November 15, 2003

Student Evaluations: Your Questions Answered

Worried that students and faculty members with conservative views face 'hostile' academic environments at Colorado's public colleges, the president of the state's Senate sent letters this month asking the leaders of all 29 institutions to detail their policies on protecting academic freedom.

In his letters, State Sen. John Andrews, a Republican, asked the presidents to explain their antidiscrimination rules, their processes for handling complaints about bias, and the steps they are taking to promote 'intellectual diversity' in classes and in faculty recruiting. Mr. Andrews also asked whether faculty-evaluation forms allow students to report perceived bias against certain ideologies.

-- Sara Hebel, "Colorado Lawmaker, Concerned About Anti-Conservative Bias, Asks Colleges to Detail Rules on Academic Freedom" (Chronicle of Higher Education, Friday, November 14, 2003; subscription-only, no free URL)

The answer to Mr Andrews' question is of course, Yes. Faculty evaluation forms not only allow students to report just about anything they please (from perceived political bias to the perceived attractiveness of an instructor's "buns"*), but they also allow students to do so anonymously. Next question?

*"Mr. Lang has always earned high marks from his students at Assumption College, but he doesn't consider himself a 'Baldwin' (for the clueless, that's a term for a hot guy, popularized by the movie Clueless). Apparently, though, some of his students do. More than one of them has made comments about his 'buns' on student evaluations" (Gabriela Montel, "Do Good Looks Equal Good Evaluations?" -- for a discussion of this article, see this weblog entry).

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at November 15, 2003 12:34 PM

Be alert to the possibility that this line about academic freedom for right wing ideologies may be coming from, say, ACTA,

A lot or right wing money is working to alter the landscape of higher education to make it less "liberal," in every sense of that word. The Ivies are at least perceived to be Bastions of Libralism, yet their funders and trustees are often conservative. Hence ACTA is organizing funders, trustees, and on-campus groups to correct the perceived "imbalance." Lynne Cheney started the organization. Bush has spoken to them. Bill Bennett is involved, Charleton Heston was their spokesperson before he died. The letter cited here sounds very much in the spirit of ACTA.

ACTA is on K Street with the lobbyists, and this could be what lobbyists call "Astroturf," apparently grassroots activity organized from a centralized body as part of a national campaign that is meant to appear spontaneous. An emerging trend.

How culture gets made, how it gets made by the strategic application of wealth, is an academic question, sociology, Foucault, etc, but the practice of it, how it gets done as a job, how to get hired to do it, what it pays, whom do you have to know to get into the game, what ladders to climb, and how, that is a whole different thing.

Many an Adjunct could make good money going over to the dark side. Figure out how to move your campus to the right, and call ACTA. It is your patriotic duty. In the name of Freedom and Fairness.

Posted by: Tutor at November 15, 2003 05:21 PM

I have an anecdote to share on this issue. I am teching a course on postmodern poetry at a small liberal arts college this semester. While reading a particular text, which is a formally experimental prose-poetic "autobiography," I made the point that while the form is very experimental, non-linear etc., the writer never employs that form to any way query or challenge the ostensibly comfortable middle-class bourgeois life being chronicled.

The fire storm isn't over yet. I've already received several emails from indignant students explaining to me that neither they nor their parents are paying a lot of money to have their lifestyles critcized and mocked by me. *sigh* I've actually been very patient in my responses, but what I really want to say is 'of course they're not, they're paying 30-some thousand dollars a year to have me hold up a mirror to you and say "look, see, see how wonderful and pretty you are"'.

I expect it to be noted front and center by many of the students in their forthcoming course evaluations. I can see it now: "The professor, while intelligent and engaging in his presentations, and generally liberal in his outlooks, exhibited a clear and unadulterated bias toward me and my family's middle-class culture and ideological beliefs -- which I do not appreciate. This was demonstrated in his emphasis on the issue of class bias in several works considered this semester."

In the words of our gracious host, well fucketty.

Posted by: Chris at November 15, 2003 05:52 PM

I wonder if the next round of affirmative action battles will be fought over hiring more "conservative" faculty members. Are the Republicans of all people, asking for quotas?

