Economist Milton Friedman says, “nothing causes so much harm as good intentions.” His point is that government policies always have unintended, counterproductive consequences. I think this is useful to keep in mind when considering two ideas recently discussed in The Colonnade.
1) Consider the proposal to require professors’ teaching evaluations be put online. The most serious problem with this proposal is that it steals someone’s valuable time. Who will be forced to take the time to post the evaluations?
Of course we can all sympathize with the desire of students to have information on teaching styles, exam difficulties, etc. But having a university rule that requires this is not the answer. A better solution would be for some entrepreneurial students (perhaps the SGA?) to provide this information to students on a website. This alternative has two major advantages. First, it would be voluntary; and second, the student could provide useful information.
If students believe it would be worthwhile to have professors; evaluations online, then students should spend their time gathering and publishing the information.
Our current teaching evaluation forms are a joke. They ask vague questions, and don’t really provide any useful information for students. Instead, the students could develop a series of questions that would give them information that they want. (E.g., “Does this professor put you to sleep?”)
I distribute a supplementary series of questions with my evaluations each semester. I ask students what they thought about the assigned text(s), the exams, grading procedures, my effectiveness as a teacher, and even whether they would take me for another class if they had the choice. While I certainly don’t like to get negative responses, my own questions give me much better information for improving my teaching.
(By the way, I post my evaluations on my website because I believe it is important that students have access to the information. But I would be opposed to forcing professors to post this information. And besides, I don’t think too many students consult the information when deciding whether or not to take my class. I think they’re usually more interested in whether the class is scheduled at a convenient time.)
2) A much more serious issue appeared in last week’s Colonnade. There is a proposal to draft a “faculty code of conduct.” The purpose of this is to give students information on how to deal with ‘verbal abuse” by faculty. Of course, it is important that students understand how to proceed if they have a dispute with professors. But I don’t quite understand why we need procedures for problems that don’t exist at GC&SU. (Why isn’t “physical abuse” a part of the proposal?) The justification will likely be that we need to be prepared if we do have any problems.
While we might agree that this is a well-intended proposal, there will be a host of unintended negative consequences that are likely to outweigh the benefit.
The critical question is how do we define “verbal abuse”? Am I abusing students if I ask them questions in class? What if I tell a student that she should study more? What if I tell the class that their exam performance was disappointing? Is this abusive?
Although the proposal apparently isn’t geared at curtailing free speech, the SGA should be very careful that the proposal doesn’t drift into that area. This would create numerous other problems. The worst possible case would be if “abusive” is defined as “offensive”. If potentially offensive language or topics are discouraged or curtailed, then most classrooms will be silent, and education at GC&SU ends.
I would ask that anyone who is seriously considering a “classroom code of conduct” for professors to give careful consideration to academic freedom issues. I would also recommend that people watch John Stossel’s ABC News program titled, “What’s Happening to Free Speech?” The economics faculty has a copy, and I’d be happy to arrange a public showing if there’s interest.
Dr. Douglas M. Walker
Assistant Professor of Economics