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Friday, August 6, 2021

How Much Academic Freedom Should Students Have?

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The most scholarly evaluations shy away from numbers. I have not come across any serious academic journal whose book review section includes ratings like four stars out of five, or 80 percent. Most periodicals accept or reject a manuscript or demand revisions verbally, not numerically.

If I cannot claim objective standards in my grading, does this mean my classes are either a free-for-all or subject to tyranny? You would probably have to ask my students to find out the truth. Their anonymous course evaluations suggest that many of them cherish the liberties they have. They hardly ever ask me for a detailed recipe for an essay with a guaranteed A. There is none.

Perhaps they are also aware that a sophisticated metric would not necessarily protect them from oppression, as it still contains the biases of its creator. What I offer is the kind of individual evaluation that I also use in writing book reviews: highlighting at length the good aspects of a particular work while pointing out any flaws or areas for future research.

The Value of Multiple Critiques

It is crucial to have more than one reviewer to avoid bias. To judge the value of a film, we should listen to the opinions of different critics. Multiple and diverse readers can also offer a more holistic assessment of a text.

As I may know about some areas of history, but lack expertise in many forms of artistic expression, I am even more dependent on others. For the evaluation of a student’s work, I try to harness the intellect of everybody in the classroom, including occasional guests. Luckily, at an art school, everybody is used to critique sessions. The only difference from the studio next door is that in my history classes, essays are more frequently on display than drawings.

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So, I would tell my students: while you can do whatever you want for your assignment, you need to expect criticism from everybody. As a facilitator, I try to encourage empathy and add a positive spin to peer feedback. However, a creator needs to accept that their work might be misunderstood once it is out in the world. A school can provide a safe space for such lessons, before students fully embark on their careers.

No teacher can remove all the constraints on students’ lives. The Covid-19 pandemic has meant that virtually everybody is working under conditions that are not of their own choosing. However, teachers in any country should expand the existing freedoms for students rather than narrow them further.

Jörg Matthias Determann is an associate professor of history at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar. He can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter at @JMDetermann.

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