Now course evaluations rate ability of professors to create safe space in their classrooms

June 9, 2019 • 12:30 pm

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 UniversityVillanova, 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.

54 thoughts on “Now course evaluations rate ability of professors to create safe space in their classrooms

  1. Students can, and do, use course evaluations to raise any issue they care to. Becoming outraged over the lack of a box to check just reveals a need to become outraged.

  2. These students would never have survived some of my professors or perhaps those professors (all now tenured) never would have survived these students. Some of my professors had clear social phobias and other issues. I remember a professor had passed a book around for everyone to look at a picture of something. He decided that someone was looking at the picture too long, walked over, ripped the book out of his hands and passed it to the next person. It scared me but also amused me as he clearly had no control ofer the same compulsions I often felt. Luckily, he seemed to like me perhaps because I understood some of his weird behaviour and knew how not to rile him up.

    Another professor regularly made people cry. I remember going to see him during his office hours and a student was crying. Ugh. That was awkward. Another professor told me I was actually stupid and that they system had fooled me into making me seem smart and hat I had no place in a university. I attended all the Dean’s Honours List ceremonies as I placed each year and that was only because he was there and I wanted him to see how this dumb girl was somehow being shown as smart by the system every year. He did this to me only because I expressed similar ideas to a faculty member he didn’t like (the one who I went to see with the crying student in his office).

    1. I can understand how the above entry into student evals could help curb the more extreme sorts of behavior of professors like that. Then there are the profs who sexually harass students.
      I am all for not over-protecting young people from experiencing ass-holery, so that they might learn to deal with it in the real world. But at the same time I don’t mind creating non-safe spaces for assholes.

      1. And in my day I’m sure evaluations complaining did nothing. Now if you wear the wrong shirt you’re in trouble. It’s gone too far.

  3. Cool stuff! Soon they will have spaces safe from any reference to evolution. In fact spaces safe from having to learn things that threaten your cultural predispositions would be ideal 🙂

  4. The extremes to which this kind of thing is going suggest that soon there will be no safe spaces at all — for any teacher.

  5. Would they prefer that you don’t wear a Hawaiian shirt? I’d have thought removing it would have elicited a more vocal response 😉

    Also, how is it possible to be “too hard” on creationists?

  6. I always wear Hawaiian shirts when teaching. I am known for that where I work. Now I am wondering if I will one day be called to the floor for appropriating the culture of tourists who visit the islands.

    1. “Hawaiian” shirts are worn by other islanders as well. I know for a fact that the Marshallese wear such shirts. You could be wearing a “Marshallese” shirt or one from any of the other islands where the inhabitants wear them.

      1. Cook Islanders frequently wear ‘Hawaiian’ shirts too, even for formal wear, i.e. to the office. In a country where air conditioning is a rarity, a loose open-neck short-sleeved shirt that doesn’t show if it’s a bit crumpled and sweaty is a highly practical fashion.

        Though I think to call them ‘Hawaiian’ is blatant cultural appropriation since all islands are capable of producing their own designs. ‘Island style’ would be a better name.

        Most of them are manufactured in China any way.


  7. I keep wondering how one creates a safe space in a statistic class. I still haven’t figured it out.

    One of my favorite student evaluations was in answer to the question, “Does this professor have any annoying mannerisms?” My student answered that question with, “She Blinks.”


  8. As a Christian who’s attended both private and public colleges…come on, people.

    It doesn’t help that this system of bubble-wrapping people begins with preschool: I saw this first-hand with my own sons at their public school. The simple relationship of teacher/student has been removed for friend/friend, which totally messes up the concept of authority in the classroom environment. Anything that frightens one child has to be completely removed. Anything that upsets one parent can lead to disciplining the teacher.

    I’m sure you would agree that Christians are not the only group with snowflakes in them. (Yeah, I believe in God, but I also get there’s other systems of belief, and I want my kids to understand and respect them, too.) There seems to be this plague among parents that their child’s tastes *must* be catered to at all costs; how on earth is a child supposed to learn how to deal with conflicting perspectives in the world around him/her when they have no exposure to them early on?

    I guess your post hits a nerve with me today because one of the Christian high schools in my state recently fired a teacher because he discussed female circumcision in relation to another culture during a geography class and “offended” three freshmen. It doesn’t matter that this is an important issue both in this country and in the world at large. Because he upset a few teenagers, a twenty-some veteran in teaching (who’d been bringing up this issue every year for the last ten years, and the school board *knew his curriculum*, and no complaints had been filed before), was fired.

