Psst, what’d you get for #2…in 1997?

Here’s a little background into the reason behind this blog post. My university used to employ a database, which for now we’ll call “the key.” “The key” was available for anyone on the web to use, and it contained a list of course statistics for every professor in every department for every class taught in every semester. Students could search by course title or by professor name and see what average grades were, how large the classes were, etc. Simple, solid statistics. “The key” was replaced last semester by a site that we’ll call “rut-roh.com”. “rut-roh.com” runs through Facebook, and so the number of people with access is perhaps only slightly limited; however, “rut-roh” does not just display average grades and class sizes. “rut-roh” also includes a “rate-my-professor” analysis of each instructor, it allows students to check out each others course schedules (in an attempt to find study buddies, no doubt), it allows users to upload exams (and solutions), quizzes (and solutions), course notes and handouts, and it allows students to look at hundreds of other colleges for similar information.

Naturally, the faculty in my department is up-in-arms over this. I’m not quite sure how I feel about it. Here are some ideas perhaps to consider in determining how catastrophic the situation is:

  • Is this really anything new? Everyone with two brain cells knows that fraternities and sororities have been keeping files on professors and courses for centuries. And–at my particular university–almost one-third of the undergraduate population is Greek. So, what are we really bickering about? We KNOW that one-third of students definitely have always had access to these files–who knows if they shared their information with their non-Greek friends; are we now saying it’s wrong for the Facebook-ed percentage of the school to have that same access? If anything, “rut-roh.com” is egalitarian.
  • Do professors really have a leg to stand on? There are still many in my department who post exam solutions outside their door, or who put exam and quiz solutions on their course webpages. Should they really be surprised when those publicly displayed solutions end up on another website? Let’s think of why they put solutions up–they want their students to see them, probably so they can learn where they went wrong and maybe so they can use them to study in case there’s a cumulative final exam. Let’s think of why the solutions would be posted on “rut-roh”–oh, wait, PREDOMINANTLY FOR THE SAME REASONS. Surely there’s the issue of who controls the material–if the professor has it on his website, he can remove it whenever he wants. But, is just putting it out in the open for a semester “damage” enough?
  • Do the students “own” their own exams? Forget about professor-made solutions. What if a student were to post their own exam solutions online? What if they were to post that red-ink-stained piece of paper you handed them back in class? The majority of the page is their work…presumably.
  • Why are professors REALLY so up-in-arms about this? Probably because (as the Greeks realized a LONG time ago) professors love to recycle exam questions. God-forbid they actually should have to write completely different exams every semester. There is especially no excuse in service-courses; the material in those classes is generally simple enough (regardless of subject) that there are infinitely many possibilities for questions. As for the courses for majors, idealistically one would hope by the time students are taking upper-level courses the department has managed to “weed-out” the population about which they are worrying. Still, I could see making different exams EVERY semester would be more difficult in the subjects where exams consist of essay questions on particular readings that have to be covered every year; however, the sciences still have no excuse. In math, for example, there are plenty of group theory problems to go around.
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