“A worthless professor,” ”she had an agenda,” ”she made me feel ashamed that I was white,” “she hates Canada and our culture,” “I want my money back,” “the department must get rid of her” – these are the least offensive and demeaning words of my own student evaluations that I received last semester at the University of Manitoba. Confused and appalled, I attempted to reach the department head to arrange a meeting to discuss this issue; however, I never heard back and in a week I received a letter with a departmental administrative ban preventing me from applying to the same position in the future.
The class seminar that my predominantly white and predominantly male students and department officials opposed so furiously revolved around the topics of racism and discrimination, white privilege, problematic aspects of multiculturalism, and experiences of marginalized communities in Canada.
As any predominantly white neo-liberal educational institution, the University of Manitoba functions within the politics of ignorance towards experiences of minority instructors, perpetuating their exclusion and disposability on the basis of race, ethnicity and gender. Critical race and feminist theorists, such as Gloria Ladson-Billings, Heidi Nast, Chavella Pittman and others, recognize academia as a thoroughly racialized and gendered system that functions on inequality, discrimination and marginalization of minority faculty members. Student evaluations, that are often given a considerable weight within higher education institutions, occupy a very specific slot in this system.
Research on student evaluations and its intersection with race, ethnicity, and gender confirm that minority faculty often receive significantly lower and more negative evaluations in comparison with their white counterparts. Those negative evaluations are highly harmful and damaging for their careers. Moreover, due to personal stereotypes, biases, and prejudices, many students view minority or foreign-born instructors as less qualified, less competent, and lacking in academic and professional expertise.
For instance, in his research on whether student evaluations reflect a bias on the perceived race and gender of the instructor, Landon Reid illustrates how visibly racial or ethnic minority faculty are characterized by students according to certain negative stereotypes of the group that they seem to be representative of. As such, faculty of African and Asian descent are often seen as non-legitimate and non-deserving of their positions. They are perceived as difficult, aggressive, dismissive, arrogant, incompetent, and as furthering their political agenda.
Sometimes, these biases and stereotypes serve as a decisive factor in students’ course selection and registration. Research shows that white students avoid registering for courses with instructors that have “foreign-looking” names because minority professors are perceived as incompetent due to their ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. Moreover, Chavella Pitmann’s study presents the specific experiences of gendered racism of ethnic minority women within their classrooms, arguing that racial minority female faculty are often challenged and their academic authority, scholarly expertise, and teaching competency are questioned, undermined, and disrespected by white male students, reflecting white male privileged position in the racialized and gendered matrix of social dominance.
The biased attitudes expressed in student evaluations of minority faculty are particularly problematic as they contribute to already existing practices of discrimination, marginalization, and lack of support from peer faculty and administrators in predominantly white campuses. A significant body of literature suggests that academia is still notoriously and deliberately ignorant towards racialized and gendered biases manifested in student evaluations, negatively affecting minority instructors, preventing them from professional and scholarly advancement, and putting them under constant pressure to prove that they are deserving of their positions. This politics of ignorance towards biased perceptions of minority faculty members in student evaluations perpetuates a lack of diversity in various academic fields and deprives students of the opportunity to challenge their own biases and stereotypes.
Ironically, teaching about anti-racism and anti-discrimination and exposing one’s racist and prejudiced attitudes can have negative impact on careers of those instructors who dare to discuss and incorporate issues of racism, white privilege, feminism, homophobia, and neo-liberalism in their classes. White students use evaluations to express their anger, disapproval, and frustrations about the contentious topics covered in classes or seminars, and as Boatright-Horowitz and Soeung, of the University of Rhode Island’s psychology department, point out, they end up “reject[ing] both message and messenger.”
The concept of white privilege in particular is considered “the kiss of death” to positive evaluations. Boatright-Horowitz and Soeung argue that discussions of racism and white privilege with white students are potentially harmful and damaging for minority instructors since white students often perceive these discussions as personal attacks on themselves, their friends, family members, or even their nations or countries, resulting in extremely negative and significantly lower evaluations of minority faculty.
In his poignant essay on educational consumerism, Mark Edmundson, an English professor from the University of Virginia, argues that the universities are becoming more and more customer-driven, positioning students as customers and universities as service providers. This essentially neoliberal approach to education operates within the “consumer is always right” discourse, leaving instructors vulnerable and dependent on the whims of their customer-students. As in any customer satisfaction orientated venture, universities rely on service evaluations, utilizing the end-of-course student evaluations as the primary rationale for decision-making in relation to further hiring (sessional/adjunct instructors), tenure, promotions, awards, pay or recognition.
However, the scholars of diversity and equality in education argue that this practice is dangerous and discriminatory for racial, ethnic, and gender minorities who encounter conscious or unconscious biases and stereotypes manifested by their students, colleagues, and administrators on a daily basis.
My personal story as a racialized and gendered minority instructor is representative of how student evaluations negatively affect minority instructors on this campus – an issue I think the university has been particularly silent on. The majority of research on this topic has been done in the United States; therefore, I’m calling on researchers to study this phenomenon in Canadian higher education institutions such as the University of Manitoba. This sort of research will be crucial in understanding the limitations of student evaluations and confronting the systemic discrimination and marginalization of minority instructors based on race, ethnicity or gender.
Ultimately, I encourage everyone interested – graduate students, sessional instructors, professors – to contact me directly to collaborate in this research opportunity that could potentially illuminate the challenges that minority faculty have to face in the “ivory tower” and propose alternative evaluation methods, ensuring the accurate portrayal of one’s pedagogy.
Author’s note: The comments contained in this op-ed are not a reflection of the writer’s current experiences with the anthropology department of the University of Manitoba.