To evaluate or not? Course evaluations carrying doubts about their efficacy

After A Two-Year Suspension, Course Evaluations Are Back With Students Doubting Their Ability To Affect Change And Professors Questioning Their Underlying Bias 

At the beginning of 2019, Concordia’s Student Union (CSU) conducted its annual undergraduate survey. In that survey, many students voiced their concerns regarding the evaluation system at Concordia and believed that course evaluations did little to improve the teaching or the syllabi.  

“Students who are filling out surveys could not benefit from professors’ adjustments and

thus many wouldn’t care to take time to do the surveys,” the survey concluded, which is why 84% of students wanted their professors to implement mid-term evaluations. 

JAMES FAY @jamesfaydraws

Others believed that professors did not care enough about their evaluations and were not willing to engage with their feedback. Some students doubted whether their feedback would lead anywhere with regards to tenured professors.

“I think the problem is that professors are not held remotely accountable for being bad professors. Those with tenure have no reason to improve their teaching style because they don’t care enough,” mentioned a surveyed student.    

A month after the 2019 annual survey was conducted, the pandemic was in full swing and Concordia’s courses had moved online. Following an agreement between the faculty unions and the University, course evaluations were suspended. “In part, this was done because course evaluations are designed for in-person courses and could not fairly account for the remote teaching context,” explained Vannina Maestracci, Concordia’s University Spokesperson.

While the students surveyed in 2019 had shown a strong preference for more course evaluations, they would not return until the summer of 2022.

Elisabeth Peltier, associate professor at John Molson School of Business and treasurer at Concordia University Faculty Association (CUFA) explained that “[Professors] had to learn how to work with technology and felt that having evaluations would not be fair because they weren’t doing their normal jobs.” However, CUFA was not involved in the prolonged suspension of course evaluations even after in-person courses resumed in the middle of the 2022 spring semester.

According to Maestracci, in 2021, a working group which included CSU and Graduate Student Association (GSA) representation, was set up to look at mechanisms for student feedback and issue recommendations on course evaluations at Concordia. However, there seems to be no concrete timeline to address the student issues that were put on hold due to the pandemic. 

The key request from students was to have mid-term evaluations that allowed students to give feedback before the course was over, in the hope that some of the feedback would be implemented before the course’s end. The Concordian spoke with Eric Friedman, a student taking courses in the philosophy department at Concordia who has also echoed this sentiment. 

“A discussion in the middle of the semester that addresses students’ concerns about the course and is done in class and as a discussion would be very helpful,” said Friedman.

However, as it currently stands, mid-course evaluations at Concordia are done at the discretion of the professor and are not mandatory, with many professors opting out of them. 

“During the pandemic all the efforts at the CSU was focused on advocacy around COVID,” said Asli Isaaq, academic and advocacy coordinator at the CSU. The focus on COVID-related issues has put many other student concerns on the back-burner, with annual student surveys also suspended for the last three CSU mandates.

Some faculty members might be hesitant to support the expansion of course evaluations. Some professors are skeptical of the underlying bias that students might have, and how that bias would affect the instructors’ performance evaluations. “We don’t trust teaching evaluations because there is so much research that shows that they are biased,” added Peltier. 

Recent research suggests that factors such as gender, accent, and appearance can play a role in how students evaluate their instructors. “The fact that the participation level is so low also makes evaluations not representative of an instructor’s performance,” explains Peltier.

Some students are also skeptical about course evaluations. Many were concerned that their feedback would not make a change if their professors were tenured and therefore they did not bother with course evaluations. “For tenured professors, research constitutes most of their responsibility and so course evaluations would not have much of an effect,” added Peltier.

Many students who are disappointed with the prospect of affecting change via course evaluations rely on websites such as Rate My Professors to avoid professors with bad reviews. However, external websites are not regulated and many of the reviews can be biased and untrustworthy. 

Creating an internal evaluation and reviewing platform that allows students to share their class experiences and feedback could be an idea that addresses these concerns. Some students stated that being able to see other students’ evaluations would incentivize them to take part in more evaluations. 

“I check my professors on Rate My Professors before I take a course and it helps me get a general idea of what people think overall,” says Asley, an undergraduate computer engineering student who did not want to disclose her last name. According to Asley, seeing other students’ comments is valuable and it can help incentivize participation. 

However, Isaaq believes that such a platform should have been planned for the beginning of the CSU’s mandate and logistically it would not be possible to implement it at this time. 

“I’m not saying that it’s a bad idea, but those are the types of things you plan at the beginning of your mandate,” said Isaaq. “My year is set and there’s only so many things you can do and decide on, but an idea like having your own platform to post your ratings […] takes a lot of labour and we already decided what our goals are for this year.” 

