Politics prof sets anonymity policy

OISE Open House

Professor suggests TAs refrain from learning students' names for early weeks of POLS 241 course

Normand Perreault didn’t specify his anonymity practice in the course syllabus.
Normand Perreault didn’t specify his anonymity practice in the course syllabus.
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Some POLS 241 students say they were left confused after their professor's instruction lead them to think they wouldn't be able to interact with TAs until the end of September.

Although it’s not stated on the course syllabus, three TAs in POLS 241 have agreed not to learn students’ names for the first few weeks of the course or meet with students out of class, as requested by Professor Normand Perreault.

According to Perreault, though, it’s all part of a social experiment.

He said he wanted his tutorials to highlight the sense of anonymity in modern democracies, which contrasts with the arbitrary treatment of citizens in authoritarian regimes, as studied in his class.

“One of the central features of our modern democracies is that we often treat people like numbers, as if their name and who they are did not matter,” he said.

Although this ensures that every citizen is treated equally before the law, he said, we often find anonymity strange and complain about being treated “like a number”.

“We face a dilemma, as we are caught between the technical advantages of anonymity and our perception that anonymity reduces us to being just a number, just another ‘citizen,’” he said.

He said he was hoping to discover whether students felt grading was fairer if their TAs didn’t know their names for the first three weeks.

According to Perreault, it was entirely up to the TAs to decide whether to participate. Three of his TAs agreed to go along with it, while one declined.

Perreault added that he did not forbid his TAs from answering questions by email, but asked them not to reply to questions that are better answered in tutorial.

“This is purely and simply a question of time management,” he said.

Perreault said he makes up for this by holding office hours three times a week and answering questions through his own email.

Grant Amyot, head of the department of political studies, said he views the experiment as a legitimate academic exercise, and sees no objection to it.

“I think it could have a useful effect,” he said. “It definitely stirred up some discussion.”

Diana Anton, ArtSci ’15, who is enrolled in POLS 241, said she was surprised by the announcement.

“Most of the time they encourage interaction between the TAs and the students,” she said.

Another student in the class, Alexa Lepera, said she feels uncomfortable not knowing her TA personally, as she likes to speak to TAs outside of her classes.

“Now that they can’t get to know us, it feels really kind of impersonal,” Lepera, ArtSci ’16, said.

“The TA is not supposed to give his own opinion, just facilitate the discussion between us, which I think is great, but at the same time I want an expert’s opinion on a subject.”

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Corrections

September 27, 2013

This article has been updated to reflect the following:

Students in POLS 241 were not discouraged or prevented from contacting their TAs; TAs were not instructed to avoid answering student queries over email. They were only encouraged to avoid answering those requiring lengthy answers over email, as these answers could be provided in the tutorial setting where they could be beneficial to other students. This policy was unrelated to the original experiment on anonymity; TAs were never instructed to avoid interacting with students.

Unclear information appeared in the Sept. 20 issue of the Journal.

The Journal regrets the error.

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