Speaking in defense of factrak

Two weeks ago, we launched factrak, an online forum where students can comment on professors they’ve had and read what other students have to say about professors they haven’t had yet. It has been suggested that a resource such as factrak “looks good only on the surface, and that this surface conceals all sorts of implications.” We’d like to take this opportunity to examine the implications of a site such as factrak, and address some of the concerns that have been expressed to us.

We believe in factrak. The student body needs an arena where they can freely exchange information about the educational experience that is so central to their lives. Factrak is a place where Williams students can go to help each other get the most out of their education. Professors shouldn’t fear that such a site might be damaging to student-faculty relations, but should view it as a testament to the importance that professors and courses have for us. Rather than demolish the site simply because of concerns over its potential shortfalls, we’d like to address faculty concerns and make factrak the valuable resource it can be.

There is concern regarding the quality of posts submitted to factrak. Professors fear that “the site will overrepresent vindictive and mean-spirited reviews.” But even a cursory examination of the factrak database reveals that this is not the case. The majority of submissions to factrak are positive and constructive. The majority of reviews are not attacks, but honest (and sometimes blunt) words of advice to fellow students. Students here are intelligent and respectful, and we trust that they will be intelligent and respectful in their use of the site.

This brings us to the subject of anonymity. Students’ freedom to be honest is paramount, and forcing students to sign their submissions would severely impinge on the openness of the site and students’ desire to post to it. Yes, that may mean some reviews take an extremely negative view of a professor. Indeed, a very small minority of submissions are negative and even somewhat disrespectful. But a lack of anonymity threatens to alter the sentiments expressed in submitted reviews such that they no longer accurately reflect student opinion. Students are not required to sign their SCS forms or blue sheets. Despite this, they are still deemed to be valuable and credible sources of information. By eliminating the site’s anonymity, we would risk losing accuracy in the submissions we receive. Reviews on factrak are honest because they are anonymous and blunt because students want their fellow students to know what they really feel.

In arguing against the existence of a site such as factrak, some members of the faculty have offered the following analogy: what if there was a site where professors could rate students, and so on. However, the work a student does and how much effort he or she puts into a class has relatively minor impact on the overall quality of that class. A professor’s performance, on the other hand, has an enormous impact on the students in his or her class. Factrak is a forum for students to speak freely about the professors who so greatly influence their academic lives.

Moreover, professors are paid to teach classes, and students pay to attend them. It costs a great deal for students to become part of this educational community; they deserve access to any information that can make that experience better.

We do not dispute that a conversation with a friend about a professor serves that student far better than some anonymous posting contained in the factrak database. However, we believe that the two can exist side-by-side. Professor White said that if you want to speak to students who have had a professor, “find them.” To do this, we all need to “plan ahead.”

We already plan ahead. As students, we care deeply about the courses we take. We speak all the time about professors and what we thought of their courses. We plan well in advance to meet requirements for majors and to make sure we can take a class we have always wanted to take.

To blithely say “plan ahead” is to insult those students who spend a great deal of time during and before registration carefully laying out their next semester. When trying to choose between a number of different courses for a given semester, seeking out fellow students (especially those who you do not already know well) for a review of each one quickly becomes impractical.

We agree that a single comment on factrak cannot replace the information gained from the advice of a classmate whose opinion you value. It can supplement, however, the random and often anecdotal and unrepresentative opinions of the one or two people a student can find to ask. If you are worried that factrak will fail to represent accurately the sentiments of students, we would like to point out the disservice of unreliable information that currently circulates within the student body. Factrak is not the best way to get information, but it can be a valuable complement to students who wish to get the broadest picture possible before they sign up for a class.

We are working to make factrak better. The fact that comments on particular professors were available to their colleagues was unfair. That is why we have made the site available only to students. We also agree that new professors should not be subjected to the same level of criticism as professors who have already gained experience in front of the classroom. We understand that new professors are constantly changing and improving, and that reviews of a new professor’s first semester will not accurately reflect that professor’s next semester. That is why we are working to remove professors in their first year at Williams from being represented on factrak.

There are many changes we’d like to implement. Ideally, linking factrak with course registration data would help alleviate a variety of concerns about Factrak. Students would only be able to post for the professors they have had and submit for each professor only once. The comments could appear next to information about the course and the grade that the student received. We cannot implement these changes, however, without help from the administration. We can understand why they are reluctant to do so. However, it is hard to deny that help from the administration would make factrak a more reliable and effective tool.

We created factrak in the hope that it would provide a valuable service to the Williams community. Judging by student reaction thus far, we feel that we have succeeded in doing this. That over 900 reviews have been posted over the past two weeks is, we believe, a testament to how useful students perceive a system like this to be.

We understand that there are concerns. However, there is a demand for factrak. We believe the merits of a system like factrak require its development into a valued service and not its destruction because of its feared negative implications.

We stand firmly behind factrak and will continue to work to make the system better. We welcome any opinions toward this end.