By Jacob Turnrose | News Editor

In the spring of 2017, the Collegiate Seminar department implemented a midterm evaluation. The evaluation has two goals, according to Ellen Rigsby, Director of Seminar. It’s meant to offer a chance for students to give feedback to professors midway through the semester, and it’s meant to gauge whether or not there are ongoing trends within Seminar classrooms that could be debilitating to the goal of fostering shared inquiry.

The evaluation is filled out in the middle of the semester by students taking Collegiate Seminar. Responses are compiled in a spreadsheet that only the Director of Collegiate Seminar can see, Rigsby said. “I select all of [a given professor’s] students and copy it into a separate spreadsheet and … send that to them with the questions on the top.” This allows professors to make mid-semester course corrections if need be, she said.

The evaluation comes in the form of a questionnaire. The first three questions establish which Seminar class the student is in, what professor is teaching them, and what time the class meets.

The next series of questions attempts to establish whether or not a professor is making their classroom conducive to “shared inquiry,” one of the stated learning outcomes of Collegiate Seminar.

The questions range from generic—“[Has] my seminar leader fostered shared inquiry”—to more specific questions, such as “My seminar leader has intervened in discussion when needed to protect the process of shared inquiry,” and “My seminar leader encouraged the class to make space for marginalized voices to bring all students into the conversation.”

Students answer each question by picking one response amongst a range of possible responses from “Strongly disagree” to “Neither agree or disagree” to “Strongly agree.” There is also an option, under each question, to include additional comments elaborating on the performance of the professor.

The last series of questions switched subjects from the professor to the student. “I encouraged the class to make space for marginalized voices to bring all students into the conversation,” was one of the topics.

According to Rigsby, the midterm evaluation came as a result of the End the Silence (ETS) protests in the Spring of 2016. “One of the specific concerns the [ETS] students raised was that there are Seminar classes where students are…saying things that the professor doesn’t know how to interpret in a useful way.” She said that former Director of Seminar Jose Feito decided to form a Seminar Diversity Committee in response to concerns that ETS had about Collegiate Seminar.

This committee was tasked with writing and implementing the mid-term evaluation, something that ETS wanted. On it were members of the Collegiate Seminar Governing Board and visiting professors. The committee also included two students, and both were involved in the ETS movement.

In addressing the question regarding space for marginalized voices, one of these students, Nani Schroeder ‘17, said, “I think this question is especially important when having discussions about race, gender, class, sexuality,” she said. “When having difficult conversations about these topics, marginalized students can sometimes feel silenced or unable to speak up because others in the class have dominated the conversation or perhaps spoken about the topic in an inappropriate way.”

However, some students disagreed with the scope of this question.

“I never felt that certain voices were restricted or discouraged from speaking in Seminar,” said Cary Feldman ‘19. “The only time I ever saw that was in my freshmen year Seminar class where I was one of four male students in a class of nineteen, and we were discussing Odysseus and how men never seem to be pleased. The conversation turned away from the text, and I alone had to defend the male sex in contemporary society.”

“I have always felt that all voices are heard in Seminar. Of course, however, you have different personalities including people who do not speak as often and people who tend to dominate conversation…I don’t believe I have ever been in a Seminar where people have been marginalized,” Feldman continued. “I’m sure there are instances where people feel they have been marginalized. I just haven’t experienced that.”

“I don’t think it’s on the [professor] to give extra emphasis to individuals from historically marginalized communities. They should give everyone a chance; it should be indeterminate,” said Kavya Maddali ‘18. “If they’re saying that Seminar is literally not giving them an opportunity to talk…I’ve never experienced that,” Maddali said. “And I’m definitely from a historically marginalized community.” Maddali also clarified that her experience isn’t representative of everyone else’s experience.

“The midterm evaluation will hopefully be used as a tool to distinguish which classes are meeting students’ educational needs and which classes could use restructuring in the middle of the semester,” said Schroeder, echoing Rigsby.

The other goal of the mid-term evaluation, which Rigsby pointed to, is to compile data that can be used to direct training to faculty members. “When students say things aren’t going well,” she said, “are there any common trends that we could see? Then, we could offer training to faculty in that specific area. That’s the goal for us having those surveys.”

She insisted that the evaluation is not to be used to discipline or correct any individual faculty member.

“If there was a problem with an individual faculty member, we already have a course evaluation,” said Rigsby. Dealing with an individual faculty is different and is governed by human resources. There are processes that are already at place that deal with employment issues.”

Drafting and implementing the evaluation was a somewhat arduous process and took a long time, according to Rigsby. “We worked from September 2016 to March 2017. It was not a simple path to get the evaluation together,” she said. “We pushed it through because students said that’s what they really wanted.”

“It was a challenge to agree on questions,” Schroeder said. “However, it was more focused on the specific wording of each question. An issue I saw in the Seminar department is the fact that the faculty in charge are not all on the same page. In fact, I see the Seminar Department being rooted more in conflict than collaboration.”

“Some professors are trying to change the way Seminar is run to make it more beneficial for all students, but other professors are adamantly opposed to changing the way they teach Seminar,” she said.

“To be honest, if Saint Mary’s truly wishes to make seminar a program that represents respect and inclusivity, every faculty member needs to be dedicated to addressing students needs as opposed to their own agendas,” she emphasized.

Rigsby left open the possibility of altering the evaluation in the future. “There’s room for changing it. It’s not set in stone,” she said. She hopes that after another year’s worth of responses, she’ll have enough of a sample size to start making evaluations of the Collegiate Seminar program and determine whether faculty training is in order.

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