February 28, 2021

DERY | Instructor Evaluation … or Retaliation?

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Two Google tabs remained open as I decided classes for pre-enroll last semester: the class roster and ratemyprofessors.com. At times, a class’s number of credits or time slot can take the backseat to a detailed professor review.

 For those unfamiliar with the site, the typical instructor profile almost always features several near-perfect reviews towards the top. Naturally, you’ll ask yourself how these professors are receiving overall ratings of 3.5/5. The answer lies a few scrolls below, buried in the pop-up ads. These are the hunting grounds of those disenchanted students convinced the exams were unfair. Since each student can enter the grade they received in the class, I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to guess the average grade received by each category of reviewers. 

Ratemyprofessors.com has in fact become a favorite source for the students who use it, calling into question the standards by which we evaluate our professors. Especially on this site, the evident correlation between poor grades and poor reviews is enough of a red flag to realize the true motivation behind our critiques. 

Daniel Bernstein’s ’23 recent column on participation grades further underlines that our professors’ grading plays a role in how we perceive them, and even how today’s pandemic plays a role. Stress is already alarmingly high amid pandemic where many students are grasping at straws to focus on school. Our craving for “A”s now transcends the approach to school instilled in us at a young age. 

We are far past the days where we can comfortably attribute classroom competitiveness to exam curves and weed-outs. Irrespective of what a published median grade may tell us about our relative footing in the class, an “A” today gives us some hope that the sacrifices we’re all making are being answered. Anything below is a slap to the face. It’s naturally become easier than ever to interpret strict grading as a lack of instructor empathy.

Even so, the ways we perceive our professors’ grading affects more than just our written feedback or personal dispositions. It dictates how we study for their exams, whether we drop their classes or if we enroll in them altogether. It’s no wonder then why professors who impose stricter grading systems are condemned to stigmas and rumors spread by discontented students –– all of which are ultimately formalized in unflattering course evaluations.

Whether grade inflation should exist at Cornell is beside the point. The greater malady festers in the habit of confounding grading severity with professor competence. As the University’s greatest source of instructor feedback, we too often reward professors who grant higher grades with more positive reviews. Yet in rewarding, we enable: What the University sees as “better” instructors could very well just have more generous grading scales. To think that a promotion or tenure could be accelerated by distributing higher class averages is troubling. 

On the student’s side, deliberate efforts to satiate our craving for the coveted “A” can mislead us into believing we understand material that we actually don’t. In the day-to-day, when an oversharing professor reveals an exam’s emphasis or rubric, we can’t help but cater our studying to those few topics. Just as our professors’ true teaching ability is marred in the face of a poor grade, we seldom study untested material while in pursuit of scoring higher marks –– even if the knowledge would be important for our careers. After all, what’s career preparation next to an exam on Tuesday?

Perhaps this issue begs further questions regarding the ways we assign and perceive grades here at Cornell. But, in order to address that question with a level head, we must first divorce the notion that an easier grader constitutes a more compassionate professor, and that a more stringent one is heartless. Grading should not devolve into a personal game of appreciation in a time of crisis. Even if our well-established impulses force us to blend scores with achievement, for the integrity of our own education, let’s strive to not view our instructors solely in terms of their grading.

Roei Dery is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at rdery@cornellsun.com. The Dery Bar runs every other Monday this semester.