Conversations around the ethics of student-submitted course evaluations have surfaced after anonymous posters were put up around campus urging students to boycott filling out their evaluations. The posters argue that inherent implicit biases may cause unfairness and inequity in the evaluations, particularly toward professors who identify as women or LGBTQ+, as well as professors of color.
“Due to our implicit and internalized biases, we hold minority professors to disproportionately higher standards than we hold their majority counterparts,” the poster read. “This bigotry fosters an atmosphere in which marginalized people must work substantially harder to earn the same amount of recognition, opportunities, and benefits that their more privileged peers are afforded comparatively easily. … To participate in a prejudiced system is to enable its continuation. The only way to dismantle this system is to boycott it and encourage others to do the same. Skip the course evaluations and provide direct feedback [to] your professors.”
Faculty members use the Student Evaluations of Teaching to receive feedback from their students, but the College also uses these evaluations to assess professors who are up for tenure or promotions. However, according to a Dec. 5 email sent to students by Acting Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences David Kamitsuka and Acting Dean of the Conservatory of Music William Quillen, Oberlin accounts for potential biases in their review.
“Oberlin’s elected faculty personnel committees are aware of implicit bias and its impact on SET results, and they factor that awareness into their evaluation of the quality of instruction,” Kamitsuka and Quillen wrote. “We use SETs as just one instrument among many in the evaluation of teaching.”
In addition to SETs, these committees draw on teaching portfolios, classroom observations, syllabi, class enrollment, mentorship data, and other information in assessing faculty, according to Kamitsuka and Quillen.
In response to the original posters, College second-year Maisie Sheidlower put up posters to raise different perspectives on completing course evaluations.
“I was thinking that if I were a professor, I would find feedback from my students very helpful,” Sheidlower said. “One of the things that the original poster said was that we hold minority professors to higher standards, so my poster said, “Here are ten signs that you are doing that.’”
Sheidlower’s poster urged students to fight implicit bias in other ways and argued that a boycott could actually make the problem worse. They also provided “10 signs you’re holding minority professors to higher standards than your more privileged professors.”
Sheidlower’s was not the only poster to make a similar argument.
“This person is right: implicit bias in course evals is a problem,” read another poster that responded to the original suggestion that students boycott their course evaluations. “But ONLY boycotting them without other action is counterproductive in so many ways. If the people who are aware of implicit bias boycott online course evals, they become even more skewed towards white male professors because the people that aren’t aware are still filling them out, making the system even more broken.”
Professor of Psychology and Environmental Studies Cindy Frantz studies implicit bias and discrimination, and says that students who are aware of possible biases are actually capable of mitigating them in course evaluations.
“There are three conditions that need to be in place for us to be able to correct for our biases,” said Frantz. “First, we have to be aware that we have them which, you know, people don’t want to see themselves as prejudiced. Recognizing, ‘Oh, I might have an implicit bias’ is important. Number two, people need to be motivated to correct for it. And then number three, they have to be cognitively able to correct for it. … In the context of course evaluations, people do have the cognitive resources to be aware of these things and correct for them. And my sense is at Oberlin, the students are pretty aware of the fact that they have implicit biases and very motivated to correct for them.”
Professor of Theater and Africana Studies Caroline Jackson Smith believes that the advantages of course evaluations outway the downsides.
“I feel that course evaluations are the very place that students can exercise real power and make their voices heard,” Smith wrote in an email to the Review. “In all the departments I’ve been a part of, we have taken student feedback extremely seriously, and any evaluation of faculty members heavily involves scrutinizing course evaluations. They matter! They matter to professors like myself, who make changes based on student opinions and experiences, and they matter to the College as a whole.”
Furthermore, the email from Kamitsuka and Quillian acknowledged new initiatives that are underway in working towards continuous improvement of the course evaluation process.
“Our Gertrude B. Lemle Teaching Center has supported efforts at the departmental level to reflect upon and deepen the quality of teaching evaluations,” they wrote. “The Teaching Center will continue to facilitate careful study and further refinement of sound, fair, and meaningful evaluation processes.”