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At my large American university, we have the opportunity to fill out course evaluations. They are not mandatory and are allegedly anonymous. I wrote a negative review for Dr. Smith's course. I stand behind what I wrote and it is all true, but it was scathing and lengthy (over 1500 words) since I listed in detail almost every thing I didn't like and why, with specific examples. If it matters, my main complaints were that I consider his class to be too easy, his standards were too low, and that he took a long time to grade our assignments.

I received an email from the chair of the department asking me to meet with him to discuss the evaluation. The content of my evaluation is all true, but I am embarrassed that my identity was revealed (or correctly assumed) since I would have been less harsh if I was aware the anonymity wasn't guaranteed. It wouldn't surprise me if they guessed I wrote the review, since I made by far the highest grade in the class and had actually complained about Dr. Smith in the middle of the semester to the chair since Dr. Smith allowed something unfair to happen during the midterm. (I was advised by other faculty to bring that specific complaint, so I hope it doesn't come off that I like to complain.)

What should I do and can anything negative happen to me over this?

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    Why did you feel the need to be "harsh", as you say? Stick to facts, remain neutral, and you wouldn't have had any problem. Anonymity isn't a license to be nasty. As you just discovered, this can bite you back otherwise... Another thing: are you sure that writing a 1500 words essay because the class was too easy and the prof took too long to grade assignments a good use of your time? – user9646 Dec 16 '17 at 11:54
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    Is it common to write 1500 word reviews on your university? If not, do you also tend to hand in long homework assignments? As a teaching assistant, I have several students that are easily recognisable by their writing style and attention to detail. – user25112 Dec 16 '17 at 13:32
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    Stylometry now claims to identify 80% of writers given 5K words. (smh.com.au/technology/sci-tech/…) Not saying that was used here, but the basic concept is the more words written, the easier it is to identify the writer. A year back a student made a complaint in class, then that exact complaint showed up later in the day on RateMyProfessor. I mentioned it in another class as amusing, and some students were shocked that I could tell who had written it. – Daniel R. Collins Dec 16 '17 at 14:41
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    As a general rule, faculty do not engage in discussion of the shortcomings of other faculty with students. So it seems unlikely that other faculty who told you to take your complaint to the chair were agreeing with you. They probably only meant that it wasn't proper for them to hear your complaint and that if you wanted to pursue it, you should take it to the chair. But what you've now learned is that when you complain a lot, you will get a reputation and people will figure out who you are even on an anonymous survey. Deal with it. – Nicole Hamilton Dec 16 '17 at 14:41
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    But you should have known your identity you be correctly assumed. If you wanted it anonymous you should have toned it down. – paparazzo Dec 16 '17 at 15:03
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Most probably nothing negative will come out of it.

And there is also the chance that they want your opinion, independent of the evaluation (i.e., they did not necessarily guess that it is YOU who wrote these comments but given the fact that you talked to the chair about these issues, then the chair wants to discuss these with you.)

True, it shouldn't have happened the way it happened (to make you think that the evaluations are eponymous or that they have guessed the writer behind these comments and want to talk to you about that) but most probably the chair and professor would like to discuss the issues for potential improvement. Just politely explain all these issues and make some suggestions on how they could be resolved and it should be fine.

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    -,,-, and during the discussion, I'd also express my discomfort about the review being traced back to me, while guaranteed to be anonymus. – Neinstein Dec 17 '17 at 11:50
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Hmm, the questions strikes a chord, given I’ve been there (a long time ago), and later on the other side. So this is going to be a long answer. ;-)

It’s probably easiest to split the question into the different issues raised, and the perspectives involved.

