes Williams a special place is the relative lack of distance between faculty and students. Faculty choose Williams, rather than a university, out of a desire for interactive and collaborative relationships with undergraduates. Many students choose to come here for the same reason. There is less of an “us vs. them” division here than at many schools. Factrak is a divisive innovation in this regard. Most faculty work hard to engage students and to foster constructive learning environments. Yet, on Factrak, many faculty have found their efforts trashed. Quite a few of the posts are condescending, and a substantial number are vicious. I worry that this oppositional atmosphere will quickly begin to increase the distance between faculty and students. Faculty are people, and publicly vicious comments hurt. If we wanted to not care, we wouldn’t have come to Williams. Having these comments posted in perpetuity can only increase our sense of “us vs. them.”

Third, the potential for abuse on Factrak is high, and the consequences could be especially serious for junior faculty. Suppose one outraged student in a class posts thirty negative opinions about a junior faculty member. Then suppose that in subsequent years enrollment in that class drops significantly because of these posts, making the faculty member seem less attractive when he or she comes up for tenure. Cleary this would not be just. And even if such extreme abuse doesn’t occur, it is unfair for junior faculty to have to worry as they interact with students about the prospect that such a problem could occur.

If you are not convinced that many posts are motivated by vindictiveness, examine the comments about visiting faculty in their final semester at Williams. Those comments are some of the cruelest, and yet they often acknowledge that the visitor will not be back next year. The purpose of these posts cannot be to help students make better course selections next year. (The Factrak administrators agree, and removed several of these posts last week when I pointed them out, but others remain.) The site claims that “Submissions deemed offensive or otherwise inappropriate will be promptly removed by Factrak administrators.” According to the administrators, there were over 700 posts in the first three days. It is unlikely that they will be able to keep up with the posts and monitor them all for offensiveness. In my opinion they have already failed to do so.

Fourth, students are not necessarily the best judges of a course’s merit or of a professor’s performance. Look down the list of posts and observe the number of times words like “entertaining,” “funny,” and “humorous” occur. One gets the impression that these students are less interested in content than in how much we entertain them. Most of you worked hard for years to get into one of the best colleges in the country. Do you now want to have your course selections influenced by other students’ humor preferences? Do you want your professors to have this added pressure to gear their courses towards entertainment?

Fifth, Factrak is not just another forum for something that students already do (i.e., sharing views about profs). It is a very different thing to get honest evaluations and recommendations from your friends, because you know how to weight your friends’ opinions. You might weight opinions from your friend the valedictorian differently from those of your friends who regularly oversleep and miss class. On Factrak you cannot judge the comments appropriately. Did the student dislike the prof because she got a bad grade? (There is a well-documented correlation between grades and course ratings.) Was it because the student was embarrassed that he didn’t understand the material? Because the prof wouldn’t give her a 3rd extension on a paper? You just don’t know. The classroom experience results from an interaction between the students and the professor. The posted comments reflect at least as much about the poster as they do about the professor.

I am a strong proponent of freedom of speech. I would object to the College taking Factrak down because I believe that free expression of ideas, even detestable ideas, is necessary in the pursuit of truth and is crucial to the health of the academy. However, none of this implies that all opinions ought to be published, or that it is good for them to be published. I hope that the creators and users of Factrak will consider whether it may do more harm than good to the Williams community. Although I admire the initiative of the creators and their efforts to help students make more informed course selections, in fact the site offers biased and often misleading advice, which may harm faculty-student relations, and could materially harm some faculty. At a minimum the site administrators could require students to sign their comments. This would help to improve the quality of the information. Better still, I hope they will choose to take Factrak down. In the meantime, perhaps thoughtful Williams students will choose not to patronize Factrak. There are other mechanisms for evaluating professors, and much better ways to get course advice.