Course Instructor Surveys must account for student safety

Spencer Buckner

This week, all my classes set aside time for students to complete a Course Instructor Survey — a form designed to get anonymous feedback about our experiences in class. 

Professors use these surveys to improve their courses. The University uses them to make promotion and salary decisions. Students use them to decide which courses they will enroll in.

Right now, University-mandated questions on the CIS forms ask students to assess statements such as “the course was well organized” and “the instructor was prepared for each instructional activity” with a five-point Likert scale, ranging from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.” A comments section is also provided for students to elaborate.

What if they asked us how safe we felt in our classes?

Ideally, professors who violate sexual misconduct policy would no longer work here. Instead, students often don’t even know who these professors are.

Three student sit-ins protesting professor sexual misconduct, editorials describing jeopardized student safety in classrooms and countless personal accounts shared on social media have made abundantly clear that UT’s teaching faculty can use their power to abuse students and invalidate their identities. 

The only statement on the CIS that addresses classroom climate is “the instructor made me feel free to ask questions, disagree, and express my ideas.” Clearly, we need more.

Thankfully, students and faculty are drafting new items for the CIS form to better assess classroom climate. The issue is making sure these new items help protect students.

Alcess Nonot, human development and family science junior, is the legislative chair of the Natural Sciences Council. She and her committee feel that CIS forms are an especially powerful tool due to their reach.

“We just want to make a very easy way for students to voice their concerns about professors,” Nonot said. “It’s important that it’s on a University survey. The CIS is the only universal thing that all students have to fill out at UT.”

Nonot’s committee is hoping to add statements to the CIS such as “I felt safe and comfortable around my instructor,” which would be answered with the same scale of “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.” Her committee is also hoping to add another written response section to give students space to talk about the classroom environment.

Data collected from statements and written responses such as these would help students avoid professors with a history of jeopardizing student comfort and safety and better inform administrators during the promotion process. Better yet, this data could alert University administration on which professors could pose risks to their students.

Kristin Harvey, vice chair of UT Faculty Council’s Educational Policy Committee, is working with a faculty task force that aims to address the same concerns as Nonot’s committee.

“We are trying to capture a bit more (in CIS surveys) about the climate of the classroom for students because we've heard that's what they want,” Harvey said.

Because the faculty task force is still in its planning stages, Harvey would not speak to what their proposals were. She did, however, express discomfort over including the language of “safety” in the survey.

“The question ‘Do you feel safe?’ is very hard to answer on a reliable scale because that's such a personal thing,” Harvey said. “I'm not sure if the question will end up being worded that way because I don't know if that would necessarily give students the information they're looking for.”

Instead, Harvey said the committee is looking into more specific subquestions to address issues of classroom climate.

Harvey is right that students should be presented with subquestions to better articulate their experiences with professors. These questions, however, cannot mince words when it comes to addressing student safety.

Statements such as “I felt comfortable and safe in my instructor’s classroom,” “I felt comfortable and safe around my instructor during office hours,” and “my instructor respected my ethnic, sexual, and gender identity” would clearly communicate to prospective students important aspects of a course’s climate. I’d argue that these statements leave as much up to personal interpretation as “the instructor made me feel free to ask questions, disagree, and express my ideas.”

Let me emphasize: This is not a big ask. CIS infrastructure already exists. Every undergraduate class is required to distribute them. Thousands of students anonymously complete the survey, and thousands more view the results. All this would require is adding a few more questions and another written response section.

Ultimately, Faculty Council’s suggestions will be sent to President Gregory Fenves’ desk for approval. Harvey assured me that students would be included in the process, particularly in the spring once their draft proposal is complete. 

To best serve their students, their statements cannot be vague to the point of uselessness. If the council’s intention is to improve student safety, we need statements that actually ask about it.

Faculty who threaten student safety shouldn’t be on staff. Until that happens, however, we must make it as easy as possible for students to protect each other.

Buckner is a Plan II junior from Austin. He is the editor-in-chief.