GFC and the USRIs: How Should Teaching Evaluations at the University of Alberta Be Used?

This is a brief post meant to stimulate conversation about a question faculty and other instructors across campus should be asking: in a decade in which studies indicating that student evaluations of teaching involve bias against certain groups of instructors, how should our teaching evaluations at the University of Alberta, the USRIs (Universal Student Ratings of Instruction), be used?

The issue was on the floor Monday at the first 2017-18 meeting of the General Faculties Council (GFC) in relation to a report tabled by the Committee on the Learning Environment (CLE) responding to a 30 May 2016 motion of GFC. Problem is, neither the formal paperwork for the motion nor the report itself correctly cited the motion. As a result of an amendment I moved at that May 30th meeting in 2016, the motion included a crucial word that should have been a touchstone for the committee’s work. The word omitted from the formal paperwork and every mention of the motion in the report is in blue:

THAT the General Faculties Council, on the recommendation of the GFC Executive Committee, request that the GFC Committee on the Learning Environment report by 30 April 2017, on research into the use of student rating mechanisms of instruction in university courses. This will be informed by a critical review of the University of Alberta’s existing Universal Student Ratings of Instruction (USRIs) and their use for assessment and evaluation of teaching as well as a broad review of possible methods of multifaceted GFC General Faculties Council 05/30/2016 Page 9 assessment and evaluation of teaching. The ultimate objective will be to satisfy the Institutional Strategic Plan: For the Public Good strategy to: Provide robust supports, tools, and training to develop and assess teaching quality, using qualitative and quantitative criteria that are fair, equitable, non-discriminatory and meaningful across disciplines. CARRIED

The paragraph on page 4 of the CLE report dealing with studies indicating that student evaluations involve a gender bias reads as follows:

● Gender: The literature in this category is extensive and conflicted. Numerous articles in this subcategory report gender differences or no differences in student evaluations of teaching. For example, Boring, Ottoboni, and Stark (2016) concluded that student ratings are “biased against female instructors by an amount that is large and statistically significant.” On the other hand, Wright and Jenkins-Guarieri (2012) conducted a meta-analysis of 193 studies and concluded that student evaluations appear to be free from gender bias. The University of Alberta TSQS conducted descriptive analyses and the results showed there is no apparent difference between scores for males ( N†=18576, Mdn†= 4.53) and females ( N†= 13679, Mdn†= 4.57) for statement 211 (“overall the instructor was excellent”) .

In my remarks at GFC I noted that it should concern us that this paragraph is cursory in its treatment of the possibility that student evaluations of teaching involve gender discrimination. I also find the description of the “literature” as “extensive and conflicted” odd given that the table in the report clearly shows that studies indicating gender bias are far more numerous than those that do not. But how about that last sentence?! What do you make of that?

I didn’t mention the sentence in my prepared remarks, partly because I aimed to keep those remarks to no more than two minutes. Over a hundred people sit on GFC. On such a weighty matter I assumed that many colleagues would want to speak. Instead, the presentation team from CLE defended their position by citing that sentence. I cannot for the life of me see how that sentence shows anything. To say that the median scores are the same for men and women tells us nothing about how the scores are achieved. It surely obscures much. Right? But I’m just a Shakespearean . . . .

GFC, by the way, was being asked to endorse a set of recommendations in which our USRIs would continue to be used for summative purposes — that is, for merit, tenure, and promotion decisions. I stated that we need to take seriously the statement on page 10 of the report that indicates the reservations of some chairs: “Some department chairs expressed concerns around biases, validity, and the potential for misinterpretation of USRI results for summative purposes of promotion and tenure decisions.”

This, in my view, is exactly the issue. Instructors at the University of Alberta need to receive formal feedback from their students about their courses. Formative feedback on their teaching from their students is important. And we could seek that feedback by more sophisticated means than we currently do. But with a growing body of research indicating that student evaluations of teaching involve bias — the most significant studies are about bias in the assessment of instructors who are women — it would not be responsible for GFC to continue to endorse the use of USRIs for “summative purposes.” I cited the conclusion of Boring, Ottoboni, and Stark study to this effect. Its final statement reads as follows:

[T]he onus should be on universities that rely on SET [student evaluations of teaching] for employment decisions to provide convincing affirmative evidence that such reliance does not have disparate impact on women, underrepresented minorities, or other protected groups. . . . Absent such specific evidence, SET should not be used for personnel decisions.

