Exclusives: Raising Kate
PAW web exclusive column by Kate Swearengen '04 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
7 , 2001:
for faculty and wage-earners?
By Kate Swearengen '04
My friend Peter had been
agonizing for two weeks over the evaluation he had filled out for
his Spanish class. "I feel so bad," he moaned, explaining
that he had written unflattering comments about his professor's
teaching abilities. "I said horrible things. I even e-mailed
the director of studies to see if I could retract my comments. He
laughed at me."
I laughed, too. Prior
to winter break we had been given two evaluations to fill out for
each of our classes. One consisted of a multiple-choice form regarding
the quality of homework assignments, instruction, readings, and
tests. The other was an essay form upon which students were invited
to make further comments. Assuming that the multiple-choice form
would be electronically scanned, and that the essay forms would
be relegated to some dark corner of the registrar's office, I didn't
spend a lot of time on the evaluations. The sight of Peter dejectedly
picking apart a greasy Italian pastry amused me; we were at Frist,
after all, surrounded by pajama-clad students who were sleeping
and studying there so as not to waste time commuting across campus.
This was the time to worry about finals and term papers, not class
"You don't understand,"
he said miserably, leaning across the table. "I wrote that
she wasn't qualified to teach at Princeton." He put his hands
over his eyes.
"Don't worry, Peter,"
I said, needling him a little. "She'll be able to get a job
somewhere. I just hope she's not a single mother who won't be able
to feed her children because some overprivileged kid was upset about
getting an A-minus in the class."
"That wasn't it
at all," he insisted. "She really was a horrible professor.
She couldn't explain anything."
"Then you were right
to give her a poor evaluation," I said. "With what we
pay for tuition, we should have good instructors."
"But she was so
nice," Peter said. "I'm sure she was trying hard, and
now she's going to read my evaluation and feel terrible."
I exclaimed. "Our professors get to read the evaluations? I
wish someone had told me that before I wrote all those scathing
things about the volcano lab in geology. I even think I wrote my
name on the survey out of some perverse sense of outrage. And really,
when you think about it, injecting Jello volcanoes with red food
coloring isn't so bad."
I told Zach and Alicia
about the conversation later.
"Oh my God,"
said Alicia. "You're complaining because you wrote bad things
about a couple of labs? I wrote that my professor needed a pacemaker."
"At least they don't
read the evaluations until after we've been given our grades,"
"Do preceptors get
to read the comments, too?" asked Zach. "Because I wrote
that my chemistry preceptor was an arrogant jerk who didn't know
half as much about science as he thought he did. Not only do I have
very distinctive handwriting, I also have the same preceptor for
second semester. I guess he won't be cutting me any slack on problem
Ah, the pitfalls of performance
reviews. Administered just prior to the stressful exam period, and
handed out in the final minutes of class, the evaluations were hastily
completed by some students and used as instruments of vengeance
by others. It's safe to say that most professors won't be damaged
by the negative comments contained therein; such evaluations are
subjective, after all, and the motivations of the respondents are
undoubtedly taken into account. Academia is a pretty safe place
for those at the top of the hierarchy, for whom an unfavorable evaluation
is little more than a bruise to the ego. While faculty members are
unlikely to suffer from these reviews, the situation is different
for other university employees.
are now based on highly subjective performance reviews," reads
the website of the newly formed Workers' Rights Organizing Committee,
a group seeking to improve the lot of Princeton's kitchen staff,
library workers, and janitors. ""So there is no guarantee
that a worker's wages will keep pace with market rates, let alone
cost of living. Princeton's system is also designed in such a way
that if more workers score well on the reviews, each worker will
get a lower raise than if just a few had scored well."
Add to this problem the
chronically low wages and inadequate health benefits received by
maintenance, kitchen, and library workers; in 1999, janitors were
paid $11.19 an hour, an amount which did not keep pace with the
cost of living. Considering that the university's endowment is at
an all-time high of $8 billion, this situation is particularly appalling.
Even more surprising
is the fact that only 15 professors have taken a proactive stance
on the issue by affiliating themselves with the Workers' Rights
Organizing Committee. This is a school, after all, that likes to
speak of itself as a progressive institution. It is disquieting
that so few faculty members have allied themselves with the people
that clean their classrooms and deliver their mail. Which raises
the question: would things be different if faculty members were
judged by the same standards as Princeton's library staff, kitchen
workers, and janitors? What if faculty salaries were determined
by performance reviews, and if the evaluation forms hastily completed
by jaded undergraduates dictated their professors' livelihoods?