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Academic Affairs to pilot BCQ changes to counter bias

February 9, 2018

This spring, the Office of Academic Affairs will pilot alterations to the Bowdoin Course Questionnaires (BCQs) with a goal of reducing the role of unconscious student biases in course evaluations. The change was announced at last week’s faculty meeting.

A working group of administrators and faculty created the questions. Forty professors have agreed to administer the new set of questions to half their students, while the other half of students will complete the old versions of BCQs so the data are comparable.

Professor of Psychology Samuel Putnam, a member of the working group, said one of the main goals of the modified BCQ is to reduce students’ unconscious biases based on the gender and racial identity of their professors. Current academic research suggests that certain poor evaluations can be attributed to such biases.

“The intent of the new questionnaire is to try to use language that’s more specific,” said Dean for Academic Affairs Elizabeth McCormack, who also participated in the working group. “If it’s more specific, there’s less room for interpretation, and if there’s less room for interpretation, there’s less room for unconscious bias.”

While a current question reads, “How much did this course contribute to your education? Consider such questions as: How much did you learn? Did you grow intellectually? Were you challenged? Did the course expose you to new ideas, perspectives, information? Has the course helped you develop skills?” a proposed change to the survey would condense these several questions into one that asks students to specifically consider whether the course was intellectually challenging.

While every professor who the Orient spoke with favored some reform, the details of the changes and the implementation have caused some dissent among the faculty.

In a classic 1975 psychology study, a fictitious professor known as Dr. Fox—actually just a paid actor—received rave reviews from mathematical experts despite knowing and saying very little about game theory. To avoid an effect like this, the working group proposed revisions to BCQs that eliminate all questions concerning the passion, enthusiasm, motivation or engagement of a professor. This omission has irked some in the faculty, including Putnam.

“This is where I really differ from the group and where I’m frustrated with the process,” he said. “[Bowdoin Student Government representatives with whom we met] really expressed dissatisfaction. They said, ‘There’s nothing about whether I was engaged in class or whether I was inspired.’ As a working group, we intentionally left that stuff out because we didn’t want the Dr. Fox effect, we didn’t want the cult of personality. And I was behind it at that point, but when the students expressed this concern, it made me feel like we went overboard.”

Professor of Government Paul Franco noted that he does not have strong feelings of opposition to the new questions as a whole, but thought that the communication between the working group and the faculty could have been better. He felt that the role of the new questions in reducing bias was not fully communicated at the faculty meeting and called the findings of the working group “a bit of a black box.”

Franco also agreed with Putnam about the value of a question concerning a professor’s passion.

“The faculty meeting began with President [Clayton] Rose telling an anecdote about how a student told an alumnus … that Bowdoin had changed his life,” Franco said. “And that was by way of telling the faculty, ‘What you’re doing is very meaningful work.’ Well, if we’re in the business of changing people’s lives, it would seem to me that passion, enthusiasm and engagement are kind of crucial attributes to bring about that kind of transformation.”

For her part, Associate Professor of English Ann Kibbie was excited about the proposed changes in the questionnaire.

“Overall, I think the new questions are much more useful, because they’re much more specific. I think the committee did a terrific job in the revision,” she said. “There are some questions that I would definitely want to think about rewording, but instead of asking more general questions, I think the revisions are trying to think about what ‘more effective’ means.”

Franco and Putnam, despite the lack of a question on enthusiasm, agreed with Kibbie about the benefit of the new questions being more specific. Franco said that he would consider participating in the pilot program. Kibbie, on the other hand, decided not to participate.

“I think that the pilot itself can’t deliver any of the kinds of information that it would wish to deliver, because automatically it’s a self-selected group of people. To me, it seems as if it might create a pseudo-scientific veneer,” she said.

With an overall commitment to improve the way in which professors are evaluated, coupled with differing opinions on how best to evaluate success, discussions that emanate from the current pilot program are bound to be revealing about the diverse ways faculty consider themselves within Bowdoin’s educational environment.

“These faculty meetings are about to get interesting,” Putnam concluded.

Isabelle Hallé contributed to this report.

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