                                                                                    [my emphases]

The issue has now entered the international mainstream in the form of an article in last week’s Economist which you can read here. The Economist discusses a study published last Fall by another team of researchers, Mengel, Sauermann, and Zölitz. The Mengel, Sauermann, and Zölitz study is not mentioned in the CLE report. In the Economist it is discussed under the category “Academic Sexism.”

At GFC, President Turpin invited someone to move a postponement of consideration of the CLE’s recommendations. The matter will presumably return at the next meeting of GFC, scheduled for 30 October 2017. Can I hear from you before then? Especially about that darn sentence: The University of Alberta TSQS conducted descriptive analyses and the results showed there is no apparent difference between scores for males ( N†=18576, Mdn†= 4.53) and females ( N†= 13679, Mdn†= 4.57) for statement 211 (“overall the instructor was excellent”). I have heard some very scathing things about this statement from people whose disciplines make their critique significant but I’d like to hear more. 

Shall I also ask Boring (Institut d’études politiques de Paris), Ottoboni (Berkeley), Stark (Berkeley), Mengel (University of Essex), Sauermann (Stockholm University), and Zölitz (Institute on Behaviour and Inequality, Bonn, Germany), what they make of it? ; )

Oh, and for now you can read CLE’s report in full here.




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MLCS is going generic or, Why French will no longer be an exception (Guest Post by Sathya Rao, Modern Languages & Cultural Studies)

Modelled after the modern languages departments at the universities of Exeter (UK), Sheffield (UK), and Saint Louis (US), the controversial Modern Languages and Cultural Studies (MLCS) major proposal – which passed last May 25 at Arts Faculty Council – is the first of its kind in Canada and therefore deserves special attention. Under the guise of saving the last of the few small programs that survived the budgetary cuts of recent years, the MLCS major proposal completely transformed our program, making it an anomaly in the Canadian academic landscape. While all sizeable modern languages departments throughout the country (e.g., UofT, UofC, and UBC) have maintained a strong French program in order to capitalize on the opportunities arising from Canada’s bilingual context, the new MLCS major no longer gives preferential treatment to French. In fact, French and Spanish – which together amount to more than half of all majors in MLCS – are aligned with German (15% of majors enrolment), which sets the new lowest common denominator for the whole program in terms of course requirements. In practice, this means that students majoring in French (and Spanish) will be required to take fewer courses in the target language (even though there are more than enough faculty members to teach these) along with more courses in English. By comparison to other Canadian research universities, MLCS students majoring in “French” will have one of lowest course loads in the target language (i.e., a minimum of 24 credits at the senior level compared to 30 or more on average) and one of the highest – if not the highest – course load in English (i.e., 9 credits).

Paradoxically, the reduction in the number of target language courses comes with a new 6-credit requirement in study-abroad OR “language immersive” Community-Service Learning. Beside the fact that a 20-hour CSL placement in Edmonton could hardly qualify as “immersive,” compelling students to engage in CSL as a low-cost alternative to studying abroad is pedagogically questionable. Given that few MLCS students choose to engage in study abroad or in CSL based on our experience (this also extends to instructors), bringing these up to the level of program requirements will not only be constraining for students (especially for those working full-time who cannot afford the extra 20 hours per semester required by CSL) but also very risky for an already under-enrolled program like MLCS. Not to mention the extra pressure on instructors who will feel compelled to include a CSL in their courses in order to accommodate students looking to get their 6 credits. As exhilarating as the idea of CSL may be, those of us who have been practically engaged in it are well-aware that the success of a CSL placement should not be taken for granted. Compelling students to engage in CSL instead of convincing them to do so might not be the best way to ensure that their experience is successful. 

Instead of a language-specific major, students will receive a generic major in “MLCS” likely to penalize them (as some students pointed out in a survey on the new major) when competing on the job market with peers holding a good old major in French or Spanish from other Canadian institutions (including Campus Saint-Jean). It was suggested by the promoters of the MLCS majors that students could submit their transcripts along with their CV. Yet no market analysis was conducted to make sure whether non-academic employers would actually consider going over the additional material or whether students would be comfortable disclosing their transcripts. In fact, nowadays most employers use automated systems to scan resumés for degree titles, and it is rare for transcripts ever to be considered in job applications.

