Wednesday, November 18, 2009


While filling out a professor evaluation the other day, I noticed that the evaluation wasn’t completely anonymous. The form didn’t ask for a name, class year, age, or area of legal emphasis, but it did ask for each student evaluator to bubble in one of two gender boxes. At first, I was irritated. What does it matter to professors whether I’m a man or a woman when evaluating their mastery of the course subject? I began wondering how the information collected is used by the university, the law school, and professors? Is the gender box intentionally on the evaluation form, or, like references to the "powder room," is it just an relic of more sexist times past? I indignantly left the gender box blank.

Then, I came to the question regarding the instructor’s respect for students, and the gender box struck a different chord with me. With the difference in the way men and women experience and succeed in law school, maybe the gender box really is important on professor evaluations. The Socratic method has received much criticism from women. In their book, Becoming gentlemen: Women, law school, and institutional change, (1997), Guinier, Fine, and Balin call the legal Socratic method "ritualized combat" that is harmful and counterproductive to the education and well-being of women law students.

Since then, I have searched in vain for information about how King Hall uses professor evaluations. Who reads them? Is the information recorded? If a professor receives lackluster comments, does the administration take note of which students are finding fault with the particular professor, and why? Female professors have had a rough time historically with receiving subpar, and even brutal evaluations from students, especially male students. Maybe the gender box is present so professors and/or administrators can evaluate the gender bias against faculty in student evaluations. It’s my concern that the gender issues on both sides of the academic coin are noticed.

Days later, and after reading about UC Davis' theoretical use of student evaluations, I find myself asking the logical follow-up questions: During the tenure process, what weight does the university and/or law school give the poor evaluations? What about good evaluations? Evaluations with no comments beyond the filled-in bubbles? Is the gender box used in the analysis at all? Is anyone else concerned with the fact that the only piece of personal information requested is gender? That little box, and all the mystery it holds, sure makes me uncomfortable.


Eve said...

Before reading the second paragraph of your post, I immediately thought about the importance of the gender box. First, I agree that it is vital that the administration be aware that women may feel particularly disrespected, or particularly respected, by a professor. Second, I think that anonymous evaluations are a forum in which students can make discriminatory comments that they would not publicly make. Thus, the administration should be conscious of the number of sexist comments made about female professors and how the students' views may be impacting the classroom dynamic. Finally, I think it is important to recognize how little emphasis is made in most of our classrooms about the different learning styles of students. Although I am hesitant to say that women and men prefer different methods of instruction, a disparity between genders in their evaluations about the clarity of course may reflect a need for change.

In terms of the weight these evaluations are given, I think they would vary based on the school. I know that as a tenured professor, my mom does not care about her evaluations - except to the extent that they provide constructive criticism. A tenured professor is unlikely to be admonished for a poor, anonymous evaluation. Whether that is a good thing is really debatable.

Anne Kildare said...

You wrote: "I have searched in vain for information about how King Hall uses professor evaluations. Who reads them? Is the information recorded? . . ." I have bad news.

Like you and Eve, I spent the last two and a half years dutifully filling in the gender box on our teacher evaluations, wondering what King Hall was doing with the data. This year, one of the proctors told us not to bother with the entire top part of the form because King Hall doesn't use it. I guess that answers your question, but it also brings up a new one.

You brought up so many good points about how the "gender box" could be useful in our assessment of professors. Why wouldn't the school take advantage of this? Here are my theories...

(1) Analyzing data on the correlation between gender and teacher-satisfaction is time consuming and difficult.

(2) It has never occurred to the administration that gender might influence teacher-satisfaction.

(3) The administration and faculty are not concerned about a potential correlation between gender and teacher-satisfaction.

Anon5 said...

This is a really great point and it is something that I never even noticed in the past. I agree with Eve that the gender box could be a good source of data, especially whether an instructor is respecting students of a particular gender or not.

Unfortunately, as Anne pointed out, it doesn't sound like any use is being made of it at all. Although this post and the previous comments refer to the law school, I would doubt that the undergraduate system is much different.

This post got me thinking about how student fees are being raised to offset budget shortfalls, but research grants are as big as they ever were. Although the evidence is anecdotal, I have heard stories about how often times grant money is spent on unnecessary items just so that it isn't lost. It doesn't seem like the University's priorities are focused enough on the students.

Erin S. said...

If nothing else, I think there should be an "Other/Decline to State" box as well...