Editor’s note: This article contains language that some may find disturbing.
Student ratings in the form of anonymous online surveys are ubiquitous at Australian universities. Most degree programs offer most students the opportunity to assess the “quality” of their teachers and the course they are taking.
The original intent of the student surveys was to improve the learning experience. But it’s gotten a lot more now. Student surveys are often the only measure of the quality of teaching (along with success rates). Lecturers often need positive ratings and comments to ensure continued employment or promotion.
But these anonymous polls have also become a platform for defamatory, racist, misogynistic and homophobic comments against employees.
We asked 791 Australian academics from various universities about their experiences with anonymous student reviews. The participating scholars literally shared some of the non-constructive feedback that the students gave them. We have compiled examples of this feedback and published them in the journal Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education.
We’ve broken the feedback down into five broad topics: clothing, appearance, and accent; Allegations against character; general insults; Projections of guilt; and threats or calls for punishment.
1. Clothing, appearance and accent
Often the statements were gender-specific, misogynistic or racist with variations of “too fat”, “ugly” and “old”.
One student wrote:
You look like something the cat dragged into it.
people, who [sic] Mother tongue is not English and should not be used as lecturers.
2. Allegations of character
These typically accused the lecturer of incompetence, racism or negative attitudes towards students:
She’s really rude which is why they hate everyone.
You are a culture Marxist, your alertness undermines everything you do. Not all of your students are far left jobs like you. You urgently need to lose some weight.
3. General insults
Clearly, most of the insults were aimed at harming the teacher and there was no pretext that the comments were related to teaching – although the following was an exception:
What the hell did you do to take a few days off for your grandmother’s funeral when we had a job?
Apart from variations of “I hate everything about you”, most of the insults were a combination of unimaginative adjectives or names like “bitch”, “bitter”, “crap”, “devil brood”, “tail”, “dog”, “dinosaur” , “Idiot”, “Loser”, “Mentally unstable”, “Mole”, “Nazi”, “Must chill”, “Out of control”, “Pathetic”, “Psychotic”, “Senile shit”, “Smiling assassin”, “Garbage”, “unhappy” and “useless”.
4. Projections of guilt
Most student evaluation surveys are conducted before grades are published, but many students expected failure and blamed the teacher:
That damn dike bitch let me down, she’s damn useless, that’s why I failed.
5. Threats and Punishment
Hand in hand with blame were threats or requests for punishment. These mostly demanded the dismissal of the teacher, but also included much tougher measures:
I would love to shove a broom up her ass.
She was supposed to be stabbed with a pitchfork.
If I were X, I’d jump off the tallest building and kill myself if I was that stupid.
Some have managed to combine themes in order to achieve maximum aggressiveness:
The stupid old witch needs a good fuck.
That bitch should be fired immediately. Why is someone allowed to teach so ugly? She’d better be careful I never see her in the parking lot. She has to make better fashion choices. Your clothes are hideous.
The effects are serious
An analysis of research on student evaluation of teaching published in March 2021 showed that this was influenced by factors that have nothing to do with the quality of teaching. This includes the demographic development of the students as well as the culture and identity of the teachers. It also found that reviews are increasingly containing abusive comments.
While much of the criticism may seem like a playground-level name shout, the ramifications can be severe.
As part of our survey, we asked teachers how anonymous student reviews of their classes affected their well-being, mental health, and professional and personal relationships. Our ongoing analysis of the survey data (to be published) results in a profile of a highly traumatized workforce. Academics, young professionals, women and minorities are disproportionately affected. Many seem to be triggered by every round of student reviews.
If Australian universities continue to conduct anonymous surveys, university professors can still expect racist, misogynistic, defamatory statements, threats of reprimand and even death.
Even the Australian government is cracking down on anonymous hate speech by announcing an investigation into trolling on social media. But universities still protect people who want to insult, defame, and make baseless accusations protected by a veil of anonymity.
Perhaps it is time to expose the anonymous online trolls in higher education or to require students to be able to be identified. The risk of being identified could at least reduce the spread of hate speech and increase politeness in the corridors of higher education.
If this article raised problems for you or if you are concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline at 13 11 14.
Richard Lakeman, Associate Professor, Faculty of Health, Southern Cross University; Deb Massey, Associate Professor, Faculty of Health, Nursing School, Southern Cross University; Dima Nasrawi, Lecturer in Nursing, Faculty of Health, Southern Cross University; Jann Fielden, Deputy Commissioner for Academic Integrity; Lecturer, Faculty of Health, Southern Cross University; Marie Hutchinson, Professor of Nursing, Southern Cross University; Megan Lee, Senior Teaching Fellow, Bond University, and Rosanne Coutts,, Southern Cross University
This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.