    Come on, people.

    1. A teacher cannot be all things to all students. Some young students can be very flexible and others rigid. My kids attended a grade school in Palo Alto, CA in which they changed classrooms for different subjects and
      seats didn’t have to be in rigid rows. Kids who were proficient in one subject could tutor others who were not, and vice versa. There were no English reader textbooks as the students were taught how to use a library to select books they liked. My kids loved it.
      Whereas, some kids felt lost without the regimentation and certainty. Most seemed to thrive in this atmosphere.

      1. Thank you for this point! You’re quite right that one method never works for everyone. The teacher who can find the best balance among the methods is a true diamond in the rough.

  9. I used to get nicked for sometimes wearing Hawaiian shirts when I taught …

    Screw them. A Hawaiian shirt is about as dressed up as I care to get nowadays. I got married in a Hawaiian shirt. Damned if I was gonna put on a rented tux. Never wear a tie if you don’t have to, is my motto.

    1. Of course if you were in Hawaii at the time, it would make perfect sense. If you were in the courthouse in Nebraska, you would have been over dressed.

      1. I broke my ankle in 1985, and it’s never been right since. Most of the time it’s fine, but every now and then it collapses out from under me for no reason.

        I have not worn heels since it happened. Much better.


        1. I have a bunch of foot issues that I’ve had since birth but have only really started bothering me recently. I have shortened Achilles tendons which cause tendonosis which is the tearing of the tendon. I’ve been almost immobile for months. However the following story will surely amuse you.

          Once, I walked into work (at my previous employment) and I was wearing wedge sandals. As you probably know, with wedges, if you step just slightly wrong, you can fall. I did that while opening the door and fell (of course I was also wearing a skirt). The guy behind me, who was following way too close and we weren’t supposed to allow people to do that, didn’t ask if I was ok but just said “you shouldn’t wear high heels”. My reply was pretty good, “They’re not high heels! They’re wedges!”

    2. Too bad you didn’t practice almost any law but criminal defense, and you didn’t do it in Florida. Nearly every lawyer down there wears jeans and a polo shirt (or sometimes even a lesser shirt) to hearings.

      If I ever go back and complete law school and become a lawyer, I’m practicing in Florida. I imagine the two biggest fields down there would be law involving the elderly (wills, care, etc.) and real estate. I’d end up with very few hearings requiring more than jeans and a hawaiian shirt. I wonder if I could get away with sandals…

    3. I’m right with you on the ‘ties’ thing.

      I happily give you the Hackers’ Dictionary definition of ‘Suit’:

      n. 1. Ugly and uncomfortable `business clothing’ often worn by non-hackers. Invariably worn with a `tie’, a strangulation device that partially cuts off the blood supply to the brain. It is thought that this explains much about the behavior of suit-wearers.


  10. When I was a college instructor in the sixties when mini skirts were appearing, my student evaluations centered on the length of my skirt hems. Sometimes too short; sometimes too long.

  11. I continue to bristle at the misuse of the term “safe space” outside its appropriate context as part of therapy. General educators are not therapists, and should be discouraged from pretending to be so, and class is not therapy. If you want therapy, go to therapy. As for evaluations, let’s not forget that students were in the forefront when the Nazis purged the universities of Jews and liberals. Schools should be wary about injecting politics as criteria for academic fitness.

  12. When I taught creative writing classes at Reed College and elsewhere, creating a “safe space” was always a top priority in my mind—not that I spent time talking about it. In that instance, people who submitted their poems for class criticism were putting themselves in a vulnerable position, and it was paramount that they felt safe about doing this.

    Yes, this was a special case, but it’s not hard to imagine students feeling unsafe simply based on, say, their ethnicity or political views. At Reed, of course, it was the conservative students who felt unsafe—and not without justification.

    My point, I guess, is that we shouldn’t let the excesses in this area blind us to students’ reasonable concerns.

  13. Jerry you should ask Steve Palumbi about his experiments with wearing aloha shirts in class at Harvard (shortly after he moved there from University of Hawaii). IIRC he would wear aloha only on Fridays, and then collect data on the change in the frequency of aloha shirts among students over the semester. Possibly I have some of the details wrong. He would probably have to get IRB permission now to do this.

