As the faculty experiments with alterations to Bowdoin Course Questionnaires (BCQs), we encourage students and the College to think more broadly about the role that these evaluations could play in the Bowdoin academic program.
The latest changes, which will be implemented in a pilot program this spring, aim to mitigate the influence of students’ implicit biases on their answers by rewording questions to eliminate vague or imprecise language. These changes are completely rational, and we support any effort to adapt the BCQs to comport with the growing body of psychological research about polling behaviors. At the same time, we think that BCQs continue to fall short of their potential to aid students’ intellectual development.
Rather than tweaking the details of BCQs, we urge a more comprehensive reimagining of the role of student feedback at Bowdoin. BCQs primarily provide the College with important data and testimonials that are used to evaluate specific professors’ performance, notably when it comes to reappointment and tenure reviews. At the same time, the process of completing BCQs provides students with an important opportunity to reflect on the process and contents of their learning and their interactions with a professor and with that professor’s subject.
Unfortunately, the timing of the BCQs, in the last few weeks of the semester, comes at a particularly inopportune moment. First, BCQs come online soon before exam period, when students’ attention is drawn particularly thin. But more importantly, since students fill out their evaluations after all instruction has ended, we miss out on the opportunity to discuss potential changes with our professors or to see our suggestions implemented.
The practice of some Bowdoin Teaching Fellows, which is to request evaluations midway through the semester as well as at the end, offers a more robust alternative. If professors requested student feedback throughout the semester, students could benefit from the reflective exercise of completing the evaluations, while professors could take the opportunity to engage their students in a discussion about the learning needs and dynamics of a particular group of students.
Furthermore, we agree with Professor of Government Paul Franco, Professor of Psychology Putnam and Bowdoin Student Government’s concerns about the lack of feedback concerning a professor’s passion, enthusiasm and engagement. What we will remember about Bowdoin is not the way grading standards were communicated to us but the professors who made us excited to learn. To retain this element of the evaluations, departments could offer two separate evaluations, one aimed at more subjective metrics and one at more impersonal ones. Alternatively, BCQs could be split into separate sections, with some questions weighted more heavily in tenure considerations while some would be left for in-classroom consideration.
The purpose of increasing the frequency and depth of course analysis, we want to note, would not be to give students greater control over professors’ practices or to compel professors to comply with all the requests of students. Rather, revamping feedback would allow students and professors more frequent and more intentional opportunities to collectively reflect on how to make the most of their time together in the classroom.
This editorial represents the majority view of the Bowdoin Orient’s editorial board, which is comprised of Harry DiPrinzio, Dakota Griffin, Calder McHugh and Ian Ward.