Editorial: Criticism should be constructive

Editorial: Criticism should be constructive

This week, Kate Parsons, our online editor, wrote a story about student evaluations. She talked to a lot of people at Calvin — students, professors, deans. The basis of her article was a conversation she once had with a friend. The friend claimed (off the record) that a professor was upset about what she wrote in his evaluation — so upset that the student was worried about taking future classes with the professor.

This surprised some of us here at Chimes because many of us were under the assumption that the evaluations were typed so they would remain perfectly anonymous when professors saw them.

Kate decided to investigate.

Student evaluations aren’t typed, of course. The time that it would take to transcribe thousands of evaluations every semester is unrealistic. But students and faculty had very different responses to this. Professors and deans weren’t concerned about matching students to their handwriting. None admitted that they ever matched a negative comment to a specific student or held a grudge about it.

But students’ gut reaction was largely negative. Students both on and off the record claimed they felt misled in some way.

This disparity was interesting in itself, but what I found sad was that some people immediately thought back to the angriest or least kind evaluation they had ever written, shocked that anonymity might not have offered protection.

Earlier this year, I wrote an editorial about the app Yik Yak. I argued that hurtful comments made under the veil of anonymity are no less painful and, in fact, possibly more painful.

It surprised me, then, that there are cases here at Calvin where some really hurtful things are said to professors in student evaluations.

There is a difference between criticism and constructive criticism. Student evaluations are supposed to provide professors with the latter.

When we fill out our evaluations, expecting anonymity, do we think of them as a “get out of jail free” card where we can vent about our poor semesters? Do we remember that there is a person on the receiving end?

I do think these evaluations should be completely anonymous, especially in departments and majors where we may have the same professor for multiple classes. The purpose of the evaluations would be diminished if people felt they had to censor their comments or risk some sort of retribution.

That being said, if we first react with horror to discovering that what we wrote may indeed be traced back to us, perhaps we should think twice about writing it in the first place.