David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
There Is Nothing Humble About Your Opinion

May 8, 2013:  There Is Nothing Humble About Your Opinion
"You're a big boat up the river blowing off steam" ("Mean," John Mellencamp)
At a recent meeting, my academic leadership and I were discussing one of our favorite topics: student evaluations.  We had worked tirelessly for a year coming up with a new evaluation tool, getting it on our learning management system so that we could eliminate the exhaustive work sorting through the paper copies, and circulating the results quickly back to faculty so that they could have feedback in time to adjust future classes.  Despite all that good work, the true focus of the conversation is on the "meanness" of the comments in the open question sections.
A confident faculty member and a fair administrator (I like to think I am) know to discard those "mean" comments just as much as we might discount the "he's a God" comments that represent the other end of the extreme. However, I couldn't even bring myself to skim through the comments for all of the faculty.  I found some of the comments so mean-spirited as to wonder if evil incarnate was posing as a student at my college.
We are constantly being told by advisory boards that we need to teach and reinforce civility to our students.  We are also products of a society that preaches 'listen to your customer.'  Those two philosophies are not easily compatible.  One person's voice is not an indication of anything.  Twenty people's voices are not yet an indication of anything.  Five million voices may not be an indication of anything (beyond cacophony).  Yet, it is just this week that a study declares "25 Universities With The Worst Professors," using that fundamentally sound data collector, "Ratemyprofessors.com." (You do realize that the corresponding article, "25 Colleges With the Best Professors," also using "Ratemy professors.com" would get a lot less coverage. So, it's not just the methodology that dooms us.)
College representatives (whether they be faculty or administrators) are no better.  Go to any Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Education article on any controversial subject and watch the slew of nasty comments trail the article like snail slime across the ground.  Let me pick one at random:  "Small Private Colleges Losing More Students Despite Rise in Discounting" (Chronicle of Higher Ed, May 8, 2013):
  • Comment from DSarma: Perhaps these small private colleges ought to offer a Groupon promotion. (A point DSarma--just because you're smug doesn't mean you aren't offensive)
  • Comment from JFFoster: Perhaps the small, low endowment, less selective among them ought consider closing while they still have some dignity and integrity left. (Dignity, JF, is staying above the fray.  Nice role modeling.)
  • Comment from LightningStrike: Yes.  Students are actually fleeing small privates (well, avoiding them from the get-go) to find those "mediocre, cheaper state schools."  Kids and their parents are figuring out that the cost-benefit ratio is much more favorable if attending "mediocre, cheaper state schools." (LightningStrikes playground apparently, as name-calling is the cheapest playground stunt.)
In our discussions of the student evaluations, some argued that we needed to remove the cloak of anonymity and make students put their names to these comments, which might decrease the mean responses.  As we see from M. DSarma and M. JFFoster above, this may not matter.  I am pretty confident these are their names.  And it doesn't take long to see that people are no longer concerned about having their outrageous opinions attached to their names.  Just this last week in Michigan, long-time politician Brooks Patterson likened a local politician to "Adolf Hitler," including the charming image of Patterson himself with comb-posing-as-moustache.
On Facebook, I daily have to make decisions about whom I want to unfriend because the endless postings criticizing in ugly, nasty ways politicians with opposing viewpoints is overwhelming.  I know you are entitled to your freaking opinion.  Keep it to your freaking self.  If I want shouting masquerading as political debating, I will watch cable news channels or start a campaign for Defacebook.
I will admit that just today I have finally found one job that I never want to have:  Website Comment Moderator. (How does one moderate when all comments are at the extremes?)  A recent article in Buzzfeed describes the gut-wrenching job as website comment moderator.  Up until this week, I hated that my website provider didn't give me the option to have comments added below my blogs.  Now I count my lucky stars that comments are driven to another page, where I can't post them unless I put them directly into my (con)text.
There is little hope for civility to be taught in our schools (secondary or higher).  The situation is emblematic of what is the challenge for all of education today. The superficial is praised more highly than the depth.  A thoughtfully articulated response is ignored for the "Jane, you ignorant slut" comment everytime.  Saturday Night Live had it right 40 years ago.