An e-mail shows up in your mailbox three weeks before the end of the quarter. It’s usually greeted with a long sigh and a click of the delete button. You’ll wait for the next one. Another week goes by and the next e-mail arrives. Your time is running out. Swallow the pill and head to CAESAR.
The problem with CTECs is that students write the kind of comments they find the most helpful. They’re the ones that help pick classes the following quarter, the “this class suck”s and the “easy distro”s. In theory, teachers as well as department heads look to CTECs for information about course and instructor effectiveness, something difficult to extract from “This class blows.” The system that began as a student initiative and was then absorbed by the university as an official evaluation tool has become something else entirely—a “for students only” guide to picking classes.
The evaluation system has come a long way since its inception as a student government initiative in 1971. Originally, the Course and Teacher Evaluation Council collected hand written student responses and randomly selected 50 or 60 comments to publish in a book sold on campus for about $1. A few years after the introduction of CTECs by the student government, the university administration took over the operation.
Considering how familiar most students are with the CTEC system, it remains somewhat hidden behind the purple curtain. Most students have little idea of what teachers actually see or if their well-worded jab makes it to its intended target. Evaluations are written for teachers to see, after all, but when they’re also written to help students pick classes, the intended audience can get confused. “Every entity that is involved thinks it’s for them,” says Maria DiBenedetto, associate registrar and acting head of the CTEC office. Many instructors, on the other hand, will tell a very different story.
A professor who requested to remain unnamed describes his experience with CTECs as mixed. “They generally don’t provide much information that allows a professor to figure out how to improve a class,” he says. “They’re not providing that much constructive criticism.” This fall quarter, the professor taught a class that was generally well-received apart from one negative evaluation. The comment described the class as a waste of time and recommends other instructors by name. “It was done in a way that isn’t very constructive or valuable to me. It was bolded and capped and stood out and yes, that hurts,” he says. “When someone goes online to see that, that’s going to stand out and have a greater impact on other students as to whether they take my class or not.” Despite the anonymity, he claims he knows who wrote the comment.
Peter Fenves, who has been a professor in Northwestern’s German department for the past twenty years, has made a habit of sharing his mantra about CTECs with his classes. He used to tell his students, “One of the key aspects of thinking and being a responsible member of scholarly community is that one takes responsibility for what one says.” Fenves says that anonymity and free form answers are to blame for the less-than-useful responses. Creating a system with attributed responses would foster better comments. “It would be someone’s genuine opinion for which they are taking responsibility and not simply the morass of anonymous postings on the internet, which is what most of it tends be,” Fenves says.
One of the most consistently well-rated instructors, Renee Engeln-Maddox has not read her evaluations in four years. “I had the sense that they didn’t make me a better teacher, that they did something bad, which was makes me worry too much about being liked,” Engeln-Maddox said. The comments weren’t always positive, though. In the class that convinced her to never read CTECs again, a student referred to her as the “worst professor at Northwestern.” Ever since then, someone Englen-Maddox calls a “trusted colleague” has reviewed the comments for any trends she doesn’t know about, but she says most comments shouldn’t be that surprising. “You’d have to be blind to miss some things. We all know what confusion and boredom look like,” she said.