Andrew Siddons: A heads up makes a world of difference

There have been too many courses I’ve taken at GW that I would characterize as “a complete waste of my time.” Most of these courses were during my freshman and sophomore years, and since then I’ve learned the importance of doing some research to ensure a semester with five academically fulfilling courses. Unfortunately, consulting the few resources we can in the course of this research can be difficult and unproductive.

There is, of course, much more to some classes at GW than meets the eye, and definitely more than what is written in the Course Bulletin. The short descriptions below each class heading aren’t quite descriptive enough, and in the case of “special topics” courses, they reveal nothing at all. Those of us who aren’t freshmen know by now that a course taught one way by one professor can be taught very differently by another. To remedy this problem, department heads should make their syllabi more accessible and establish a better way to research the quality and characteristics of professors.

It’s obvious that syllabi ought to be made accessible electronically all the time. Reading assignments, writing assignments, exam dates, themes and structure or prerequisite knowledge – none of this should be a surprise for students on the first day of class. If you end up finding out on that day that the class does not work, you can find yourself having to awkwardly rearrange your schedule, find a spot in the few classes with seats still available and return books you already purchased. The fact that it’s easier for me to research the content of a class at Georgetown, which gives students access to all syllabi, than a class at GW, is unacceptable.

This issue was raised during last spring’s Student Association elections, but responsibility for this shouldn’t fall to the SA. Much to its credit, the SA keeps a file of syllabi it has collected. Ultimately, however, each department, under pressure from the respective deans’ offices and the Faculty Senate, should be making this information available themselves.

Some faculty members may object to posting syllabi electronically on the grounds of intellectual property rights – others could steal the content of their courses and pass it off as their own. If these fears are legitimate, they should simply protect it with students’ existing NetID usernames and passwords.

Thankfully, the Elliott School of International Affairs has taken the lead on this. Its Web site is providing more in depth descriptions of the varied upper-level IAFF 190 courses. Only a few offer links to syllabi, however, and the ones that do prompt you for a password that you can only receive by calling up academic advising. The fact that we can’t access this information with our e-mail logins and passwords defies logic.

A syllabus alone, however, won’t indicate how well the professor does his or her job. The best resource for researching professors has always been ratemyprofessors.com. “Hotness” ratings aside, it has always been the most complete database available. A third party site such as this, however, is prone to libel and misinformation. The University has begun transitioning course evaluations to the Internet, and there are plenty of bar graphs from this data, but what they can learn from ratemyprofessor.com is that the numbers are meaningless without written comments to accompany them.

Each department needs to start making the written comments from student evaluations available. This may likely be an unpopular position with faculty members, but students have the right to know which professors are good at their jobs. Students can help themselves by filling out evaluations and actually taking a minute to think about their answers, rather than just blaming professors for ineptitude or a bad grade. We need to stop being lazy, and provide honest and thorough feedback that could benefit our classmates.

Ultimately, students need to let their professors know how helpful this system of advanced access to syllabi and department-sponsored professor ratings could be. With registration not too far in the distance, our representatives in the SA and our liaisons with the Faculty Senate could also push for this issue and accomplish something really fruitful before next semester.

-The writer is a senior majoring in international affairs and anthropology.

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