When Students Assess Scholars

What happens when students assess the work of scholars in a public, i.e. online, forum? To what degree to student assessments have an impact on professional reputations, on promotion decisions, or on resource allocations?

I’ve been mulling this question over for the past week because about a week ago I received a somewhat testy email from someone who thought that an entry in a Zotero group library on an article she had published was, to use her words, “sloppily and misleadingly summarized on Zotero…even my name was misspelled.” She then asked, “If this is the way Zotero is going to operate, it simply isn’t good enough.  What must one do to see that it is corrected? Must authors look for such problems on Zotero?”

As it happened, the entry she objected to was written by a student in a class taught by a colleague, not by me, and so she was asking the wrong person for help (I pointed her to my colleague so she could engage with him over this issue). But her email–notwithstanding a misunderstanding about how “Zotero is going to operate”–raised the question I posed above.

Should we care that students are reading our work and then writing about it online for good or ill? One could take the position that any writing about our work is proof that our work is being assigned and read — a good thing. Or one could worry that negative commentary on our work from those who might be less qualified to comment on it that we would like might have negative consequences for us — a bad thing.

After thinking about it for a week, I’ve decided that I am completely unsympathetic to the latter argument for several reasons. First, it proceeds from a viewpoint that I reject, namely that student views of our scholarship don’t or shouldn’t count. In American higher education we are fond of describing our students as both students and partners in a learning enterprise and if that is really true, then we have to take seriously what our students have to say. Sure, a review of my book by someone who knows a lot about what I’m writing about is more useful in many ways, but that is not to say that a review of my book by an undergraduate student is not useful just because he or she hasn’t spent a decade or two studying the arcana of Czech history.

I read and re-read the summary of the article that sparked my thinking and there is no negative criticism of the author or her research methods to be found there. But what if the student had also said something like, “Unfortunately, the author’s findings are obscured by intensely boring academic prose.”? We’ve all wanted to say something like that from time to time about a book or article we are reading/reviewing, but professional courtesy holds us back (most of the time). Perhaps the unfettered voices of our students might just hold us to a higher standard when it comes to writing about our subjects in clear and compelling ways?

I also reject the  reviews by students are bad argument for a second reason. The purpose of the academic endeavor is to create and circulate new knowledge and the target audience for most of that endeavor is our students. We want them to engage with our work so that as they mature as scholars, business people, government employees, or whatever they chose to do, they can make better informed decisions about their own work and lives.

And the way this generation does that is online. Period. To argue that student work, flawed or perfect, should not be posted online is to argue for a return of the typewriter.

Finally, the whole point of the article in question was that more needed to be done to increase digital collaboration between scholars, librarians, and archivists. If limits are to be placed on that collaboration, then we might as well forget the entire effort. Digital media today are collaborative by their very nature, so I think it’s time we all get on that bus and accept that embracing digital technology means embracing it for all the good and all the less than good. So I guess I find it a little surprising that an author whose own work argued for more collaboration doesn’t like it when that collaboration isn’t up to a standard she has set.

One thought on “When Students Assess Scholars

  1. Sean Takats

    Thanks for sharing this delicious story. I am in complete agreement with your assessment of the situation, and I would only add that it is the student, not the complaining author, who is most genuinely engaging in whatever passes for the twenty-first-century republic of letters. The student’s comment is presumably linked to a Zotero account, which in turn likely has some real identity associated with it. Rather than engage in an open dialogue, the original author instead wants to censor the student, plain and simple. How sad and petty. I admire your restraint for not revealing more!

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