  14. Ms. Houston complains about “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” and so on. A familiar plaint.

    Courses on physical reality are now dominated, alas, by the work of dead white men such as Galileo, Newton, Faraday, Clerk Maxwell, Einstein, etc. ; those on biological reality are dominated, alas, by Linnaeus, Leeuwenhoek, Hooke, Darwin, Mendel, Pasteur, Koch, Watson and Crick, etc.

    If the primary goal of education is to ensure that each student feels that his/her/zher/their identity is fairly represented, perhaps students should take only courses in “Identity”, without all the current scientistic attention to natural reality. We should not be surprised when, soon enough, recommendations to this effect are promulgated by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. Evergreen State will perhaps lead us in this direction, telling us that we should all get into the canoe and limit the higher education curriculum entirely to matters of Identity. On the other hand, once this system is established, couldn’t students like us claim to be offended by it?

  15. I have read elsewhere that the cost of education has entitled students to ask for more value for their dollar, that they are buying a service, which entitles them to demand fries with their Freud, so to speak. But that’s amother story.

    1. ” . . . has entitled students to ask for more value for their dollar.”

      I should think that not a few of them, possessed of a short attention span and obsessing over their smart phones during class, would thereby undermine the efficacy of their self-absorbed sense of entitlement. I suppose that, at that point, they would claim that the professor was not sufficiently “engaging” (entertaining).

      As a matter of principle, I think that the professor should be able to comment on the students’ above dilatory, juvenile ways. As in K-5 and above, shall the professor call home?

  16. I wouldn’t mind an open-ended question like that. The extent of the kow-towing to PC culture would depend on the student, not the question. I would prefer a more personal approach like “Did you feel that the atmosphere was conducive to learning for you and others?” That way disrespectful or racist or sexist crap would come up, but so would the generic stuff of classroom interaction.

    1. I agree. Near the top of the comments Diana MacPherson talks about professors that make people cry or interact with the students in other aggressive ways. If a professor makes his or her students cry, that’s a problem whether it is because they are racist or a misogynist or just a plain ordinary bully.

      1. One professor that made students cry was simply because he was a tough marker. I don’t think I ever saw him bully but he was intimidating. I was okay with him. Others were bullies.

  17. As for Ms Houston’s whine about her professor confusing ‘sex’ with ‘gender’, he was probably just being euphemistic out of habit. I seem to recall, before transgender was a thing, that ‘sex’ was considered a bit of a naughty word and ‘gender’ was the polite euphemism.

    The ‘woke’ (ugh!) above all should understand the use of euphemism, since spawning mealy-mouthed euphemisms seems to be one of their primary occupations.


  18. I want to know the content of the stupid question she asked. I agree it is important that professors don’t belittle their students, but it is also crucial that students come prepared for the material in their classes. Perhaps the professor was understandably put off balance by the breadth of her ignorance? We have no way to evaluate it without more information. However, I do know grade inflation, coddling, and falling standards are apparent to anyone paying attention to any disciplines outside the hard sciences. I have direct experience with this from my time finishing my degree, and indirect experience through my significant other’s nursing program. Perhaps Ms. Houston is offended that she is expected to actually know things besides woke jargon and the shape of her navel.

  19. “I want to know the content of the stupid question she asked.”

    My prize for the most stupid question I was ever asked by a student goes to the girl who, on the first day of a class called “The Age of Shakespeare,” raised her hand and asked: “What was Shakespeare’s age?” Even at that I managed to bite my tongue and reply, “It was different at different times in his life.” That seemed to satisfy her.

    I would counter this with my favorite question a student ever asked me: a third-grade girl, after I had read a poem of mine to the class, raised her hand and asked: “Is that a real poem or did you just make that up out of your head?”

      1. I’m reminded that occasionally across the planet someone gets asked, “Are you famous”?

        I’ve substitute taught not a few years. Every once in a while a student asks, “Are you a real teacher?” (I’d like to think that I’m a teacher in the same sense that Lincoln was a “real” lawyer from having apprenticed himself to a lawyer, and from his lawyerly experience.)

  20. Why wouldn’t the student simply raise her hand and ask about the conflation of terminology? Why seethe with your heart racing? Just ask, “Professor, I’m confused. You seem to be using the terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ interchangeably, synonymously even. Is there no difference between the two terms?” I bet the two of them would have found easy common ground in the distinctions the professor drew and everyone in the class would have benefited.

    But this way gives her a chance to signal her virtue while simultaneously claiming how much smarter she is than the professor.

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