Course evaluations, yearning to be free

Why I am making my student evals public, and maybe you should, too.

As a journalist and journalism teacher, I am an ardent champion of transparency and the public’s right to know. Over the years, I have filed hundreds of requests for information with government agencies, and I require my journalism students at Virginia Commonwealth University to demonstrate their ability to use the Freedom of Information Act at the federal and state levels. Every semester, for example, students in my Capital News Service course write and submit FOIAs to pry loose documents and data.

Last year, Sarah King demanded an investigative report about the death of a man in the Hampton Roads Regional Jail. When the state Department of Behavioral Health and Development Services sent Sarah a heavily redacted version of the report, she filed another FOIA — until she got the complete report.

In the same way, Grant Smith obtained the results of health inspections of VCU’s Shafer Court Dining Center (eight violations, including three critical ones). And Kyle Taylor got three years of disciplinary actions against tattoo parlors, including unlicensed operators, a parlor with feces on the floor and no running water, and a tattoo artist who failed to disclose that he was a sex offender.

I was thinking about the FOIA assignment in CNS as I wrote my annual self-evaluation for submission to the administration of the Robertson School of Media and Culture (and eventually up the food chain to the dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences). In our annual reports, faculty members describe what they’ve done over the previous year of teaching, research and service. We attach supporting documents — articles we’ve published, awards we’ve received and, always required, the course and instructor evaluations that students in each of our classes complete every semester.

Usually, faculty members must file their annual reports in May. But this year, the deadline was March 17, at the tail end of Sunshine Week, aka FOIA Fest. In CNS that week, Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, gave us a crash course in FOIA, and students filed a flurry of requests with various agencies. For instance, Maura Mazurowski found how much Virginia has spent to compensate people it forcibly sterilized under the state’s Eugenical Sterilization Act of 1924. (It’s not ancient history: That shameful law, meant to protect the “purity of the American Race,” was in effect until 1979.) A pair of students, Mary Lee Clark and Tyler Hammel, FOIA’d officials in a dozen localities for records on people who had been removed from voter registration rolls because they were not U.S. citizens. Other students went after everything from liquor license violations and parking tickets data to how much VCU spends on recruiting athletes.

As I put the finishing touches on my annual report, I was struck by the contradiction (or perhaps hypocrisy) between my advocacy of FOIA and the secrecy surrounding course evaluations. At VCU and other universities, course evals are as carefully guarded as Donald Trump’s tax returns or Hillary Clinton’s lost emails. Only directors and deans have access to the course evaluations. Faculty members can get a confidential glimpse of a colleague’s evals when they serve on a tenure committee. But students never have a chance to see course and instructor evaluations. They can never learn how their peers have rated a class or a teacher: whether students considered the course easy or demanding, worthwhile or worthless; whether they gave the instructor thumbs up, thumbs down or just meh.

I have heard a litany of reasons for shielding course and instructor evaluations from prying eyes: The evals are just one data point; in many courses, they are completed by a small fraction of the students enrolled; students who complete the evals may have an ax to grind; students are not knowledgeable or experienced enough to offer valid assessments of course content or pedagogy; students are biased especially against female instructors; and so forth. Besides, why provide the official course evals when students easily can access (It’s no wonder that in the VCU Faculty Senate, there’s a movement to do away with course evaluations entirely.)

While some of those points may have merit, I think there’s a higher principle at stake: Students deserve information that may help them make decisions in selecting courses or majors. In my opinion, that means access to course evaluations, along with other contextual information. Just as students can check the health inspections of the campus dining center, so should they be able to see whether their schoolmates have rated a particular course as well organized or an instructor as “genuinely interested in what they were teaching.”

I’m not suggesting that universities take unilateral action to publicly post course evals over their faculties’ objections, but I think it’s time to start the conversation. Since they’re fresh on my mind, I am going to kick off the discussion by posting the course and instructor evaluations for the classes I taught the past two years. They weren’t my best; they weren’t my worst. Students (and anyone else) are free to peruse them. You are welcome to examine both the statistical ratings and student comments. This might help you make informed decisions about whether to register for a course I am teaching. If you’d like to comment on my evals, you can do it here on Medium. And if you have questions, you’re free to email me.

For each course, I’ll provide some context, including workload and grade distribution. Here goes.

