Critical Review labors against critical problems

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Seven years since it faced a budget cut of nearly 60 percent, the Critical Review still struggles to increase visibility for the print version of its publication and is hindered by low response rates to its questionnaires.

The Critical Review no longer guarantees a print copy for every student, as it did before 1998. When the publication’s Web site became operational that year, the Undergraduate Finance Board cut its budget from $25,890 to $11,490.

Last semester, about 2,000 copies of the Critical Review were printed, according to co-Editor-in-Chief Victoria Nguyen ’07. The group’s budget is $6,835 for Spring 2006, down from $6,885 in Fall 2005.

The Critical Review’s Web site claims that, in 1998, “(The UFB) deliberately targeted the Critical Review in order to eliminate its printed form.” But according to UFB Chair Swathi Bojedla ’07, in the mid- to late-1990s, a rising number of student groups, coupled with a static student activities fee, led to budget cuts across the board.

Still, former Editor-in-Chief Nicholas Schade ’05 maintains that, in 1998, UFB cut the Critical Review’s budget more than the budgets of other groups. In an e-mail to The Herald, Schade pointed to a 1998 Herald article in which then-UFB chair Jonathan Taqqu ’98 stated, “The UFB feels that there are higher priorities than funding the printed form of the Critical Review.” Taqqu went on to say, “The Critical Review could present itself more effectively in an online format. All the faults it has now could be remedied by online archiving.”

Several students complained about the low visibility of the Critical Review’s print edition. Though he praised the online version for its convenience, Benjamin Frank ’07 said he “never got (the printed version), and I don’t know where to pick it up.” Julia Hellman ’08 also gave the Web site a positive review but said she hadn’t even known a print version existed.

Nguyen said boxes of the Critical Review are generally placed in the dining halls and the libraries at least a few weeks before the pre-registration process begins.

Printing delays, however, combined with late decisions in leadership changes, created distribution problems last semester. The publication was printed in December, Nguyen said, and boxes of the Critical Review remained in the basement of Faunce House for weeks.

Nguyen said that, ultimately, she doesn’t expect the print version to become obsolete. Printed copies “increase the visibility of the Critical Review,” she said, “and a lot of people who are just browsing would probably prefer a print copy.”

Schade agreed, saying many students prefer the print edition to the Web site. In an e-mail to The Herald, Schade wrote, “In several instances, students came to me before the books were even going to be available, asking where and when they could get them because they were worried about not being able to get a copy.”

Several students said they wish the publication included more courses. Editors said, however, that coverage is limited only by professors’ willingness to participate. Questionnaire packets are hand-delivered to every single department, Nguyen said – but it is every professor’s choice whether to distribute them to students. According to Nguyen, many professors feel departmental feedback forms are sufficient and do not want to use more class time filling out surveys.

Fewer than half of the questionnaire packets are returned to the Critical Review every semester, according to the publication’s Web site.

“It’s important for students in courses to encourage their professors to submit reviews,” Nguyen said.

Unprofessional conduct by editors in the early 1990s may have discouraged professors from submitting reviews, Nguyen said. In 1993, the publication included a list called, “Top 10 Reasons to Trash Your Professor in The Critical Review.” In an e-mail to The Herald, Schade wrote that this list was not the only reason professors might have been turned off from contributing to the Critical Review, citing the “Funny Quotes” feature as another example of why some professors might not actively support the publication. The number of reviews dropped from its peak of 425 in the Fall 1993 edition to an average of 300 classes in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

In Fall 2004, Schade conducted an independent study with Adjunct Lecturer in Engineering Josef Mittlemann ’72 P’00 P’04 to re-evaluate the publication. Following Schade’s report, the editorial board formalized a procedure for individually responding to professors’ complaints and questions in surveys included in each questionnaire packet. A broader goal that emerged from the independent study is to “make service to instructors just as important an objective as service to the student body,” Schade wrote.

The staff also held a forum in December 2004 to address faculty concerns. Though only five professors attended, Schade said he believes it was successful because it clarified the reviewing process for those professors. After speaking with the editors, Professor of Biology Jonathan Waage decided to participate in the Critical Review for the first time in 20 years.

Schade pointed to Waage as one example of how the Critical Review’s recent efforts have begun to re-establish its credibility with professors. The number of reviews has generally been increasing, Schade said, since its low in 2000. For this semester’s issue, the publication is reviewing about 350 courses.