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The Point: Synecdoche, Massachusetts


Greetings, Colleagues:

In addition to teaching and serving as Communications Director of the FSU and doing my own research, one other hat I’ve been wearing this term at UMB is as co-chair, with Professor Katalin Szelényi (CEHD), of a Faculty Council subcommittee on the use of course evaluations during this pandemic year and beyond.  Professor Szelényi brings some welcome expertise to the questions we have been charged with studying, and her input along with that of our amazing colleagues on the subcommittee has taught me some basic truths: not only is the data collected by these forms toxic, the tool itself does not measure what it is supposed to measure. The interim provost’s consistent claim that the administration somehow can unskew this flawed data strains credulity.

In our preliminary process I have also gone back to the “Academic Personnel Policy of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Boston, and Worcester” (aka the Redbook) to remind myself that there is nothing foundational about doing course evaluations the way we do. Among other things, I want to use this email to urge colleagues who are in secure enough positions to do so, to reconsider whether they want to keep using this tool which energizes so much sexism, racism, and homophobia; some of us are in the position to make our own conscientious decisions to do something different this term. I remain mindful of the Faculty of Color report submitted to the FSU in April, 2019, that challenged us all to jettison the use of course evaluations. The continued use of this tool at the same time we try to transform UMB into an anti-racist and health promoting institution has come to scan as grotesque.

But I’ve also been reminded that doing course evaluations in this punishingly conventional way in this era of dual pandemics functions as  a synecdoche—a part that represents the whole—for what Inside Higher Ed recently described as chronic pandemic stress.  Our faculty council subcommittee has already reached consensus on the idea that our current way of doing course evaluations actively contributes to systemic biases, and we will continue to work, through faculty council, to try to address these issues. The data on how the pandemic has deepened existing inequities (and will thus likely be reproduced in course evaluations, AFRs and other crude measuring tools) is too robust to ignore:  see here, here, and here just for instance.  We know that what scholars have called the home-based “mom penalty” is joined by evidence suggesting that women also shoulder unfair service burdens taking care of what has been dubbed the “academic family.”

Three of our colleagues at UMass Amherst, Ethel Dickey, Joya Misra, and Dessie Clark have done amazing work on how to support faculty during this pandemic crisis, reminding us to pay special attention to how intersecting identity positions shape vulnerabilities in this moment.  Among other things they link to a truly useful best practices document produced by the ADVANCE initiative at UMass Amherst.  We need more of this on our campus—basic guidance on how to mitigate the daily stresses and challenges of teaching remotely with so many colleagues facing the depredations of systemic racism, ramped up family responsibilities, and various physical and mental health challenges as we head into a season of increased darkness, stress, and grief.

Course evaluations are, obviously, just the tip of the iceberg.  The crisis of COVID has put various systemic inequities in the spotlight: our work as a union committed to the common good requires us use our collective power to diagnose the political, social, and economic ills afflicting our workplace and propose meaningful antidotes.

This is your union: please tell us at how we all should begin to address the inequities that have been revealed—and deepened—by the pandemic crisis.


Jeffrey Melnick

Communications Director, Faculty Staff Union Executive Committee

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