The levelling down of our two most enrolled programs (and incidentally the slow agony of one of our most reputed programs, namely Comparative Literature) was presented as the necessary price to pay to save small programs — indeed, as a necessary sacrifice. But how will these programs be “saved” exactly? Instead of a full-fledged BA (which can no longer be provided given the insufficient enrolment), small programs such as Scandinavian, Ukrainian, and Russian will be granted the opportunity to offer 4 courses (12 credits) in the target language along with 4 (12 credits) content-specific courses in English as part of the “Cross-Cultural Studies” route. For “homeless” or rather “major-less” programs as dynamic as ours, this is certainly a better prospect than losing the little that was left. Yet it is hard to understand why rescuing these majors from extinction would entail harming bigger ones and potentially putting the whole department at risk and in a state of crisis. Hence it is no wonder that the whole discussion about the new MLCS major turned into a tragedy. It is important to keep in mind that French, Spanish & Comparative Literature altogether furnish 75% of majors in MLCS. Also, it is unclear how these newly saved small programs will grow strong enough to make up for any anticipated loss in French, Spanish, and Comparative Literature. The biggest winner in all this is German whose enrolment has been steadily declining in the past 5 years from 27 (in 2011) to 19 (in 2016) and yet now sets the standards for French and Spanish in terms of course requirements. By having its majors pooled into the common new MLCS major while preserving its status of “big” language alongside with French and Spanish, German deftly escapes the potential threat of program suspension. Finally, little consideration was given to the moderate satisfaction rate – 3.9 out of 5 – expressed by the 520 students who were surveyed about the new major. This rate even drops to 3.5 out of 5 for the 62 students involved in MLCS programs (e.g., majors and certificates).

In any case, one could object that there was something truly heroic and yet anomalous not only in the goal the MLCS major proposal set for itself, but also in the support it received from the Faculty of Arts (given the lack of data and contextual information provided to Arts Faculty Council for its decision-making and the fact that the proposal was turned down twice by Academic Affairs with substantial modifications). As a desperate attempt to save some endangered programs, the proposal gave rise to a “generic” model where all languages (French is no exception) are reduced to their lowest common denominator⁄ requirements. For the same cost as a “brand name” or traditional language programs, a generic program will offer more courses in English, affordable local “immersive” experience (as an alternative to more expensive travel abroad experience), fewer courses in the target language, overall decreased proficiency in the target language (but increased experiential learning for more students and improved knowledge in the generic field of “cultural studies”), and a degree in a potentially greater number of languages than any traditional model could provide. While this new model has some merits of its own (e.g., simplified administrative structure and emphasis on experiential learning), it remains to be seen how it will be welcomed in an environment unlike the UK or the US where bilingualism prevails (and within a province with a strong francophone community and a lasting network of Francophone schools & immersion programs), where combined degrees have proven to be unsuccessful (as evidenced by the closure in 2013 of most of our combined majors, except French and Spanish), where proficiency standards and professional expectations for French (and Spanish) speakers are higher (especially for students envisioning a career in the booming sector of bilingual education), where there is already a Francophone campus offering a full-fledged French major, where experiential learning in many programs is either optional (through programs such as Co-Curricular Record) or mandatory through curriculum-embedded travel abroad opportunities (as at Augustana, which as far as we know, was unfortunately not part of the discussion, just as Campus Saint-Jean was not), where most employers are not familiar with the concept of “cultural studies,” and where students are already busy engaging in experiential learning of their own to pay for their tuition fees.   

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In the Journal today: Kathleen Lowrey (Anthropology) on “flexibility,” “experiential learning” and other curricular matters

In the Edmonton Journal today:

Kathleen Lowrey (Anthropology) contributes to the debate on what the Social Studies curriculum for K-12 and our own should (and should not) involve. Or, as she puts it, “And now, a withering view of flexibility from one of our resident schoolmarms”:



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Reflexions on the Arts Faculty Council discussion of the MLCS BA proposal (Guest Post by Marisa Bortolussi)

In response to the request for a summary of what happened at the Thursday May 25 meeting of the Arts Faculty Council regarding the BA proposal for Modern Languages and Cultural Studies (MLCS), here is a summary, with a few post-meeting reflexions.

First of all, the proposal passed: the result of the vote was: 37 against, 49 for, with 7 abstentions. 

AFC Council members were placed in a very difficult situation at that meeting. It was pointed out to them that the department of MLCS was divided over the new MLCS BA proposal, with half of the faculty members in favour of it, and the other half against. This meant, effectively, that Council members were being asked to choose between siding with one half of the department against the other. How does one go about making such a decision? Was a thorough knowledge and understanding of the proposal required to decide which half was right and which half was wrong? No. Because understanding the proposal would have required being walked through every detail of the document, hearing all the pros and cons, and reflecting on all that information. But that is not the role of Arts Faculty Council. That is the role of the Arts Academic Affairs Committee, a duly elected committee, whose job it is to vet proposals before they reach Arts Faculty Council. And the AAC members had indeed devoted much time and effort to scrutinizing the proposal; after much discussion, they arrived at the conclusion that the proposal did not cut it. Under normal circumstances, the proposal would then not have been forwarded to Arts Faculty Council. Dean Cormack admitted at the meeting that she had overruled the AAC’s decision. This complicated the Council members’ decision making process, as they now had to decide between, on the one hand, choosing to honour the judgement of the AAC, whose members they elected, or, on the other hand, siding with the Dean. Without even knowing what the concerns of the AAC were, the majority of AFC members chose to side with the Dean and advocates of the proposal. 

This decision is very troubling for several reasons. The first is that it deals a blow to a fundamental principle that I thought we all endorsed—collegial governance. We have these committees in place to ensure the right of academics to participate in the decision-making process. They serve in part as a system of checks and balances to limit the powers of administrators. When we side with administrators, rejecting the hard work and professional decisions of our own elected colleagues, do we not undermine the legitimacy of the decision-making process? Do we not open up the door for administrative micromanaging of our programs, and potential abuses of power? 

Now some may argue that, although they didn’t know the reasons the proposal had not been approved by the AAC, they believed the arguments raised by the supporters. This too, is problematic, because for every argument made by the supporters, the opponents countered with facts that negated those claims. Here are some examples:

  1. A necessary step in this process was the surveying of students. The ‘yea’ side maintained that students were enthusiastic about the proposal. The ‘nay’ side claimed that there is no reliable evidence to support that claim. As proof, it was explained that the method used to survey students was not objective, the satisfaction rate low, and that the comments made by students actually showed they did not understand the proposal. It was explained that the method used consisted of a few advocates of the proposal visiting a few undergraduate classes, giving a rah-rah pep-talk, and then asking students some questions such as “what do you like about this proposal?” Some students heard the talk more than once, and it is possible that they answered the questions more than once, so we don’t know how many different students were surveyed. Of those students, only 62 (again, we don’t know the exact number) were registered in a Minor, Major, or Honors program in MLCS. The satisfaction rate was 3.5/5. Not overwhelmingly positive. More telling are the comments that were made. The two main aspects of the proposal students liked were “access to study abroad”, and the flexibility to study more than one language. Since MLCS students have always studied abroad, and have always had the option of studying more than one language, the responses indicate that students did not understand the proposal. This is not surprising given that they had not been asked to read and study it carefully. It is important to point out here that there are objective methods of surveying groups of people. If MLCS does not have questionnaire-design specialists among its faculty, there are resources on campus to help with that task. (We availed ourselves of those resources for our last unit review.) Conclusion: these facts prove the “student satisfaction” narrative wrong. 
  2. Advocates of the proposal argued that for 4 years there had been ample consultation and discussion. Opponents countered with several facts: i) that in 2015 members of the Curriculum Committee were not permitted to discuss the proposal because it had allegedly been discussed enough the previous year; ii) members of the department were denied the right to submit alternate proposals. One person pointed out that she had sent the Curriculum Committee a proposal; it was never acknowledged. Others received e-mails from the Chair clearly stating that no other proposals would be discussed; iii) the proposal was never discussed at the level of our areas (e.g. Spanish, French, etc.), where much of our business is conducted; iv) discussions at departmental council were short, given the time constraints; v) committee membership was cherry-picked. The Chair of the Curriculum Committee stated that members of the hardest-hit program under this proposal, Comparative Literature, had been invited to serve on the committee, but declined. Members of the Comparative Literature program gave testimony that they had never been invited. Conclusion: these facts seriously undermine the “ample discussion and consultation” narrative. 

One of the most important issues: the potential consequences of this proposal received only minor attention (more on that in a separate blog thread to come). A member of the French area explained how the proposal weakens the French program to the point where it will no longer be competitive with other strong French programs in the country because it lowers the standards and requires students to take more courses in English. Some perceptive students had mentioned in their student survey answers that the new program would entail decreased language proficiency. They are absolutely right. One does not have to be a linguist to know that one does not gain proficiency in a foreign language by taking courses in English. 