MASC 101: Mass Communication

This is our introductory mass comm course. It covers the history and development of each media platform (from books and newspapers to TV and the internet), explores how we use the media (for news, advertising and entertainment) and discusses media law, ethics and other issues. The course is required for all mass comm majors but is open to non-majors as well.

MASC 101 is taught online. Every week, I post a set of video lectures along with an online quiz and other activities, such as a Google Hangout with a media scholar or professional. I divide students into groups of six, and every other week, the groups have online discussions (on questions like whether media violence contributes to real-world violence). Throughout the semester, students do various projects, such as participate in Banned Books Week, a protest against censorship, or create a Wikipedia entry on a subject they know a lot about. We post these projects on our class website. And we’re constantly discussing the media on our Facebook group. Here is the syllabus with more details about how I teach MASC 101.

I typically teach two sections of MASC 101: a regular section and an Honors section. (The Honors students do all of the online activities that the regular section does, plus I meet with them for an extra hour a week for discussions or field trips.)

Here are the grade distributions for the regular course. (By comparison, 47 percent of all grades awarded in the Robertson School’s undergraduate courses in 2015–16 were A’s.)

Here are my complete MASC 101 course evaluations for 2015 and 2016. The most important stats (which we’re required to list in our annual reports) are:

Here are the grade distributions for the Honors sections. (Yep, these are smart kids. No apologies from me for giving a lot of them A’s.)

And here are the complete course evaluations for the Honors sections of MASC 101 for 2015 and 2016. Again, the most important stats:

MASC 475: Capital News Service

I teach this course each spring, when our state legislature — the Virginia General Assembly — is in session. CNS students cover the state Capitol and other news (President Trump’s inauguration this year). I edit their stories, they make revisions (a process we often rinse and repeat), and then we send the final articles to a listserv of more than 90 news outlets, including metro dailies (The Virginian-Pilot), broadcast outlets (all of the network affiliates in Richmond), weekly papers (from the Loudoun Times-Mirror to the Tazewell Free Press) and pure-play digital operations (like Inside NoVa and RVA Mag). We offer selected stories to The Associated Press, which distributes them across the nation and across the world. So students get bylines in publications from The Washington Post to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Capital News Service is the hardest course I teach. To cover the opening of the legislative session, the “Capsters” must report for work in early January — a week or more before regular VCU classes begin. They work at least 40 hours that week. And when classes start, Capsters continue to put in at least 10 hours a week on CNS. (In a perverse way, the General Assembly is very accommodating: Some committees meet as early as 7 a.m. — what better time to kill a controversial bill? And the meetings go until 8 or 9 p.m.) Legislators meet on MLK Day and Saturday, and there are rallies and protests nearly every day in Richmond. During the session, Capsters don’t have a life. It’s something they’ll have to get used to.

CNS operates on a quota system: As a general rule, each student must produce 10 stories (typically 600–800 words, plus photos and social media). In addition, students work in pairs on longform enterprise projects on topics such the threat that rising sea levels pose to Tangier Island. Somewhere in the mix, students must make infographics, create a portfolio and take a final exam. It’s all spelled out in the syllabus.

Here are the grade distributions for CNS for Spring 2016 (the crew that semester was unusually small) and Spring 2017.

Here are the complete course evaluations for CNS for Spring 2016 and for Spring 2017. The key stats:

MASC 644: Computer-Assisted Reporting

This course is part of our Multimedia Journalim Master’s Program. The class meets for three hours every Monday evening. We cover online research, data analysis and data visualization. There’s a lot of math, which tends to freak out some students. I don’t sugarcoat it in the syllabus.

I use a “flipped classroom” approach in MASC 644: I put my lectures — videos, tutorials, readings — online; students are supposed to consume that material before coming to class. Then we spend our class time with hands-on exercises showing, for example, how hospitals in Virginia bill vastly different charges for the same procedures; how student loan default rates went up as the economy went down; and how crime decreased citywide but increased around VCU. (Did I say this was a night class? Fortunately, VCU has a security escort service called RamSafe.)

As with CNS, students publish their work, including end-of-semester projects on income inequality, racial disparities in lending, AIDS/HIV rates and other topics.

Here is my grade distribution for MASC 644. (By comparison, 71 percent of all grades in the Robertson School’s graduate courses were A’s in 2015–16.)

