Friday, April 24, 2015

Survivor: Iowa State

An Iowa state senator introduced a bill to turn the public universities in his state into a horrifying, multi-campus episode of Survivor: Under Senator Chelgren's proposal, tenure would effectively be eliminated and student evaluations would be the only measure of the faculty's worth and the ultimate deciding factor in who gets to keep their jobs. Anyone who didn't meet the minimum numerial threshold on the student evaluations would be automatically fired. Then one of the lowest-performing five professors above the minimum threshold would be voted off the island by all the students at their campus, whether they had taken a class with the professors in the stockade.

The senator thinks that since we are earning "a couple hundred thousand dollars" each year, we should be more accountable.

Is Iowa paying its professors six figures? I'm certainly not earning anywhere even close to six figures and certainly not multiples of six figures. And that's part of the trade-off, as I understand it: The job security of not being put through the Hunger Games on a regular basis that allows me to take my time and do thoughtful, meaningful research and writing of the kind that can only be produced over time and with deliberate, careful thought, in exchange for a lower salary.

The senator's ignorance of the most basic details about the finances of a university system he claims to be so concerned about is the outrage-headline point. But really the rest of it is more serious.

The bill has, fortunately, died in committee, but it's one more troubling reflection of current attitudes in government towards higher education: that there is no connection between research and teaching, that students are customers, and that faculty just aren't working hard enough. It is also reflective of a conviction that college students have enough perspective to be able to write meaningful evaluations of their professors, an idea that, at least in the academy, is being increasingly recognized as flawed. Gender and race biases are rife in teaching evaluations, and despite protestation to the contrary, many students do rate more highly their professors who are less demanding.

Yet the senator thinks that "students who range in age between 18 and 30 years old, who are spending thousands of dollars to get an education, are qualified to make those decisions."

I had been vacillating about whether to write about a particular discussion that I had with my cultural history students early on in our time together this semester, and the resurgence of this discussion tipped the scales in favor because it illustrates the problem with letting college students assess their professors and giving absolute weight to those assessments.

When I took over the cultural history class and transformed it into a research seminar, I selected several topics to assign to students based upon the original syllabus that I inherited. One student complained that she didn't want to read any more work by one of my NYU colleagues, whose extensive bibliography had featured heavily in that syllabus; and then she added: "And she looks so scary, too!" I let that slide, but within a minute or so the discussion had somehow turned to all four of them having Googled a picture of my colleague, and all four of them chiming in with negative comments about her appearance — especially about the fact that she's not smiling in her photo on the department web site, and about her hair, a la the kinds of comments Mary Beard got in the wake of her Pompeii documentary. And at that point I decided that the time had come to put a stop to it.

I framed my comment by highlighting the fact that our seminar is made up entirely of women — all four students and me — and that especially because of that, and because any of us could find ourselves on the wrong side of it, I wanted to point out some of ways in which that kind of assessment of people is very gendered. I didn't say anything that would surprise anyone who is aware of the issue or has thought about it, but the idea that their slagging off a professor's looks might be unfair and shaped by deeply-rooted social expectations of women was totally new to these students. I cited studies that have shown that women are more often evaluated based on our looks or personality traits even where our male colleagues are evaluated on their teaching ability and perceived brilliance. I further framed the conversation as being a way of helping them to advocate for themselves by helping them realize that this kind of discourse is a big part of the reason why universities are starting to take student evaluations less seriously and that if they want their opinions to be heard, which they should be, they need to stick to relevant topics.  I shared with them that one of the challenges that I face when I walk into a classroom is that I often have students who expect a kind of bubbly friendliness and nurturing when they see a female professor in her early thirties that is simply not a part of my introverted personality; and because of those expectations, I have had to work doubly hard to counteract student evaluations that conflate friendliness and an outgoing personality with professorial accessibility.

They definitely didn't quite get it at first. One of the students pulled up a picture of one of her professors, a man, and said she thought it was the creepiest picture in the world. Another student wanted to make sure that I knew that that she's not sexist; but they were quickly catching on, and before I could even respond, a third jumped in to reiterate what I had already said: that this was in no way a personal accusation, but rather a looking at how we've all internalized social messages and values about women in public, in cultural life and in the marketplace of ideas.

I love this group of students. They're thoughtful, enthusiastic, and hard workers. But they're still not totally equipped to evaluate me or my colleagues in productive and professional ways. Part of my role as a professor (or as their not-professor, in this case) is to help them begin to identify and interrogate the kinds of issues that are at play in real-world interactions where human judgment is still the final arbiter. But they're just starting out, just beginning to be able to see the issues, and just beginning to develop the critical thinking skills, the compassion, and the temperance to allow them to make decisions on sound bases. And as highly as I think of these students, they'd need years practicing those skills and of hindsight perspective before I'd put my professional future in their hands.


  1. Brava! Not only for the content, but for your finesse in maximizing the impact of a teachable moment. That's a skilled professor.

  2. Thanks! I'm still kind of shocked that I'm managing to pull this thing off...