Seventy-five years after liberation and in the midst of the corona crisis, Godwin’s Law seems closer than ever: ‘As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.’In Menno Blaauw’s column Freedom (Delta, 14/5), he shows that you don’t need an online discussion for this law to hold; the comparison is done by Blaauw unliterally in his column, where he seems to declare war on student surveys. Many people believe that after a Godwin the debate is automatically over (and that the person who made the comparison has automatically lost). But, to my mind, the thoughts that emerge from the column are too far-reaching to ignore.
The most important point in the Freedom column seems to be: ‘At TU Delft, education is evaluated by students, who are allowed to do so anonymously. We regularly receive texts that need to be filtered before teachers can read them.’ The column ends with a call to stand up for your actions and opinions, sign surveys and petitions, vote and take your place in participatory decision-making bodies.
So no anonymous evaluations. But how does that fit with his Client Model column (Delta, 30/1)? In this column Blaauw seemed to imply that it is pointless to even ask students to evaluate a course: ‘The baker doesn't ask the cakes if the oven felt pleasant?’ That column ends with the ominous message that the Works Council plans to rethink student surveys and their usage.
‘It feels very uncomfortable to stand up for your rights’
In light of the January column, I am worried about the path that Blaauw (and perhaps also the Works Council?) wants to take. ‘Rethink’, does that mean silencing critical students? It reminds me of former State Secretary Teeven who was unable to push through a stricter criminal law and then put his efforts into cutting back on the legal sector (link in Dutch): “That is another way to achieve the same outcome. If you give a lawyer little time to defend a suspect, then it’s not going to be much of a defence, you see.”
Make no mistake: institutes of higher education and their teachers have a position of power with respect to students. There really are examples of critical students who were subsequently thwarted in their studies. From my own experience, I can say that - even after two years in co-decision bodies - it feels very uncomfortable to stand up for your rights (in my case the right to a practice exam) to a teacher who has yet to grade your assignment and exam. Whether or not that discomfort is justified, as a student you feel like an underdog.
But what exactly is the problem at hand? From background discussions I’ve had on this subject I get the impression that the evaluation outcomes are sometimes taken out of context, for example in performance reviews. If that is the problem, why not say so, so that that issue can be taken up by the university. The student evaluations should be the start of a conversation, not the conclusion. Ideally, there should be a system of quality control in which the student evaluations are discussed and interpreted in the Board of Studies. Perhaps the Works Council can work on strengthening the Boards of Studies? I know other universities take the training and support of boards of studies much more seriously.
‘Are texts so harsh that it justifies getting rid of them altogether?’
Blaauw briefly mentions that survey texts sometimes need to be filtered. That is reprehensible and I call on my fellow students to word their texts in a critically constructive and polite manner. But are these texts so common and so harsh that it justifies getting rid of them altogether?
We must cherish critical evaluations. Especially those from students who may not dare express their opinions openly as their assignment, which may or may not warrant a passing grade, still needs to be graded. Such a student could provide especially valuable feedback to how the course could be improved; shouldn’t that be welcomed? After all, the quality of education should be leading.
If Blaauw has concrete problems with the student evaluations, let’s discuss those. Let’s, however, drop the comparison with anti-Nazi pamphlets, and let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Instead, let’s cherish the dissenting opinion of critical students, interpret it, and use it collaboratively with teachers to maintain our top-level education.
Salomon Voorhoeve is an Aerospace Engineering student at TU Delft. In 2016-2017 he was a member of the Student Council, and in 2017-2018 he was Chair of the Faculty Student Council of the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering.