This, of course, was inevitable. Although the editorial below, from the University of Washington student paper The Daily (click on screenshot) is suggesting policy changes that haven’t happened yet, her suggestion is established policy or is under discussion at several universities, including Washington University, Villanova, Lesley University, Brown University, and Williams College. (I haven’t done a comprehensive survey.) The change—adding the question below, is prompted in part by a suggestion of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute:
The idea is to evaluate professors’ courses on whether they provide a sufficient degree of support for diversity and inclusivity—that is, whether the classrooms are “safe spaces” for students. That in itself is not inherently bad, but worries me in two respects. It injects ideology into a classroom, rating a professor on whether he or she conforms to the social-engineering mission that is sweeping colleges and displacing the educational mission. Further, this kind of rating is subject to gross abuse, an example of which you’ll see below. A clueless and even well-meaning comment, or simply not liking a professor’s style, can become a black mark—and a serious one in these days of ideological conformity in the academy.
If a professor is a bigot, and is damaging her educational mission by evincing bigotry or injecting irrelevant stuff into the class, there is always a place to put that: in the comment section that is part of every student evaluation I know of. “Diversity and inclusion” is only one thing you can comment on; I used to get nicked for sometimes wearing Hawaiian shirts when I taught, or because I was “too hard on creationists”. But you can think of many other ideologically approved issues on which one can rate professors. The question is: are they relevant to the educational mission of the class? Are professors to be rated on social engineering as well?
Ms. Houston faults her science professor in the article below:
And her is her plaint:
In fact, studies have shown that there is almost no correlation between a student’s ability to evaluate their own learning and recognize a professor’s teaching as effective.
But something that students are very good at is evaluating whether they felt safe, respected, and represented in a classroom. Just this week, I sat in the back of my lecture hall, seething as my biology professor went over sex development of humans, and continually referred to biological sex (our internal and external genitalia, determined by both chromosomes and hormones throughout prenatal development) as gender (which is an identity, and does not necessarily correspond with biological externalities).
While my gender and sex are the same and my personal reality wasn’t being dismissed, I felt angry and distressed by the misinformation and confusion my apparently well-respected professor was seeding in the students around me. Sex and gender are not the same thing, and his construal of the two as such was not only confusing and false but had the potential to make many of his students feel invisible or unrepresented.
However, as I filled out my course evaluation for him, there was no place for me to check a box asserting whether I felt represented, safe, or supported by my professor. I had no room to quantify the feeling of my heart racing while I refused to take notes on information that excluded groups of people.
Seething? Heart racing? No box to check? Why didn’t she write it in the “comments” section, of which there must have been one? Ms. Houston was clearly looking for an excuse to be offended.
And really, in a biology class are you supposed to feel “safe and supported” by the language a professor uses? Here we have a professor doing what I used to do: use “sex” and gender” interchangeably. (I no longer do that when I speak.) This was the usual practice before the times when many decided that their gender didn’t conform to their biological sex. I suspect that this professor was older or clueless, and not deliberately trying to make his students feel “invisible and underepresented”. But there is no empathy and no charity when this happens. People assume the worst.
Now here is something that definitely should be mentioned: if the professor treats students as if they were stupid:
I also had no place to describe how, earlier in the quarter, this same professor made me feel stupid in front of my peers for asking a question that he considered too basic, and that his condescension made me never want to go to office hours or ask him questions again, which certainly got in the way of my learning.
That’s fine; but what’s below is more problematic. How do you represent an identity “fairly” in a science or math class? If you teach classical evolutionary biology, up to, say, 1950, virtually every paper you read will be by a white person, and 90% of them by white men. That is the history of our field, though it’s changing for the better. But when I taught that, would I be faulted for not representing various genders and ethnicities in the assignments? Ms. Houston:
I don’t need to ask around to know that there are plenty of other situations where students must feel like their identities aren’t being represented fairly in their courses — whether it’s because the books they’re reading are entirely written by white men, their professor made an insensitive joke, or a student felt targeted for their minority status.
A professor who bullies his students or denigrates them for asking questions deserves to be criticized. Ideally, the student would meet the professor and convey their discontent, but if they are too timid to do this, by all means write it on the course evaluation. For such professorial behavior truly impacts your ability to learn: if you can’t ask questions without being beaten down, you can’t learn very well. And, of course, bigotry should be noted on forms and even reported to the University. But you can see from Ms. Houston’s plaint how even a trivial and possibly clueless comment can be policed by evaluations like this.
Given what’s happening on campuses today, universities should be very careful about injecting this kind of policy into their mission, which used to be to educate students rather than turn them into ideological clones.