Anonymous Comments Can't Be Taken Seriously

  • Posted on Dec 27, 1980

12/27/1980.

Have you read any good graffitti lately? There's something liberating about graffitti, from the funny little swirls on outhouse walls to the philosophical treatises on coffeehouse tables.

They're written or scrawled with obvious zest, snorted and grinned at by readers, and usually forgotten. Graffitti can't be signed, for then they would become official; they would announce that some scrawler actually takes responsibility for them. The leap from anonymity to accountability, though, can be wide indeed.

 It's the difference between childhood and adulthood.

Children can do practically anything, and it's cute: call Uncle John fat, spit up on the floor, wet the bed. Children are anonymous in that sense. We don't hold them accountable for their actions since they're not grownups, and not responsible. Children can even murder people and get out of prison or reform school in time to lead normal lives. Especially if their victims are mean mommies and daddies.

This anonymity carries over into adulthood in large crowded areas:  shopping centers, big city streets and alleys. All allow for the childlike condition of remaining unknown, creating the anonymity that lets people get by with acts they wouldn't or couldn't do if they were known.  Anonymity can even be a release so normally stifled people can let go (they're too well known at home) and behave like children without their parents around.

This the mayhem that passes for most conventions. And it may explain the wild and wicked costumes that get paraded about in the cities. It also explains why newspaper editors usually won't print unsigned letters.

Now the problem: every semester I dutifully ask my students to evaluate my teaching. Every semester I pore over my scores to see whether my own sense of the classes matches that of my students. And every semester I'm astounded by their added comments. There is no obligation to add comments, but they are encouraged to do so.

With those comments, they have a chance to say anything they like: they don't sign the evaluations, even though the comments cannot be read until after grades are turned in. So they get to write graffitti that will be read and taken seriously by both me and my department head. The nice comments I read say "He is a SUPER TEACH — GIVE HIM A RAISE." And I think isn't that nice. I wonder what they meant? Or "What a lot of BORING old movies. But I did learn a lot" Huh, I think, I wonder what they meant. Or "He wears funny-looking hats." OK, I know what that one means.

But sometimes they make charges: "He tests over material we didn't have in class and that wasn't covered in the reading." Now that's a serious accusation and I really would like to know what they meant. Or someone might say "I'm tired of seeing all movies by men. Dr. Cawelti is a sexist." Now that makes me truly wonder what they had in mind.

But what can I do but continue to wonder — were they in class the day we talked about women in film and Leni Riefenstahl, the woman who made "Triumph of the Will," a film we studied? Or are they just full of sour grape juice from a low test score? There are many comments: complimentary, angry, gossipy, and silly. All anonymous, meaning all potentially done with the same joyful abandon of the anonymous reveller at a convention, far from home.

If anyone should sign those comments, I would and should listen. Then I respect the writer, and I'm free to ask them what they meant, if necessary. But we don't ask them, and they don't do it. I suppose it's asking too much of people to stand behind their opinions by signing them. And maybe it's too important to give the students a feeling of having an outlet to simply disregard unsigned comments as not worthy of attention.

Yet I can't help but think that we should treat students as adults. Newspaper editors do, should a student or anyone else write an anonymous letter. Yet the faculty and administration dutifully read those unsigned comments as if their anonymity somehow made them more honest.

They may as well read desks and bathroom walls.


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“Even before the advent of the Internet, Cawelti’s columns went 'viral' in the Cedar Valley… the role of a columnist is to be thought provoking, to take tacks that shed a different light on an issue or possibly cause a reader to reevaluate a position. At the very least, it should bring clarity to a particular perspective, whether you buy into the commentator’s worldview or not.

Scott's work does just that.  Enjoy this collection of his writing.”

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