The Unsung Heroes of Pre-Registration: The Critical Review

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How do you pick what classes you take each semester? Do you check with your advisor to see what you need to do in order to finish your concentration? Do you ask your friends what their favorite class has been? What about your parents and pets? Do you post on Facebook, soliciting the opinion of all 1,484 of your friends? Or, do you click that link below the course description on Banner and check out The Critical Review? Though we haven’t done a scientific analysis of the answer to this question (yet), I can imagine the last option is an important part of your decision-making process.

Without much public acknowledgment, the men and women behind the website, perhaps even as much as Meiklejohns, faculty advisors, and friends, seriously influence what you do with your academic life at Brown. And with pre-registration continuing through Tuesday afternoon, the insights the website provides are again center stage for many Brown students. I would argue that few student groups have the reach of The Critical Review, yet their members rarely find themselves in the spotlight for their work.

The organization has an interesting past. According to its website, The Critical Review was born as “The Other View: A Consumer’s Guide to Courses at Brown” in 1976. The magazine — remember, there was no Internet to speak of back in the ’70s — came out once a year, and it relied on questionnaires from DUGs that varied from class to class. As a guide to students hoping to maximize the power the New Curriculum gave them, it was a laudable start, but the organization needed to go through a series of updates before it became the site we use today. The magazine split into fall and spring semester editions in 1985, and The Critical Review developed a new questionnaire to deliver to all departments in 1995. It first went online in 1997.

The Critical Review's new system.

The Critical Review’s new system.

There have been other changes to the reviews over time as well. Look back at earlier courses’ reviews, and you’ll see how the questionnaire has changed in recent years. In a Spring 2005 version of The Critical Review‘s famous bar graphs, one of the metrics on which students judged a course was how “appropriately challenging” it was. By Fall 2010, however, Brunonians were simply telling their fellow undergrads whether a class was “difficult” on a scale from 1 to 4. I guess they realized there wasn’t any reason to beat around the bush with that one. Just this year, they used a new charting system to measure students’ satisfaction with a course’s material and its professor. Instead of rating courses based on how much we agree with a certain statement, the site now uses a much simpler 1-5 rating, though for now you can still see how a class would look under the old evaluative system.

The Critical Review will always have areas upon which to improve, though. Everyone knows the feeling of frustration and intrigue that comes with clicking on a course code and seeing no review for the class. And indeed, plenty of classes don’t have a review for them. Whether or not a course uses The Critical Review is solely up to the professor. It does take some valuable class time for students to fill out the questionnaire, so it’s understandable that professors want to take advantage of every second of lecture that they can. In addition, the staff doesn’t necessarily have the time to fill out a review for every single course, so they have protocols to decide which get a review. At least three students need to return a questionnaire for there to be a review.

I doubt I am alone in turning The Critical Review into one of my most visited web sites once a semester. Indeed, an organization like this is a necessary part of taking advantage of Brown’s unique academic environment. It allows students to make the most informed decisions about how to get the most out of each and every college class. So check out the site before pre-registration ends. That way you’ll know about that 35 page paper you’re going to have to write if you take that seminar. You’ll thank me later.

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