Isaaq believes that there are benefits to an internal platform since Rate My Professors does not include all of the part-time professors and has no index to show who is currently teaching or no longer teaching at Concordia. However, Fawaz Halloum, the CSU General Coordinator, said that the issue of having mid-course evaluations will be “shared with the academic caucus who may decide to take it up with the Senate.” 

The University maintains that course evaluations are taken seriously and that department chairs have access to them and can discuss any issues that arise from them with the respective faculty. 

There has been a lack of action since the survey came out in 2019 since there are still no mid-course evaluations for most courses. Maestracci affirmed that “the recommendations are under review and we will be sharing more on their implementation once that is done.” However, she did not share any specific timeline as to when students can expect this implementation.


Sorry, I can’t come to class today; I don’t feel safe

TW: Sexual Assault

One student’s experience with the lack of trigger warnings provided in class

A good learning environment should equal a safe space. As someone who has experienced trauma, you go through life avoiding triggers, as if running through a field of landmines. You spend hours, days, weeks, learning to strengthen your armor rather than focus on successfully avoiding things that will pry open that wound, because today’s society is littered with triggers. It is easier to develop thicker skin, than to ask people to respect you.

I have spent the last three years of my English literature degree wondering why it isn’t officially required for professors to include content/trigger warnings in their syllabi, as well as at the start of every class where the discussion will contain triggering content.

There are so many issues with academia, and power dynamics within professor-student relationships is one of the biggest ones. A student in a classroom becomes dependent on the professor in order to learn and expand their knowledge. It should be normal for professors to acknowledge these power dynamics. It should be normal for professors to cultivate a safe learning environment for their students by providing content warnings. It’s a question of respect; a question of simple accessibility.

The thing is, I should not have to out myself as a survivor to a professor, in order to ask them to provide a safe and inclusive classroom setting. It should be non-negotiable. It should be an expectation. I was told by someone at the Sexual Assault Resource Center at Concordia, when I approached them for help regarding this exact matter, that I lose nothing by sending an email to a professor about personal issues regarding lack of trigger warnings––that if a professor responded negatively, then it was a whole other issue of respect. But still, do I need to out myself?

Teachers must acknowledge power dynamics, use their power to better these situations, and not ignore them. By not acknowledging this issue, especially considering the current socio-political climate, they are in the wrong. They cannot stand by and claim to not be involved. They cannot not be involved. By not acting, they are perpetuating the stigma and shame associated with triggers. Calling people out, providing trigger warnings, establishing a safe learning environment––it’s the least they can do.

I should not have to be vulnerable and afraid to go to class. I have had to step forward and out myself as a survivor to so many of my professors in order for them to acknowledge this issue. That should not be required of me. People who don’t think trigger warnings are necessary can argue that I had a choice to stay silent, but by saying something, I was not only protecting myself, but also other survivors who did not wish to speak up.

It’s typical for professors in the English department to acknowledge the presence of violent, triggering content in texts studied, but rather than use that to warn their students, we’re told that literature studies is full of triggering content, and that’s what makes it fascinating. We’re told that we can’t have literature without the difficult content that comes with it, so we should get over it. Why is this normalized? I am not arguing against the presence of these texts in our classrooms, but rather arguing for a better way of handling them; a better, more respectful and inclusive way of studying them. This piece is not meant to attack anyone. I am simply trying to raise people’s awareness on this subject. I want to make people understand that these things exist, and they affect a lot of us.

If you are not someone who has experienced trauma, you lose nothing by respecting those who have. You lose nothing by providing safe, inclusive environments. Why wouldn’t you want to? Why is there even an argument against providing safe spaces?

Graphic by Ana Bilokin



Concordia English professors accused of sexual misconduct

Former Concordia student publishes essay denouncing department’s “toxic” climate

Mike Spry, a graduate of Concordia’s creative writing program, published a lengthy essay on Jan. 8 criticizing the university’s English department for fostering a toxic, misogynistic climate.

The essay, titled “No Names, Only Monsters: Toxic Masculinity, Concordia and CanLit,” was published as the sole post on a blog called CanLit Accountable. The author detailed specific allegations of sexual misconduct and corroborates a 2014 essay by writer and Concordia alumna Emma Healey.

In the essay, Spry criticized the Canadian literary industry as a whole, describing it as “a community of misogyny, toxic masculinity and privilege” that perpetuates “cronyism, bullying, abuse, sexual harassment and sexual assault.” He also described specific examples of students being subjected to misogyny and sexual misconduct at the hands of professors within Concordia’s creative writing program.

Spry claimed that, as a student, he witnessed “the normalization of sexualization of students by professors” and that romantic or sexual relationships between students and professors were not “unusual or even prohibited” at Concordia. Although his essay did not name any staff members, Spry alleged that a Concordia professor and “internationally celebrated writer” rented a hotel room during a Montreal literary festival in order to “entertain young writers.”