Here is the entire course evaluation (which only three of the seven students completed; grrr). The most important numbers from the university’s standpoint:

MASC 303: Reporting for Print and Web

I taught this course during the summer of 2017. During a regular 15-week semester, MASC 303 meets for four hours a week (two lecture hours and two lab hours). For summer, we squeezed all of that content into three weeks: The class met for four hours a day (9 a.m. to 1 p.m., with one break) for five days a week (Monday through Friday) for three full weeks — thus, 60 hours of instruction. In essence, each day represented an entire week of instruction. Consequently, the attendance policy was strict: If students missed two classes, their final course grade was lowered by one letter; if they missed three, they got an automatic F. To their credit, the students stepped up: Of the 12 people enrolled in the course, nine never missed a class; the others missed one class each, for reasons that seemed legit.

We ran the class like a newsroom, with students pitching and executing story ideas. Everyone had to complete at least three stories, with much of the reporting and writing done outside class hours. Besides traditional journalism skills, students learned new-media skills and adopted a digital-first mentality. We covered social media, live blogging, photos, video, web sensibilities, basic coding, data journalism and other technological skills and concepts. As the syllabus shows, we had a handful of guest speakers (including an award-winning freelance photographer and the founder of and took a couple of field trips (City Hall, the copshop, courts building and local newsrooms).

None of the students in the class had any published bylines — they hadn’t been active in student media. So our goal was to help them start building a portfolio of clips. That requires three elements: selecting story ideas that will interest news organizations and their readers; reporting and writing those stories in a professional way (and providing photos, links and other ancillaries); and distributing the stories to newsrooms that may want to publish them. I used the CNS distribution network to accomplish that third task. The result: As a group, students amassed more than 80 bylines (since many stories were published by more than one outlet). They included breaking news (same-day coverage of Memorial Day ceremonies in Richmond), enterprise (about whether panhandlers are scams), issue-oriented features (about driver safety, as published in the Daily Press of Newport News) and several scoop-ettes (like one about plans to open an addiction recover center for women in Richmond). In one of our last assignment, students integrated these clips into their LinkedIn profiles. Besides producing stories, students took a midterm exam and a final exam and completed assignments on such subjects as tweeting, FOIA, RSS, CSS/HTML and beat-oriented research.

In the end, I wish I had had at least another week to work with the students. (I feel that way about most of my courses.) The grade distribution looked like this:

Here is the unabridged course evalution. The key metrics:

UNIV 291: Crowdsourcing the Worlds

This was one of several one-credit online course offered by VCU in conjunction with the UCI Road World Championships, an international bicycle race held in Richmond in September 2015. Dr. Tim Bajkiewicz, a Robertson School colleague, and I team-taught the class, in which students learned how to use their cellphones and social/mobile reporting methods to provide news coverage. (Tim produced the syllabus, which is a lot fancier than the template I use.)

Students posted their photos and other work on their individual blogs, which fed a “mother blog” that Tim and I set up. During race week, the students provided content for the Richmond Times-Dispatch and and for the VCU Great Race Book. Two of our students won regional awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for work they produced in Crowdsourcing the Worlds.

UNIV 291 was pass-fail. Of the 20 students, 18 passed. Here is the complete course evaluation. The most critical stats:

MASC 491: Science Journalism

This was the first Science Journalism course offered by VCU. It drew students not only from the Robertson School but also from other (mostly STEM) majors. The goal was to teach journalism students to think like scientists and science students to write like journalists. Sara Williams, head of academic outreach for VCU Libraries, and I team-taught the course after securing a VCU Quest Grant for “disruptively innovative ideas.”

In the course, students wrote news stories about research being conducted at VCU. We published the stories in a magazine called The Scope, which is hosted on the VCU Scholars Compass website. In collaboration with VCU Libraries, the course hosted several public events, including Google Hangouts and a panel discussion with national experts on science reporting. The MASC 491 students also conducted a writing clinic for graduate students on how to translate their research for a general audience. Besides numerous writing assignments, students took a midterm and a final exam, as explained in the syllabus.

The grade distribution looked like this:

And here is the unabridged course evaluation. Key numbers:

So there you have it — what students thought of me and the courses I’ve taught over the past few years. In an age of Yelp and TripAdvisor, people expect to see the reviews of services and products they’re planning to buy. I think the same expectations apply to university courses and instructors. Students deserve to know what they’re getting into before they shell out tuition. If universities want to stay relevant, they should find ways to open up course evaluations to students. After all, choosing a course is an important decision — at least as important, and perhaps as indelible, as getting a tattoo.