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Despite ruling, faculty course surveys will still be handed out

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By Isabelle Kirkwood

Ryerson University instructors will still hand out faculty course surveys this fall, even though the feedback forms can no longer be used to evaluate a faculty member’s prospect of tenure or promotion.

The Ryerson Faculty Association (RFA) won a legal dispute against the university this summer when an arbitrator ruled that student course surveys are ineffective ways of evaluating a staff member when it comes to potential promotions.

The dispute, which has been ongoing between Ryerson and the RFA since 2009, was settled by arbitrator William Kaplan on June 28. For the last decade, the RFA has argued course surveys are unfair and biased.

Although discussions between the university and RFA are still underway, President Mohamed Lachemi confirmed that faculty course surveys will still be distributed to students going forward, with “some modifications” due to the arbitration results.

The surveys handed out this semester will allow students to grade teachers on an alphabetical scale rather than a numerical one and they won’t ask students to grade the overall effectiveness of a staff member, Ryerson’s Faculty Affairs said in a statement to The Eye.

Faculty Affairs added that the university and RFA will form a joint committee this fall to discuss potential changes to the survey tool and survey administration method.

“That work is just getting started,” said RFA president Ron Babin. “We are disappointed with the university’s continuation of the faculty course surveys.”

In the final ruling, Kaplan ordered the university’s collective agreement be amended to ensure student evaluation results don’t determine teaching effectiveness. He also ordered those in charge with evaluating faculty in promotion decisions be educated in the systemic biases involved in student evaluations.

The arbitrator accepted the research of Philip Stark and Richard Freishtat from the University of California, Berkeley, that suggests the results of student evaluations are skewed by a variety of unfair factors. These factors include personal characteristics, including race, gender, accent, age and even attractiveness, and course characteristics such as class size and course content.

“I’ve received sexist comments about my appearance as well as ageist remarks on student evaluations,” said Janna Eggebeen, a contract lecturer at the Ryerson School of Fashion.

Some of Eggebeen’s colleagues have also been criticized for their accent, gestures, monotone voice, and “dull personality,” she said.

In previous years, the instructor said students’ comments on evaluations have been taken very seriously and have the potential to jeopardize future contracts.

Robert Bajko is the vice-president of communications for CUPE 3904, a union representing contract academics at Ryerson—instructors who have to apply for their positions every year because they don’t have tenure. He said CUPE 3904 is “pleased and encouraged” by the RFA’s legal victory.

“We see it as an important step toward our ongoing struggle for fair and reasonable working conditions for our members,” Bajko said in a statement to The Eye. “We have seen instances where these inequitable surveys have been used as an excuse not to hire our already precarious lecturers back for another term.”

Student evaluations of teaching are “highly problematic,” Kaplan said in the ruling. “It is far from clear whether students have the expertise to comment on course content and teaching methods and assignments.”

The expert evidence presented during arbitration suggests more valuable measures of teaching effectiveness include the careful assessment of a comprehensive teaching dossier and in-class peer evaluations, Kaplan said.

Eggebeen said that low participation in student evaluations yields low return rates, so results are often not even valid.

“It’s likely that faculty hear only from students with extreme viewpoints, who either loved or hated you,” she said. “In their current form, voluntary student evaluations can only be harmful.”

With files from Maggie Macintosh.

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