The Return of Scrutiny

(Blaine Patrick Werner, Jr.)– Where can you find a detailed listing of how many papers or exams are required for each Amherst course? How do you choose between multiple sections of a course each of which is taught by a different professor? How can you know if the hype surrounding a celebrity professor is for real? For many Amherst students it is surprising that a college which prides itself on the open curriculum has offered so little in the way of information during pre-registration. Given the ethos of the open curriculum and students being entrusted with the freedom and responsibility of shaping their education, the tools necessary for choosing our courses should be provided to us. In short, we should be able to make educated decisions about our education.

In the past, a resource known as Scrutiny filled this need. Thankfully, three Amherst students (Peter Crane ‘15, Shruthi Badri ‘16, and Sam Keaser ‘17E) worked over this summer to create a new and improved Scrutiny after its three-year hiatus. The new Scrutiny was released at the beginning of the semester rather quickly to students, many of whom may be unfamiliar to this student-run Amherst website. As a crowd-sourced compilation of student evaluations (both in essay format and statistical information) focusing on the workload, class format, and teaching style of the professors, the value of Scrutiny may be so obvious that it can be taken for granted. So allow this article to serve as an introduction and endorsement for this student-run publication that, in order to be back in business, desperately needs a big step forward in terms of increased participation.

How we got to the new Scrutiny

Scrutiny was from 1967 to 1993 a publication that was published by a group of students who solicited evaluations in classes and compiled the responses into a single evaluation along with some supplementary statistics. In 2005, an online version was introduced that did not necessitate one all-encompassing evaluation to be created; rather, students submitted their own evaluations which were posted en masse on the course’s specific Scrutiny website. This version existed until the 2011-2012 academic year, when the course cataloging system was changed from two-digits to three. This rendered the then-current version of Scrutiny ineffective and it fizzled out of use.

The new version hopes to live on. A number of changes were made to Scrutiny, as noted in the email sent to students from Shruthi Badri. When you log in with your Amherst credentials, you connect with your AC account and find the courses you have taken. Evaluations, however, remain anonymous thanks to some sweet programming that Shruthi Badri incorporated. An evaluation includes rating the course and the amount of work in hours spent per week and providing additional comments. Searching for a course is as easy as searching the course scheduler on the Amherst website: you can search by department, name, professor, and year.

The Value of Scrutiny

Given the rich history of Scrutiny and the amount of work that has gone into its existence for nearly forty years, something must be said for a publication that is tendered as a real service to the college community. Its purpose is rather straightforward: it is designed to aid students in selecting their courses. The absolute transparency allows for blunt and unadulterated feedback on aspects of the course experience. As a record of evaluations of past courses, it allows newer students to have access to feedback and course suggestions, something only athletes with upper-class teammates have traditionally been privy. In addition, it serves as an indication to any professor who reads of student reaction to his or her courses. Given the current lack of any mandated student feedback for professors post tenure (something very few colleges in the entire country has missing and is an ongoing discussion within the faculty), the value of assessing tenured faculty on how their courses are going and to indicate that they are slacking in some regard to their course cannot be stressed enough.

Concerns regarding Scrutiny

Obstacles to objective Scrutiny evaluations include personal preferences for professors, the link between good grades and good reviews (and vice versa), evaluations that are based on how class went that day, academic evaluations giving way to popularity evaluations, irreverent evaluations, and laudatory reviews being an ex post facto attempt to justify having taken a course (to learn more about cognitive dissonance theory, take Social Psychology). When students review evaluations as part of their decision-making, they may forget that evaluations are interpretations, no one evaluation or set of evaluations are authoritative, Scrutiny evaluations are interpretations, or an evaluation does not demonstrates the professor’s responsibility for the success or failure of a course (students are not passive spectators, and the variability in evaluations suggests that students should look to themselves as well for the success or failure of a course). Perhaps these and other obstacles prevent Scrutiny from reaching its potential of offering valuable insight to students in their decision-making processes for courses. These problems are unavoidable, however, and students talk to each other anyway. And I would add that Scrutiny evaluations should not avoid humor (especially in a campus such as ours where there is such a miasma of solemnity).

One concern that deserves discussion concerns if new and untenured professors would be judged too hastily and too critically. Every new professor needs an adjustment period, and many of these new professors show enormous improvement in their first few years of teaching, and an evaluation from an early stage in a professor’s tenure is potentially damning. Premature negative judgment may undermine the whole process of a professor’s development. However, the start of any new professor’s career is crucial and these evaluations should be seen as constructive rather than detrimental.

Best practice for Scrutiny evaluations

With this in mind, I would suggest a couple things before you go forth and evaluate your courses:

-Aside from what the description for further comments suggests, other aspects of a course to consider are amount of reading per week, attendance level, dialogue vs. monologue, lecture quality, reading value, overall workload, grading fairness, whether you would take it again, lab/lab studio effectiveness, if you are a major or not, accessibility of professor, and content of lectures.

-Acknowledge and qualify a criticism of a new professor with recognition of a professor’s lack of experience.

-Distinguish between the entertainment value of a course and its educational merit. The most fun courses are not always the ones that promote real understanding. This does not mean that professors should be trying to make their classes fun: they should try to make leaning fun if they want to be good teachers.

-There is a difference between a light or heavy workload and having a light or heavy workload that is appropriate for the purposes of the course.

As I have said, the principal goal is responsible criticism. The critiques should not be taken as gospel. If anything, the primary reason for taking a course must be an interest in the material covered by that course. Scrutiny should be used circumspectly and yet be given some seriousness by students and faculty alike. While some may criticize its consumerist nature, Scrutiny values objectivity and willfully hopes to voice unrest and thereby effect change. But this is not done for change’s sake, and certainly not to foster separation.

Concluding thoughts

Now please, take some time during this pre-registration period and evaluate your past courses. The only available courses to check will be for classes you and others have given the time to evaluate, so we owe it to each other to complete Scrutiny evaluations. New courses are especially important, as only a limited number of students have taken those courses. Courses with multiple sections also demand evaluations in order to help students make an informed decision about which professor to take.

I leave the following two excerpts from the introduction to the Fall 1968 edition of Scrutiny to describe the task of Scrutiny and the open curriculum:

If our immediate goal is objective criticism, our ultimate goal remains the subjective satisfaction of a fulfilling education and meaningful contacts with professors. Fulfillment and meaning are not furthered by teachers spouting irrelevancies to disinterested students who stumbled inadvertently into their courses. Rather they are the product of teachers’ response to student dissatisfaction, and informed selection on the part of the students. This is the ‘accommodation’ we seek to promote. Scrutiny is only justifiable in terms of these long-range hopes, for the realization of such mighty aims in four brief years is a scary proposition, which prompts us to seek catalysts such as a course critique.

In the end, of course, Scrutiny must remain imperfect even on its own terms, never perfectly conveying student sentiment. For when Freud gave to the Socratic dictum “know thyself” a new hopelessness by demonstrating the impossibility of conscious, objective knowledge of oneself, the impossibility of honest communication with others became implicit. Thus Scrutiny is at best an approximation to an honest and effective evaluation of courses, and will never eliminate the approximations every student must make in his task of finding a way through four years of the Amherst curriculum. We feel that Scrutiny is appropriate to that task. Some, however, may look to these critiques for absolute judgments and infallible suggestions. To them we can only reiterate Wittgenstein’s advice to Bertrand Russell concerning some investigations of considerably greater moment than those herein: If you don’t read them, it doesnt matter at all.