OK, that was mean. Let me go on the record saying that there are many bright people with conservatives ideas out there, and the ones who are not part of this hysterical right-wing have many useful ideas for the rest of us.

In the end it comes down to professionalism. A left or right-wing or moderate academic who does his or her job properly will embrace ideas from across the political spectrum.

Posted by: DM at November 15, 2003 06:07 PM

I'm teaching a modern American/European novel course at a private university, and a good deal of the material involves pretty vicious attacks on smug bourgeois life (see post #2). My students are fascinated, receptive, and indeed themselves already quite critical of aspects of the comfortable life they've known.

Professors sometimes take it as a given, and present it pretty crudely, that middle-class existence is vile, degenerate, etc. Students have every right to prefer nuanced and dispassionate critiques of bourgeois life; and they have every right to dismiss professors (I don't at all say this is true of poster #2 - I merely say it's true of a lot of professors in the humanities) who just dump on that life and assume their audience in the classroom is the same as their audience at academic conferences.

Posted by: Conway at November 15, 2003 06:22 PM

#4 -- I presented the issue fairly dispassionately at first, but as questions and discussion ensued, I have to admit that in my examples I dumped a bit.

That said, I do agree with your point Conway, and for the most part I do try to adhere, but some days I miss the mark.

Posted by: Chris at November 15, 2003 06:43 PM

Charlton Heston is still alive.

Posted by: ogged at November 15, 2003 06:57 PM

I post all my evals online ( From last semester:

"The instructor led his political views get in the way too much. He was very animated about them and seem to ignore other views."

"Halavais has an excellent understanding of the subject, and his entertaining sense of humor makes difficult material more easy to relate to. That's not to say the course couldn't be improved, but only slightly. I also appreciate Halavais's effort not to impose his political beliefs on students. Most teachers do the opposite, which I think is very irresponsible."

Evals favor the expected: three exams with explicit study guides, notes available online, easy material and readings. Most importantly: avoid any connection to politics or current events. I have the freedom not to worry about this much (not tenured, but my school does not put much stock in teaching or evaluations), but there's no doubt that evals discourage experimentation.

I do believe it is possible to bring politics into the classroom in a fair and balanced way. I think I do a pretty good job of clearly indicating my own bias in teaching and accepting alternative viewpoints. The difficulty here is simple (IMHO): the scholarly world is "liberal" in that it is, by nature, willing to discuss a broad set of possible truths and seek out what makes the most sense. Some conservative students in that class--though certainly not all--were upset that students with opposing views were allowed to speak. They wanted me to retain authority in the classroom, and they wanted me to stick to "the facts."

Posted by: Alex at November 16, 2003 02:38 PM

I find it funny that many of the students who complained about the presence of politics in class (not mine -- I tried to present a neutral front unless an individual student specifically asks, or I played devil's advocate on all sides) were also ones who lamented that the course was not "relevant" to their lives. There's a line to walk!

Posted by: Rana at November 16, 2003 08:38 PM

Some of my favorite academic bloggers and friends are very conservative. I still find I have a have a lot in common with them, and none have actually complained to what some of my students seem to see as liberal indoctrination. I do spend a good bit of time discussing the relationship between the individual and the state in my classes -- with emphasis on societies that either expected or denied the average citizen's participation in the political process ... most praise the emphasis -- as do liberal colleagues. What I find interesting is the fact that a couple of the conservatives think it odd that I refuse to buy into PC-dom if it obscures looking at history in terms of context.

But then, this is from someone who once had "she smells nice" put on an evaluation.

Posted by: Another Damned Medievalist at November 16, 2003 11:13 PM


I'd like to have taken one of your courses, even if you did not smell nice. Your "emphasis on societies that either expected or denied the average citizen's participation in the political process" is clearly a valuable approach. But here is another one that some of us think is at least as important; how much the state affects peoples' daily lives. It is clearly related to your emphasis on political participation, in that I am unaware of any totalitarian democracy. But it's just as clear that (i) deomcratic states differ in the power the exert over peoples' lives and (ii) so do nondemocratic states.

