Course evals perpetuate racism and sexism in higher ed

The implicit (or in some cases explicit) biases of students, especially white students, have an unacceptable impact on maintaining the faculty demographic status quo at Calvin. Negative responses on course evaluations disproportionately weaponize issues like attire, “warmness,” and perceived competency against women and people of color.

Currently, Calvin takes numerical summaries of course evaluations into account when deciding reappointment, promotion and tenure. According to the faculty handbook, “the assembled numerical summaries and comments will be supplied to the chair and the candidate and should be added to the dossier for departmental review.” 

This policy allows students’ gender- and race-based assessments of faculty to influence who works here, for how long, and how high of a position they can hold within the academic hierarchy. As one example of this bias, female professors are generally evaluated as less qualified and are expected to provide more interpersonal support than their male colleagues.

Evidence abounds that this bias is real, and the disproportionately homogenous ranks of faculty at institutions like Calvin are the iniquitous result.

According to a 2018 study by Texas Tech University professors Kristina M. W. Mitchell and Jonathan Martin, “language students use in evaluations regarding male professors is significantly different than language used in evaluating female professors…a male instructor administering an identical online course as a female instructor receives higher ordinal scores in teaching evaluations, even when questions are not instructor-specific.” 

A 2019 American Sociological Association’s “Statement on Student Evaluations of Teaching” reinforced that student course evaluations are biased against women and adds evidence that they are harsher towards people of color. Of course, the bias only increases for people with intersectional identities. Students (in particular white, male students) evaluate Black and Asian faculty more negatively than their white colleagues.

There are dozens of pages of evidence available with a quick Google or JSTOR search. Given how accessible and conclusive this information is, it’s shocking that Calvin still allows clearly discriminatory data to influence decisions that in turn influence the demographic makeup of each level of Calvin’s faculty. The impact of biased course evaluations are mere addendums to the institution’s overall inability to recruit (and more importantly, failure to keep) women and diverse faculty.

Even if course evaluations are only one of many things considered when Calvin makes hiring, promotional and tenure decisions, any unquestioned influence of sexism and racism is unacceptable. If the university is going to persist in taking anonymous student perspectives into account via course evaluations, the evaluations themselves need to be immediately reviewed and revised to curtail use of personal attributes, dress, and perceived interpersonal support, and instead limit responses to constructive criticism or support based on technical and pedagogical elements of the course.