Sunday, September 21, 2008

Think of the frat boys

This weekend, anyone teaching anything at any university in the U.S. is probably reading this. There's a story in the NYT Magazine about how weak course evaluations can ruin your life, and it's frightening.

Well, to a point. It seems clear enough where some of the profs profiled went wrong. For one, bringing politics up in class is sometimes inevitable; bringing up your own politics is completely avoidable. When the subject comes up, you can always offer some on the one hand, on the other hand, so that it's clear that your own leanings (even if students could Google or guess what they'd be) are not obvious.

But the real problem seemed to be the professors' distaste for a certain type of student, the ones who seemed too white, male, privileged, or sports-oriented to care about the class. I honestly can't imagine entering a classroom and assessing which of the students I would or would not be friends with, or consider 'my kind of person,' on the outside. In a classroom setting, this should be irrelevant. There's no conceivable reason to give preference to those who appear to be members of whatever clan you were in in high school (prep, goth, geek, etc.), or to penalize those your high school self would not have gotten along with. It could be that the white-hat-wearing white boys disliked their prof because the prof treated them as members of a rival tribe, forgetting that the instructor is outside the world of the cliques. Or maybe the individual guys in question were genuinely unpleasant, there's no way to know.


Miss Self-Important said...

Another non-political contributor to the discrimination against fratty types might also be the presence of their opposites in the class. If you had to teach an entire class of (politically or just academically) hostile students, you would probably cater your approach explicitly to address their hostilities. But if you have all the eager women in the front row who are practically shouting "Amen!" after each of your points, you're more inclined to view the backwards baseball hat boys in the back as undeserving of your time.

I find this even when I teach a small group of young kids things that have nothing to do with politics. If one kid is on-task and motivated, and the other is apathetic, I tend to see the apathetic kid and not my teaching as the problem since at least someone is responding to my teaching. Of course, the responsive kid could very well be self-motivated, and I am misreading that as a validation of what I'm doing and demonizing the non-responder. Add to this situation any political content that actually requires validation, and I can easily see how the class could transform into a competition of rival teams, with the professor leading one side's charge against his own students.

Phoebe said...


That makes sense. The only difference I can see between the interested-apathetic divide and a class where some but not all agree with the instructor's politics is that in the case you've experienced, you could guess, and perhaps guess correctly, that your successful teaching is what's received the 'amens.' Whereas the Bush-bashing prof is deluding himself if he thinks the nods of agreement have anything to do with the ostensible content of the lesson.

Oh, and to clarify a point: "I honestly can't imagine entering a classroom and assessing which of the students I would or would not be friends with, or consider 'my kind of person,' on the outside." I meant, entering a classroom as a teacher. Entering as a student, of course I've done this, as is to be expected.

Miss Self-Important said...

Yes, that's what I meant. My little kiddie example is just to demonstrate the non-political basis of this kind of preferentialism. I just like the pliable children more b/c they're easier, and if I were preaching against the rapacious white man, I can see how that would morph into liking the pliability of those who agree with my positions at the expense of those who don't. But without the hallelujah chorus at the front, I suspect that even the most politically strident professor would figure out some more effective pedagogy. Basically all I want to add to Oppenheimer's very good article is that, often, the students are enablers of this kind of behavior, esp. at the college level.

Phoebe said...

Agreed, completely.

On an unrelated note, I was amused, but not surprised, that the profs railing on against the white folk are themselves white.

Withywindle said...

And sometimes all your students are apathetic, and your teeth grind at the thought of the entire student species. And then there's the moment when you realize that whatever political stance you took, or avoided taking, was about an issue your students have no idea existed. God, I wish you had to have a high school education before you were allowed to graduate from high school.

Anonymous said...

Here in the math department bad course reviews are badges of honor. We don't talk politics in class. The only students we hate are the ones who show up at office hours to ask what's going to be on the test in order not to waste time studying anything else. They don't realize how insulting it is to us that they don't think Calculus is the most important thing in the world.

jim said...

The article talks a lot about the way in which the students' attitudes perhaps informed their evaluations, but in the end what mattered was the chair's and dean's reaction to those evaluations. I assume it's easier for the dismissed teacher to rail against the students and perhaps even politically (with a small p) harder to complain about the way in which the chair and dean have used those evaluations (and apparently legally useless to so complain). So the reporter pushed that line.

But in the end the chair and dean had a picture of a teacher chronically late, often frazzled, technologically inept, but on the other hand passionate to communicate the knowledge she undoubtedly had. (The reporter said this, but buried it on page 5 of 6.) How do they weigh these traits against each other? And then, how do they talk about how they came to the decision? They seem to have talked as though they were just following the students. Again, it's easier for them to do that. They're not criticizing her personality defects; they're just uncomfortable with the students reaction.

But we shouldn't be fooled by their talk. They made a judgment that her disorganization outweighed her virtues. It's a judgment they're entitled to make. It's not, though, that the frat boys got her fired.

Phoebe said...

Withywindle: I tend to blame myself, not the American high school system (of which I am of course a product), when a class doesn't go as well as I'd like. I wonder how much this is just me, and how much it's a difference between the way men and women approach these sorts of challenges.

Anonymous: I don't think I've ever met anyone in NYU's math department, but I did on some level know it existed. As for bad evaluations as 'badges of honor,' I could imagine that among profs or among TAs, but when it comes down to it, in any department, don't the evaluations matter for one's job?

Jim: We don't know that the frat boys were the ones who wrote negative evaluations. What we can guess is that the prof's attitude towards the frat boys--a conflict with them that may have existed only in her head, but may have affected her teaching--came to be a problem. But agreed, it was easier for the prof to blame frat boys than superiors at the university. Furthermore, it was easier to blame students who happened to be white, male, and frattish than it would have been had the prof imagined, say, that students of color hated her for being white, that gay students hated her for having a boyfriend, or whatever else could pop into a paranoid--or justifiably anxious-- person's mind. It sounds like the frat boys were, in this case, a convenient scapegoat, for the article if not for the prof.

Withywindle said...

Phoebe: I normally blame myself too. But it hasn't been a brilliant week.

jim said...

in any department, don't the evaluations matter for one's job?

No. It's discipline specific, and sometimes it depends on the context of a course.

Your anonymous Courant correspondent is probably overstating when she says "a badge of honor." But it's true that in math generally student evaluations are unnecessary. Since each course builds on a preceding course, you can tell how well a course prepared students for the succeeding courses by looking to see how well they did in them. Track the students from Prof A's section; did they do better or worse than the rest of the students in their next course? A database query. If uniformly worse, there's probably something wrong with Prof A's teaching; a classroom observation will identify it. No need to search for meaning in the entrails of student evaluations.

For the past few semesters I've been teaching two of the three sections we give of a course which is the prerequisite for the Senior capstone sequence. When I took this on, my chair said quite explicitly that he didn't care what my student evaluations on this course were. He didn't want me just passing students on to capstone, so thought to remove temptation.