It was also pointed out that the proposal pits some areas of the department against others; it saves Scandinavian by weakening the academic integrity of French, virtually destroying Comparative Literature. Someone obviously decided that Scandinavian is more important than Comparative Literature. But members of the opposing side pointed out that it was not necessary to save some programs at the expense of others, that it was entirely possible to craft a proposal that saved endangered programs while maintaining the strength of the stronger programs like French and Spanish. The opponents of the program asked for the opportunity to produce such a proposal, an opportunity they had always been denied. The majority voted not to give the department that chance. Conclusion: the vote of the majority displays a lack of concern for the very negative consequences of this proposal.

On Thursday, Council members who were not in a position to judge for themselves the merits or flaws of the proposal, decided to disregard the decision of the Arts Academic Affairs Committee, and side with one half of the department of MLCS. What a truly sad sign of our times that facts do not guide decision-making.  The vote suggests that the ‘yeas’ won and the ‘nays’ lost. But it’s not that simple. The ‘yea’ vote condemns a department to continued internal conflict, paves the way for the implementation of a very flawed program that will have very dire consequences, and deals a slap in the face to the commitment to facts as well as to collegial governance. We have heard so many complaints about the erosion of collegial governance and the rise of a corporate culture in universities. But we can hardly complain when through our actions we become complicit. The ‘nays,’ armed with facts, argued with courage and integrity; the courage and integrity to stand up to the administration and denounce a flawed process and product. 

I am truly proud of being part of the “losing” side.


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Responses to the Proposal for a New Modern Languages and Cultural Studies BA (Guest Post by Marisa Bortolussi)

On May 25 faculty members attending Arts Faculty Council (AFC) will be presented with a proposal coming from the department of Modern Languages & Cultural Studies (MLCS). It is a highly contentious and divisive proposal, rejected by half of MLCS faculty and twice by the Academic Affairs Committee (AAC). In order to reach an informed decision members of AFC would need to hear a complete analysis of the problematic aspects of the proposal, but it’s unlikely that there will be enough time for that. Therefore we hope through this blog to provide important details that will help others across the Faculty understand the issues.

First, a few words about the context of the proposal. It was devised not as an academic plan with pedagogical value, but as a perceived solution to an accounting problem. The proposed plan is to subsume all individual programs (German, Russian, etc.) under the heading “MLCS” (Modern Languages and Cultural Studies), so that administrators see one larger number for the counting of majors rather than several smaller numbers, even though it’s the same distribution of students across programs. This approach would allegedly save the smaller programs of the department. However, half of the MLCS faculty fear that as it is currently formulated, the proposal saves the endangered programs at the expense of the larger ones (French, Spanish, CLit), weakening the latter and resulting in a department of all weak programs. By forcing us to choose between saving endangered programs or weakening stronger ones (and wiping out Comp. Lit) the proposal set some of us against the others instead of seeking consensus. Such a choice is simply unacceptable. We believe it is possible to save the endangered programs without weakening the stronger ones.

Some particularly problematic aspects of the proposal are the following: 

1) The new requirements reduce the number of language credits required for a Major, which will result in decreased language proficiency. As it stands the proposal requires students to take 24 credits (including 6 credits at the 400 level) in the target language. In the case of French, the overall number of credits is significantly lower than in other French programs throughout Canada (the standard being 30 credits at the senior level) and increases the number of courses in English (which will be one of the highest in Canada for a “French program”). The French major will be replaced by a generic MLCS major, which will penalize students in the Canadian job market competing with peers holding a BA in French (better known to employers). Overall the proposal — mostly inspired by Modern languages programs in a few universities in GB and the US models —disregards our Canadian bilingual environment.

2) It requires students to take 6 credits in Community Service Learning or CSL or study abroad. We know of no other program in Canada that makes CSL a requirement, and only a very small number require study abroad. There are problems with this requirement:

i) It puts at the same level two very different pedagogical experiences (i.e., is 20 hours of community service in Edmonton and a fully immersive study abroad the same “experience”? Making CSL an alternative for those students who can afford studying abroad is not a pedagogically sound alternative. It is also providing students with an excellent reason not to bother investing in studying abroad. Why make studying abroad a requirement in the first place? 

ii) Based on several MLCS instructors’ experience, roughly 20% (this number can vary depending on departments) of students choose CSL in optional courses. We feel it is not fair to force 80% of students to do CSL knowing that some of them work part-time or full-time, have a family, have no means of transportation, etc, and simply do not want to do CSL.