Anonymity

As you have found out by now, anonymity is really difficult to achieve online. My guess would be they recognized the writing, esp. if you became noticeable during the course (class size doesn’t matter then). But identifying students is even possible if there is only numeric information, and if student votes are aggregated. However, just because it’s (easily) possible to identify students, it doesn’t mean it should be done. If anonymity was promised it would be highly unethical if they would identify you by the evaluation itself. There are two conditions in that sentence. First, was anonymity actually promised («allegedly anonymous»)? If you only assumed it would be anonymous, because you don’t sign it, you have no right to be surprised. Second, unless they explicitly make the connection between you and the evaluation, it’s an assumption that they have identified you. Other explanation: You criticized the course, they might have gotten a bad evaluation and want to find out how to improve. But if both hold true — anonymity was assured and they do identify you as the author, then it would raise a huge red flag about the people involved.

(It's a bad idea to give a «scaredundergraduate» a virtual gun, but if the highly unlikely case happens and the conversation turns actually hostile, and you are in a one-party consent state (look it up!), it might be an option to secretly record the conversation. This is a «last measure» option. Personally, I think recording without the other person knowing is a major breach of trust — reserved for criminal acts, no matter the law. Any relationship and any trust is irrevocably broken if you do it — and I strongly advise against it. The idea of a meeting is to resolve an issue without anyone losing face. A recording blows that option out of the water. The conversation would really have to go downhill to think about using, e.g., the laptop you took out to read what you have written and record the conversation.)

Also, I wouldn’t expect hostility here. It’s much, much more likely that they want to resolve a very unhappy situation for all involved.

Style

As others have written in comments, it is better to stick to the facts and take emotion out of it. After all, it’s about the issue and anonymous comments don’t hurt less than comments made in person. Even worse, it raises questions about the person who makes anonymous comments («coward» comes to mind). Frankly, after some ‹learning experiences›, I go with «If you wouldn’t say it in their face, don’t say it at all.», combined with «If you snicker while writing, it’s time to pause and reflect.» However, you’re not the first person to whom this has happened and while you can’t change what you have written, you can still control how you deal with it. It’s painful learning, but given you ask the question here, you’re on the right track.

From their side, it depends on how they deal with these type of comments. Some instructors take it personally, others chalk it up to inexperience. You are a student after all. If they are professional, they might talk about they style and that it’s not conductive to improving the situation. Imagine you’d gotten this evaluation, would you have changed your behavior? Seriously? There might also be misconceptions about the course involved, and there is also the responsibility to avoid having students leaving one’s university/course and thinking this style is good practice.

Issue #1: Class Content

When it comes to the issues you’ve mentioned, I think it pays to go into the conversation with an open mind and listen to their point of view. I once had a student who wrote a scathing paper about a course, seeing everything in the worst possible light. There were a lot of misconceptions about the academic world in that paper (e.g., thinking my colleague and I were like full-time teachers and we were only giving two courses and had the rest of the week off). Once she did understand what we did the whole week, she saw things a bit differently. My guess is that «took a long time to grade our assignments» might fall in that category, but I might be wrong.

Other issues like «too easy» and «standards were too low» might be individual problems (you might just be in the wrong class). However, you also write that the class is a prerequisite and if you are not learning what you need to succeed in another class, then this is an issue to talk about (and focus on).

Issue #2: Interaction with Instructor

I would differentiate the issues with the content from the issues with the instructor. Again, his perspective might be interesting to know. You interpret his comments («I have to do this the hard way now since [me] will see the handwaving.») negatively as «you’re a spoilsport/know-it-all». However, even if you cannot phantom it otherwise, the intention might have been different. Social interaction is messy.

And yeah, perhaps this person is not competent to teach the course, but perhaps he adapted the content to the average student. Perhaps he will take the anonymous criticism very negatively, perhaps he understands your point of view. And perhaps a skillful mediator can make both sides to see the issue from the other perspective. In general, you don’t have to like the guy, but you have to work together professionally. And at least on the learning side, this seems to have worked out well. Some improvements are necessary on the «you can say anything, as long as you do it respectfully» side.

