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Teaching Evaluations

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Get in a conversation with any group of professors and the topic of teaching evaluations will come up. Specifically, what will come up is that teaching evaluations serve as an excuse for students to say sexist and racist things anonymously to their professors. It is well known that even outside of written comments, students rate women and people of color lower than white males. And yet, because administrators are desperate for metrics to evaluate faculty, they rely on student evaluations as the only source of measurement. One company that many schools use for teaching evaluations says that student evals should be no more than 30% of the material that makes up an overall teaching evaluation. But the only way to come up with the other 70% would be classroom evaluations from faculty and other, harder, things to measure, things that can’t be easily quantified for the bean counters that make up a modern university administration. So, nope, the student evals are it. The fact is that the use of student evaluations to measure teaching effectiveness is an act of structural sexism and structural racism, as this Victor Ray essay suggests:

Feminist sociologists have long argued that one of the features of contemporary organizations is their gendered nature. Claiming that organizations are gendered means that supposedly gender-neutral jobs are actually considered men’s prerogative and that women in “men’s jobs” — like, say, professors — are thought of as interlopers, out of place or what consistently shows up on evaluations: less competent. The key here is that, of course, these ratings aren’t based on objective measures of competence; rather, they are sifted through widely held stereotypes about women. But they are given the patina of legitimacy once the institution accepts them as credible when it comes to retention, promotion and tenure. That also has the benefit of protecting the university from potential lawsuits down the road.

Biased teaching evaluations, like race- and class-biased test scores, support the status quo and don’t create the same type of public outcry as, for instance, certain affirmative action policies that may slightly disadvantage white men. They are the perfect vehicle for a type of gender-blind discrimination because they allow one to claim detachment and objectivity. They pretend the “best qualified” is measured and confirmed through a neutral process that just so happens to confirm the worst stereotypes about women. Recent research by Katherine Weisshaar shows that, even accounting for productivity, gendered differences in the way tenure committees evaluate women contributes to fewer women moving up.

Given the evidence, I’ve almost reached the conclusion that gender- and race-biased evaluations are not used in spite of their bias, but because they are biased. Of course, my assumption about bias being a desirable feature of student evaluations is speculative. Hard evidence would be difficult to establish, because part of the point of these evaluations is that the bias is plausibly deniable. Administrators are unlikely to admit that they knowingly employ a biased instrument in employment proceedings. But I think the evidence for concluding that bias is a feature of teaching evaluations is in my favor. If colleges and universities know that evaluations are biased, and those biases are more likely to harm women and minorities (and the intersection of these categories), at what point can we start to assume that such evaluations are an intended feature of the process?

I don’t believe colleges and universities are going to drop these types of evaluations anytime soon, as the pressure to quantify every area of academic life is increasing. But making department heads, deans and tenure committees aware of both the biased nature of these evaluations and how they can influence tenure decisions will help to reduce the harm that reliance on such biased measure inflicts.

Maybe. Or they just won’t care. With some administrations actively looking to deny people tenure so they can talk to their fellow adminstrators about how high the standards of their school have become, women and faculty of color will suffer disproportionately.

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