Caracotsios: Taking CTECs with a grain of salt

Julian Caracotsios, Summer Columnist

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As a freshman, I thought that Course and Teacher Evaluations were the greatest thing ever. I spent hours reading different professors’ CTECs to make sure that I was taking the “optimal” courses with the “optimal” professors and the “optimal” workload. Thinking back on it, I’m not sure why I was such a fan back then because it certainly caused me more stress than it was worth.

While I’d never advocate for abolishing CTECs, the longer I’ve spent at Northwestern, the more skeptical of them I have become. I’m taking a linear algebra class over the summer which, according to the CTECs, had homework assignments that took some people over 20 hours to complete with the same professor last year. A few years back, this would have scared me half to death, but it didn’t faze me much this time around.

Therein lies one of the key problems with CTECs: You don’t know much about the person writing each response. Not all CTECs are created equal and individual students’ circumstances – such as their respective backgrounds, course loads, et cetera – strongly impact how difficult a given class is for them.

Of course, this issue pales in comparison to the obvious problem staring us all in the face, which is – plain and simple – that people like us are writing the CTECs that we read. OK, so we’re not terrible people, but you know as well as I do that we often exaggerate. When a classmate asks us what we did to study for an exam, we tend to go either for, “I’ve been living on a strict diet of coffee and stayed up all night to cram everything in at the last minute,” or, “lol nothing, this is easy and I went out partying.” To explain a bad grade, it’s easy to blame it on a bad professor or teaching assistant. And worst of all is the fact that many of us are only filling out CTECs because we’ve gotten a million of those annoying emails and don’t want to lose our viewing privileges for the subsequent quarter. CTECs rushed through and filled out in two minutes are hardly going to be much in the way of good advice.

This mix makes for a system that despite the appearance of numerical objectivity, is riddled with biases. Of course, we already knew this at heart, but I think that people nevertheless give CTECs too much weight when choosing classes, especially larger ones in which students don’t have the chance to interact closely with the professor or each other.

In the end, nothing beats word of mouth from someone whose mindset, background and personality you know, so you have context within which to place their opinions. CTECs are good for what they’re worth, but they’re no objective rating.

Julian Caracotsios is a rising Weinberg senior. He can be reached at juliancaracotsios2014@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, leave a comment or send a letter to the editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

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