There have been many articles that argue for or against the value of student evaluations. Those that find little value in them do so largely because of their bias against women and minority instructors.
According to articles like this one in The Chronicle of Higher Education, student evaluations of instructor effectiveness should not be used for hiring and promotional purposes because they do not correlate with student learning outcomes, often reflect the severity of the instructor’s grading system more than anything else, and serve to confirm gender stereotypes rather than functioning as objective (or even helpful subjective) assessments of the instructor’s competence. One study, for instance, revealed that assigning an online instructor a woman’s name caused that class to receive lower ratings than one led by an instructor with a male name.
Even when I was a graduate teaching assistant—a time when students are more likely to question your credibility and find fault with your pedagogy—I never suspected my teaching evaluations of being tainted by any sort of gender bias. Then I read a study by Kristina M. W. Mitchell and Jonathan Martin, which found that “a male professor was more likely to receive comments about his qualification and competence,” whereas “a female professor was more likely to receive comments that mention her personality and her appearance,” and that gave me pause because I never stopped to think that comments on my personality might be a form of gender bias. I decided to look back through my evaluations to see whether these findings held true for me.
Just examining my evaluations from last semester, I found a mixture of comments—a number of them referencing my knowledge of the course material and verifying my credibility, but many also commenting on my personality. A few highlights include being called “a lovely presence,” “a joy to be around,” “nice,” and (my personal favorite) “outstanding and radiant,” which might also indicate a specific gender bias about pregnant women because I was in my third trimester for much of the semester.
Obviously, I can’t draw definitive conclusions from this highly anecdotal evidence and small sample size, and I don’t know how my evaluations compare with those of my male colleagues, but it does seem that my gender—and even more so, my pregnancy—resulted in evaluations that speak to my general demeanor more than my effectiveness as an educator.
But perhaps more problematic than personality-focused evaluations is an increasing tendency I’ve noted for male students to openly question my methodology—a tendency that seems rooted in gender bias. For instance, at the beginning of last semester, I had not one, not two, but three male students approach me after the first day of class and confront me about my approach to grading. These students wanted to know how I graded—uh, fairly?—because they had friends in previous classes (not them—they got As, they assured me) who received bad grades that they did not deserve. I did not know how to respond because these students were clearly looking for assurance that they were going to get a good grade in my course.
I wondered then, as I wonder now, if these students would have been brazen enough to ask such questions to a male professor, or if my gender made it seem like I could be pressed (read: bullied) into giving them their desired grade. As with the evaluations, it’s hard to discern how much of this resulted from my gender, my age, or some other factor and how much is a commentary on a climate of grade inflation and distorted student expectations. But not being able to say one way or another does not mean that we shouldn’t be attacking systemic bias in higher education wherever it might be manifesting.
After reflecting on my experience with gender bias, I think the following questions are ones that we all should be asking ourselves:
What can female instructors do to protect themselves from—or protect themselves during—instances of bullying by male students?
How can we (as educators, students, parents, mentors, etc.) work to eliminate a culture of gender bias in the university, where female professors—especially pregnant female professors—are taken less seriously?
If student evaluations do reflect gender stereotypes, what other metric for instructor effectiveness might we use to aid in the hiring and promotional process?
In my opinion, supplementing student evaluations with peer evaluations and sample course materials would help contextualize student reviews and prevent a teacher’s feedback from being skewed based on his or her gender (or race, ability, or other embodied identity). Ultimately, it’s up to us as educators and informed, engaged citizens to model inclusivity and respect both inside and outside of the classroom so that women and minorities have equal access to careers in the university and, once hired, receive the same support in their positions.
Photo credit: Pixabay/Jerry Kimbrell (CC0)