Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern


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Letters to the editor

I read with interest Jeff Carlton’s column in Thursday’s paper about the reliability of Course and Teacher Evaluation Council evaluations.

While I am unsure that Mr. Carlton meant that there are too many bad professors at Northwestern, the facts cited in his column indicate that there is no cause for alarm. Although last year the economics department faculty member in question may indeed have taught a poor course, this year the very same professor now gave, in Mr. Carlton’s words “an organized lecture, complete with real-life examples” and that rather than an odious monster, the faculty member in question turned out to be “mild-mannered” and “in a button-down shirt.”

Three conclusions should be drawn from the facts cited by Mr. Carlton. First is that NU has in place mechanisms to rectify temporary lapses in teaching quality. Although not perfect, these mechanism do work, as they clearly did in this case.

Second, the verbal commentaries in the CTECs are not to be taken too seriously and should perhaps be edited a bit more skillfully. In my 26 years of teaching at this institution, I have seen in the original CTEC forms rhetorical excesses (both critical and laudatory) that were at best comical and at worst juvenile and offensive, including personal insults hiding behind the protective screen of anonymity. In the printed versions, some of the worst ones were mercifully edited out. The unedited comments Carlton cites in this particular case may indicate no more than that some students, when frustrated, may become excessively vitriolic. Such vitriol may in some cases reflect incompetent teachers, but I am reminding Mr. Carlton that the function of a professor is to teach, not to win a popularity contest.

Third, and most important, I agree with Mr. Carlton that the response rate to CTEC’s is shamefully low. The original blame for that is not with the students but with those busybody administrators who “reformed” the CTEC system and felt they just had to fix something that was not broken. But now the only ones who can mend it are the students.

Low response rates tend to bias the evaluations toward extreme positions, since people who feel strongly about a course are more likely to express a view in the first place. For that reason alone, inferring from some fiery and truculent remarks that NU still employs “too many incompetent teachers” is unwarranted: One incompetent teacher is one too many, but were it only that Mr. Carlton, or anyone else, could be sure where “incompetent” began and and being disliked by just a few angry students ended.

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881
Letters to the editor