AAS Moves to Develop New, Better Scrutiny
By Henrik Onarheim '13 & June Pan '13, Contributing Writer & Managing News Editor
The Amherst Association of Students (AAS) is pushing ahead with its planned update of Scrutiny, the website for students to evaluate their courses and professors at the College. Over the last two years, the website fell into disrepair. A student programmer, Jezreel Ng ’14, made repairs to the website last semester at the behest of the Senate Committee on Scrutiny. Although now functional, the website is still seen by the committee as unsuitable and in need of further change.

The committee has been exploring re-hiring Ng to make Scrutiny a more user-friendly and valuable student resource. On Feb. 2, following the committee’s recommendation, the AAS unanimously approved a $1,000 honorarium for the programmer to develop a new and improved course evaluation website. The total work involved in this process is estimated to amount to 80 to 100 hours on the programmer’s part. The timeline for this undertaking projects a rough draft to be completed by April and the new website to be finalized by the end of the 2011 Spring semester.

Ng will be provided extensive leeway to design the website and its content as he sees fit, but there are certain features that the Senate would specifically like to explore. Besides adding more data and more questions, Alex Stein ’13, of the Senate Committee on Scrutiny, discussed the possibility of comparing professors who teach the same course. He would also ideally like to tie the website directly into the course database and course scheduler. In the interest of better website maintenance, the committee will ask the programmer to document his work while developing the new Scrutiny in order to facilitate any repairs or changes that might need to be made.

Stein also mentioned other possible changes, such as making the website password-protected so that evaluations can only be viewed by members of the College community. In the past, faculty members have voiced concerns about the website being publicly searchable.

Stein has been in contact with David Hamilton, Director of Web Services, on the technical aspects of the project and to determine what would or would not be feasible. “[Hamilton] was completely amenable and very helpful,” Stein said, adding that all members of Information Technology that the committee has spoken with have been similarly cooperative.

In addition, Stein and the Committee on Scrutiny have discussed Scrutiny with various members of the faculty over the course of the last two semesters, in order to assess each party’s interests and work out some common ground on the issue.

“The substance of my conversations was mostly oriented around designing a survey that would be more acceptable to the faculty than the current Scrutiny survey,” Stein said. “The faculty I spoke with expressed concerns that, as currently worded, Scrutiny was merely a popularity contest. They wanted to integrate more specifically-worded questions about content and delivery of material in each course.”

Stein and the committee submitted a proposal containing the product of these discussions to the Internet Strategy Group (ISG) last spring. However, the ISG never considered the proposal. Stein learned last fall that the proposal had, in fact, been blocked from consideration by the Dean of Faculty’s Office. Discussions with faculty have since stagnated.

Such reluctance with respect to the issue of Scrutiny is not only limited to faculty, however. During the floor debate on the $1,000 programmer honorarium, various senators expressed concern over the unilateral decision to develop a new Scrutiny. AAS Vice-President Michael Dolmatch ’11 and Senator Noah Gordon ’14, among others, urged the senate to move ahead with sensitivity and respect for faculty concerns.

There exists a suspicion among students that faculty might be hesitant about large changes to Scrutiny. Stein personally believes that professors at the College have “a mentality where they think that ‘we know the subject matter best and therefore shouldn’t be evaluated’ by students.” According to him, the faculty have emulated the medical and legal professions, in that they are also self-accrediting.

The AAS understands faculty evaluations to be a volatile issue that extends beyond the question of Scrutiny. While most comparable institutions have mandatory faculty evaluation, at the College, evaluations are only mandatory for junior faculty. In the past, a proposal was submitted to the joint faculty that senior faculty hold private evaluations among themselves. This measure was summarily voted down.

Stein himself is not opposed to rigorous faculty evaluation: “How do you ensure that [a faculty member] who was strong enough 20 years ago is still strong enough today?”

Nevertheless, according to Stein, the debate over the pros and cons of faculty evaluation misses the point.

“Even if the evaluation process were rigorous within the departments,” he said, “Scrutiny would still be valuable to students.”

Stein feels that students will speak to each other of courses and professors anyway, and that this informal interaction plays a large role in determining which classes students select.

“I have used Scrutiny as a way to double-check what I’ve heard about professors or a course before I register for it,” said Anna Pietrantonio ’14. Pietrantonio, like many of her fellow students, believe the course evaluation website is a valuable resource and is in favor of developing a new and more functional Scrutiny.

“Sometimes courses aren’t on [Scrutiny or they are outdated, so I think that updating Scrutiny would definitely be worthwhile.”

Note: Various faculty members and the Dean of Faculty’s Office have yet to respond to The Student’s inquiries regarding their perspective on Scrutiny, despite numerous attempts to establish communication.

Issue 16, Submitted 2011-02-23 03:57:55