On Nov. 2, McGill Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) announced the introduction of a formal protocol which enabled professors and teaching assistants (TAs) to report hateful or discriminatory comments left on Mercury Course Evaluations.
According to TLS Director Laura Winer, comments that are deemed inappropriate will result in the removal of the entire evaluation response from the Mercury system.
“TLS have developed a protocol for addressing comments in Mercury end-of-year evaluations that are determined to be hateful or discriminatory on the basis of attributes such as […] sexual or gender identity, race, ethnicity, religion, or disability,” Winer said.
The new policy also allows students to request deletion of the forms they have sent in by filling out a webform.
“Course evaluation data can also be deleted when a student makes a mistake, such as answering ‘strongly disagree’ instead of ‘strongly agree,’” Winer said.
Angela Campbell, associate provost (Policies, Procedures, and Equity) will receive the requests for removal and consult with the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Equity Commissioner to determine whether a comment should be removed.
“[The Equity Commissioner] will not be able to see the identity of the instructor or [the TA, and] if deletion is appropriate the student’s response in its entirety will be deleted from the evaluation for the course in question,” Campbell said.
The new sets of guidelines, however, raises questions regarding the importance of student feedback and whether other review websites that do not have such policies, such as RateMyProfessors.com, will become even more popular.
“This protocol is not intended to silence students or minimize the value of student feedback, which is crucial to curricular and pedagogical development at [McGill],” Campbell said. “[It] is more proactive rather than reactive to any specific incident.”
The aim of the policy is to make feedback more constructive and give professors and TAs responses that point to aspects of a cours that can be improved on. The policy does not intend to punish students whose evaluation responses are deleted.
“The protocol’s objective is educational rather than punitive in nature,” Campbell said. “Since course evaluations are anonymous, sanctioning discriminatory statements is not possible.”
Professor Mark Brawley of the Department of Political Science receives an abundance of Mercury evaluations and finds that while many are useful, many are not productive.
“Evaluations often contain few specifics.” Brawley wrote in an email to The Tribune. “Positive evaluations may simply say, ‘The prof rocks’ rather than elaborating why the student found the class useful, [and,] since the evaluations are anonymous, the students can vent their anger, disappointment or frustrations, and it isn’t always pretty.”
However, the program may not be helpful in improving course feedback. According to Professor Philip Oxhorn, founding director of the Institute for the Study of International Development, there are concerns it will erase student voices.
“The best way to stop [negative comments] from being expressed isn’t to erase them as if they never existed, but leave them as they are in order to remind people that we should not be complacent,” Oxhorn said.
According to Oxhorn, isolated and insensitive comments do not carry much weight and students understand that these comments do not reflect the instructor’s teaching abilities. Therefore, there can be danger when entire evaluations are deleted.
“Once it is agreed that comments deemed ‘inappropriate’ can be eliminated, we will find ourselves on a slippery slope as people push to expand the definition of ‘unacceptable,’” Oxhorn said. “If student feel their comments may be erased, then they [may] stop participating in evaluations.”
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that a pilot program for the removal of course evaluations deemed hateful or discriminatory was launched last year when in fact the protocol that was recently implemented for Fall 2016 course evaluations is the pilot program. In addition, a previous version of this article stated that the SSMU Equity Commissioner will decide whether or not an evaluation should be removed. In fact, Angela Campbell, associate provost (Policies, Procedures, and Equity), will receive the requests for removal and will consult with the SSMU Equity Commissioner on whether or not a comment merits deletion. The Tribune regrets these errors.