Spry also described another male Concordia professor who he claimed manipulated students by buying drinks for them “using the pretext of wanting to discuss their craft.” He claimed this professor would promise students mentorship and publishing opportunities if they accepted his advances, and he would “denigrate them and their writing” if they rejected him.

Many of Spry’s accusations support Toronto writer Emma Healey’s October 2014 essay, “Stories Like Passwords,” which was published on The Hairpin, a general-interest website aimed at women. In her essay, Healey alleged she was in a toxic, unhealthy relationship with one of her creative writing professors during her first year as a Concordia student. Healey wrote she was 19 when the relationship began, while the professor was 34. According to Healey, “while the relationship was consensual, much of what happened within its borders was not.”

She claimed many sexual encounters with the professor occurred while she was “blackout drunk.” Healey also described a violent encounter with the man after they had broken up. In his essay, Spry admitted he was a friend of the professor, was aware of the man’s relationship with Healey—as well as with other students—and initially supported him after Healey’s essay was published. According to Spry, this professor is still employed at Concordia.

In addition to being published on a digital platform, Healey’s essay was discussed in a Globe and Mail article four years ago. On Jan. 8, Concordia president Alan Shepard released an official statement in which he claimed he only became aware of the allegations that afternoon. In the statement, Shepard said “the allegations are serious, and will be taken seriously,” but admitted the university’s response to the issue of sexual misconduct is a “work in progress.” The statement did not name any individual staff members or list any specific disciplinary measures or policy changes the university is planning to implement.

The university has yet to release a public statement or implement disciplinary measures in response to Healey’s allegations or similar claims made by other women.

Concordia’s Arts and Science Federation of Associations (ASFA) released a statement on Jan. 9 calling on the university to “fully investigate all allegations and put [the] students’ safety first.” The statement also encouraged students to reach out to the Sexual Assault Resource Centre (SARC) and the Office of Rights and Responsibilities “if they have ever experienced or witnessed cases of sexual assault and/or harassment.”

Photo by Alex Hutchins


TRAC invigilators demand better wages

Negotiations between Concordia and invigilators’ union head to arbitration

The university’s invigilators’ union, represented by Teachers and Research Assistants at Concordia (TRAC), is launching a public campaign demanding a salary increase.

TRAC’s invigilators have yet to sign their first collective agreement with the university since they  unionized in January 2015.

The university’s latest offer, described by TRAC president Alexandre St-Onge-Perron as a “bad joke,” is $11.43 per hour for invigilators and $12.19 per hour for supervisor-invigilators, who generally have a lot more experience. The $11.43 per hour offer is a 1.6 per cent increase from the $11.25 minimum wage invigilators are currently paid.

“What they are proposing for the year to come is less than the [provincial] minimum wage starting on May 1 [2018], which is unacceptable,” St-Onge-Perron said.

In a statement to The Concordian, university spokesperson Mary-Jo Barr confirmed negotiations were ongoing and that the university “was looking forward to reaching an agreement.”

The decision to start the campaign now is not a coincidence. The two parties, which went through mediation during the spring up until July, are heading into arbitration. St-Onge-Perron said he wants to put pressure on Concordia in hopes the university will be more conciliatory when speaking to the arbitrator. The arbitrator will speak to both sides and consult their demands before making a decision.

TRAC began its campaign with a video posted on the union’s Facebook page on Aug. 29.

Invigilators from the final exam office, who make up the majority of the invigilators, according to St-Onge-Perron, are all paid minimum wage. The TRAC president said some departments pay more than others.

When the collective agreement is signed, St-Onge-Perron noted, the arbitrator will establish a wage floor. St-Onge-Perron explained that, if a department pays less than what the arbitrator decides on, all salaries from that department will increase to the floor level.

Concordia’s invigilators are currently the lowest paid among Montreal universities. Université du Québec à Montréal’s last collective agreement with the Syndicat des étudiant-e-s employé-e-s de l’UQAM (SÉTUE) and the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), which represents both TRAC and SÉTUE, established a $16 per hour salary for invigilators in April 2016.

A similar agreement was signed in January between the Syndicat des étudiant(e)s salarié(e)s de l’Université de Montréal (SÉSUM), also represented by PSAC, and the Université de Montréal. The new collective agreement promised $15 per hour for all SÉSUM employees, which represents the school’s invigilators.

St-Onge-Perron, a Concordia student who was elected TRAC president in March, said he hopes the arbitrator will present his decision before Christmas. “According to the information [TRAC] received, we can realistically hope for a decision before [then],” St-Onge-Perron said.

Photo by Mackenzie Lad

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