Recommendation

In situations like these, you can’t undo what has happened, so it matters how you deal with them. So, first, chill. Yup. Chill. You’re in a situation which nobody wanted, and that is something nobody can change. Pretty much the worst that can happen has happened, so chill. And yes, you did act badly, but you can still act with integrity in how you deal with it.

A way that might work (social situation, depends on all involved) would be to focus on the actual teaching issue — the content of the course and the interaction with the instructor.

What you have going for you is that you are passionate about learning (even if it’s only for the next course) and that you have mastered the content. That this passion leads to frustration if you don’t think you can learn what you need is understandable, as well as the style. If I were you I’d go this route. You wanted to learn and be challenged — and the course was very frustrating to you.

On the negative side, I think your interpretation of Dr. Smith’s behavior as hostile (and unfair) has strongly influenced your evaluation. When it comes to him, focus on the actual observable behavior, not the person. You don’t know him and it would be arrogant to assume you can characterize him as a person based on your limited interaction in one setting. Plus you can change behavior, personality not so much.

In general I’d go with assuming the best case, both sides want to find a good solution to the unhappy situation. Take a deep breath, go into the situation, let them start the conversation, focus on the issues, listen, state how you see the situation as your perspective (not as «fact»), and on the emotional side that you were frustrated with the course because you want to learn and be prepared for the next courses. As for the style, an apology might be in order if you actually feel this way — because you were frustrated with the course and wrote unprofessionally, not because the anonymity was lifted. It wasn't constructive, and yeah, it was wrong. It feels good emotionally in the moment, but it further complicates the issue and is likely unfair to the instructor involved.

Best outcome, you might end up understanding Dr. Smith’s behavior (perhaps it’s not hostile/unfair), and they might get some constructive feedback on how to improve the course.

BTW, an update would be appreciated how the conversation actually went.

Edit: Some pre-coffee spelling/wording mistakes.

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In addition to the other advice here, I would recommend thinking about what you're hoping to achieve.

You mentioned that you made by far the highest grade in the class. Probably that means that the difficulty level was appropriate for the majority of students. So I would not try to convince the department chair otherwise.

You might have erred by enrolling in this class, and there may have been another one more suited to your background level. (This is true even if the course is "required"; such requirements can often be waived.) I would seek advice from your chair about how to plan your course of study, so that are challenged to the extent you can handle. Ask if there are opportunities to take more rigorous coursework in the subject, or on other topics that you are interested in.

I'd recommend this Paul Graham essay to you. One memorable quote: "Rebellion is almost as stupid as obedience. In either case you let yourself be defined by what they tell you to do." If you are stuck taking an easy class that you don't like, then invest only as much time into it as needed, giving you more time and energy for something more productive and enjoyable.

And remember that a good department chair will try to keep his/her strongest students happy. I'd recommend going into the meeting with the idea that you would like to seek out a sterner challenge, and that you'd appreciate the chair's advice for how to do so.

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"I had actually complained about Dr. Smith in the middle of the semester to the chair." It seems quite plausible that this is a big factor in the request for a meeting.

First, relax. You can go to the meeting and listen, and then decide whether you want to say anything. You can decide you don't want to say anything. You can tell the chair that, calmly and politely, and then leave if you want to. You don't even have to acknowledge that you wrote the scathing critique, or that you even filled out a course evaluation form.

I think the mostly likely explanation of the invite you got is that the chair wants to get ammunition to try to make things better. I certainly hope so!

This isn't about you. "Ask not what your department can do for you, ask what you can do for your department." Think about it that way.

Oh, one more idea. If you like, you can invite a friend or colleague or ombudsman to go with you.

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I would seriously try to determine the cause of this request for a meeting. If it's because they want to follow up on your first complaint it's ok, but if they clearly state that they have traced back an anonymous evaluation to you than I would take this to the dean of the school as a clear misconduct on their part. If it's anonymous is should stay as such and they should not guess or investigate who wrote it.

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