I sometimes find it useful in class to boil it down to a bumper sticker. An anarchist bumper sticker I used to see a lot would say "smash the state". My alternative is "shrink the state".

Posted by: gerald garvey at November 17, 2003 11:21 AM

I often wonder what universities would look like if they were dominated by contemporary conservative concepts and ideas? Would we have to eliminate the disciplines of sociology, psychology, and philosophy because they make too many generalizations and don't adhere to the rightist concept that all boils down to individual choice?
Would we have an increase in courses that advance corporate ideology and a form of social Darwinism (while scientific Darwinism gives way to "equal time" for creationism)? I suspect a course on the Holocaust would consist of the first half of the semester covering the Final Solution, and the last half examining why most Germans were decent, hardworking folks who were merely following orders, and that perhaps the Jews were a tad bit haughty, etc. Gotta be "fair and balanced" right? These are extreme examples, but I wouldn't be suprised to see this happen. Any thoughts?
While I am definately not for dogmatic leftist rhetoric, it's getting to the point that if anyone hears anything that makes them uncomfortable, then out comes the censorship brigade! Viola! You're anti-American.
This anti-American, with-us-or-against-us rhetoric is getting tiresome. If the colonists had followed this logic, you would have heard statements like "England isn't so bad. Just be grateful you have a thatch roof over your head!" rather than the Declaration of Independence and the revolution. Our country was founded on dissent and debate, in case people have forgotten!
One of the most common complaints I tend to hear from some conservative-leaning students is that I am "negative" even when I am merely presenting factual data. I'm sorry, but gaps in income levels can't be offset by "fair and balanced" accounts of how lucky someone is to be working for minimum wage. There is a line that has to be walked, as Rana observed.

Posted by: Cat at November 17, 2003 11:53 AM


Obviously a curriculum designed by the republican party would be a sham and it's entirely appropriate to resist intrusions by the state into this area.

I would like to raise a concern about some of the issues you raise at the end. When you start talking about income inequality and related topics, you encounter some basic issues of measurement and interpretation. I'm guessing you are in humanities. Do you encourage your students to take courses in economics and statistics so that they can better understand the numbers?

Forgive me if I am projecting personal experiences here. I have an old and dear friend who is an English Prof at a big state school. He has an unfortunate habit of basing arguments around high-level statistics on issues such as the environment or income inequality. I say unfortunate because he is almost completely ignorant of the issues here. Here are two tough ones he refuses to deal with:

1. In many areas of the US and other developed countries, the environment has gotten a lot cleaner in the past 20 years. The reasons are certainly debatable but things like improved air quality in LA, water quality in the Great Lakes, and reforestation in the east are beyond dispute.

2. If you move beyond US CEOs vs minimum wage US workers, there is actually some good news on income inequality. Reductions in poverty in places like China and India. If you value people equally, this one swamps most of our local concerns. Again, the reasons and interpretations are debatable, but any decent discussion of inequality would want to deal with this.

Posted by: gerald garvey at November 17, 2003 12:32 PM

I think what's most important here is that humanities professors not use their lecterns to push their own political agendas. Unfortunately, it happens all the time, and students find it wearisome and often laughable.

For every one humanities instructor I've ever had who remained politically detached from complex material, I've had three who didn't. Too many profs have interlaced their egos with their own precious interpretations of the subject matter, and to this I say: Bah. Give students the tools they need to understand the material, and let them make up their own minds. Otherwise, you're not a professor but a propagandist--no matter which side you're coming from.


Posted by: J.V.C. at November 17, 2003 03:51 PM


Criticism like yours is great, but be careful that you don't try to harness the power of the state (eg. Colorado gov't) to somehow "ban" propagandizing by lefty or righty professors. I think the commenters here are rightly leary of that.

My criticism/concern is not so much with propagandizing but with competence. Before decrying global inequality, learn the facts and how they are constructed. And I don't mean constructed in the literary/cultural sense. Rather, have a close look at what actually goes into income or other stats.

