POINT: Course evaluations negatively impact female faculty members

Sonali Seth | Daily Trojan

As students found out this week, USC’s teacher evaluations — now rebranded as “learning experience” evaluations — have undergone some changes. Evaluations are administered in class, where faculty members must leave while a student proctor is tasked with ensuring an 80 percent response rate. The evaluations are longer, with more specific questions regarding the course and the professor in five different areas: Course Design, Instructional Practices, Inclusion Practices, Assessment Practices and Course Impact. They also play a reduced role in faculty performance reviews.

These are welcome changes: They are in step with cutting-edge research that has shown college students are not authorities in pedagogy, and that specificity in course evaluations can improve the learning experience.

The new system, however, has led some to question whether course evaluations should be published for future students to read. It’s not a new idea: Daily Trojan opinion columnists have proposed such a publishing mechanism in 2009 and 2012. However, creating a USC-specific system like the popular teacher-evaluation website, RateMyProfessors, would accentuate the negative parts of student evaluations while sidestepping their actual benefits.

Such a system would aggravate the role of implicit bias toward female faculty and faculty of color in student evaluations. A 2015 study in Innovative Higher Education conducted an experiment in which an instructor operated under two gender identities; even though the instructor was the same in both classes, students rated the teacher significantly higher when identifying as a man than when identifying as a woman. Another study from North Carolina State University found that students gave professors with  female-sounding names lower scores than professors with male-sounding names, even though they were taught by the same professor in an online class.

Northeastern University professor Benjamin Schmidt created a searchable database of the reviews from RateMyProfessors, which found that descriptors like “brilliant,” “smart” and “funny” appeared more often in reviews of male professors, while “strict,” “sweet,” “shrill” and “beautiful” appeared more often in reviews of female professors.

Shideh Ghandeharizadeh | Daily Trojan

“In short … men are more likely to be judged on an intelligence scale, while women are more likely to be judged on a nurturing scale,” NPR radio host William Huntsberry wrote of the study.

Bias isn’t limited to just women. A 2005 study published in the Economics of Education Review found that students consistently gave lower ratings to teachers who are non-native English speakers, while a 1991 study by researchers Jai Ghorpade and James Lackritz found that faculty of color received lower ratings than white professors teaching the same course.

Reducing the importance of student evaluations to determine teaching effectiveness is a crucial step toward lowering barriers faced by female faculty and faculty of color. And while the changes in the student evaluation policy hope to reduce the role of implicit bias in student evaluations, publishing reviews for future students to read would only perpetuate the gender and racial stereotypes that female faculty and faculty of color already face. Moreover, it could undo much of the progress that the new evaluation system has engendered: If students are already biased toward professors — before they even meet them — by reading online reviews, they might be less motivated to do the work, to expose themselves to a new teaching style or to give the professor a fair shake. 

As of 2016, only 37.5 percent of tenured faculty are women, and just 8 percent are women of color. Achieving parity in higher education faculty is already a massive challenge. Let’s not make it harder.

I will end my last Daily Trojan column by noting that the best classes I’ve taken here have been classes that ended up in my course registration basket by chance. Given USC’s diverse faculty, exhibiting confirmation bias by taking professors that already match our personality profiles means missing out on valuable learning opportunities. Students have a role to play in allowing our professors to understand how they can be better. But let’s not allow our peers to determine our experience. We have our own academic paths to forge — and the opportunities to shape them. I couldn’t be happier that this is the one I chose.

Sonali Seth is a senior majoring in policy, planning and development. “Point/Counterpoint” ran Wednesdays.