UPDATED: January 26, 2022 at 11:09 p.m.
Like many Harvard students, Roberta C. Yun '23 turns to the Q Guide — the College’s platform through which students evaluate their courses and teaching staff — each semester for guidance on picking the best classes.
“I use the Q Guide whenever I'm looking to sign up for classes,” she said. “Then I always scroll through and look at the estimated hours per week and also try and look at the comments if I can.”
The Q Guide, which stores data on nearly 1,000 courses and more than 2,000 faculty and section leaders, traces its origins to 1925 with The Crimson’s “Confidential Guide to Courses.” In 1973, the College created its own formal evaluation system, which was renamed to the Q system in 2006.
At the end of each term, students submit ratings and written feedback for their teaching staff and classes, which are then made available across the University to aid in course selection. Recently, professors were given the choice whether or not to share qualitative comments to students.
As much as students regard the Q guide as a vital component of their course selection process, it carries a much different weight to teaching staff — especially graduate students.
Danielle C. Leavitt-Quist, a Ph.D. candidate in History, identified three main purposes of the Q Guide from the perspective of graduate students.
“The first is just personal reflection and development,” she said. “Second would be in the development of a teaching portfolio when you go on the academic job market, and the third is internally within a department, serving as a distinguisher between other Ph.D. students in the department.”
Indeed, the Q Guide is one of the principal ways instructors are evaluated and can, by extension, significantly impact an emerging academic career.
Sarah J. Bramao-Ramos, a graduate student in History and East Asian Languages and Civilizations, said that job applications often ask for “demonstration of teaching excellence.” She said the type of information that a candidate chooses to present to fulfill that application requirement is up to them, but the Q Guide provides a quick solution.
Adam G. Beaver, director of pedagogy at the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, discussed the role evaluations like the Q Guide play in the academic job market.
“There are some euphemisms that are used sometimes in job searches,” he said. “Evidence of teaching effectiveness is one you'll sometimes see, which basically means, ‘Send us a kind of portfolio of materials, including your student evaluations.’”
He added, however, that graduate students "overinflate" the weight of Q evaluations in the academic job market and emphasized that search committees consider far more than Q scores when reviewing teaching applications.
Some graduate students said the Q Guide holds tremendous value when they apply to future positions.
Elizabeth L. Hentschel, a Ph.D. candidate in Global Health, said Q Guide evaluations hold a particular importance for students pursuing a doctorate.
“Students that are working on their Ph.D.s have a vested interest in receiving good feedback on their course evaluations for future professor jobs or anything in academia,” she said.
Leavitt-Quist said when she reminds undergraduates of the Q Guide, she emphasizes the importance of the Q evaluations as “something that stays on my teaching record.”
“These scores will follow a teaching fellow, maybe not throughout their career, but definitely in the first four or five years when they’re trying to secure a tenure-track position,” Leavitt-Quist said.
Still, Bramao-Ramos said the Q Guide is only “one piece of a bigger puzzle” in the recruiting process. According to her, employers also consider a candidate’s course enrollment numbers, publications, conferences, and more when making promotion decisions.
Harvard itself uses Q Guide evaluations to present awards to teaching staff, which graduate students often then include in their resumes.
“This definitely will go into my teaching portfolio if I ever write one,” Louis V. Cammarata, a graduate student in Statistics, said of his award. “The teaching award, in my experience, is a very, very useful feature of the Q guide.”
Leavitt-Quist said the History department uses Q Guide evaluations in their selection of Ph.D. students to receive their own instructorship.
“There’s a program called the History Prize of Instructorship, which is where a Ph.D. student in the department—usually it’s two or three each year—is awarded this instructorship, where they’re able to teach their own class independent of a tenured professor,” she said.
Nina Zipser, dean for faculty affairs and planning, wrote in an email that Q Guide evaluations are a relevant part of assessing teaching staff.
“Evaluations are one source of information about faculty teaching, along with other sources such as statements faculty write about their own teaching, advising, and mentoring, or input from faculty mentors who have observed someone’s teaching,” Zipser wrote.
However, some Harvard faculty said student implicit bias can affect the utility of the Q Guide in evaluating teaching.
Mathematics preceptor Oliver R. Knill wrote that he believes there is a danger of positive bias for teaching staff of certain identities.
“It is not only gender and race but also origin, age, title or look. This again shows how important it is to evaluate using different channels. Bias can be positive or negative,” he wrote. “The famous Dr. Fox experiment, where an actor gives a non-sense talk to medical doctors, shows that also positive bias can happen.”
“Dr. Fox was introduced and dressed like an expert and got stellar evaluations, even [though] everything was garbage,” he added. “They were blinded by look, manner and initial third party praise.”
Seth Robertson, a lecturer in Philosophy, identified reinforcing prejudice as the biggest issue with the Q system.
“White, male, cis, able-bodied instructors with regular voices get repeated as much more credible,” Robertson said. “That can affect people who aren’t from the most privileged backgrounds in negative ways a lot.”
“Typically, the actual evaluations are only seen by people in the department, who know about this stuff,” Robertson said. “But if it’s going to be seen by the entire student body, most of whom aren’t really aware of these prejudices, it can oftentimes just lead to repeating them.”
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