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California and the West

UC Santa Cruz to Retain Distinctive Written Appraisals

November 28, 2000|KENNETH R. WEISS | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

To the relief of students who love UC Santa Cruz's unconventional ways and personal touch, the faculty on Monday rejected a proposal to end the requirement that professors write paragraph-long evaluations of each student in class.

The faculty already has agreed to institute mandatory grades, beginning next fall. Students and alumni worried that eliminating written performance evaluations, on top of starting to use A-F letter grades, would rob the campus of a distinct spirit that fosters learning for learning's sake.

Until now, most students have taken courses on a pass/not pass basis, relying on the narratives to give them more precise feedback.

Santa Cruz was a rare place, they said, where students asked professors about the subject matter, not what's heard most frequently on other campuses: "Will this be on the final exam?"

Ending written evaluations, students argued, would have removed another distinction: the need for professors to get to know their students--at least well enough to write short narratives about them.

"Only UCSC was gifted with the nongrading system," a 1970 graduate recently wrote. "Otherwise, UCSC is just another cookie-cutter college that happens to be surrounded with redwoods."

Professors advocating the status quo prevailed Monday in a voice vote of the faculty's governing body, the Academic Senate. That vote could be appealed to a vote-by-mail of the senate's full membership of 600 professors, if the full senate chooses.

"The policy remains the same," said campus spokeswoman Elizabeth Irwin. "It was not a close vote."

But the senate restated that the professors have wide leeway to determine what's covered in the evaluations. It also called for reformatting transcripts to make them shorter and getting professors more technological help.

Such written evaluations, said linguistics professor Bill Ladusaw, "needn't be a massive task. There are lots of ways of automating these things."

A growing number of faculty members have complained that the narratives have become an onerous chore as the campus has grown from a cozy alternative college of 5,000 students to a burgeoning research university expected to soon enroll 15,000 students.

What makes the system more burdensome, the professors argue, is that besides nearly tripling the size of the student body, the student-faculty ratio has more than doubled--from 9-1 to nearly 19-1.

It's difficult to get to know more than a handful of students in a big lecture class, some professors say.

They say narrative evaluations, often written by teaching assistants, have become formulaic, paragraphs of boilerplate language that correspond to a particular grade.

"We believe the faculty's time is better spent by focusing on the letters of recommendations rather than writing evaluations for each student," wrote Manfred Warmuth, a computer scientist, and Maria Schonbek, a mathematician.

But other professors, adherents to Santa Cruz's tradition, prevailed by arguing that even boilerplate evaluations are better than impersonal grades.

"The people in chemistry who give students a table showing their quiz average, their attendance and whether their work has improved or dived during the quarter have been more informative than a grade," Ladusaw said.

Furthermore, the narratives say whether a student did better than average in class--a distinction lost at many colleges as rampant grade inflation has made Bs, and even A's, the most common grades.

The desire to preserve evaluations was echoed by UC Santa Cruz students who demonstrated Monday as the school's Academic Senate discussed the future of the evaluations. One student carried a sign proclaiming: "I came to UCSC because of the EVALS!!"

The alumni weighed in too, calling professors and writing letters.

"I understand the university is not a museum frozen in time," said Stephen Klein, a 1972 graduate who runs 19 libraries for Los Angeles County. "But I think there are values that are key to why the place is different and important for students who are looking for something other than the massive, impersonal classes of Berkeley or UCLA."

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