3) The new proposal will wipe out Comparative Literature (which accounts for 10 Majoring students), weaken French & Spanish (which together account for more than half of all Majors in MLCS), force students to do CSL and study abroad whether they like it or not, and make students transfers likely more difficult (because of idiosyncratic program requirements like CSL).  The Faculty of Arts expects us to grow our enrolments; for the reasons stated above, we believe the new proposal will have the opposite effect. 

Marisa Bortolussi, on behalf of concerned members of MLCS

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Fruit of the Poisonous Tree (Guest Post by Dougal MacDonald, Elementary Education)

In this guest post, Dougal MacDonald, who is contract academic staff at both the University of Alberta and Athabasca University, offers his views on student opinion surveys. This is a reprinting, with Dougal’s permission, of an article that appeared in a recent newsletter from CUPE 3911 (Athabasca). 

“In teaching, you cannot see the fruit of a day’s work. It is invisible and remains so, maybe for twenty years.”  Jacques Barzun

Athabasca University, like a number of other universities, uses student opinion surveys to evaluate teaching competence. All academics are vulnerable to these kinds of evaluations but those who are part-time and/or on contract are especially vulnerable as their livelihood basically depends on getting good results on these instruments.  Those on contract usually do not have the luxury of also being evaluated based on their research or community service.

But, considering that student opinion surveys are being widely used in various academic institutions which are supposedly bastions of academic research, it is noteworthy that there is a distinct lack of research supporting the validity of their use.   Thus, rather than advancing research-based argument to support their use, their proponents tend to put forward mere assertions or else simply appeal to naked pragmatism, e.g., “they keep the students happy”, “it’s easy to crunch the results”.

In fact, the vast majority of the research that has been done on student opinion surveys opposes rather than supports their use.  See, for example, Braga et al’s article in Economics of Education Review, August 2014 ( Based on the findings of such studies, numerous articles have been written critiquing their use. Some of the main arguments raised against using student opinion surveys to evaluate teaching include:

  • the surveys focus on student emotional disposition toward the teaching in the short term, long before the full impact of the teaching is actually known
  • using a single method to evaluate teaching, directly contradicting the well-established principle that good evaluation requires a number of methods
  • teaching effectiveness cannot be atomized into a checklist of specific behaviours
  • the response rate is low and even lower with online evaluations, skewing the validity of the results
  • in general, only very happy or very unhappy students are motivated to fill out the surveys
  • certain items that are commonly evaluated simply cannot be evaluated by students, e.g., the instructor’s course content knowledge
  • “averaging” the results is statistical nonsense because the choices (1, 2, 3, 4; not satisfied, somewhat satisfied, satisfied, fully satisfied ) are ordinal (counting) in nature rather than interval in nature (an equal distance apart)
  • results are influenced by variations in the mere quantity of student-instructor interaction
  • the very desirable teaching practice of challenging students may lead to lower evaluations
  • gender bias exists against female instructors
  • pressure is placed on instructors to do what is required to get a “good rating”
  • the surveys provide few useful insights to experienced instructors
  • there is no accountability for personal or even slanderous remarks
  • in the end, the opinion surveys are nothing more than a popularity contest

The above criticisms (and others) also highlight the gross unfairness of using the evaluations for what might be called disciplinary purposes.  If the opinion surveys themselves are flawed, then they cannot be validly used to assess teaching competence.  Further, how can that flawed assessment of competence be then validly used to “inform” such matters as which contract academic gets a letter of reprimand or is assigned to teach or reteach a particular course?  There is a saying in law about the “fruit of the poisoned tree”.  It refers to the fact that if the evidence is tainted, then anything gained from it is tainted also.  The same principle should apply in regard to any use of the results of student opinion surveys.

(Recommended Further Reading:  “Do student evaluations measure teaching effectiveness?”  Philip Stark, University of California Berkeley Professor of Statistics, October 2013.