Posted by: gerald garvey at November 17, 2003 04:03 PM

"Give students the tools they need to understand the material, and let them make up their own minds. Otherwise, you're not a professor but a propagandist--no matter which side you're coming from."

This is a nice idea in theory, but what if your groupd of students can't or won't see past their own class biases? Doesn't a moment come when you, the professor, simply have to say 'okay, listen, look at this passage' and then show the ways, in your opinion, that it eveinces a certain class bias?

Perhaps that's how I semi-avoid the pontificating leftist persona some are bemoaning here. I always qualify these kinds of interpretations with 'in my opinion' or 'to my way of thinking'.

I've also employed the compare and contrast model where we look at one writer, and then I quickly turn to another and hope the differences -- which to me, admittedly, are obvious -- are evident. I have to say, though, that sometimes they are, and many times they're not

But I fear that if I always followed the "let them decide for themselves' model" I might be waiting until 2010 for them to get it -- and that may be an optimistic date.

Cat -- I get that 'you're so negative' line all the time.

Posted by: Chris at November 17, 2003 05:02 PM

Gerald Garvey brought up some important points. I am in the field of education and we do encourage our students to take a measurements course, statistics, etc. I'm also married to a statistician, so I've become a data skeptic myself. We analyze data relating to income and social class in our contemporary issues course, so that students can gain a general sense of what is happening in the world around them. We examine both gains and losses when we talk about this data, much like the points Gerald Garvey raised in his post above. However, there is also a widening gap in the U.S. between the most wealthy and the poorest, with a loss in the middle-classes (I can't remember the cut-off numbers that provide the income definitions for each category). In 1980, 43.7% of the share of total household income was held by the upper class. In 1999, that number increased to 49.4%. The ranks also shrunk in the upper-middle, middle, lower-middle and lower class categories. The lower class share of household income stands at 3.6% as of 1999. A lot of these changes relate to the composition of households (i.e. single parent familes are typically in the poverty range) and changes in the labor market. We use data that comes from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Posted by: Cat at November 18, 2003 09:36 AM


That's my read of the US situation too. Two points, however:

1. Readers should be aware that what you call class is just income percentiles. It's far from clear that most of the high-income earners have the other atttributes that people sometimes call bourgeois (sp). This is NOT a criticism of you. Quite the opposite. We actually agree on what we are talking about here. I can't say the same for many cultural critiques.

2. My earlier posts stressed the global situation, not the US. David Dollar has a nice summary in Foreign Affairs in 1992 on the reduction in global income inequality. And in the subsequent issue there's a back and forth discussion where I think Dollar comes out clearly ahead. Again, the 800 lb gorilla in the data is China and India. No one will be surprised to hear that many African countries have gone backwards.

Posted by: gerald garvey at November 18, 2003 11:06 AM

Quoting from a blawg

Insecurity drives the world

A post on Michael Froomkin's blog about student evaluations from the other side really got me thinking. Is that what professors think about us? Really? Do they really think we think like this? That we act with that much collective animosity? Come on, dude. We're just scared.

Heidi's rules for evaluating other people's behavior: Never attribute to malice what can be explained by greed. Never attribute to greed what can be explained by selfishness. Never attribute to selfishness what can be explained by insecurity. And insecurity drives the world.

That is, I think, the proper order of things. I think that this reading of human nature is inherently optimistic--it assumes that people will generally do the right thing, but that people are mostly motivated by fundamental self-doubt (this also drives some really good things that people have done, too). I don't think people are naturally greedy, or naturally selfish. I do think they're naturally good. Practically, however, I think that the complexities and abrasions of life, and the interactions of my insecurity with other people's insecurity, mean that while people are fundamentally good, they may act in a way that is fundamentally rotten.

Yeah, he's a professor, but I still think it makes no sense to posit actual hostility to new professors when a potential lack of confidence coupled with our lack of security would equally--and more plausibly--explain the whole. Additionally, not all new teachers experience hostility, which would pretty much sink his first explanation.
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Posted by: Steve at November 18, 2003 09:48 PM