Editor's Note: Another letter to the editor that discussed additional negative effects of SRTEs can be found here. It was written by Professor David P. Baker and was published on Nov. 28.
Not too long ago, I met a newly hired administrator and raised the question of faculty hiring and diversity. Without batting an eye, he responded with the anointed arrogance of professional supremacy and flippantly replied, “Yea, if they’re qualified”.
Unfortunately, this is the same atavistic attitude that prevails among too many students and some faculty and administrators here at Penn State when it comes to their encounters with and prejudgments of Black, Latinx, and other minority faculty.
And this is nowhere more apparent than in student evaluations of teachers or the notoriously misused SRTEs, which heads of departments, promotion committees and faculty search committees rely on sensationally and uncritically in their assessments.
In the Spring of 2017, a Faculty Senate report advanced the discussion and issued a robust and incisive analysis entitled: Student Rating of Teaching Effectiveness (SRTE) Evaluations: Effective Use of SRTE Data.
This document challenged the general view that SRTEs are either complete measures of student learning or faculty evaluations and noted they are fraught with erroneous assumptions and consequential shortcomings. Specific reference highlighted “Bias due to gender, race, ethnicity, or culture” though the cited studies of faculty of color were limited.
While all faculty are subject to the vagaries of student opinions and perceptions, for Black professors this takes on a quality that entails the uncomfortably personal and institutional experiences of race and racism that we have come to expect and deflect.
As practically any Black prof at Penn State can tell you, these experiences leave an occasionally bitter and indelible impression of the student body and the administration. Many of us have had to endure the demeaning task of proving we are “qualified."
And this is acutely the case of Black male professors regardless of rank or tenure status. To lecture in a culturally anglicized dialect is a clear sign of not being “qualified”; to employ a pedagogy that is different is yet another sign of not being “qualified”; to make by happenstance a mistake in class is surely an indication of not being “qualified”; and perhaps most of all, to look, think or act in any way “Black” is certin sign of not being “qualified”.
So, what is a Black prof to do? Should we avoid any topic remotely related to race, sexism, and inequality or current issues such as gun control and violence or the racism of President Trump? Should we not discuss history and exhort students to see the present through the past and by extension a possible future? Should we take the “ease and appease” approach and not require too much rigor or reading for exams or quizzes or even class decorum especially if we are about to “come up”? Should we smile more often, modulate the voix, and/or tell jokes to appear “nonthreatening” in an effort to assuage White students? Or should one just “Get Out”?
Studies have been remarkably consistent in their results regarding racial and ethnic bias and the unfairness of student evaluation of faculty. In a recent literature review and an empirical study, Wallace and colleagues (2018), noted a number of personal characteristics associated with student faculty evaluations pertaining to both race and gender of the instructor including culturally perceived mannerisms, physical attractiveness or appearance, accents, and perceived sexuality.
Littleford et al. (2010) demonstrated that challenging a student’s worldview of (e.g., about racism, structural inequality, White privilege) can be dangerous to one’s SRTEs. In his research, Reid (2010) studied data from over 3,000 student evaluations of professors revealing that African American and Asian teachers were ranked the lowest and Black males received the lowest scores of any racial/gender group. These studies are among the many works on this important topic and are keenly instructive.
Realistically however, why should we expect this situation to be any different considering that it reflects in part the state of black faculty and “benign neglect” at Penn State? More broadly configured, it is essentially no different than what other African Americans such as police and firemen, medical practitioners, and journalists face (save perhaps traditional domains encompassing athletes, artists of syncopation, chauffeurs, and preachers).
I might also add that the bias against Black faculty is not limited to White students as many Black, Asian, and Latinx students also endorse racist stereotypes by avoiding our courses, expecting and doing less, and evaluating more stringently.
College instruction is not as easy a vocation as it may seem and we as professionals do not always meet or exceed our expectations. Everyone benefits when teaching is improved but no one benefits when teaching assessment is poorly conceived, weaponized by students, and detonated by administrators.
Given the cogent research and the Faculty Senate report as well as the experiences of Black, Latinx and women faculty at Penn State, the current use of SRTEs by administrators is unavoidably and undeniably discriminatory.
Students cannot change the SRTE system. Only the administration working with faculty can do so. This venerable institution should assume the responsibility of addressing this issue as a matter of equity.
One approach to changing the SRTE system is to assemble a body of fair minded faculty and administrators to examine racial and gender differences in SRTE survey scores across an array of factors such class size, course level of difficulty, elective versus required courses, for example, and develop a new system. If in fact student evaluations of faculty are here to stay, they should not remain in their present form nor be the sole means by which administrators and promotion and recruitment committees assess teaching. As other colleges and universities have changed their student evaluation systems in the interest of fairness and validity, so should Penn State.
Gary King is a professor in the department of Biobehavioral Health at Penn State.