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GSEC: Open Letter to ab-GPAC, GSAs, and Minister of Advanced Education (27 February 2017)

27 February 2017

An open letter to:

GSEC Addressees 5.png

Dear fellow stakeholders:

This open letter was written on behalf of the Graduate Students of English Collective (GSEC) at the University of Alberta (U of A). It is our formal statement of objection regarding the U of A Graduate Student Association’s (GSA) stance on the continued infringement upon our constitutional and human rights to legal organization by the Post-Secondary Learning Act (PSLA). The purpose of this letter is twofold: to inform stakeholders across the province that the pro-PSLA position taken by the lobby group ab-GPAC, which was also echoed in a letter from University Presidents to the Minister of Advanced Education, cannot be representative of graduate students; and to call for the GSA at the U of A to conduct transparent and robust consultation regarding the pursuit of union representation.

As it currently stands, the January 30, 2015 decision by the Supreme Court of Canada in the case of Saskatchewan Federation of Labour v. Saskatchewan sets a clear precedent for the GSA and other graduate students’ collectives or associations to pursue union representation. Yet, the President of the GSA at the U of A co-authored an official statement with ab-GPAC, claiming that graduate students across the province would prefer to remain under the PSLA and thereby forfeit their constitutional right to freedom of association. While we are aware that the GSA initiated a consultation with graduate students in its Special Bulletin of September 28, 2016, this email allowed less than a week for responses. This was insufficient consultation with the GSA membership at large. Moreover, the pursuit of union representation was discussed only once amongst GSA councillors in their September meeting. There was no clear consensus on that matter, and the GSA’s position regarding unionization was never put to a formal vote. Instead, ab-GPAC and the GSA Board expressed to the Minister of Advanced Education that maintaining the PSLA in its current form “is the only option that can allow graduate students to function in all of their roles without harsh and undue consequences”[1] because of their precarious relationship to the University as their employer. This position was taken after receiving only 62 responses from graduate students across the province. Ab-GPAC represents at least 15,000 graduate students in Alberta, 7,000 of whom are enrolled at the U of A. Therefore, the GSA Board members who sit on ab-GPAC should not have considered 62 respondents a representative sample of either the province or the U of A when it comes to the important decision of whether or not graduate students should be able to form or join unions.

GSEC is dismayed by the GSA Board’s unwillingness to inform the GSA Council or membership of its position on unionization. In not taking a position independent of ab-GPAC, the GSA has failed in its mandate to represent its constituents. Furthermore, neither of these groups has made any effort to be transparent. It took ab-GPAC three months to respond to GSEC’s requests for its official statement and the GSA has not disclosed to GSEC any documentation related to their decision-making process. The PSLA infringes upon the Canadian constitutional right to freedom of association and discriminates against all academic workers based on source of income — a protected ground under the Alberta Human Rights Act. The most direct consequence of this infringement for graduate students is that they remain under the false impression that they cannot pursue union representation. This is a critical issue that necessitates fair and accurate consideration of graduate students’ views and adequate discussion regarding unionization options. While the official consultation deadline on the issue of unionization passed on October 17, 2016, we believe there is no official end date for democratic engagement.

The GSA Board has acted undemocratically when constitutional and human rights are at stake. Whether for or against unionization, graduate students should have been given a fair chance to weigh in on this debate, which is changing the landscape of labour relations in Alberta. GSEC acknowledges that unionization is a complex issue. To understand the costs, benefits, risks, and rewards of unionization requires time and effort on individual and institutional levels. GSEC members, and all GSA members, deserve to enjoy the full range of constitutional and human rights. These rights should not have been surrendered.

In accordance with this position, we call on the GSA to:

  • Conduct transparent representation through fair and democratic consultation. Such consultation would include a town hall and also adequate time for conducting surveys, interviews, meetings, or any other means of allowing graduate students at this institution the opportunity to voice their opinions on the issue at hand.
  • Make publicly available any letters, minutes, or documentation between the GSA and ab-GPAC pertaining to the GSA’s position on unionization.

We trust that proper consultation and representation are the goals of the U of A GSA and other stakeholders. We look forward to working with the GSA to initiate and to facilitate a more formal and transparent consultation process because all 7,000 graduate students at the University of Alberta deserve full expression of their constitutional and human rights.

We, the undersigned,

Graduate Students of English Collective (GSEC)
Department of English & Film Studies

3-5 Humanities Centre

University of Alberta

Edmonton, AB   T6G 2E5


[1]Sarah Ficko et al. “ab-GPAC Labour Relations Response —Graduate Students.” Oct. 17, 2016.

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