Near the end of every semester, UC Berkeley heckles me and all of its other students to complete course evaluation feedback forms. Frankly, the ability to anonymously critique my professors is often enough motivation to complete the task.
For me, course feedback forms are an art of subtle hatred or bombastic praise. I spend a lot of time on these forms. If I sit through a bad class for an entire semester, by the time these forms roll around, I am filled with animosity, regret and potentially devastating remarks. The anonymity of course feedback makes the forms like an academic Twitter –– however, the art of course feedback also demands indulging one’s audience with a sense of moderation, so as to not display “Taxi Driver” levels of mental instability.
I’m most inclined to give course feedback under specific circumstances: I hated every second of the class but received a good enough grade to not feel embarrassed; I thought the GSI was lovely and deserves credit; and finally, it’s a small new class that I enjoyed. If a class did not meet any of these descriptions, there are no number of reminders or amount of light cyberbullying that can convince me to write course feedback. As a final cardinal rule, I never give outright negative feedback for a GSI — their lives are hard enough already.
Critical feedback is a delicate endeavor in any situation, but especially to someone who may have lightly tortured you throughout a semester. Where does one start? How much detail is too much detail?
I was in a class where my professor would get so frazzled whenever a student got up to use the bathroom that they would stop the class and timidly ask “Does anyone else need to use the restroom?”. They also had a habit of covertly taking notes on students, so one day, I brought out my own pen and pad, and whenever we’d lock eyes, I’d start scribbling down notes.
Prose is easiest when there’s an element of controlled aggression, making course feedback for a nightmarish professor the least time-consuming option. Providing critique on a topic to which one feels indifferent is the most taxing form of feedback. Sometimes, I have no comments, no critique, no words of encouragement. Just as I have absolutely nothing to say about Triscuits or Greta Van Fleet, I have nothing to say about plenty of my classes. So I’ll admit it — sometimes, I don’t touch course evaluations.
Course feedback is similar to any other form of criticism in that it may not stick the landing with an extreme approach. If you’re so critical as to be unwilling to give some degree of concession, your qualms may not be taken seriously. Personally, I often don’t mind not being taken seriously, as I thrive off of jester’s privilege. However, if I strongly dislike a class, I’m going to sit down and think about why. The hope is to convince someone to either restructure the class, or at least provide someone whom I feel victimized by with an inkling of trepidation regarding their approach.
Sometimes, my qualms with a course stretch so far that my criticism could not possibly be adequately addressed. This is a problem that can pop up in most forms of criticism. I, for instance, have a strong distaste for Marvel movies; at this point, I probably won’t enjoy any of them as anything more than background noise. My criticism, then, would not be helpful for whomever is making the content and would instead serve more as an ultimatum: Stop making Marvel movies and put Tom Holland back in storage.
In academics, for example, I find myself in classes where various professors’ lectures feel unnecessary on the whole. If I stick with the class, I may develop what I’d label a facetious grudge by its conclusion. Now, I can choose to harmlessly lean into that distaste for the sake of my own sense of comedic relief, or I can do the labor and try to explain why a class is such a nightmare, meditating on its possible improvements — the latter of which I would describe as labor, which I should be paid for.
Teaching and structuring a class are more of an art than a science; there is no hard and fast formula to it. Likewise, feedback for a class is an artistic critique. In order to give good feedback on a craft, it’s important to be able to envision the ideal product. Feedback and artistic criticism bereft of reasonable expectation are largely useless. In this sense, course feedback is a form of practical artistic criticism. It’s also a place for my built up grievances to take flight.
Unbound by social norms, class feedback forms are my sacred place to tell a professor everything they’re doing wrong and what they’ve done right. Done in a caring way, these forms are part artistic critique, part intervention.
“I see you, I appreciate you,” I write. “But your one slide per lecture PowerPoints are hurting both of us.”
Despite their flaws, course feedback forms remain an important outlet for student critique as they provide a feeling of democracy and the possibility of growth in academia, even if the tool is largely used for catharsis.