The UVic Torch · University of Victoria Alumni Magazine · Spring 1998

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The Origin of the Anti- Calendar

by Michiel Horn (VC '63)

The idea for the anti-calendar, the first-ever course evaluation at Vic College and UVic, was born in the Tally Ho one evening in February 1963. A young political science instructor, Lionel Feldman, argued passionately over a couple of tables full of beer glasses that too many faculty members were unproductive and should be dismissed.

One of 10 or 12 students listening to him, I commented in the diary I kept in those days: "He was unnecessarily bitter, but he's at least partly right. He advised us to get to work on an 'anti-calendar' for next year, warning future students against certain professors and courses."

At the next meeting of the AMS council I moved that we set aside some money to produce a students' guide to courses. The motion passed, with the proviso that I take charge of the project. I recruited an all-star editorial team, consisting of a past president of the AMS council, John Anderson; a future president, Olivia Barr; the director of publications, Don Shea; the grad class president, Sue Dickinson; and the inimitable Dan O'Brien, co-editor of a campus humour magazine, the Centurion. Dan kept the rest of us from taking ourselves too seriously.

Course evaluations were rare in 1963. Looking for a model, we found only Harvard's Confidential Guide to Freshmen and Stanford's Scratch Sheet. Ours may have been the first in Canada.

Tony Emery of the history department, who wrote in support of the project in his Victoria Daily Times column, told me that his was a minority view among the faculty. His department head, Sydney Pettit, had insisted with particular force that students had no right to evaluate professors! My philosophy instructor, Ted Bond, said some of his colleagues feared that "instructors would have to turn their lectures into entertainment sessions and mark leniently in order to get good mention, and that heads of departments and deans would rely upon the anti-calendar as a basis for promotions and salary increases."

I had no answer to such concerns, though I thought them far-fetched (how naive I was!). I did reassure the AMS president-elect, Larry Devlin, worried about lawsuits, and Vice-Principal Hugh Farquhar, eager to prevent bad publicity for the college, that we weren't just trying to "get" certain professors. To be sure, one or two of the editors had pet hates. But I thought I could control them.

The students who completed the questionnaires­we had a 60 per cent response rate­generally liked their courses and instructors. Ann Saddlemyer of English was a great favourite. Her colleague John Peter was arrogant, several students wrote, but that was okay: he had a lot to be arrogant about!

Criticism was usually constructive. Syd Pettit fared well, but many respondents suggested he stop dictating his lectures. (It was his habit to lecture for 10 or 15 minutes, during which no one was allowed to write, and then to dictate a resumé, complete with punctuation marks, which everybody had to copy down. Most students said he could cover more ground if he did not go over it twice.) Only one course, in geography, was panned by almost everyone who had taken it.

The anti-calendar appeared just in time for registration in September. Some professors were unhappy. "Dan, Sue and myself put up with quite a lot of nastiness one way and another at the beginning of term," Olivia reported to me, studying in Toronto, early in 1964. Among those who were angry was Pettit. Neither Sue, who edited the history reviews, nor I had anticipated how much the criticism of his course would wound him. That summer I felt his displeasure. In the Snug one evening he met my greeting frostily: "I do not care to remember you, Mr. Horn. Please leave."

There were no course evaluations in 1964. No graduating student wanted to invest the time, Olivia wrote, and others were unwilling to risk professorial wrath. It would be up to a later generation of students to revive the anti-calendar.

Course evaluations are common nowadays. Where we meant ours simply for the guidance of students, however, today's documents are often used to guide discussions about tenure and promotion (as some of the faculty had feared!). This is regrettable. Student evaluations are a reliable guide to student likes and dislikes and in that way are useful to other students. Student evaluations are less reliable in identifying "good" and "bad" teaching and differentiating between the two. I had a professor in first year whom I thought of as bad and who was so regarded by many of his students, about whom I later changed my mind. He was not a "good" (read: "entertaining") lecturer, but he knew his subject and he made me think.

In retrospect I feel ambivalent about the anti-calendar. We meant well, and I hope we did no harm, but I doubt that our document repaid the effort we devoted to it. Still, on that far-off February evening it seemed a good idea.

Michiel Horn is a professor of history at York University's Glendon College. This column was adapted from his book Becoming Canadian: Memoirs of an Invisible Immigrant, published by the University of Toronto Press in 1997.*

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